Today, Felipe Cardeña is considered a brilliant Collage artist, skilled with paper, ingenious with canvases and resourceful with standards and any other kind of support that allows him to freely explore different subjects, shapes, dimensions and techniques.
Nevertheless, well before coming into the limelight of the contemporary art system with his floral style which is so well-known and recognizable, the Spanish artist experimented with many different artistic practices that allowed him to gradually mature his current «collage» poetry.
Born in Balaguer, Spain in 1979, Felipe Cardeña – according to his official biography – enjoyed an atypical education which, beyond the normal path of academic study, brought him into contact with the history of Sixteenth and Seventeenth century Spanish, and also Italian, painting, thanks to countless trips – at least according to the only interview released by Cardeña – taken with a mysterious uncle of his. Artists like Velásquez, Goya, El Greco and Caravaggio were his first references, mixed up with sci-fi fantasy and Marvel superhero comics.
His true baptism into the world of shows and galleries would take place in early 2000 in Spain, with a decidedly «Situationist» approach, which – as far as we know – could have driven Cardeña to devise impromptu uninvited entries, actions and performances which were often unauthorized. Although almost fifty years have passed since the birth of the Situationist International movement (1957-1972), the influences of this philosophy of thought and life can be seen clearly in the poetry of this young Spanish artist, who in the meantime had discovered American Pop Art experiences and perhaps even had direct contact with the protagonists of European Street Art.
Staying true to the messages of the Situationist International (according to which for Guy Debord, «the only interesting venture is the liberation of everyday life» and «we are artists only because we are no longer artists: we are creating art»), forms of creation come together in this environment that is becoming more and more distant and removed from traditional artistic activity until there is a «Situationist» use of art, that is, connected to real life. And more than that, there’s a conceptual «leap», typical of recent years, a leap that fitted also the Street Art or parallel experiences, such as the Luther Blissett/Wu Ming group, so that it’s difficult to tell lived reality from media or artistic fiction. The Situationists, to whom Felipe Cardeña’s work in this first phase can be clearly linked, focus on the elaboration of tools and methods that sit beyond the realm of art based on several of the procedures codified by Mario Perniola in his volume I situazionisti (Castelvecchi Editore, Rome 1998):
— The game
— Control of techniques of conditioning
— Industrial painting
Felipe Cardeña’s career can be viewed as a passage through each of these phases in an updated, revised version, to get to Collage Art with a new, more conscious perspective on the history of art and life experience.
The first act of this tragicomedy would have occurred – according to Cardeña biographies – in Madrid, where the artist posed as a «living statue» in front of the entrance to exhibition spaces with the provocative, destabilizing spirit that accompanies the Situationist practice of psychogeography: a new approach to urban, artistic phenomena based on alienation experienced within the space, according to the «drift» method, meaning the disorientation of passion through hasty change in environment. The weakness and vagueness of early experiences, of which no documented trace is left, are sticking to the Situationist spirit, due to their lack of documentation and therefore of practical purpose for the future «career» of the artist (contrary to what are doing today many street artists who make their ephemeral works merely in order to document them and «make them live» in the media space).
His first official participation in the 2005 Miracolo a Milano public show at the Palazzo della Ragione in Milan, curated by Alessandro Riva, coincided with these elements. Here, the artist stood motionless for six hours inside a wooden box, with just his head sticking out, in order to impersonate the beheaded Saint John the Baptist. (While for the previous experiences we have to rely on the biography of the artist, I have a personal direct memory of this performance, as I was present at the vernissage.) It was a long, exhausting exercise that would have tested anyone’s limits and which meant a kind of initiation for Cardeña into the Italian show circuit, which wiped out any preconceived ideas of the artist’s about art and its functions in this decontextualization of roles and spaces. In the same vein, the following year in the exhibition curated by me and dedicated to the finalists of the second edition of the Italian Factory Prize for Young Italian painting, at the Casa del Pane in Milan, the artist played an old «loco» (or a ghost?) closed in the attic of the exhibition space, from where he threw invectives in Spanish to the appalled visitors of the exhibition.
