Argentinian painter Ivan Comas has had many lovers – all cities, which he has called home since leaving his hometown of Buenos Aires for Paris in 2007. Just like a lover, each city has eventually left an impact and shaped his perspective for making art. Scenic Los Angeles, grungy New York, urban Berlin and chaotic Mexico City each has a trace in Comas’ meticulously technical approach to painting today. ‘Buenos Aires means nostalgia and home,’ he says, but it was his move from Paris to New York in 2011 for an exchange year at The Cooper Union that sparked his interest to paint what he calls ‘gestures of decay within urban landscapes’.
As a student at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he had focused on taking black and white photographs of the City of Lights and dedicated his time to the dark room. ‘After growing up with the poetic deterioration of Buenos Aires architecture, which has a strong European influence, I found myself in the pristine and untouchable Paris,’ he remembers. New York, however, resembled neither the Argentinian nor French capitals – it was a hybrid of both mayhem and renovation with overpowering buildings of the Midtown and graffiti-covered grittiness of Downtown around his school. His daily encounters with layered textures of advertisement and ‘Post No Bills’ signs on blue construction walls prompted him to explore a similar aesthetic in painting.
When he was back in Paris for graduation, Comas reached for the paintbrush and canvas for his thesis exhibition. Once he resettled in Buenos Aires, he was again confronted by the city’s brutal beauty of urban decay, which only revealed its visual richness to the artist after returning to his roots. He moved into a spacious studio in the centre and started experimenting with industrial materials over canvas, such as asphalt and cement. Comas observed Buenos Aires through new eyes for a series of densely textured relief paintings, which resemble cracked facades sliced from buildings on the city’s Defensa Street. He compares the aesthetic of the paintings to a duello between ‘marking and erasing’, similar to looking at the aftermath of a battle between graffiti artists and cleaners on a wall. Exhibiting 12 of his paintings at an art space owned by Argentina’s powerhouse collector couple, Juan Vergez and Patricia Pearson in 2014, introduced him to a host of gallerists, including those from America.
A North American solo debut followed with an exhibition, titled Open Studio, at Los Angeles’ Steve Turner gallery. He felt it was time to bring the ‘cracked’ paintings to the other side of the pond, and then came a year and half stint in Berlin. ‘I was taken aback by the amount of nature in the middle of a city known for its industrial charm,’ he admits. His fascination for spectral shadows that trees cast across the city sparked a desire to go back behind the camera. ‘How can I translate impermanent qualities of shadows?’ was a question he pondered during his walks around Berlin – he needed to blend painting with photographic memory.
After photographing shadows of trees, Comas returned to the studio to put his painter’s hat back on and mimicked the textures of Berlin walls on blank canvases. His solution to combine pictures with painting was to print his shadow images onto canvas with a UV printer, but in his own way. ‘I became a machine killer,’ he laughs, about manipulating the workings of the printer. Keeping its nozzle higher than usual yielded the ethereal texture he aimed to convey for the shadows, as opposed to UV printers’ sharp image quality. ‘I was using the printer as a brush to create depth in my paintings,’ he says. But after causing it to break numerous times, he could no longer rent the machine. Before leaving Berlin, he opened an exhibition of his shadow paintings at DUVE Berlin gallery, where he extended his practice to sculpture and installed two living trees in the middle of the paintings to salute the inspiration behind the show.
Shortly after returning to Los Angeles, Comas set his sights on the latest chapter in his nomadic love story with cities and their architectural complexions. ‘Living in Mexico City at the moment grounds me, despite its chaos,’ he says from his apartment in the hip neighbourhood of Roma Norte, where traditional European influence on the architecture blends with the city’s lush colour palette. Juggling between adjusting to pandemic regulations and his studio near Mercado de Sonora, the artist has recently embarked on a series of ‘reverse paintings’ in which Mexico City is both an inspiration and texture.
The process starts with Comas taking detailed photographs of the city’s facades, especially around the vibrant Centro Histórico. His eye leans towards weathered surfaces on the verge of deterioration through exposure to sun or rain, those he calls ‘revealing the memory of walls, like palimpsests’. He uses the camera to zoom into abstract qualities of peeling flakes, similar to pixels of a high-resolution photograph. The images (or ‘pixels of city walls’) are transferred onto canvas, which he later covers with layers of paint. He then flips his attention to the backside of the painting and applies pool paint to filter the abstract forms. The images resurface through the paint, similar to airless clouds floating in the sky. ‘This current process, and what I was trying to achieve with a UV printer, are both attempts to photographically extract what I observe out on the streets and lay over the canvas with paint,’ he explains.
Comas is currently enjoying the slow pace of the Mexican capital surrounded by the city’s characteristic mayhem. Still, Europe seems to be calling him again. ‘Most of my friends have recently moved there, especially from LA,’ he says, regarding his decision to cross the Atlantic again in the near future. It’s yet unclear where his search for memory-laden surfaces will take the artist next, but Comas’ eye for the passage of time is sure to match him with a wall beautifully ageing amid the harmony of urban chaos.