Marcella Barceló : “Joyous Death”
by Didier Semin
Talking casually with Marcella Barceló one day about her pictures, I found myself remembering a film by Juan Luis Buñuel, Au rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse, which made a powerful impression on me when it came out in 1973. I assumed that the oxymoron of its French title – “at the meeting place of joyous death” –, which so neatly defines the world of this young artist, was the main reason for this recollection (especially since, after a quick search – oddly enough, I had never seen the film again – I soon came across the title chosen for the release of his unknown masterpiece in America: Expulsion of the Devil. Perhaps I had a vague sense that this means “exorcism”, which features in the title chosen by Marcella Barceló for the catalogue of her recent work: What an excellent day for an exorcism!).
Of course, there were other reasons. My unconscious, in whose existence, for comfort’s sake, I sometimes pretend not to believe, cannot have failed to recall all those families of artists in which talent is handed down from generation to generation, the two Buñuels being a fine example of this. Furthermore, the archetypes deployed in the film were very exactly evoked in the works now before me. What archetypes? The kind that, from fairy tales to the Tales of Hoffmann, from science fiction to horror films, from Chinese and Japanese literature to that of Europe and the Americas, are always summoned when fear and frissons are the order of the day (Roger Caillois drew up a very comprehensive list), carefully ensuring that both are kept behind the bars of the page or the painting. Images of dread, both in painting and literature, would arouse only vulgar emotions were they not cleverly combined with images of grace and happiness. In Au Rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse, it is a young girl who is the cause of disaster, just like Carrie in the famous film of that name by Brian de Palma, played by the angelic Sissy Spacek. From a distance, Marcella Barceló’s canvases and works on paper look like pleasant pastels. The supports, often sheets faded from repeated washing, evoke the comfort of domestic space, while the glitter she also uses suggests the gaiety of fairgrounds and lavish receptions. But these pastel linens for Rosemary’s baby are deceptive: All of them Witches (2016 – the title is that of the satanic book referenced in that Polanski film) is a Sabbath that leans towards Goya; the play of figures and letters on a wooden plank form a Ouija board, the instrument invented by spiritist societies to communicate with the beyond. In Marcella Barceló’s world, love is not “at first sight” but “at first bite”. The French equivalent of that first expression, coup de foudre, contains the first gaze and also the first burn. The world of childhood and adolescence is not a place of innocence and happiness but a laboratory of melancholy, atra bilia (black bile in Latin), which Barceló represents admirably well, in a tradition that goes back to Grandville, as the darkness spread over the earth by the ink of an intergalactic octopus.
Barceló’s style is sometimes compared to children’s drawing or to that art of the mad and outsiders prettily dubbed “Art Brut” by Jean Dubuffet. But the artist is no child. She studied at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, which, if not exactly the temple of norms and normality, is certainly no Bedlam. In fact, Art Brut and the art of children are simply part of our current cultural mainstream, and we are all at liberty to appropriate its codes, images and stereotypes. If we absolutely had to pigeonhole Marcella Barceló, ready for the critics (such categories are usually useless, but competition juries and newspapers do insist on these preliminary pointers), she wouldn’t be too cramped in the “Neo-Pop” compartment. Certainly, she is equally at ease with the vocabulary of high and popular culture, like her British and North American predecessors in the 1960s, but also with Art Brut and children’s art, with Hollywood and comic books: a Uccello dragon threatens a bound John Willie pinup in Why the F … St Georges Not Showing Up, painted in the manner of Sigmar Polke. Echoes of Henry Darger are easily audible in All of Them Witches, while L’Inconnue de la Seine (Stranger of the Seine) celebrated by Aragon appears swaddled in blues, just like the blond children of the Village des Damnés (Village of the Damned). It is a truism but it nevertheless bears repeating: new technologies have given today’s painters the run of Babel’s library and film club, and they can virtually marry a billion images where their best informed elders could muster only tens of thousands at the most. Marcella Barceló does not draw like children (it is hard to gauge the skill needed to approach the grace of childhood without falling flat on one’s face), but she does perhaps have the vertiginous freedom that characterises childhood. No doubt, in that mysterious ether where intuitions are exchanged, she heard these words from Expulsion of the Devil: “You kids are lucky, you can draw whatever you like and no one criticises you for it.”