A Matter of Trust, A Story of Money
on the artwork of Ral Veroni
by Joris Escher
When I was doing research into Argentinean contemporary art in 1995, Ral Veroni was one of the artists I desperately wanted to meet. Several curators, critics and artists had told me about his work, but the artist himself was not very willing to meet me. He was busy, working in Colonia, Uruguay, on the opposite bank of the Rio de la Plata. Apparently he didn’t want to be disturbed. After many messages on several answer machines I finally managed to make an appointment with him. I had tried for almost three weeks. Veroni’s friend Elenio Pico, a comix artist, convinced him that a meeting with me could possibly be worthwhile.
Ral’s studio was on the upper floor of his house of birth in Caballito, a quiet neighbourhood in Argentina’s capital. When I reached the top floor I smelled the nice but poisonous fragrance of screen print ink. Through the narrow opening of the door I saw big crude paintings standing against the wall. Veroni was waiting for me in the doorway of the room next to his atelier. It was a small room. I remember a bed, a modest writing-table and a shelf with a select number of poetry volumes.
Raúl (the artist’s real name) observed me with a distrustful look in his eyes. He offered me a glass of water and listened quietly to my story, without interrupting me once. I had to convince the man that I hadn’t come to take quick advantage of Argentinean artists; that I wasn’t one of those commercial hit-and-run figures that you can regularly find in the Latin American art scenes. The ideological tone of the explanation I gave of my intentions seemed to land well, but didn’t visibly take away his suspicion.
First Ral let me tell my opinions about the Argentinean contemporary art world, about the artists I liked in Buenos Aires and the ones I didn’t like. Only then I started to get the idea that I was passing the exam; the artist showed me the way to his atelier.
The atelier consisted of two rooms: a screen print atelier and a place for painting. A long yellow fluorescent painting caught my eye. It was 2,5 meters high and showed a long thin man painted, or better, drawn in black. Involuntarily I thought about the drawings of Giacometti, that I have always loved since the moment I saw them. I also saw a blue-grey Kiefer-ish painting of a factory. Only above the factory floated a fluorescent red figure that seemed to be a skull. Not until much later I understood that this head represented Fate (‘Destino’), one of the archetypical figures that will return in almost all of Veroni’s work. At that time I only saw a strong image of which I sensed the load of meaning, but I couldn’t even start to distinguish the layers. Later Ral Veroni explained to me that he could only establish the fluorescent colours with screenprint ink. The thick hardened ink lay in cracked layers on the canvas, which provided the painting with a harsh-nostalgic character.
From the paintings we went to the screen print studio and from the chest of drawers Ral drew one sheet after the other. They were all monotypes, painted directly on the screen. The paint of former prints remnants in the screen and is casting its shadow on the next prints. This causes a wild play of layers. Below the surface of the last print, you can see the remains of pictures as fading memories on which you can hardly concentrate. The silkscreens breathe the atmosphere of menacing hallucinations.
The work was obviously good. I fell for the line of the drawing and the oppressive character all Veroni’s work possesses. I didn’t manage to dig much deeper into his work on that first meeting, but I was quite sure I wanted to show the work in Holland. I asked the artist whether I could come back the next day to take photos of his work. He said it was OK. In the meantime he would come to a decision about whether or not to join the project of Canvas International Art.
When I returned that following morning I had a different Ral in front of me. The surly introverted artist changed into an amiable charming and serene man that clearly decided to grant me his confidence. And happily I have known him as such ever since.
That second day, when we finished documenting his work, he gave me two screen prints on consignment to help me set up the gallery in Amsterdam. ‘But you shan’t sell them to just any person. It has to be somebody that really appreciates the works in the right manner’. ‘Don’t worry’ I answered ‘your work won’t sell as easily as hot dogs’. I hadn’t sold one single artwork in my entire life, so what did I know. How young and naïve we both were. Ral should have had an experienced gallery owner with an eye for a sale instead of the well-intentioned amateur I was at that time. Although had I been that consummate professional my ideological motivation would have undoubtedly aroused in him more suspicion than trust.
Eleven years later I am sitting with the artist on a terrace in the centre of Barcelona. In the meantime with Canvas International Art, we have sold some of Ral’s works, but never very many. We made three exhibitions including his work, but for the artist’s books he has made in the last years, I have not been able to find a buyer in the Dutch market.
