Singular Spaces II: Broadening the Commons – Spanish Art Environments

Singular Spaces II: Broadening the Commons – Spanish Art Environments

Article by  Jo Farb Hernández 

Photos by Jo Farb Hernández

Traveling down winding rural roads in Wisconsin with my future husband Sam Hernández back in 1973, I had no inkling that the artists I met and the art environments I visited on those sunny autumn weekends would lead to a 50-year obsession with these idiosyncratic and compelling sites. Yet they did: a study of selected Midwestern art environments became the subject of my master’s thesis at UCLA two years later, and I continue to document and study them wherever and whenever I travel.

Thus, after my family and I bought a house in Spain in mid-1999 and started to explore nearby, I began to notice roadside constructions that had not, as yet, been identified by the small number of enthusiasts who at that time were photographing this genre of work. So I began to investigate more deeply. Although I anticipated that I might find a dozen sites around the country, I was unprepared for the scores of innovative and creative constructions that I ultimately came to research and record.

While Spain obviously encompasses a much smaller geographic area than the U.S., neither is it small. And while art environments are generally quite photogenic, my scholarship is based on a longer-term investigative strategy: rather than “drive-by” snapshots. I return multiple times, as possible, and always follow my on-site documentation with months – even years! – of additional interviews, supplemental questions, and fact-checking, such that the artists and their families become true collaborators in the process. Such extended analysis is essential for a fully three-dimensional understanding of the sites and the creators’ intentions. Consequently, my travels and studies across Spain’s mainland and islands became a journey that has, to date, stretched over a period of 24 years.

Paralleling the wonder of several artists who shook their heads in amazement as they looked back on their years of creation and the monumentality that their labors achieved, I, too, am rather astonished at the scope of my work. Between the two oversized Singular Spaces books (2013 and 2023), covering more than 2,200 pages, I have treated 144 Spanish artist-built environments on an in-depth basis, each with its own thoroughly researched chapter and extensive illustrations. In the most recent book I also have recognized and illustrated at least a dozen more sites that, for various reasons, I was unable to study at my hoped-for level of thoroughness. Thus, through the course of my fieldwork, I have developed the first inventory of Spain’s amazing art environments, an archive that will serve as a foundation for the efforts of later researchers.

The range of these sites is broad and their quality impressive; indeed, some of them can be counted as among the best of art environments found globally – although some are only now becoming more widely acknowledged. And while the contexts and backstories are notably compelling, frequently (although not always) referencing narratives of deprivation, of war, and of loss, it is the visual impact that is so consistently striking.

Julio Basanta’s Casa de Dios [House of God], in Aragon, [accent on the o in Aragon] is perhaps Spain’s most visually-challenging site. Its brightly-painted, larger-than-life-sized figures feature demons, devils, and evildoers from myth, legend, and history, rather than the gods one might expect from the site’s name. Ostensibly the artist’s representation of the malevolence and iniquity that dogged his days – from his father’s abandonment when he was a child to the later suspicious murders of his son and brother – the violence manifested by these figures is paradoxically countered by the cheerful floral colors of their surfaces.

In contrast, Juan Muñoz’s meticulous sheathing of the front fence, walkways, and back patio of his home in tiny black and white pebbles references the Islamic-period surface decorations and imagery of his Andaluz homeland, as it likewise alludes to local flora, fauna, and historical narratives. While the most impressive parts of the site are shielded from public view, its density and ingenuity reveal a thoughtful approach to decoration in which the artist adapted what was available to address what was needed, a resourceful strategy in this, one of Spain’s poorest regions.

Another artist in Andalucía was petit María Rodríguez, who originally began constructing her Jardín [garden] in order to fence off her home from the beach it fronted. Gathering the “gifts” of the sea as she took her morning walks, she built up monumental “trees” in contrast with the lower grounds, densely packing and slowly extending them from shells, fish and animal bones, fragments of ceramics and plastics, and discarded toys and dolls. Trapped in an unhappy marriage and the traditional societal expectations of a woman’s role, her creations, developed over a 25-year period, enabled her to escape from her cheerless daily routine, and create a legacy that she believed would endure forever.

Spain’s Canary Islands, located off the coast of Morocco, are generally windswept and desert-like; like most liminal regions, they have become home to several art environments. Among the most notable is the Museo Mara Mao on Lanzarote, created by bachelor farmer José García Martín, known as Pillimpo. Hundreds of human-scaled figures, animals, and angels surround his home. At the time of my fieldwork in December 2018 he had painted them all a ghostly white, although they had earlier evinced a range of more natural colors. At that time, physically failing and preparing for death, he believed white made them look more pure and poetic, as they emphasized his faith and his belief in the importance of his efforts to create his own heaven on earth.

Despite the remarkable breadth and quality of Spain’s art environments, most are unknown even within their immediate vicinity. I cast a wide net with my research to ensure all regions were represented, revealing all kinds of spaces assembled with all kinds of materials, in order to provide as encyclopedic a treatment of the field as possible. This is essential because such scholarship is often the only comprehensive documentation that these sites even existed, as most prematurely pass into oblivion. But the universality of the need to create, and the issues that are confronted when one does so in a public and non-sanctioned way, are relevant to art and artists worldwide. These artists, over time, have become incomparable models of tenacity and commitment to an ever-evolving goal, as they creatively pivot to address unforeseen challenges and follow their hearts while they learn by doing, add success to success with each stone or shell or shard, and slowly allow their creative forces to change their lives.

Singular Spaces II: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments
Hardcover, two volumes within a slipcase
1,072 pages total, 1,113 photographs. Map, prologue (Lisa V. Comforty), foreword (Leslie Umberger), preface (Sarah Lombardi), acknowledgments, introduction, “limits, languages, protocols,” reference list, “about the author.”
Published by 5 Continents Editions, 2023, in partnership with the Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne
ISBN 979-12-5460-018-4
Price: €300/$350

Singular Spaces: From the Eccentric to the Extraordinary in Spanish Art Environments
Hardcover book with CD
Hardcover: 596 pages, 1,306 color photographs. Map, preface (Laurent Danchin), foreword (Roger Cardinal), acknowledgments, introduction, “how to use this book,” reference list.
CD: 565 pages, 4,179 color photographs, 44 site plans
Total: 1,159 pages, 5,485 photographs, map, 44 site plans
Published by Raw Vision, SPACES, San José State University, 2013
ISBN 978-06-1578-565-3
Price: $80, on Amazon.

Jo Farb Hernández is Professor and Director Emerita of the Department of Art and Art History’s Thompson Art Gallery at San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif. She is also the Director and Curator Emerita of SPACES.

Photo: Luisa Del Giudice

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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