From this point on, Cardeña was involved in several group shows with a series of sculptures like Ecce Woman in polychrome plastic or Ardor Guerriero in polychrome wood, ready-made objects imitating the second article of the Situationist game. Compared to the classical understanding of «the game», the ludic aspects of separation from actual life are denied in this behavior, yet on the contrary there’s an inherent moral stance, which is intended to restore a sense of trust and hope in the face of pacific yet unwavering militancy within the ranks of art and in society – using the practice of ready-made in the form of holy and devotional statuettes of the Sacred Heart or the Crusader.
The third phase consists of actions of détournement as the loss of importance of the original meaning of every single autonomous element and the organization of another signifying ensemble, which gives every item a new range. It was an operation that Felipe Cardeña had already embarked on in his artistic activity involving the ready-made form and which would culminate in Collage Art. In this phase, the goal is a work which loses its autonomous artistic value in order to be presented as negation of art, above all because of the immediate, revolutionary communication it possesses. The epigraph on marble (exposed in Milan, at the Flash Art Fair, in 2006) which recites one of Jean-Michael Basquiat’s mottoes, «I don’t know anyone who needs a critic to find out what art is» is an example of the lucid, disarming awareness of the detachment between what art actually is (its essence) and what is a direct consequence of it (the critique system that gravitates around it). Here the détournement consists in attributing a primordial value to a pre-existing reference system (art). The same behaviour of new semantic appropriation was also present in the clandestine gesture with which he put up a pirate flag over the entrance of the PAC, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan during the Street Art Sweet Art show as a metaphor of the physical and spiritual colonization of the spaces assigned to contemporary art by street artists, who are commonly considered to be outside the system.
Control of techniques of conditioning
The fourth phase of this progressive growth refers to the subject of control of techniques of conditioning. Nowadays we can rightly state that advertising and the media offer new and extraordinarily effective tools of conditioning. Subliminal information and brain washing are examples still used today. For this reason these influencing and manipulating techniques must not remain the monopoly of power but should be used in a revolutionary direction. New artists could thus become «secret persuaders» not to conformism but to freedom. Some clandestine activities, which are represented by satire and caricature in the case of media communication, lay within this sphere, competing with official power. Felipe Cardeña has been using this Situationist tactic since 2009 with his Felipe Cartoon project published weekly on the ArsLife.com site. He creates a derogatory, burlesque vignette in his collage style, featuring a character or event from Italian or international news which has been in the limelight in the daily papers or TV. As in a sort of column consisting of images, Felipe’s cartoons cover politics, crime reporting, culture, economics, gossip and literature with his witty, ironic spirit, seeking to swing the balance of the scales of information in favour of freedom of expression in art. Characters like Obama, Berlusconi, the Pope and Michael Jackson or events like the situation in Gaza, the Eluana Englaro case, safety in Italy, the «Videocracy» affair and the censorship problem among many others have all been given the treatment in this story of his that condenses real time news.
Lastly, as regards the last point in the Situationist manifesto, the idea of «industrial painting» is called in, which however has nothing to do with industrial design, because it does not suggest a model to be reproduced, but rather refers to Pinot Gallizio’s individual rolled-up canvases, over a hundred meters in length at times.
In Felipe Cardeña’s case, we could link the concept of industrial painting to the serial nature and repetitiveness of his modus operandi in Collage Art which uses a meticulous, obsessive technique dictated by subsequent moments, like an industrial assembly line: cutting fragments, sticking them onto to the canvas one by one, adding in a recognizable icon that provides the whole work with a meaning and then finally applying a top layer of gloss resin.
Collage Art has a very long history that features throughout the Twentieth Century, including the first papier collé. Cubists who glued strips of paper onto the sheet in a flat arrangement, the multi-material, polysemic Surrealist sample, the «relief colour forms» of the Futurists and the American assemblage and Combine Paintings of the Sixties.
Felipe Cardeña’s study is also entrenched in this tradition, although it moves away from a prevalently material habit of matching fragments towards a preliminary choice of images taken from varied sources and then placed in a phantasmagoric context, which recalls the floral wallpapers (papier peint, papier tenture).
