The Alchemist's Heart of Ramon Alcolea
by Jane Ciabattari
When he was a young boy in Puerto de Santa Maria on the Bay of Cadiz in southern Spain, Ramon Alcolea lived with his grandparents, his widowed aunt Adele, his cousin Julio Cesar and his older brother Silverio on the second floor over the post office, where his grandfather was postmaster.
After hours, he and Silverio would head downstairs to play. "Spain in the 1960s was like Spain in the 1930s," Alcolea says. "Franco had frozen us." The post office was an old-fashioned operation. The machinery--the hand-crafted brass postal scale with its set of shining metal weights, the pulleys and cranking mechanisms that would rotate and send the packages and envelopes with their hidden messages into the canvas mailbags for delivery--fascinated Alcolea, establishing an imaginative template for the sort of mechanical symmetry, geometric balance, and simplicity that are the essence of minimalism.
Alcolea's fondness for text, which he often incorporates into his sculptures and drawings, can be traced as far back as siesta time in his boyhood, when he would rummage through the books in his grandfather's study. The first book he remembers reading was an illustrated edition of Goethe's Faust, about the magician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality. In his early teens he began to sculpt in plasticine and clay and copy drawings from his grandfather's art books--Poussin and Ingres, the classics, as well as Rubens and Titian.
"They were so beautiful, so astonishing, I wanted more," he recalls. "The only way I could figure out to manage that was to do it myself."
Alcolea moved to Washington, D.C. in 1973, when his mother was remarried, to an American. He attended the Corcoran School of Art there, then transferred to the Parsons School of Design in New York, where he received his B.F.A. in 1985.
He had been singled out for a fellowship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the first of a series of honors that now include grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain, Ragdale, and Cummington.
At Parsons he apprenticed to the minimalist sculptor Ron Bladen, who encouraged his technical rigor and discipline. He so thoroughly mastered the form that when a retrospective of Bladen's work was exhibited in Germany in 1998, 10 years after Bladen's death, and at P.S. 1 in 1999, Alcolea reconstructed many of the pieces from scratch.
During his early years in the United States, Alcolea turned frequently to the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca for text to incorporate into his work. In a series called "Language of Exile" (1990), completed the year after he moved to Provincetown, he carved hearts of terra cotta, with English text on the outside of the heart, Spanish text hidden in secret openings inside the heart. "I was going through a period of adjustment into living in America without longing constantly to go back to Spain," he says.
"The pieces helped me work through it and eventually be able to say, 'This is my home, this is who I am,' and to become comfortable living in this culture."
More recently, he has used text from Euripides' Medea, Emily Dickinson, Reynolds Price, and Mark Doty, the Provincetown poet. In his latest series, "Love Letters," to be shown this summer at the Schoolhouse Center in Provincetown, Alcolea combines clean severe form with a baroque fondness for the basic iconography of the heart.
"The heart can mean anything from love to hate to indifference," he says. Sometimes his hearts are so literal that they can be identified only as something else, the equivalent of a votive offering left upon an altar by a wounded lover seeking healing. The heart is associated with the Catholic imagery of his boyhood. At Jesuit school in Spain he attended mass daily, twice on Tuesdays.
Religious statues surrounded him--the Virgin Mary with the heart outside the body pierced by daggers made a particularly strong impression. His individual wall pieces are intended to read as a whole series, like the orderly and sorrowful Stations of the Cross--"all in the same space and moment in time and the energy and devotion," he says.
" This is not random arrangement. It has a beginning, middle and end; the pieces flow into each other and are linked. That is where the narrative comes into it." The first piece incorporates sections of a love letter, with interactive sections that open, close, and move around, allowing the viewer to read the text. "As I made more in the series, they became more and more austere," Alcolea says. "My tendency is to eliminate side panels. That has always been my pull back and forth, my baroque inner tendencies are always underlined with my minimalist training. In this series of the last two years I feel I'm starting to blend the two. The love letters are kin to each other. You'll see some of the pieces obviously come from the same origin."
A speckled greenish gray piece of wood shows up in many of the pieces, as does the same bit of driftwood and a handsome section of wood paneling. Alcolea combs the shoreline at Herring Cove and Race Point and scouts between the tide pools at Hatch's Harbor for driftwood. He especially prizes sections of seaworthy wood left after big storms. "When you cut it, you can smell the sea air from the salt mingled with the actual wood," he says.
He visits the Provincetown recycling station regularly, sifting through piles of metal, grates, old metal trays, pieces of chairs, hunks of wood paneling, frames and sides of houses from as "The Alchemist's Love Letter," a heart carved from found wood, outlined in red beads, and mounted upon a symmetrical icon-like structure of found wood with side panels. A piece of fishing lead representing the alchemistŐs prima materia is anchored at the bottom right. An umbilical copper pipe, the type used in the alchemical process of transforming base metal into gold, connects with a wooden knob painted gold and a golden blossom that sits at the top of the heart--the sought after transforming power that is love.
"The narrative is in the materials," Alcolea insists."The change into gold represents the act of the birth of love, the lead and copper, the futility of it. Like any good story, there is more than one interpretation."
JANE CIABATTARI is a New York-based writer and Contributing Editor to Parade Magazine. Her short story collection, Stealing the Fire, is forthcoming in Spring 2002.
©2001 Provincetown Arts
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