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Literatures of Image (or workshop)

Modernity is packed with contacts between the visual and the litarary realms; some sort of hieroglyphic spirit distinguishes modernity from the ancient Enlightenment illusion of conceiving things through their sameness, free of any interference. On one hand, Lessing considered Laocoonte’s cries unrepresentable because of their very noncorporeity —as opposed to corporeity, which to her was indispensable to any representation—, but on the other hand the visual history of the twentieth century has been pierced by the echo of Munch’s deep throat. Currently there is a wide variety of modern means to deploy this synesthesia, this lending of stylemes through which the images belong to the spoken language and, of course, the words are letter forms. According to Klee, drawing and writing come down to exactly the same thing. Nowever, this happy dissolution of genres that characterizes modern times grew increasingly dramatized during the last century. To this respect, it is appallingly striking how the words and the images still require each other today, albeit under a tragic tension. We suffer from such a disproportionate saturation and invasion of images that just the presence of the word (a simple caption, for instance) serves to distinguish an image as a bearer of some meaning. On the other tip of the scale, in the unceasing, continuous flow of information and talkativeness, no news is really news if not certified by some visual element. On the horizon of our present, the encounter between image and word does not constitute richness any longer, but only sanction. Carmelo Hernando’s work, in all his wildly different registers —graphic arts, comic books, photomontage, merchandising, video...— belongs squarely in this story, specially insofar as it illustrates an obstinate effort to dodge the weakness of the ending that has been recognised, instead of which he aims to recompose the encounter between images and words in a form loaded with future.

In order to present the ensemble of Carmelo Hernando’s output I could certainly use very different catchphrases as guidelines for a general exploration. While at it, ideas of distinct nature would need consideration: the illusion to harmonize ecological ideals with technological ones; the self-assurance that an image belongs to a given period only in a ductile way, as is evidenced through the uses of each image on each occasion; the wish to desacralize art and to anchor it in the area of crafts and pleasure; that is why we borrow from Pavese the expression “the craft of living” to present the exhibition. But beyond all of these possible ways to read it, we believe that the wide picture that we have sketched until this point (what could be called the preoccupation for a literature of the image) is what contains en melts in one every other possible approach. All the works hereby presented can be interpreted along the lines of the modern fusion of words and images; this needs some discussing, although for starters we could underscore that it is almost unavoidable because of a historic imperative that is much less general than the ample notion of modernity. In other words, the need to develop in the moment of an irreversible emergence of the iconosphere as our new common home, as a contemporary home where the language of our existence has been bundled, has been a defining factor to Carmelo Hernando’s work. But let us get back to the focal point of our discussion. The literature of the image as a keystone concept to approach Carmelo Hernando’s work can be legitimized with two distinctly different reasons. The first is a simple, straightforward reflection around the very idea of a workshop; the second reason underlies the exhibition itself and suggests recognizing the literature of the image as the master guideline of an entire working process.

Firstly, underscoring the idea of the workshop —in its most literal, pretention-free meaning: a place where ideas and tools work the production of artifacts— is tantamount to emphasizing something that is fundamental to Carmelo Hernando: the artisan nature of his activity, its obviously being the result of a patient, personal work, beyond the evident, indispensable use of technology. In effect, the author is —above all, as this catalogue points out— a maker of objects or a user of images in the kitchen of an exquisite laboratory. All this gives substance to Carmelo Hernando’s portrait as an artisan; but a genuine workshop is the stage of a long-range progression culminating in the conversion of forms and images in a mode of speech, in an experience of language and, therefore, a live experience of interrogation, investigation, opinion and expression. After all, this magnification is what in Hegel’s mindset turns crafts into arts and artisans into “spiritual workers” or artists. Through this process the silent universe of images transcends its mere condition of precious presences to burst into noise —the voice— of a narrative. Things start talking. The workshop is not a simple forge of objects anymore—it sets the stage for a tale-teller.

