The aesthetic-spiritual adventure of Rafael Montilla
The stairs to the embankment, located in front of the striking temples,
were painted white with red patterns. The temples, side by side, became
to my eyes geometric abstractions in various colors, textures, and
shapes. Their colors were like those of saris of the dozens of women
and girls who bathed on the banks of that great canvas that was the Ganges.”
Rafael Montilla, Diarios de la India, 1993.
Eduardo Planchart Licea
In Variations (2018-2021) by Rafael Montilla—an artist from Caracas living in Miami—pictorial abstraction creates a non-figurative, anti-anecdotal and non-narrative visual language. Acting as an alchemist of Being, Montilla develops an aesthetic that materializes the transcendent reality in order to communicate experiences. In modern Western art history, this aesthetic adventure started with a series of paradigmatic paintings with implausible and anti-poetic titles, such as White Square on Black (1913) and Black Square on Black (1915). Despite having arisen in a historical context where everything seemed to be changing—the advent of the communist utopia in Russia which in a few years became a genocidal dystopia—they caused perplexity. When those monochrome paintings were shown at the 0.10 Exhibition (Petrograd, 1915), the cultural world cried out, “Art is dead.” Fortunately, it was not true. The Ukrainian K. Malevich was creating art inspired by Russian icons and mysticism. Decades later, Rothko took this path. He realized that he had been recreating archaic myths all his life, then abandoned Expressionism to enter geometric abstractionism as a way of approaching the sacred world. These are some of the foundational proposals of 20th-century art on which Rafael Montilla’s visual language is based. His admiration for Brancusi, creator of works dominated by the desire for freedom, is remarkable. Brancusi’s bird-shaped sculptures made of wood, stone, or bronze symbolize ascension and flight. His masterpiece is The Endless Column (1934-1938), a 30- meters high piece made with 15 rhomboidal iron modules covered in aluminum. Located in Târgu Jiu, Romania, his sculptural complex, composed of Endless Column, Table of Silence and The Gate of Kiss, is an homage to the Romanian soldiers fallen in the First World War. “This is the message of my column, seen from the Table of Silence and The Gate of Kiss […] to burn like a flame […] lightning that turns to unite heaven and earth”, Brancusi wrote. This art is
hierophanic, inspired by Romanian folk art, and by the rhomboid columns of traditional houses.
This search led Brancusi to create sculptures such as Spirit of the Buddha (1933), whose abstract forms are metaphors of the sacred world. Montilla assumes this spiritual aesthetic adventure through geometric abstraction and his pilgrimage experiences through India, which he has been transmuting into art in series such as Variations. These paintings arise from theoretical research and his studio work. This research is evident in Variation 0.113 (2020) where a glowing yellow line produces tension between stripes and fragments of deconstructed cubes on a background of saffron yellow. Tension is generated by two chromatic intensities, in contrast with the other half of the painting, which is black—a negation of color that refers to nighttime darkness and cosmic black holes. Pink and red lines levitate on the surface, revealing emotional progressions. The transition from ignorance to enlightenment establishes a simile. Other meanings overlap, so the spectator has the cognitive and existential joy of discovering them in an incommunicable internal experience—as it would be to rationalize the sensitive impact of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerts. By moving away from reality, this painting creates contrasts that go into supernatural and ominous spaces. Variation 0.114 is dominated by white—a synthetic absorption of the whole, the unity fused with the chromatic totality as genesis. Due to its purity, the color field brings the viewer closer to the cloud’s whiteness, which can cause showers—and give life—after turning gray. This color is also associated with the marine foam, which rises from the ocean depths to give away its whiteness among breaking echoes. White has a complex symbolism, but ethics and mysticism prevail in Montilla’s work. He creates a green and gray deconstructed cube fragment and puts it amid a blazing whiteness. This Variation emanates harmony and evades the violence of
chromatic contrasts, unlike Variation 0.115 (2020), where a red cube fragment invades the white background. Red is associated with blood, life, passionate love, and the ardor of the warrior.
Thus, when anger dominates the Celtic hero Cuchulain, his head was surrounded by a crown of fire. In the myth, the crown was extinguished by the shame he felt upon seeing the naked bodies of the maidens, who had stripped off their garments to suffocate his anger. It is beauty, eros and seduction nullify the thanatotic warrior fury. This dialectic was recreated in the Renaissance by Botticelli in Venus and Mars (1483) to show the balance that Eros and Thanatos must maintain.
