Manuel Franquelo

'So much for the exterior. What happened inside me didn't leave any clear traces. There was something which I saw and which disgusted me, but I no longer know whether I was looking at the sea or at the pebble. It was a flat pebble, completely dry on one side, wet and muddy on the other. I held it by the edges, with fingers wide apart to avoid getting them dirty.'

- Jean-Paul Sartre

The reflection that Manuel Franquelo sees of himself in his own dusty environment in his studio appears to come from a different planet to the erudite and friendly Renaissance man in front of me at the kitchen table. He is offering Elfin hospitality in the form of a very Spanish lunch. Yet my own image, the one I excavate from the mirror he proffers me in his photographs, and the installations he shows me in his studio, is not that far removed from his own harsh assessment of his own relationship to the world, or more specifically to the house and studio some half an hour outside Madrid.

 

Place is central to Franquelo. He moved home and studio some dozen years ago from the centre of Madrid. This move changed him and his art, but the transformation was limited, controlled to a considerable degree by the artist himself. His photographs depict an accumulation of everyday life. Shelves often play a dominant position in the structure of his work. He built a crate around the actual parallel planks and shipped them from one studio to the other.  He did not remove the side of the crate in its new surroundings, so it appears a little like Clement Greenberg's forbidden window in its decade old setting on an inner wall. And on the shelves are the debris of years of living: plastic cartons and bottles of all descriptions including an empty Hibiki[1] bottle,  electrical components, playing cards, books, a liquid measuring jug, pills, wire, marker pens, discs, bills, notes and the motherboard from a computer.

 

Let Franquelo's quiet words enter the arena: 'The ambition is to document the whole space with things placed in their proper place.'[2] The word 'proper' sits up to be examined and scanned. It gets under the skin of the tension in his work. Yet, as ever,  the artist was using his language carefully, trying to scan his own practice. 'By proper I mean the palace that naturally corresponds to the thing because my own existence has placed it there.'[3]

 

Franquelo was trained as an engineer. He is the son, grandson and brother of an engineer and has conceived and developed cameras and scanners that lead the world. His 3-D laser scanners have been used to digitalise and document world heritage, from the Valley of the Kings in Luxor to the Louvre, the Prado Museum and the National Gallery in London. If anyone can take a visual inventory of what he sees it is Franquelo, yet the word 'proper' irritates. If we look, look and look again we are not sure whether we are studying chaos or order.

 

Franquelo's approach has been compared to that of the Oulipo group[4]. Indeed he does talk of George Perec's theory of Infra-Ordinary, an extreme brand of Existentialism that finds truth in the banal and mundane. Perec wrote a novel called The Void[5] in which he banned the use of the letter 'e'. In order not to totally succumb to the random, Franquelo self-imposes limitations on his own work, but he is very keen that his prescription of order should not be divulged to the audience. Equally he is wary of descriptions or photographs of his own studio, the source of his work, as he doesn't want the viewer to react to the biography, the specific location from where the work comes or indeed the individual brain and heart - i.e him. If the person looking at the photograph is interested he or she will find the hidden patterns. The artist's self-imposed limitations are only there to trigger the viewer's mind along lines of his or her own. The photographs show familiar spaces with which our mind feels at home.

 

'I want to introduce an element of doubt,' Franquelo explains.

'Do you think of the viewer when you are making the work?' I ask. 'Or are you having conversations with yourself?'

'I tend to think that viewers are similar to me.'[6]

 

Franquelo's photographs work on me. I had avoided being seduced at Paris Photo, where I saw people peering, hypnotised by what they were seeing, and what they were not seeing. Indeed it is the lack of distractions in the super-objective technique that finally gets to me as I sit looking in the studio, so that I can glance from the shelves on the wall to the photograph on the wall. The photograph is like a hole in the wall.

 

Franquelo was painting before he turned to the aid of his own modified cameras. One might suspect that the human touch might aid his endeavour to make a more emotional connection with his very ordinary surroundings, and standing in front of his paintings, one does feel the engagement with everyday life, but at the same time it is easier to be distracted by the many Spanish artists who trod a similar path before : Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627), even the great Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) or later Luis Meléndez (1715-1780).  Morandi hangs over us too.  Franquelo may respect the past, but he has no interest in walking the same path. His route is out of the back door of his kitchen down a short path that clings to the house and into a two level split studio. The lower half has a slanted glass roof, but no other natural daylight. The upper studio is protected like a stage by a plain but theatrical curtain.

 

There are props to thinking everywhere in the studio. Franquelo told me he had made an art critic. He pulled out the second top drawer of a wooden plan chest to reveal a couple of hand size electrical boards connected to a 9 volt coppertop Duracell battery.

 

Franquelo has reduced the Romantic notions of art back to the basics. Even the concept of memento mori, that he does admire in still life painting, is stilted. He does not require the skull. If we want to remind ourselves that we are going to die, we can, but the artist is more interested in providing us with life itself. A looking glass distracts us with our physical failings. His photographs give us a neutral mirror in which to study ourselves. I am still resisting the accusation that I am a battery and a few loose wires. This is too simple a conclusion. I look away from the source and back to the photograph, to the space and things that Manuel has shared with me.



 

[1] Hibiki is a Japanese whisky.

[2] Franquelo, Manuel, conversation with the author, Madrid, 27 January, 2017.

[3] Franquelo, Manuel, an email to the author, Madrid, 4 February, 2017.

[4] Oulipo was a group of writers, thinkers and mathematicians founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and  François Le Lionnais. Duchamp was a member. Its most famous novelists were Italo Calvino and Georges Perec.

[5] Perec, Georges, The Void, Harvill Press/Harper Collins, New York, 1994

[6] Franquelo explains further: 'I have in mind an audience that belongs to a culture (world view if you like) similar to mine.' Franquelo, Manuel, email to the author, Madrid, 7 February, 2017