Hernan Miranda, the illusion of realism.Born in Concepcion, Paraguay 48 years ago, Hernan Miranda moved with his family to Asuncion at the age of seven, and it was there that he attended some drawing workshops. The rest of his training he accomplished on his own, by studying the great masters of universal painting. Each one of them taught him something important that he incorporated into his work: Caravaggio (Italy, 1571-1610) taught him how to use light to make figures stand out; Sanchez Cotan (Spain, 1560-1627) taught him to establish a balance between color and form; Giorgio Morandi (Italy, 1907-1964) taught him about the general structure of a piece with objects placed horizontally in a line and how to capture a fleeting essence in profile. Others, like Rembrandt (Holland, 1606-1669), Vermeer (Holland, 1632-1675), and Antonio Lopez (Spain, 1936-), led Miranda to explore more deeply what he calls the "illusionist aspect of images."
With these teachers and this kind of training, it is not surprising that Miranda's compositions are still lifes. But they are conceived with the eye of a modern-day artist who is constantly looking for ways to reinterpret the things around him in his own world. His simple, almost humble, interiors are rendered with a luxurious technique kept strictly within realism. His work isn't filled with the vegetables and meats of olden-day inns, but rather with luminous fruit, kerosene lamps, baskets, gourds, jugs, candies, and coffee grinders. This artist hasn't copied his old teachers or depicted their worlds. He has adapted their language to his own experiences.
Miranda's training in drawing helped him become a great observer of detail and gave him a deep understanding of chiaroscuro, which was reinforced later by his "teachers" when he began to paint. Miranda is not trying to reproduce Tenebrism, but he did have to dominate the technique to be able to apply the concept--that of creating a sharp contrast between the lighted and unlit parts of the work. "In my paintings," Miranda tells us, "the primary protagonist is light. I don't try to create a specific atmosphere with it; I create contrast, saturating the high tones and the low tones to the greatest extent possible. What I am really looking for is for each object, each part of my painting, to have its own light--even the backgrounds, because empty spaces are very important for me."
Miranda makes use of what he calls an "explosion" of light, when objects are made to look shiny and they stand out clearly in front of a very dark background, and an "implosion," in which every object has the same tonal value against a background that also has the same value.
In some ways, the "atmosphere" that he says he is not trying to achieve is created on its own by the backgrounds and empty spaces that contrast with the objects. He is careful to establish these spaces in both the upper and lower parts of the canvas. They are what create the contrast between the light and the shadow, but they are also the great "silences" that express a lot visually in the overall work.
Miranda's realism draws you in immediately, perhaps because it reminds us of the things we use every day without paying much attention to them, things that have never produced any emotions in us. It is clear that his goal as an artist is to achieve both an "emotional effect" and a "visual effect." To do this, he looks for and explores the "illusionist aspect of the images." Miranda depicts scenes that are familiar to all of us and speak to us of a simple life, without luxuries, where an unsought order reigns; an order in which everything has its own place. This sense of peace and tranquility is not hampered by the fact that each scene suggests some easily imaginable implicit movement, which, in turn, creates a mystery that is never completely clarified. Someone began to peel an orange; someone cut a slice of watermelon; a letter has just arrived and was anxiously opened before being put back inside the torn envelope. All of this is part of the "emotional effect" but it is a result of the "visual effect."
Nothing in Miranda's works is random--not the structured architecture of the scenes, the impeccable technique, or the generous space he gives to each object. But Miranda always has us on guard against possible deceptions. It is hard to guess, when you look at his paintings, whether a detail is real or painted. We look at a letter, for instance, and we realize that every tiny, totally legible word has been painted on meticulously with a brush. Then, we see a tiny branch hanging on a painting and we think it might also be painted. But we touch it and realize we can hold it in our hand. Later, when we see a bit of lace inserted into the side of a table, we assume it is a real piece of lace. We touch it, but it doesn't move. With these trompe l'oeil effects, the artist is constantly putting us on that finest of lines separating the real from the unreal. We are no longer imagining an action or a movement; we are verifying our tenuous perception of the world around us.
So far, the particular realism of this artist has invited us to think, to imagine, and to recreate in ourselves the "illusion" of a particular reality. But Miranda goes even farther when he seeks to juxtapose what exists with what only appears to exist. When we see the tablecloths hanging from the tables in some of his paintings, for example, we are sure to admire the artist's faithful reproduction of the print design. But soon Miranda would have to rescue us from our own deception by explaining a procedure, or technique, that he calls "birealism." It consists of using a thick printed cloth as a base, rather than a traditional canvas. "This way, I can integrate the real with the virtual," Miranda says.