But let us start over. We insisted that the preoccupation for developing a genuine literature of the image will eventually allow us to present the whole of Carmelo Hernando’s output. Thus, the exhibit itself is also centred on this axis. We will mention it only concisely for now, but it has to be said that the three areas conforming this argumental architectura (ecology, narrativity and declination) try to sketch the preoccupation for a reunion of visual and literary elements, and the need to describe the particular modes to attain that goal. Accordingly, the section Ecology aims to set the boundaries of the whole author’s output in the visual universe, particularly in the recycling of disparate visual containers; the section Narrativity accounts for the several mechanisms conferring those previous manufactures or images with a literary payload; and finally, in Declination we purport to underscore how that which is fundamental to any craftsman —satisfying the meaning of his products through putting them to use— becomes now an invitation to read images and objects. Through a distinctly unblurred process, the only value of an object is found in its use, but that is not at all oblivious to the possibility of preserving the order of the discourse.

Ecology

The image and the object are Carmelo Hernando’s workshop’s building blocks. Before any other consideration there is the following evidence: we stumble into a visual, physical universe. Then it becomes necessary to research the nature of the procedures used to modify those images and, after that, to pinpoint the kind of aesthetical problems arising from that. In the light of these expectations we can advance that the ecological character is most significant to the operation modes, while the problem around the idea of originality stands out among the aesthetical questions.

The ecological order which permeates the whole of Carmelo Hernando’s output is a direct effect of his insistence on reusing existing chunks and data, instead of emphasizing on the creation of new images. His work is built on an enormous archive, an organized quarry populated by iconographic by-products which are eventually picked up and recycled in new uses. This procedure is immediately obvious in photomontages, but it also relates in an exemplary way to the production of cultural merchandising and even in purely graphical pieces. In this recycling process, Carmelo’s work becomes a palimpsest with overlying disparate presences, different times and hybrid realities. And yet, the most interesting aspect of this action of ecology of the image may not be the mere reusing of previous chunks or data —which, incidentally, might be a good method to distinguish between the type of archive underlying photomontage and cultural merchandising— but the fact that each and every recycled element retains a payload: memory. Carmelo Hernando’s archive amasses numberless images which become uniformized and lose any sense of hierarchy because of the mere fact that they are on file; nevertheless, they do not lose the memory of their origin—on the contrary, they keep original insinuations, they still ooze some of the time they used to belong to. This pecularity is essential, for it allows the author to force a crossing of different times which is violent, but also crucial for a number of different reasons. Firstly, this violence is exactly what makes effective the effort to undermine critically the reality through the use of images which were once innocent and now become stinging because of the reality they still pack. Secondly, this very same mechanism emphasizes how irreversible is the obligation to drag a burden from the past in our will to build a new present; everything is still to be shown and said, but only as it is made out on the shoulders of the giant of History. Lastly, this use of data, fragments that keep a memory from their origins, allows to explore the synctactic expressivity of heterogeneity; in other words, since the images do not lose meaning their union triggers a striking explosive crosss in the order of the expression and that of the semantics, and not only in the form of audacious formal findings. It is here where the sheer power of photomontage as a genre resides.

This ecological palimpsest determines a production-cum-recreation through recycling. This implies questioning head-on the principle of originality and, at its place, stressing the value of mediation instead of that of creation. As an image or an object meant to input by sight, Carmelo Hernando’s work emerges from the double filter of technical reproduction and manipulation. It is not an original image, but a mediated one, and that can only stress its contemporarity—there is no need to invoke Benjamin in further detail. On the other hand, the notion of a mediated image which can be reproduced and serialized in uncontained circulation favours a key characteristic of Carmelo Hernando’s whole output: the intersection or hybridation of images from the mass media culture and the elite culture, with no prejudice whatsoever. In fact, there is an explicit will to bring about the collapse of the conventionally stratified culture —from the high culture to the low one— that is inherent in a long avant-garde tradition which has reached their brightest points in the British pop-art and the intellectually-inclined comic-books from the sixties. And it is not a coincidence at all that both referents can be easily spotted in Carmelo Hernando’s career, be it as explicit models in his own comic book output or as a backdrop to his most particular comprehension and optimization of the kitsch (more on this later).