The concept that the artist refers to is that of creating an inflation of traditional artistic values in such a way as to compromise their survival. This inflation is nothing but the crowding together of signs and images found in his Collage Art, intended as a revolution in playing, continuous creation and destruction, perennial change and incessant semantic shift. Felipe Cardeña’s collages on canvas are brightly-coloured, multi-form puzzles that huddle together in the frenetic overlapping of flower and fruit shapes, cut out of gardening and DIY magazines with painstaking precision. Dotted here and there, the isolated image of a votive icon, the bust of a Roman emperor or the portrait of a Renaissance courtesan, the effigy of an Indian saint or an African tribal mask, and again the sexy heroine of a Marvel comic or the Dark Lady of a Forties spy story (like The Black Dahlia) peep out from within this composite flora to ratify the total loss of spatial and temporal references.
As regards the latest series of Power Flower works, Felipe Cardeña’s study focuses on three common themes: Hindu divinities, the iconographies of the history of art and the personalities of the Star System. These three apparently different historical and cultural narrations in reality have common corresponding elements, but are above all symbolic of the complexity of the universe and the methods of decoding to the public.
In the case of the Hindu religion, for example, Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant; Krishna, one of the most popular, widely worshipped divinities, the Avatar with dark blue skin, and Kali, the consort of Shiva, the goddess of destruction and death. These are images taken from giant posters which are presented in the form of cartoon portrayals, with garish colours and a number of tiny details camouflaging with the background which at first glance seem to function as mere space-fillers but which actually reveal profound messages (such as the swastika, the flute and pearls) and leave you to ponder the complexity of the most ancient religion in the world.
Moving onto the iconographies taken from the history of art, the range includes Giotto’s Tre Marie to Botticelli’s page boys and Lucas Cranach’s Judith with the head of Holofernes to Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine. Different styles and eras are flattened down by the floral collage background which eliminates initial contexts and historical placements from the portrayals and allows the gaze of the figure with its symbolic charge of meanings and psychological and emotional references to shine through.
On the subject of famous people from history, power or the news, already examined in the Felipe Cartoon project, the scene involves legendary figures like the Dalai Lama, Obama, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Rocky, Mao and Che Guevara. These are subjects of different social and political extraction, who have often fulfilled strategic political roles or predicted great changes in music and customs, here on the contrary returned to their identity as depersonalized, standardized pop icons, capable of endless visual regeneration. Reducing the mythical and heroic to kitsch pop icon on a multi-coloured, psychedelic background, unequivocally homogenous and identical in every work is the perfect vehicle for distancing the image from the complexity and ambiguity of real life and transforming it into a stereotype that lives inside an ideal abstraction.
This myriad of drawings and canvases forms a single installation, created by interlocking identical models that alternate in their continuous variety of shapes and colours and the condensation or rarefaction of their appearance, in a kaleidoscope of fluorescent colours that recall total psychedelia.
The emergence of an iconographic collection, which is different in its types, eras and origins, witnesses and documents the predatory sacking within the language of the history of art and the lexis of visual communication, in a horror vacui where codes of high and low culture intermingle. As Pablo Picasso already stated with his motto, «Bad artists copy, great artists steal», the theft of image and icon is truly the stuff of the great artistic personalities because, when they have become aware of a problem or emergency, they can recuperate their stimuli from different expressive environments, relocating them in a privileged, critical position with the accentuation of a particular order of ideas or meanings.
The importance of this process lies in the fact that, through it, subjects and images strictly bound to society, religion, culture, literature and both the Western and Eastern imagination are removed from their destination and placed in a qualitatively different context or in a revolutionary perspective. It’s a sign that the most sublime things, like the most banal things, can, on an unconscious and psychological level, be the object of a much deeper appropriation of their simple passive fruition or their economic possession.
The hand that cuts up sheets of coloured paper, old magazines, cardboard boxes, old-fashioned photographs and which gathers and reuses images that are themselves potentially expressive, works along the narrowest borderline between iconoclasty and resemantization of shapes. As Raoul Hausmann stated, you should not read a simple «practice of construction and assembly» into the deployment of the different materials used and their configuration on the surface, but rather a «subjective equivalence between emotional perception and composition». The synthesis of formal oppositions is brought to the highest level of formal expression and emotional impact in Cardeña’s hybrid photography.
Milan, June 2011