Cossío’s Flirt with Abstraction
Juan Cossío is a Spanish figure painter who uses the airbrush as his main tool to achieve ultra-smooth, highly realistic depictions of the female form within contemporary settings. Cossío is a proponent of New Realism; its principle calls for experimentation with methods and materials in order to develop new types of art in response to art’s shifting role within contemporary consumer society. Cossío seeks to push these boundaries while remaining faithful to realism.
About a decade ago I saw Cossío’s paintings in London for the first time. What immediately attracted me were the classic, flawless depictions of female figures within innovative contemporary settings—delicate nudes curled up in cardboard boxes, tentatively going up ladders, or posing with industrial tubes. A flawless fusion of traditional expression firmly planted in the modern-day world. Superbly rendered, the tender beauty of the human form elegantly juxtaposes against minimalistic interiors and utilitarian objects.
Like all hyperrealists, Cossío uses photographs as a starting point for his paintings. He finds the quality of the photographic image crucially important for the success of a painting. In former days, he relied on a professional photographer, makeup artist, and models—including actresses and dancers—to achieve successful photoshoots on which he’d base his paintings. Despite its vital role, Cossío clarifies that photography cannot capture skin reliably or truthfully, and states, “An artist needs to study skin in person to truly understand the subtleties of coloring, tone, texture, and plasticity.”
Cossío’s thirst to evolve while holding on to realism has brought a strong new series which features his 16-year-old daughter Julia. She’s not only a beautiful and easily accessible model, but also, Cossío lightheartedly adds, “a lot cheaper than a professional model.”
The interpretation of beauty is central to Cossío’s work. He feels especially inspired by Victorian art—by the Pre-Raphaelites in particular—the era in which, for the first time, paintings were based on photographs. We can still find that ephemeral Victorian-like vision of female beauty in Cossío’s work, but he firmly plants his work in today’s day and age by simplifying and modernizing the context.
The thought behind Repetition Transformation is based on contemporary life which is permeated with digital data. It suggests the accumulation of information that happens, for example, on a computer where we amass archived files and, as time passes, our records inevitably continue to increase in size. Cossío states, “To repeat is to perpetuate, it is a very modern idea partly based on Warhol’s repetitions.” The young girl blows a kiss towards the past, a farewell to the predigital age of just a few short decades ago when none of us had personal computers, cell phones, or GPS.
In his quest for experimental innovation, Cossío currently takes his New Realism one step further into the realm of abstraction while simultaneously giving realism a new dimension by mimicking the blur we see in photographs of moving figures. While highly detailed work often looks more technically difficult, Cossío assures me that the hazy smudging of body movement requires higher skills than expected.
He adds other mediums, such as markers, pencils, and brushwork, to his trusted airbrush skills, allowing himself much more freedom of expression. He calls it “mixed media” but the term sets alarm bells off in my mind—I must confess that every time I see artwork described as mixed media I suspect the use of printed materials to disguise a lack of traditional painting skills. Although Cossío sees nothing wrong with the use of prints and really likes the freedom to use any medium available, I do feel the need to emphasize that all of Cossío’s work is handcrafted.
Traces II shows a female figure in motion walking by or perhaps dancing while swinging her arms in a carefree manner. The blurred figure meshes exquisitely with the simple silhouettes of twigs and branches, abstractions of nature inspired by Cossío’s summer breaks spent in the forests of Asturias in the north of Spain. The shapes fade in and out and around the figure in a delicate interplay, suggesting a walk in the woods.
Cossío continues to minimize his backgrounds yet adds something interesting and unexpected to them, keeping the focus on the hyperrealistic figure central while it interacts with the abstracted scene. His work is full of visual contradictions in that he merges different genres, breaking the unspoken purist rules of both photorealism and abstract painting. It works!
Cossío’s piece, entitled Traces I, features his daughter in motion, quietly walking past the viewer—youth, lost in thought, wandering into the future. Overlapping shapes fill an understated minimalistic background where Cossío traced Julia’s silhouette in a fetal position with pencil and marker, a spontaneous act born from having his model close at hand and allowing creative experiments to flourish. While Cossío does not elaborate on the symbolism, I read a father’s need to protect his vulnerable soon-to-be adult child into this piece.
In Dualities II the blurry monochromatic figure takes on a less prominent role, occupying a mere bottom third of the painting. The elegant yet uncompromising black marks feel reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy art and seem to imprison, almost obliterate, the fragile figure. It’s a strong, intrepid painting, showing the artist’s courage to forcefully apply abstraction while reducing realism to the barest minimum.
Cossío’s Wise Lines is another return to the natural world, inspired by the vegetation of his beloved Asturias. The abstracted branches slash into the moving figure, fading in and out, crisscrossing in a rhythmical back-and-forth between human and nature. Despite Cossío’s denial, I find there’s a strong sense of melancholy in this piece. What most interests Cossío are the esthetic aspects he wants to express; the beauty and wisdom of the natural world. He wants to distance himself from painting cruel, ugly reality, yet we both agree the harsh aspects of life most likely still manage to creep into his artwork subconsciously.
In Breaking Up II, Cossío once again presents a more traditional nude and breaks the monochromatic background with abstracted lines using touches of color and silhouetted shapes. This painting continues to explore the interaction between the realistically portrayed figure and the conceptualized natural world. There’s a wonderful balance between a refreshing sense of splendor and serenity and the seemingly chaotic, almost feverish brushwork.
Impeccably harmonizing color with stark blacks and whites, Spirit of the Forest I echoes previous themes. The nude’s face is hidden—and therefor more mysterious—in a gesture of blissful slumber. Reminiscent of warm summer eves spent lounging in tall grasses, it illustrates our communion and dependency on nature, and its importance to our wellbeing.
All of Cossío’s paintings in which the abstract trespasses into realism suggest he’s breaking out of traditional and purist realism, defying self-imposed limitations and those restrictions dictated by the art market. Cossío doesn’t want to be held back by his own career nor by any dogma, so he bravely continues to experiment with new forms of expression to see how far he can push the boundaries between realism and abstraction. While sales are important to pay the bills, Cossío’s main goals are of a more spiritual nature. Artistic satisfaction and the ability to follow his own creative path are essential to this soft-spoken, gentle artist.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, March 2017