In Barcelona Raúl has an exhibition of all his projects of the last years. In the exhibition space of Libreria La Central his books are shown splendidly. The white photo gloves are lying besides the books for those who want a closer look.
In a few weeks Raúl is going back to Buenos Aires and before that I want to speak to him. For years he has lived around the corner, in a matter of speaking, and now I realise there are many things I still want to ask him.
Raúl’s father was called Raoul Veroni and he too was an artist. Both names –Spanish and French – are pronounced the same way. As the son didn’t want to be called ‘Junior’ or ‘II’ he changed his name to Ralveroni. This became Ral Veroni in North America and thus it stayed. The plurality of the names seems to fit the versatility of the artist. Ral’s mother studied art for many years. It was she who taught and helped the young Raúl with technical drawing, theory of colour, printmaking techniques and many other things: ‘The image and the drawing were a constant presence in our home. I can’t remember a time that I didn’t draw’.
Shortly before I met Ral in 1995 he won one of the most prestigious art prizes of Argentina: the prize of the City of Buenos Aires. This money prize permitted him to practice his art autonomously for a while, independent from the market or the local art scene. This suited him well as he didn’t want to connect too much with the art establishment of Buenos Aires in those days. Museums and galleries were in the hands of people with whom he didn’t identify. Therefore the projects of the young artist Ralveroni weren’t for the regular gallery public. I sympathised with this stouthearted, independent attitude. Moreover, the entire underground scene in Buenos Aires of graphic artists, illustrators and rock musicians, with its energy, freedom and independence made an impression on me. Ral didn’t exactly fit into that scene, yet he involuntarily formed part of it, as an isle of austerity in a wild sea.
In 1994 Ral started to print on obsolete bank notes. When I saw the work for the first time, I was a bit shocked, I have to admit. Not because of the harsh figuration, but because of the mere fact that the artist had used money as support. I remembered the billion Mark notes of the German depression in the early twenties that my father showed me. These were like museum pieces, testimonies of a dark past.
The relationship of modern man with money had always puzzled Veroni as well. From his earliest youth he experienced nothing but (hyper) inflation. In a short period of time he saw the Austral, the Legal Peso, the National Peso and the New Peso pass by. As a child he dreamt of being able to travel in time with the money he had and buying all the records of the Stones and Pink Floyd. Money remains mysterious. Young Raúl discovered, amazed, that all money related terms are derived from a richer more complex language of religious rites of exchange between man and the Divine. He deciphered that gratis is derived from gratia, credit from credere, to trust (!), but the creditor is the one that is distrustful. Money comes from Moneta, the temple dedicated to Jupiter, where the coins were minted. The sacred meaning had been lost. Despite the fact that we are all led by money, it remains something incomprehensible, far from divine and only related to God when someone wins the lottery or wants to win it.
The series reveals that Ral Veroni’s work fits well into the tradition of social graphic art. When asked, the artist says that Holbein, Goya and the Mexican illustrator of the revolution Don José Guadelupe Posada have been important inspirations. Ral has always been more attracted to popular culture than to so called ‘high’ culture. The comix series ‘the Fantastic Four’ has been more important to his drawing than all modernists together. Record covers and comix have had more influence on his art than the entire French and American art history.
By locating himself both inside and outside art history I think Ral solved a frustrating problem all Argentinean artists suffer in relation to European art. If the art resembles European art in some way, it soon is ‘too European’ and therefore not ‘authentic’. If, on the other hand, the art does have ‘Latin American’ elements, the art is ‘exotic’, ‘ethnic’, and therefore not to be taken seriously as art. I think that Ral’s independent way out of this catch 22 was another reason I wanted to work with him.
In 1996 Ral Veroni was invited for a year’s residency in the Paradise of graphic art: the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque (US). That is where the odyssey began, the search for an environment where money and State were not hostile but reassuring. Far away from Argentina, Ral managed to give more space to the poetry in his art. A delicate artist’s book named ‘Vacuum’ was the result: a black flat box of 37 by 45 cm with seventeen plates with simple black images, printed on Japanese paper (Inomache Nacre). I received ‘Vacuum’ in Amsterdam and the contrast with his earlier work was remarkable. Following his production from a distance I saw the used materials becoming more precious, the images simpler and more tender.