The use of this cloth doesn't change anything about his technique or what he is trying to present, but he does use it to full advantage to create the effects he wants to achieve. Sometimes, he lets the cloth "hang" without adding any other detail that is not about creating the illusion of the folds of the cloth (Pintando naranjas). In other paintings, he covers parts of the print up entirely with a dark uniform color in order to obtain the right background. Sometimes, he leaves some
of the flowers from the print visible amidst the painted background, and he turns them into bouquets arranged inside a painted flower pot or a vase. Occasionally you will even see that he has painted in an insect resting peacefully on one of the petals.
What makes this kind of "bi-realism" fascinating is that the artist is constantly sending us from the real--the cloth and its print--to something that he has created. The cloth ends up being an important part of the composition. By darkening it with paint in the upper portion and leaving the lower part with its original print, he would obtain only a flat surface if he didn't also place there--where the dark part meets the print--one or more objects that immediately turn that line into what we suppose is a table (neither the table top or legs are actually visible). That allows the printed cloth to fall freely in the immediate foreground and turns it into a wide table cloth. This visual effect is enriched even further when a piece of string, or the edge of a piece of lace, hangs over that "table-cloth" and, against the light, projects a very subtle shadow over the cloth.
Using a wooden board as a base, Miranda finds another way to trick us with magnificent hyperrealism. He creates some imperfections on the wood, as if the board had been used previously for something else. Sometimes it's a circle, like a mark that could have been left behind by the soiled bottom of a round pot of some kind, but these painted marks are clean, clearly visible. At other times it's a horizontal line that makes it look like the table that is holding papers, envelopes, and cards is made up of two pieces (Gritos del silencio IV). These paintings are done in a way that makes the objects look as if they are being seen from above, but as in his other works, he creates depth by playing with light and shadows. He paints a dark backdrop on the upper part of the board, and there where the coverage ends, he places an object that looks as if it were sitting on top of a horizontal surface. This sensation is sharpened when a bundle of paintbrushes and pencils appears, leaning up against the side of this supposed piece of furniture. In Gritos de silencio III, the white of the candle and the metallic part of the paintbrush are both a luminous contrast against the black background. The result is a beautiful and balanced composition that is deepened in lightly contrasting planes.
Miranda has also begun to create scenes whose perfect geometry makes them appear almost as if they were abstractions of reality, though they are not. In Exodo V, this geometry is provided by the presentation of a group of objects: geometric forms, paper boats, pencils, and pens seen in a vertical position. The wonderful and, at the same time, real thing about this composition is that the objects, and the chair that is holding them up in the immediate foreground, are only as important as their long shadows that change direction when they run up against the projection of some object leaning behind the chair. They are what create the illusory depth.
Somewhere in all of this, Miranda also tells us a story. It is his story, but also the story of many people who have left their home country for another place. At first, his still lifes were made of simple objects located in a horizontal line. Later, as in real life, the objects started piling up, some in front of others. Afterwards there is a definitive distancing from the homeland, and packaging materials and unopened packages appear. It is the exodus, and the string still tied around boxes and books begins to take on a double role. "We are never completely freed. We can't ever totally let go of our own history. I represent this with a string that is always tying us back to the past. I also use a lot of string as a plastic art element. It helps me to give dynamism and rhythm to the composition," he confides.
That's when his series, Migrantes, Exodo, and others, appear. Miranda's immersion in a new environment is also felt in works like Interval, where the oranges symbolize Florida, his new home. There, the lock is still closed, though the paintbrush and palette are already unpacked. In other works, you can see on the letters phrases like, "We think of you always and hope to see you soon." Another piece has him settled into his new environment; there are papers on top of the furniture, copies of his resume, the text of a critic.... The closed locks are open now, and you feel his nostalgia in the presence of the traditional lace work from his country of birth.
When we study these works, magic realism comes to mind more than once, though it is obvious that here there is no dislocation of time or place. There is magic, though. These paintings have the power to seduce because of everything they say visually and because of everything they don't say. Giorgio Morandi used to say that "nothing is more abstract, more unreal, that what you can see." Hernan Miranda has been able to take from abstraction and from the unreal what we can look at without seeing.
Annick Sanjurjo Casciero was born in Asuncion, Paraguay. She has a degree in literature and is a previous contributor to Americas.