When we met, Ian Rosenfeld and I struggled to talk over the din of the crowd at the opening night of the new Rosenfeld-Porcini Gallery in London’s Fitzrovia. It didn’t help that Ian was losing his voice from overuse that evening or that I, in an effort to compensate in our conversation, practically deafened him, too, as I yelled into his ear to be heard over the noise. Needless to say, I didn’t catch a thing he was trying to tell me that night about the intriguing artist he is introducing to the world, Enrique Brinkmann.
Two weeks later, back in the gallery and in blissful quiet, interrupted only by the occasional grinding drill – after all, it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have something to shout over occasionally – I quiz Ian on his artistic find and am obliged with a personalised tour of the exhibition. “He’s an artist that whispers, he doesn’t scream,” Ian tells me, “and a night like that is not the right atmosphere to see something that’s very quiet and reflective…” The space a very different one now; empty, introspective. Save the odd workman porting a power tool.
I confess I’d not heard of the artist before, but I feel as though I should have. I’m curious as to how he came across Brinkmann. “Every year I go to ARCO – the big Spanish art fair – and four or five years ago I was having lunch with someone the day I was leaving and he told me of a little fair up in the north of Madrid I should see. So I went to see it. I literally had about forty minutes so could only see about half, but I found this work by Enrique and I was intrigued. The gallery that was hosting the exhibition, based in Cordoba, then sent me a catalogue. I then went out to Cordoba, three times in the end, and finally bought three works, one of which is this one here [he gestures behind us], from Panel de Segmentos.
“Two years later, I was back in ARCO, walking round and I bought another work of his. And that’s when I met him and I raised the idea of an exhibition. My aim at the time was to show his recent work in our gallery in Naples.I then went to see him in Malaga, where he’s got his archive, and he started showing me his works…for five or six hours he showed me the works he has in his house and I just couldn’t believe the quality, the diversity and how good it was from day one.”
This then posed a dilemma for Rosenfeld. Clearly, here was a phenomenal talent, with an exceptional body of work from a fifty year career which, incredibly, had not been exposed outside his home country and here was an opportunity to introduce him to an international audience. But how to do it? “I’d recently seen a retrospective of a very well-known, established 20th century Italian artist, from Venice, and I was looking at this exhibition of, perhaps, two hundred pictures and I thought, in all of his life there’s perhaps ten years when he’s really terrific and the rest were…nothing special. I’m saying that because if he [Enrique] was like that I wouldn’t have had a retrospective. I mean it’s risky enough as it is, an opening exhibition of an unknown Spanish artist in London. But, that afternoon in his house, I was looking at his work and every moment of his working life is interesting. Sure, you’ll have your preferences but the point is there is never a trough.
“It can be so difficult though, you often see in museums retrospectives that don’t carry throughout. So I’ve started small. It’s easier, there’s only 34 works on show – I think there are 47 in the catalogue – but it really holds up. There’s not a moment where you think, “Oh, he’s really struggling here. So I thought, why not.”
The task, however, was doubly challenging. Irrespective of it being a virtual unknown’s first exhibition, it’s the first in this new gallery. I comment on the space, the idea that the venue seems to lend itself perfectly to showing these works. It’s an enviable gallery. The space, the light, the layout. Finding 3,000 square feet like this in Fitzrovia is quite a coup.
“We were lucky,” Ian tells me, “I selected the works a year ago, not based on geographical planning or otherwise. The only sacrifice we made was the last section…everything else fitted like a glove. What I loved about the gallery was the downstairs and its light. It took a while, with the plans and the necessary work and it was a push to get the gallery finished as we’d have liked to for the opening of the exhibition. But, bar a few tweaks to come here and there, we made it.”
The lack of troughs in Brinkmann’s work are evident from the way in which the exhibition is laid out. It’s chronological but there are distinct periods which seem to derive from a constant progression of mood, expression and media.
As we make our way upstairs, Ian tells me how he approached the retrospective, “We divided the show into seven sections and they’re designed to reflect his various voyages,” Ian explains, “from the exterior to the interior world, the voyage towards trying to liberate himself, firstly from figuration and then from a solid surface on which to paint. It’s a great adventure.”
The first section, when he was painting under the occupation of Franco, somewhat predictably, if understandably, is in black and white and principally pen and ink. Predictable or not, it does not diminish one’s appreciation. “Look at the quality of the drawing,” Ian points out, “and if you look at that criss-crossing…perhaps that’s a hint of what’s to come, the beginning of the mesh. But it’s already got personality.”
There’s one in particular, untitled, that seems to have obvious references to Picasso’s Guernica. “We asked him about that, in fact,” Ian says, “and he said that he wasn’t thinking about it. But then the artist says one thing and you interpret as you see it. I think he didn’t want to state the reference, just to paint it.”
I sense anger in there, too. “Yes, absolutely, and desperation. Look at this,” he gestures across the picture, “the heads – how is that not a reference to Guernica? “I’m certain of the connection, he only works in black and white until Franco dies. Franco dies and colour starts appearing…and he starts to liberate himself from this sense of heavy figuration.”
Clearly, there is a political influence – it surfaces again in his Irak pictures later – but Brinkmann is more than simply a political artist. “He’s highly intellectual,” Ian says, “and he obviously felt there was a need to communicate in a very didactic way.” And there’s intent there, as Ian tells me, “Nothing is casual. Look at the depth here, where everything recedes to black. And everything is worked meticulously. Even here, the slight introduction of colour, this is all predetermined.”