The last big handmade printed sheets that we received in Holland, like the monotypes from Buenos Aires, came from Albuquerque. Afterwards Ral’s art became gradually smaller. He consequently opted for the artist’s book and the computer as a medium.
During his stay in Albuquerque Ral was offered a study opportunity in Bristol. There he published his next artist’s book: Sophie. Again a box, it contains a great number of transparent sheets. New images of combinations of drawings appear again and again because of the transparency of the used paper. The artists reaches the same stratification as was to be seen on his earlier monotypes, but now it is much more dynamic.
Ral Veroni moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 1998. The artworks become smaller and less material, undoubtedly because of the lack of an atelier and other means. The graphic possibilities of the computer offer both a challenge and a way out. Ral starts again on the elaboration of the pantheon of emblematic figures. The characters had been temporarily absent in Albuquerque and Bristol but they surface again in Glasgow, each of the figures with a more complete complex of meanings in itself and in combination with others. Fate, Fear, Time, Absurdity and the Bone (Death) were used in earlier works, but new characters such as Oblivion, Beauty, Insanity, Existence, Dream and Reality receive their form in the computer. Ral positions them in and above the two cities he knows best: Glasgow and Buenos Aires. He makes two artist books of the same design with cityscapes, each portraying a city.
From my home city of Amsterdam I observe the books of these two urban spaces and decipher the layers of meaning and history that are transmitted by their architecture and public spaces. With a city such as Buenos Aires – which I am not very familiar with – all I can do is perceive the weight of the past and the collective unconscious of the millions of beings who live and have lived there. Ral introduces his ‘demons’ to the cityscape and with this gives the totality of senses and at the same time reveals the poetic potency of the city.
‘About the bad relationship between Time and Destiny’ is the title of one of the photoshopped images. Those two giants fight on top of a high flat building. Fate wins and throws Time into the abyss. ‘..each divinity not [being] very sure of itself’ writes Ral in his preface ‘When in kindness they try to make good, things get worse. When enraged they are merciless with us; then, sometimes, things get better.’ And he continues in verse:
‘Amid such confusion we all build
(like little demons)
a temple to our own nonsense
which, in turn, in the mess
we neglect with equal indifference’
(from the poem ‘Harmony’)
The book with Glasgow as subject is more sublime and austere. But between the photos I was delighted to find more sheets with poems by Ral. The lines express his hope that Love and Beauty will finally appease the unpredictable daimons.
His next work ‘Princesa’ is inspired by love. There are still pictures of cities with daimons exercising a certain influence on their surroundings. But the poems are now in the majority. The booklet is bound, and again smaller (7 x 10 cm) than his previous work. The poems pull the reader further into Ral’s inner world. This world can be terrifying due to the constant fight of the daimons, but it can be equally absurd and light-dark;
Bad luck and Good Luck drive the same car
A classic black Hackney, a taxi
With a wheel on the right
And another on the left
They steer together
If Good Luck falls asleep, Bad Luck keeps on
Then Good Luck once again
If Bad Luck gets weary
In the back sit three,
Little Soul, Little Body and Mind
Never in agreement on where they want to go
Bad luck charges a fortune for the ride.
Here, I thought, Ral came to the point of utter immateriality. What could be next? I saw the development from big paintings to monotype silkscreens; from big artist’s books to small books with some poems, finishing with a small booklet of poems, incidentally alternated with images. The artist himself says that poetry is the source of all his work. His methods and medium depend on the circumstances. With money and a big atelier he paints and prints silkscreens. Without money or space only the poem, the drawing and the computer print remain.
But for his planned projects in Scotland Ral Veroni was going to need money anyhow. Several times he called on the Scottish art institutions in order to fund his projects, only to be rejected as many times. He stopped being a prize-winning Argentinean artist. Neither was he seen as being an interesting enough artist for a ‘residence program’ any more. He stopped being a guest-professor that enriched Scottish art students with his art and experience. He became an immigrant. Moreover he was almost forty. So not promising or high potential any longer. Besides that, his work didn’t fit into the required neo-conceptualism, nor did it give any other obvious hints for international or national curators. Both possible paths for international artists, the institutional and the commercial, led to a dead end.
Veroni reacted to this new lack of means with the ‘Lottery Project’. This series of mini-prints is based on a survival plan. The prints are made on used lottery tickets. With the money from a sold print the artist could buy another lottery ticket. By this ‘exchange of hope for art’ the artist expected to win the lottery, one day. ‘Then I will continue with more ambitious projects like making bigger art or beginning a family’ Ral Veroni writes.