These meanings are also present in this Variation, where the purity of whiteness neutralizes red’s anger, passion and warmongering. Each of these paintings becomes an open reading, a manifestation of the supernatural, called by the Greeks hierophany, and by the Hindus, darsana. Variation 0.112 (2018) shows two intertwined lateral ends of deconstructed cubes painted on dark blue. In its foreground, a yellow stripe that seems to jump out of the frame stands out. In the background, there is another strip of soft colors—pink, white, ocher, green, contrasting with fragments of reddish lines. It is a chromatic melody that communicates an unspeakable experience and announces the miraculous pilgrimage of the sun as a simile of mystical illumination.
In Variation 0.107 (2019), yellow is prevalent. At first glance, an unwary observer could perceive a solar surface, and this conjecture would be correct at first. But the weaving of parallel lines and intersections generates an immediate semantic response that recalls Mondrian’s abstractions, influenced by Madame Blavatsky and theosophy. In paintings such as Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1943), Mondrian expressed the force and harmony of the universe with a palette of primary colors and lines that associate horizontality with passivity, and verticality with activity. In these last works, Mondrian represents the dynamic grid of New York, and his passion for jazz, transmitting to the chromatic changes a musical rhythm. The lineal stripes of Variation 0.107 are not abruptly fragmented or changed as the colors and musical rhythm in Broadway Boogie-Woogie are. There is a green chromatic continuity, which creates a geometric discourse of intersecting parallel stripes. The upper one folds over itself in a square, and the lower one is complemented by a series of structures that penetrate the yellow, like piers of a watery river.
This color refers to the Ganges, which tends to yellow and brown—typical of the turbulent
waters that come from the Himalayas—and, when flowing through Varanasi, meets embankments and stairs from where, according to Hindu beliefs, devotees dive to break free from karma and the unflappable cycle of reincarnations. The meaning of this painting is revealed in the artist’s Diario de la India, where he recalls his experiences on the Ganges: “I really enjoyed the sunrises with their multiple colors in different shades and brightness, which changed every second with the rising of the sun. Whites, reds, yellows, blues, greens, contrasted with the colorful saris that women washed alongside all kinds of clothes. My eyes were caught by the geometric shapes formed by sheets, tablecloths, blankets, square and rectangular cloths washed and hanged out on the stairs for the sun to dry.”
The shaped canvas of Variation 0.126—characterized by a polygonal geometry, closed over itself, far from perfect symmetry—creates a playful atmosphere that constructs and deconstructs itself in bands, like a rotating kaleidoscope. The work becomes esoteric poetry that leads from not being to being. The lines that surround it seems to be transforming due to the energy emanated by them. The different shades of yellow associate the work with the sun and its celestial pilgrimage. Its hexagonal shape reveals a perpetual dynamism which centers a polygon
and expresses the cosmos and the search for an energetic rearrangement. An inner movement arises from the center and seems to rotate in a silent dance performed by the chromatic bands that emerge from it. It is an analogy of lifting the veil of ignorance, occurring when a mandala is internalized by the initiated, generating transformations in one’s inner dimension, entering one’s mental labyrinths, and fighting against shadows and demons to promote the rediscovery of oneself.
This sacred geometry generates mathematical progressions that lead from multiplicity to unity as an expression of divinity (one = all). Symbolic and chromatic tensions run parallelly. The color goes from light yellow to white and then to browns as an expression of telluric forces. In contrast, Variation 0.19 is dominated by a red triangular vertex against a sky-blue background, associated with the Indian festival of Holi, celebrated in spring. Red is predominant in this collective ritual, but is symbolically intermingled with greens and browns to call rains and good harvests.
The pictorial work of Rafael Montilla is creating a visual and symbolic alphabet through his abstractions of Being. It wants to motivate the public to avoid ignorance—the illusory reality—in order to be able to see beyond maya, to escape from the Cartesian “I think therefore I exist,” and enter into “I am and therefore I exist.” This thought is typical of Eastern philosophy, creator of ontological-existential breaks in consciousness by transforming the form to see, feel, love and live.
Eduardo Planchart Licea PhD. Latin American Art History UNAM
Translation: Katherine Chacón