Narrativity

Thus, the whole of Carmelo Hernando’s output belongs in the visual realm. As we have suggested earlier, however, the author develops a number of strategies to invest his images and objects with different language roles. Each iconographic motif and each product manufactured in his workshop carry a load of speech that enables them to stand as an eloquent presence. The visual universe ends up sustaining the order of the discourse. In order to sort out the different speech modes we could use a television metaphor, which will be invoked not as a random game but as an argument to emphasize the technical and media determining factors which relate to the author’s work. In fact, every TV product can be simplified as belonging to one of three major genres: information, education and entertainment. All TV models gravitate with varying degrees of fortune around these three axis—maybe even every contemporary media product does so. As a sort of long shadow of these three major genres, Carmelo Hernando’s workshop’s objects and images can also be sorted out with exactly the same criteria. At any rate, we now suggest a distinction between three particular discourse roles (which will allow us to nuance the subject with a more objective approach): opinion, research and fabulation.

Opinion is just the statement which allows us to single out an important main body of Carmelo Hernando’s production: the work that from his workshop outlines themes and projects a critical expression onto them. It makes his output a little caricaturesque—since it develops in the visual realm, the act of loading features (which amounts to effecting some degree of semantic violence) is precisely the way that contemporary realities are judged visually. This first type of linguistic role —this first literature of the image— is deployed most generously in the area of photomontage, where some highly recurrent themed obsessions can be easily pointed out. For example, the machinist and technology ages are staged with the misleading sweetness contributed by the presence of childish characters: the black, 98-generation portrait of Spanish reality still holds in spite of the apparent modernity of its new characters and scenarios; or the catalogue of human characters grows ever sharper through a number of disturbing anthropomorphisms. But this critical murmur is not only to be found in photomontage; the graphic production and the art direction of several periodicals shows up in a marked commitment, whether it be uniting political and cultural preoccupations or expressing a conscious allegiance to a particular time and place which make unavoidable the expression of self through sarcasm or through kindly veiled references.

What we call research —which in another point of this catalogue is appropriately described as encyclopaedism— allows us to work out a second fundamental discursive mode: that through which many images and objects devised by Carmelo Hernando are laden with knowledgeable information and historical research. This may be the landmark of this author’s narrative, where any anecdote can be a pretext to dive into the aforementioned encyclopaedic spirit. The question is not anymore to formulate opinions and judgements, but to rehabilitate —to recycle— knowledge and relocate it. To this effect, for instance, the fact that the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Navigation of Barcelona needed a corporate gift permitted to explain the history of a peculiar seventeenth-century harbour chartbook. But many are the possible models to cite: studying and telling the long history of the spinning top to accompany a gift of the Association of Basketball Clubs; rescuing old scenographic sketches as graphic elements for the Opera programs; or daring to write a complete “Book of the Oceans” for Loewe agendas. While in conventional advertising suggestion and seduction are prevalent and take over any discussion, in Carmelo Hernando’s workshop discussion is precisely what makes a product attractive and seductive.

