Fernando Villena knows how to identify the different ranges of green that stand out on a mountain side. A swathe of bluish‐green points to the presence of eucalyptus. A darker green denotes pines and oaks. During one of the trips we take together around inland Bizkaia, the artist mentions the transition between the green patch formed by the vegetation and the grey‐brown colour of the dry ferns that show up above the tree line. The chromatic play we are seeing changes completely as soon as a cloud covers the sun. In the shade, the image loses contrast. Instead, the clouds let you see blue tones, traces of violet, and a light ochre yellow in the sky.
The painter is accustomed to classifying colours, forms and sizes. The impressions acquired during these incursions into nature are reflected in the paintings he produces in the studio. Mixing the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue, plus white and black, he manages to reproduce the tones he recalls having seen. Sometimes he incorporates a prefabricated pigment that has happened to come into his possession, such as the gold that can be detected in some of his paintings, but they are exceptions to the rule. He frequently creates strips down the sides, or organic forms that that run crosswise through the image. Our gaze automatically orders these elements into gradually receding layers that suggest the idea of depth. Through the gaps a space is glimpsed that stretches away beyond the surface of the paper or the canvas.
To understand Villena’s work one must be aware of the bond that has grown up between the artist and the United States. After graduating from the University of the Basque Country in 2001, Fernando moved to Manhattan to continue his studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York. By then he was already an abstract painter. Influenced by his surroundings, he experimented with the deconstruction of architectural forms. He worked on this approach
until, during a stay in Puerto Rico, he discovered that he was much more intrigued by nature than by the city. Deep in the rainforest he realised that the human scale is a relative measurement of reference. Other allusions exist. From that point onwards he began to observe nature at a microscopic and macroscopic level, obtaining forms that tend to pass us by.
During consecutive trips he has travelled around some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders. The painter has journeyed through the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the desert of Utah, where he went to see the rock art created by the Pueblo Indians. In Nevada he became acquainted with the bristlecone, a species of remarkably sturdy pine that can reach an age of up to almost 5000 years.
When it comes to exposure to extreme situations, Villena has vivid recollections of the night he camped out at 28°C below zero, and of how, huddled in his sleeping bag, he heard the snow crunch under the footsteps of animals as they prowled around the tent. There are no two ways about it, he concludes: nature puts you in your place. The city snuffs out a series of primary instincts that he believes are necessary for our well‐being. His works attempt to reconcile humankind and their place of origin.
Without photographs it is practically impossible to imagine the majesty of these amazingly varied landscapes. In these images we perceive the layered structure that is also to be seen in Villena’s paintings. There is always a mountain, a tree or a cactus ordering the space. The mountain silhouettes are reminiscent of the vertical swathes that he sometimes employs. Dawns, rocky shapes and snowflakes all have a place in the work. Having seen inland Bizkaia I am not surprised at the absence of the broad panoramic views that one discerns from flat surfaces and the sea shore. The rugged landscape of the Basque Country is full of natural obstacles that block out what is hidden beyond. Even the sea creates towering waves. The essential is always invisible to the eyes. Villena’s work is an invitation to discover what lies beyond the horizon, where the universe of possibilities is to be found.
Bianca Visser, 2013.