Fallen Leaves, the most recent show by José Manuel Fors, will be an unusual surprise and a discovery for those who have known his work only during the last twenty years. This assertion may seem ironic because one would ask: Aren’t 20 years enough time to believe one knows a work of art, an artist, a human being? But, as it happens, the case is that Fors’s work these twenty years may have been misleading. For those who know the origins of his line of work towards the end of the 70s in Cuba, Fallen Leaves is simply a coherent exhibition.
Exactly 20 years ago to this day, in 1982, Fors took his first photograph of objects found or “installed” in spaces within his own home. At that time, like other artists of his generation, he was more interested in the idea and in the effectiveness of representation, than in developing a set of works that would become morphologically “classifiable.” Like many other artists, I insist, he moved freely from two-dimensional painting to the intervention of a space with objects, and from there emerged the installation, and later on to the photographic medium, where the ephemeral character of his previous installations became less perishable.
His images were considered as a renovation of photography –in particular– and not as what they really were –a renovation of art– in general. In those years his work was classified as photographic production without taking a simple detail into account: except for the few images constructed by the artist, Fors had never taken photographs. He had only manipulated, composed and organized, using the photographic medium, the images that his paternal grandfather had taken with the authentic attitude of a photographer. Hence, the irony of classifications and the deception of his career.
On the other hand, Fors’s cyclic times –in his artistic production– are long, like the times of his temperament. He does not take surprising leaps but rather he explores the ideas and the mediums until he exhausts them, then he closes one cycle and opens up the next, seemingly in an abrupt way, but only in appearance. If we observe his works of today in detail, we shall easily recognize earlier photographic installations, only that the photographic medium practically disappears and he leaves the subject of the original photographed image exposed, emerging from a piece of paper that, in fact, has vanished. In a certain way, it is reminiscent of those seconds in which the photographed object emerges from the gelatin-covered plate by the effect of chemistry in the laboratory’s tray. When thinking about such “magical” instant in the dark room, it shall remind us of the same effect as when seeing these sculpted structures by Fors, but only in the sense of a total reversal.
Hojarasca and El circulo: los objetos, both made in situ for this new exhibition are works which shed light on this process. The titles themselves have been “recycled” here from works of the artist displayed for the first time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, establishing a connection or self-reference beyond doubt. Hojarasca, in particular, is in a way a symbiosis between the grand installation of accumulated dry leaves in cubic Plexiglas boxes he made in 1981 –first as a photographic version and then, in three dimensions in 1983– with those first photographs taken in 1982, in which certain objects in his milieu appeared in other heaps of leaves inside his house. The present Hojarasca gathers the essential ideas of the two foundational projects. The objects are obviously not the same, but they too emerge from the leaves contained in acrylic cases. The photographs from 1982 take their real shape again discarding their medium. What we are now contemplating is a semblance of photography when, back then, it was a semblance of the objects.
Likewise, El circulo: los objetos takes us back to a set of photographic installations made between the years 2000 and 2001, in which countless 35 mm photographic contact prints were overlaid in a radial shape, like the stones in ancient calendars which, in a generic way, the artist entitled La gran flor. Some of these circular structures were organized thematically according to the reiterated motive of the small images: portraits, objects or pieces of landscape. As a collector does, Fors now groups, following the same pattern, hundreds of objects that once were the photographic subject of some of his “great flowers,” but that now are overlaid on the wall to perpetuate their continued existence.
A third work which completes the exhibition is the most photographic of them all, technically speaking, and the most cynical: Las ventanas. These “windows” are small photographic spaces, hundreds of them, which “open” the eyes to virtually non-identifiable portions of what just a while ago was a recognizable photographic composition. Actually, they are third generation images, by-product of other by-products already manipulated by Fors for two decades. Each one of these windows have been intentionally printed in the traditional 35 mm format of the negative and restricted by a black edge “falsifying” the veracity of the original frame. But where does the cynicism of this work lie? I would say that in making us believe that it is a “part” of the “whole” or by proving that the “whole” is not always real though credible. It plays crudely with one of the aphorisms of documentary photography (authenticity) and pays a subtle homage to Robert Frank, one of his most admired personalities in the history of contemporary photography, precisely because of his masterful impudence regarding the orthodoxy of the “decisive instant” and of the “complete negative.”
Fors does not present himself now as a skeptical photographer, but rather as an unremitting pretender. His first images were the pretense of an object that we never saw and his recent objects are the recreation of the images he has accustomed us to see for the last 20 years.
Are we witnessing a new cycle in the work of José Manuel Fors? Will he not use photography any longer? Or, will he do so in the next 20 years?