In Reality

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Sink and Mirror, Lopez, 1967. /Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

An added attraction of the new Boston MFA show about Spanish art during the reign of Philip III is that you can slide from there to an almost literally mesmerizing little exhibition a few galleries away. This one is devoted to the contemporary Spanish realist Antonio Lopez Garcia. Though he’s been a well established name in Spain for decades, this is his first American museum survey and it’s exactly the right pendant to the bigger Philip III show. The traditions of Spanish realism that come forward in the era of Philip, those habits of attention paid to humble people and incidental corners of creation, are fundamental to the enormous power of Lopez’s best work. Realism isn’t just tradition for him. It’s a conviction.

Lopez doesn’t really find himself until about 1961, when he arrived at the granular illusionism of his best work. At first glance it has affinities with American photo realist painting of the later ’60s and ’70s. But in Lopez, who’s now 72, more is at stake. The subjects are never brassy and there’s no irony. The atmospheres are gentler sometimes but the center of gravity is in a deeper place. He’s an inheritor of two Spanish traditions, realist painting and devotional art, and also of that Spanish disposition to see no difference between the two.

View of Madrid from the Vallecas Fire Tower, Lopez, 1997-2006/ Image: Asamblea de la Comunidad de Madrid/Caja Madrid

One of his genres is deadpan Madrid cityscapes, mid-altitude panoramas of unpicturesque quarters of the city, not so different from the territory that the German photographer Thomas Struth used to work in. In some passages of those there’s a tesselated facture that reminds you of Cezanne, but a more atmospheric Cezanne, one working in smaller strokes, but with the same powers of concentration.

That reverent attention, that determination to transfigure the ordinary, is very Spanish. Among the places it goes back to is the almost supernatural still lifes of fruits and vegetables that Juan Sanchez Cotan did in the early 17th century.

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, Cotan, 1600/Image: Museum of Art, San Diego

For Lopez, still life can mean a full frontal oil portrait of a refrigerator with its door open and its contents exposed. A white household appliance in a harshly lit white-tiled kitchen, it very deliberately foregoes the spectral hush of the Cotans, with their spot lit produce looming mysteriously out of darkness. At the same time it’s beckoning in its matter of fact way — the home appliance as both cornucopia and tabernacle.

And when Lopez paints the skinned carcass of a rabbit on a glass plate, seen from above and folded into a fetal crouch, he arrives at something profound. He puts before you, tenderly but without sentiment, something dead that was once alive. In a picture like that, one that closes the gap between the ordinary and the sacramental, he reaches very quietly into some very deep reservoir of feeling.

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Skinned Rabbit, Lopez, 1972 / Image: Private Collection

Like his refrigerator, that rabbit picture draws on the Spanish genre tradition of bodegons, kitchen paintings. (There are several by Velazquez in the Philip III show.) No doubt as intended, it also inevitably brings to mind Zurbaran’s Agnus Dei from the 1630s, a barnyard lamb, trussed and isolated, which just so happens to be the symbol of Christ. It’s not so much that Lopez matches himself against Zurbaran as that he touches on a similar iconography to conduct his own secular meditation on life and death.

Agnus Dei, Zurbaran, c. 1635-40 / Image: Prado

The Lopez show was curated by Cheryl Brutvan, who heads the department of contemporary art at the Boston MFA. It runs through July 27. It won’t be traveling, so maybe you should.

Gran Via, Lopez, 1974-81 /Image: Private Collection