Fabulation is the mode of speech that allows Carmelo Hernando to turn into a minstrel and a tale-teller. This is his most clearly literary register, with a prevalent recreational, creative spirit to utter a discourse once more is not naïf at all. In the analysis of this fabulation there has to be a clear splitting: the images and objects become strict literature in a uniform way, but in disparate places. There definitely is a fabulation in the puppets of the Gran Teatro de Maese Travieso and in the production of comic books, but also in a certain cultural merchandise. Let us see a couple of examples of fabulation in this last chapter. In the first one, the figure of a mermaid decorating the beams of the National Art Museum of Catalonia is engraved in a bar of soap which can be purchased in the gift shop of the same museum, but the strictly literary element turns up in its bundle: the box depicts the image of two women washing their hands as they appear in the Altarpiece of Sant Esteve de Granollers... complementing the original image, the soap can be seen in one of the character’s hands. This is an obvious example of how this author forges the scene. Similarly, there is also fabulation in the intricately detailed  creation of scenario-models that, during several seasons, works as the seed to develop a whole range of products for the Proclinic corporation. In a particular occasion Carmelo Hernando himself refered to his work in the area of merchandising with an explicitation of this trend to invention: “Personally, I am obsessed with inventing new industrial formats on which I can apply specific iconographies. I am interested not so much in working on the graphic application of the standard but in inventing the standard itself.” It is in this invention where the literaturization process we are discussing takes place.

A variety of fabulations around a single theme: the character of rewriting that all these literatures carry in their core. The puppets re-stage classic tales, the comic books update the pop imagery and in the cultural merchandise new objects and actions are invented on top of a previous visual literature. This is how the idea of recycling is doubly put to work, and especially that of the palimpsest. These images and objects rewrite old tales in new ways.
Declination

With the notion of declination we wish to draw together two considerations. Firstly, declination is to be understood as the image development inherent to the task of a designer, as it applies to different models and typologies; but in a second level the idea of declination provides a way to understand that, in this applied development, a narrative use can be established. Certainly, the core meaning of these images and objects dwells in the possibility of playing, using, executing them; this is the second meaning of declination, in which using them is tantamount to reading them because of the narrative nature of these images and objects. So the pragmatics of this manufactured objects is where this workshop tales are to be read. In spite of its ambitious side, this operation seems to be perfectly enclosed and adjusted. If a productive exchange between the banal and the cultural or between the industrial and the intellectual can be started in the principle of founding the meaning in the usage, the possibility of attaining the aesthetic gratuity of the functional (culturizing the banal) and the practical value of the gratuitous (banalizing the cultural) gets redoubled and consolidated in the apology of the meaning anchored in the narrative use. It seems positively possible to rehabilitate the natural order of things: in the contemporary horizon, meaning and value no longer reside in the word underlying the images, but in its consumption and its use—but paradoxically this can come down to the way of re-establishing the discourse. The images and objects do not imperatively mandate an exile of the word: they can become its new residence, even if it is only in an episodic way.

Nevertheless, this placid stage is not without its hurdles. To elucidate it no effort can be spared, to the point of underscoring the idea of kitsch and optimizing it beyond it traditional demeaning character. This conclusion may be sealed with an authoritative quote from Abraham Moles: “The pedagogical function of kitsch has been overlooked because of this term’s countless negative connotations and also because of an instinctive tendency to exaggerate the aesthetic judgement on the part of the writers in this area. In a bourgeois society, and generally in any meritocracy, the normal passage to the genuine is through the kitsch. The kitsch is agreeable to the denizens of a mass society, who can get to a higher level of demand and transcending sensation towards sentimentality through pleasure. Therefore, the relationship between art and kitsch is specially ambiguous, since kitsch is essentially an aesthetic mass communication system.” Ultimately, with Carmelo Hernando’s work we have witnessed a constant transaction between the venial and the cultural, a preconception which belies a kitsch production; but now this becomes a feat which allows not reducing the plurality of the real but betting on its diversity as an endless source to build opinions, to disseminate or to fabulate. These are the truly fundamental values, far from promoting the passivity and the consumerist narcotization of the low-grade kitsch. Carmelo Hernando’s work does not hide that it is consumer art, that it proposes forgeries dressed as aestheticity, even that it aims to instantly offer a dose of beauty—and yet, all its task stands first and foremost as an invitation to communication. The minstrel of the workshop does not wish to subdue the public, but on the very contrary he wants to force it to wake up in the midst of a tale.


©Martí Perán
©Fundación Caja Rioja
Logroño, 1998
I.S.B.N. 84-89740-13-5
D.L. LR-247-1998