Javier Arce’s Collaboration With the Spanish Wilderness

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — When the world was entering its first pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020, Javier Arce was living in a village in the mountains of Cantabria, a small, sparsely populated region in northern Spain. With provisions running low and art supplies running lower, Arce gathered the oil paint lying around his studio and began using firewood to build canvas stretcher bars. “I made myself an easel and started painting whatever was around me at home,” he later wrote in an essay in his 2023 publication Desde la naturaleza.

Oil painting became a new focus for Arce, who previously worked in a conceptual mode using a wide variety of mediums. But now, immersed in the stillness and isolation of confinement — and inspired by Yellow Birds, a 2012 book of poems by the Irish writer Kevin Power — the artist returned to observation, drawing from the plentiful nature surrounding him. ¡Bon Hiver! Pinturas estacionais at Fundación DIDAC brings together 11 of Arce’s intimately scaled, jewel-like paintings from this series.

Though executed in their own unique visual language, Arce’s landscapes make references to specific paintings in Western art history. “Sobre lo cercano (the anti-environmentalist)” (2022), a densely textured forest scene rendered in muted tones, recalls the pensive forest scenes of 19th-century French artist Théodore Rousseau, while the glowing orange tree in “Sobre lo cercano (Waka)” (2023) shares the tangy palette of Henri Matisse’s Fauvist phase. These nods to the past reveal Arce approaching his work from an analytical angle, where he seems to consider his own place in the long narrative of landscape painting as collaborative and complex.

Despite this intellectual heft, Arce’s paintings remain refreshingly lyrical and open-ended. Trees, meadows, night skies, ponds, and other elements of the natural world appear as dreamy suggestions rather than outright depictions, sometimes dissolving into luscious layers of mark-making and color. It is clear that nature has been experienced and then strongly interpreted in these works, and their flirtation with abstraction draws our attention more to the sensual possibilities of paint than to the specificities of a particular place.

And yet, the geography of Cantabria is physically embedded into these works. Arce stretches his linen on cuttings from the hazel, oak, ash, and eucalyptus trees around his property. Initially intended as firewood, they are left unaltered so that each painting is edged with organic knobs. In “Sobre lo cercano (Paul rupestre)” (2021), thin lines resembling strands of hair appear to trace and highlight the bulges and dips in the canvas’s surface, which — like the other paintings in the show — does not hang flat against the wall. The irregular bracing insists on making nature a persistent, even unruly presence in the gallery.

In this way, we cannot experience Arce’s work outside the context from which it emerged: Nature literally frames and encloses the artist’s visions. There’s a palpable sense of pleasure in these paintings, whose quiet exaltation of the land reminded me of Martin Gayford’s 2021 book Spring Cannot Be Canceled documenting David Hockney’s prolific and ebullient pandemic practice in northern France. In both his and Arce’s case, an unexpected exile brings expansive creative growth.

¡Bon Hiver! Pinturas estacionais continues at Fundación DIDAC (Rúa de Pérez Costanti 12, Santiago de Compostela, Spain) through April 5. The exhibition was curated by the organization.

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