In the introduction to the book made with the lottery tickets Ral wrote the following text:
Here I am with my entire pride, the whole of it, the whole of it as if I were rich…but I am penniless. The exhibition in Buenos Aires left me with nothing else but debts. Debts to be paid in Glasgow, where I am surrounded by the icebergs of neo-conceptualism. The ship of art is on the brink of sinking and in the lifeboat I don’t see much room for my artwork. For one reason or another, either because of my age or the current times, I feel that I have to abandon the Titanic of my ambitions for something smaller and lighter.
To what is this succession of defeats and rejections due? Do I finally have to draw the conclusion that I am not a good artist? [...] I could attribute my situation to a run of bad luck. Then wait for better times to come. After all, the life of many artists has been about planning and waiting. Although I don’t really think it is a matter of desire and patience anymore. Things have changed.
I am a competitive man. If a play chess, I play to win, even if I play Ludo I play to win. But in art, to my regret, I do not want to compete, basically because I do not like the rules. [...] Nevertheless, my vocation – as with so many other professions- has proved insufficient to secure my living. Suddenly I have begun to rely more on good fortune than on any value my work might have, to take me out of this cul-de-sac. (2003)
It was the lucid resignation that got me by the throat. Having worked so many years with Ral, one of the few things I was sure of was his vocation and his will to create. After reading these reflections, for a short time I feared that the artist wouldn’t make a single work of art again. Fortunately his will proved to be stronger than his words. Still, something had to change. Ral Veroni moved to Valencia, Spain, to try his luck, not only as an artist, but also as a teacher again. In these circumstances Ral dug further into his universe of daimons that resulted in the project: ‘About the entities that rule the World’ In this project the artist uses money again as support. This time he doesn’t work on the worthless residues of inflation, but on current Euro banknotes. Ral makes pencil drawings on the notes; the note with the drawing is scanned and the banknote is brought back into circulation by the artist. The scan is then printed in a small numbered edition.
Since arriving in Europe, Ral’s graphic work had barely been seen, but in these works we can observe how his style has evolved. The drawings have become smaller and more compact over the years. The style is perfect for this series in which his archetypal figures return, this time with added weight and character.
The intricate relation between the entities is revealed in this graphic tale. They have developed into psychological powers that act upon us as wind, sun and rain act upon flowers and plants. Powers move outside the sphere of control of humans. They are ever present, but never fathomable. In these images we find conflicts, alliances and chance encounters. Although the alignment of the sequences is not evident at first glance the 300 plus designs together seem to form a story. They come together as a poetic comix book, a secular 21st century version of a 16th century book of emblems. Without the moral lesson, that is. With this new pan-daimonium Ral realised one drawing per day over an entire year.
In a letter to a friend Ral briefly outlines the details of his cosmogony: “Nothingness gave birth to Absurdity. At the same time Absurdity divided into Destiny and Time; two streams impossible to isolate from their source. Absurdity bore four children to Nothingness: Fart (in the Wind), The Turd
, Oblivion and Bone. All four want to return to their mother but cannot. Instead they are forced to circle around Absurdity, trying to enter from whence they came. From the gases of Fart (in the Wind) and the marrow of Bone, between the material of The Turd and the whims of Destiny, The Little Flame is formed (that which burns itself). This, with its mere presence, provokes the appearance of pain and injustice. The Little Flame, the most sensitive of all the characters, has to seek out the Flower (a projection of its light) as consolation. In some drawings the Volcanoes of No appear, a manifestation of Nothingness on the surface of Absurdity.”
Almost all of these emblematic drawings carry a cryptic title that evokes a chain of associations. In the work ‘Time and Money wonder what to do’ the two entities are observing a little sleeping human being. They seem surprised and watch the little creature pensively. In the background you can see the flying question mark of Absurdity.
In the course of writing this article, Ral left Europe behind. He returned to the land and river of silver, (Tierra) Argentina and Rio de la Plata. His good old New World isn’t what it used to be, in particular given the changes provoked by the last monetary disaster, in 2001. From this side of the ocean, I know that Ral’s story, a mixture of fortune and faith, will have many new chapters. I can almost hear Time and Money wondering ‘What should we do with this one?’
Amsterdam, March 2007,