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If you have a problem with vertigo, approach the latest body of work from Royo with caution. In "Royo: Ingrávidos," now at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, the Spanish artist is preoccupied with the human body suspended in space, and the overall effect of seeing so many of his mostly large-scale paintings in one place can be dizzying.
The museum's gift store sells reproductions of some of Royo's earlier work, which comes across as so much warmed-over Renaissance-style portraiture. It's bland, cloying stuff. The new work is something else altogether. It's as if sending bodies flying through the air freed something essential in the artist.
I was repeatedly reminded of contemporary American artist Robert Longo's stark, wonderful images of falling bodies, which Longo used in paintings and in the music video for New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle." So I was a bit surprised to find that two out of the three critical essays in the exhibition catalog interpret Royo's figures not as falling but as ascending. Isidre Roset i Juan, in particular, sees the work as embodying "the dream of flying, of liberating ourselves from the forces of gravity. It is the dream of becoming lightness personified and, in a certain manner, of becoming unpredictable." Roset i Juan goes so far as to suggest that Royo's paintings hark back to images of "the Ascent of the Virgin Mary... This is the Immaculate Conception rising heavenward in body and soul."
To which I say, "So what?" If I prefer to see Royo's bodies as subject to the gravity that will ultimately pull them back earthward, that's my prerogative. I think it lends his figures a hint of tragic grandeur, knowing that they're no more free from gravity than the rock stars in Longo's video. Like Icarus, thwarted in his ascendancy and hurled back to Earth, Royo's beautiful bodies — and they are rarely less than exquisite — may have to sacrifice their floating world to return to a more quotidian one.
Besides, it seems to me, Royo is less interested in the action of falling or ascending than in the human body itself. In an artist's statement he says that he has always painted the human form, "its gestures, shadows, relationships with that which surrounds it. Now I felt an impulse to paint bodies in the complete fullness: to study their anatomy and beauty from all angles and every posture." That's a fair enough summation. With his bodies freed from earthly ties, he's able to capture their fleshiness in all its glory.
And it is human flesh that consumes the artist. Aside from great swaths of fabric that weave in and out of limbs in some of the images, there are no objects to give the bodies a context. That's not to say they float in empty space. Royo's backgrounds are as dramatic and gesturally rendered as his subjects. They have been worked over again and again, so that the very air these figures hang in is almost as substantial as they are. It's an odd, unsettling effect but one that feels just right.
Again from the artist's statement: "Physicality accumulates so much information that, throwing off any and all reference to its milieu, including the forces of gravity gives power to its mystery and provokes the shivers of emotion." Despite the feeling of having been translated a little too laboriously and literally, the point comes across — Royo has stripped these bodies of their context for a very specific reason, to focus on their raw physicality, and he succeeds magnificently.
Initially, I was so thrown by the disorienting effect of the artist's ripping naked bodies from their environments and sending them flying through space that it took me a few moments to realize what an extraordinary feel for the human form he has. Ignore the fussily worked-over backgrounds and you'll recognize that what Royo is truly in love with are the contours of the human body, specifically the female form. It's been awhile since I've seen someone so lovingly capture the curve of a thigh, the gracefulness of an outstretched arm, the delicacy of an arched foot.
Royo approaches his figures with the formality of a classicist, so it's no surprise to learn of his rigorous upbringing. Born in 1945 in Valencia, he was working with a tutor in drawing, painting, and sculpture at age 9 and entered the San Carlos Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Valencia at age 14. He then embarked on a tour of the major museums of Europe to study the work of the masters, and from the mid-1960s into the early '70s, he branched out, working as a theatrical set designer, an illustrator, and an art restorer. By the time he began exhibiting in Spain and Portugal in 1968, at the ripe old age of 23, he already had as much experience as many artists twice his age. And it shows in this most recent body of work.
As I have repeatedly asserted over the years, the Coral Springs Museum's main galleries are one of the finest display spaces in the region: open, airy, well-proportioned, with just enough large windows to let in some natural light. It's an especially hospitable setting for the big, bold canvases of someone like a Royo, whose work has been hung with plenty of breathing room. An oddity: There is no wall text — no introduction to the exhibition, no small panels to identify the paintings by name or medium. Like the figures in his images, Royo's canvases float on the spaces of the museum's walls, and according to the museum's director, Barbara O'Keefe, this is in keeping with the artist's wishes. Normally, this would bug the hell out of me, but in this case, it's appropriate.