Artists Magazine

Riera i Aragó – Dialogue with the horizon

For Josep Maria Riera i Aragó (Barcelona, 1954) the beginning of the 80s marked a turning point in his work. He left figurative painting to develop his own unique artistic language, helped by a project of a very personal nature. From 7 March 1981 to 7 March 1982, on pieces of brown paper from his chemist grandfather’s herbarium, he created a graphic diary of what happened each day. This exercise enabled him to encapsulate his work. Although he allowed himself to repeat some of the images, he saw how they evolved and he found he had to invent new ones.


His fascination for the sky and the sea, both immense, untouched expanses, fueled his interest in machinery and he began to build machines for exploring these worlds. From that time onwards, planes and submarines, boats and airships can be seen throughout his work, represented using anthropomorphic, minimalist forms; vehicles created out of a few simple lines. Each piece is a state of mind, the submarines sometimes rising above the sea to float in the air. The submarines appear during times of introspection and isolation. The aeroplanes, however, represent expansion and growth. The boats are more ritual, sacred somehow, their pace slow and poetic. What I most like about travelling by boat is that it isn’t the machine that is moving. You are still; it is what is beneath you that moves. Also, boats normally carry or contain something, a chest or a box…

He has also painted and sculpted islands and landscapes where he can emplace his machines.

The draining of the Aral Sea in the seventies had a great impact on me, particularly seeing those images of huge
ships and oil tankers stranded in the desert, but above all the brutal hardship it caused the populations that lived on its shores. I developed a symbol that is an evolution of the form of my aeroplanes; they look towards the horizon and wonder what mankind could have done to dry up the sea. They are melancholic, quite sad artefacts. A sea’s withdrawal or disappearance is an extremely dramatic event.

I like working with natural colours and reserve bright colours for introducing accents. I first applied colour in my
sculptures, to give them greater strength, and later it appeared in my painting. As of 1985, I decided to work with different materials, painting with resins, plaster or products whose original state had no colour. For the sculptures I bought materials in ship breaking yards, used rusted or recycled iron; these gave me the backdrop and the touch of colour I needed. The memory of what these objects once were emerges in the final piece.
A material’s useful life comes to an end and a new, unexpected one begins. The copper in some of his sculptures came from the roof of the Cathedral in Ghent and other materials were salvaged from the ship Montserrat, from scrap pieces purchased at the port of Barcelona.
For me, the support is fundamental in painting. A blank canvas does nothing to motivate me; the spark I need comes from dialoguing with something that is already there, when what I have before me transmits something. It is from this dialogue with the material that the work takes shape.

Accumulations are frequently seen in his exhibitions, whether they are mould-produced pieces that are multiplied to become a single piece or those that were exhibited in Céret’s modern art museum or in The Hague, where on a long table next to an immense, light-filled window lay one hundred and eleven small sculptures of different aeroplanes. Just positioning them is a job in itself; creating a dialogue between them.

Twenty-eight years ago, a friend that knew of his interest in the Empordà told the artist and his wife about a house in Ruimors. Ever since, they have regularly spent long periods of time there. For him, this toing and froing between Barcelona and Riumors has always nourished his work, as well as helping him step back from it.
Like when you paint and you need to take a step back from your work, I need to get away from the workshop to get perspective and empty myself. Here the waters calm and things can settle into place.
That is why there is no workshop in Ruimors. He is constantly by the sea and walking, or working in his garden.
There is a parallel between the craftsmanship in art and gardening. Miró used to say that painting was like caring for a garden, you need to do it every day.
My obsessions, the sea and the sky, are close to me here and I experience them every day. In Barcelona it is hard to have contact with the sky as the buildings are always in the way. In the Empordà the nights are wonderful when the tramontana is blowing, and its immense beaches always bring you gifts. This is where you dialogue with the colours of the sea, which is something that has always fascinated me, the colour changes, the light… This all comes out in the work because it has been etched onto your retina, that strip of horizon always shines through in the end.