Antonio López García, Sink and Mirror, 1967, Oil on Wood, 38 1/2x 33 inches
I was in my late teens when I first saw a sink, again. That’s when Antonio López García’s painting of a bathroom fixture imprinted itself in my art-schooled heart, and all these years later, its mark hasn’t faded. I recently saw his grimy, wall-mounted lavabo keeping to itself within a deserted pantry in Umbria, Italy. Didn’t matter that it was made of stone, not oil paint, that dirty water dripped from its tap, or that it wasn’t a bathroom sink but a kitchen one. I saw it through the eyes of Antonio López. Otherwise, I would not have seen it at all. Spreading out my supplies, I paid my painterly respects to the grand, gritty object.
For centuries, this sink had been buried away in the medieval hilltop town of Montecastello di Vibio. I didn’t know it at the time, but my Italian cave of a washbasin had accompanied me beneath stalactites in southern Spain, up and down African and Scottish cliffs, across Breton moonscapes of sea and granite, past Mt. Fuji, on a rocky ramp snaking to Masada, and below the radar of other less dramatic excursions that have enriched my life. It would later surround me in the ranges of southern China. I take each of these places with me, waiting to happen upon them for the first time, again.Like other treasures—like the Montecastello sink—the longer I carry the rocks and boulders of past journeys, the lighter they become.
Each time I see Sink with Mirror and Shelf, its porcelain stains are as faded as ever. There is the same shadowed, blue and white towel trying its best to get out of the image, same oval bar of soap that hasn’t budged or dissolved a bit. Since 1967, no one has lathered up in this drab and naked room that smells of shaving cream. No cobwebs, granted, but no great expectations for change, either. Miss Havisham stalled her life at twenty minutes to nine. Unforgiving minutes and hours stayed put, but time didn’t. López stops the world in a kinder, less rigid way—clocklessly. Dickens would’ve been impressed. Pip too.
But even when time is a no-show, change, in the form of memory, can enter with imagination in tow. I could swear, for example, that on the bathroom’s chipped shelf I saw coins boasting highlights on their tarnished edges. Did someone pocket them? On the other hand, I forgot all about both the razor blade rusted onto the porcelain and the plastic hairbrush above. The artist doesn’t take inventory. Rather, he paints the air that the gathered items breathe, and he paints the overarching light that colors them. Each time I hear the painting, there are differences; whispers one day, church music the next, then it’s a barbershop quartet, as the objects sing their hearts out on their glass stage.
I didn’t mind when I was young and I don’t mind now, that sometimes I have to lean close to take in the ensemble’s ethereal voices. And of all the art lovers and other strangers who may have leaned in to furtively check their hair or makeup or pick at any morsels stuck between their teeth, the Spanish master’s fickle looking glass reflects not a one. Outside the bathroom, as the Dylan song goes, the “old road is rapidly agin’.” And despite all the stillness inside this magical lavatory, the times, they are a-changin’ there too.
Yes, times change. As with Vermeer, where a table often separates me from his charming Dutch maidens too angelic to touch, when I first viewed Antonio López’s work, I remained politely distant. I never used to associate ordinary life with this extraordinary master, partly because the selective nature of the Spanish realist’s objectivity imbues even his vulgarity with an otherworldly elegance, mystery, and nuance. López elevates to sublime status down-to-earth stuff like dirt, leftover food, skinned rabbits, and soaking laundry. The unposed, just-left-that-way feel of Sink with Mirror and Shelf is as bathed in grace as it is grounded in the commonplace. My art schooling placed form way above content, so the poetry of López’s restrained palette—just look at all those variations of white—and the delicate power of his closely observed subject matter stopped me in my tracks. Now that I’m older and bolder, after I stop, I inch closer. The tweezers on the off-center shelf lead me to think about plucking nose hairs. Across from the sink there’s a toilet where the artist has sat daydreaming. (As I write this line, a forgotten a cappella voice on my radio sings about being “so much older then,” adding, “I’m younger than that now.”) Just as the longer I carry boulders of past journeys, the lighter they become; the longer I live with López’s weighty image, the more I lighten up about it. It took me many years to get from this artist’s form to his content, but now I see that move as a necessary step toward understanding the exceptional lives his familiar objects live. It’s about time.
And it’s about a willingness to not always understand. “Your starting point,” Antonio López has stated, “is the representation of everyday life and what is close to you. But what is created is about many things, known and unknown.”My bus ride to the airport on my last trip back to the U.S. took me past sparkling rows of stone walls and plantings that necklace the Italian terrain. How many reluctant treasures, I wondered, like the Madrileño artist’s lavatory or the Montecastello pantry, are buried away in the run-down barns and houses that dot those fields? And—unrecognized, unrecognizable—how many are buried within me, waiting to be happened upon for the first time. Again.