“One thing that we asked him was whether he had a style. ‘I have no style,’ he said, ‘the technique doesn’t make any difference; but I am coherent.’ And I think it’s true, even if you go to these early works, there’s a mixture of German work ethic and German cerebralness. He’s not Picasso, I mean there’s no sense of ‘Give me a canvas, I’m going to go crazy’, it very much comes from the head.
His surname, after all, is German. His grandfather was German. But it stops there, with the work ethic. In fact, it’s very Mediterranean. In a sense German art is much colder, his art is not. There’s also a sensuousness, I think, in all of his works which somehow relates to the Spanish in him. Some think him exquisitely Spanish, I don’t think so, I think he’s very European. They’re a mixture of rigour and lushness.”
We move on. “Here now,” Ian continues, “the next section and Franco’s died. And he starts to go on this voyage. He’s still hanging on to figuration but, bit by bit he’s moving into abstraction. These five works are chosen to each pick a moment from this era, between 1979 and 1992. We turn to Blancos Y Humo. “I mean this is unbelievable.” And it is. It’s beautiful. “This one he won’t sell. Not to anybody. It hangs in his dining room.” I can see why. We go in closer and I start to see detail that I wouldn’t have spotted otherwise but which contributes to the whole when I look at it again. “Put your finger along here”, Ian says. I run my finger across the canvas. And it’s virtually flat. “Look at how much work there is on the canvas but there is no texture to it whatsoever. And yet there is depth. It’s all in the rendition.” We stand back and debate for a moment what it can be. “Perhaps it’s to do with his children,” Ian concludes. Either way, we could look at it for hours.
It looks painstaking, so I’m curious as to how long each one takes. “I’ve never asked,” Ian tells me, “but you can imagine. He doesn’t paint that many a year, even now. I’ve often wondered how he’s been able to go on, and grow as he has, taking so much time over the works. We’re talking about two years and there are only four works. Because of the detail, because of the depth, each one has absolute individuality.”
With such accomplishment, I find it unbelievable that he is not wider known, that work of such depth and such originality is not in high demand. “The answer is, basically, that he’s not an outside seller,” Ian says. “He has a small gallery in Toulouse, he’s had the occasional exhibition, he doesn’t have the situation where fifteen galleries around the world are all clamouring for works.
In a way it’s sad that’s he not an international figure but then you wouldn’t have the art if he was. There’d be a compromise. He’s not painting for anyone else.” The true essence of an artist.
“I’d like it to go on tour,” Ian says. “I’m looking for galleries at the moment, if not for all of it then some that will at least take part of it. It’s such an unbelievable show.” He sweeps me over to another, “I mean look at this. Never mind there’s an obvious phallic reference here but look! It’s another universe.”
We move to the next period, from 1999 to 2002, and here begins Brinkmann’s signature medium: painting on wire mesh. It’s initially crude, iron, like a bed frame. Later, it gets more sophisticated, finer and steel. “We’re also seeing the beginning of Segmentos,” Ian explains, “which you’ll see downstairs, how he sections out the mesh graphically. And he’s starting to create holes – those, too, are figurative – they reflect musical notes and in the Irak works, bullet holes, perhaps. Similarly, with those, they’re almost map-like, but these, really, are less about figuration but emotional reaction.
“Of all the media there are in art, and there aren’t that many – canvas, wood, marble – wire mesh is unique to Enrique. The amazing thing about this is that it gives you complete transparency, look what it does with the light…since these sit away from the wall, the light changes the perception and character of the work. During the course of the day it literally changes. And it gives it the sense that it hangs in the air, it’s not simply mounted on a wall.
“And then, of course, you see how he pushes paint from the back? That makes it a unique surface, he’s working both sides and that gives him endless possibilities.
“The Segmentos section I think is the most musical of his periods. He’s heavily influenced by classical music, and he listens to it when he paints. You can see how this almost looks like a musical score…” I notice, too, as the mesh gets finer, it’s as if we’re zooming in on a subject. “I’ve seen a film of him painting these,” Ian tells me, “and he’s very considerate. He stands back, looks, and carefully decides where each is to be placed. And then it’s done with such detail. And look how beautiful, how lyrical it is. It’s as if he’s composing…
“In the final two sections, we see the first time he plays with sculptural possibilities and relief on the surface. Initially, it’s suggestive and tentative but his most recent works are now completely covering the mesh, building layers by creating the surface first and the texture before then painting the subject over the top. The detail remains but it’s a far cry from the much earlier multi-layered works of the 80s.”
“I just hope people realise that this is a major figure, one who’s little known outside his country, and he has to be internationally seen. He is a major, major artist.”
As if coming full circle, I get the sense that in these final works we can see elements and influences from every preceding stage. It’s as if he’s been working over the last fifty years to arrive at this point. I see the lines from the drawing, the segmented sections, less mathematical but definitely there; there are holes, multi-layers, the increasing use of colour and, above it all, this sense of quiet introspection.
“It’s a dangerous word but it’s why it’s in the title,” Ian says, “poetic”. I suggest it risks over-use but, having had this tour and become absorbed, I can see how it works. It is, virtually, the only way to describe this exhibition; poetry. And, as we finish and go back upstairs, someone enters the gallery, “It’s best just to look around on your own,” Ian tells them, before adding, “…quietly, in your own time.”
The Poetics of Silence, the inaugural UK exhibition by Enrique Brinkmann is currently on at the Rosenfeld-Porcini Gallery, 37 Rathbone Place, London. It runs until 10th September.