Gastón Orellana’s background defies all sense of belonging. Born into an aristocratic family from Extremadura on his father’s side, and of Sephardic descent on her mother’s, he was born in Valparaiso, Chile, the 18th July 1933, during his father’s tenure as Spanish diplomatic representative in Chile. The Spanish painter would soon move to different shores, as his life and career took him to Spain, the United States, Argentina, Great Britain, Italy, and France, where he presently has his main studio.
A gifted musician and solo violinist by the age of thirteen, he attended the art school Escuela Experimental de Educación Artística in Santiago, Chile, followed by the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Viña del Mar and the Conservatorio de Música. Turning his attention to painting and sculpture, he developed his artistic practice alongside a relentless curiosity about literature and philosophy. This intellectual fervor led Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, with whom he established an intense friendship, to describe Orellana as: “Gaston, young brother little light born in the hills of Valparaíso who caught fire in the labyrinth of the world”
Orellana attended the Universidad de Chile to read Archaeology and Anthropology, studies that were followed by a journey of archaeological studies through Northern Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. This would have a profound effect on him, leaving traces that remain alive and influential in his work today.
“Gastón, young brother
little light born
in the hills of Valparaíso
who caught fire
in the labyrinth of the world.”
– Pablo Neruda –
In 1957, he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where his work acquired a deeper Neo-Figurative quality. Recurrent conversational and opinionated exchanges with his peers, among which David Hockney and Allen Jones, challenged Orellana’s vision and use of the human figure, which he would bring to its most essential, existential, and anguished form. Orellana’s figures represented more largely the character of an era and were included in 1959 in the group show New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA).
Dividing his time between the United States and Spain, Orellana became a founding member of the Grupo Hondo in 1961, alongside with Juan Genovés, José Jardiel (b 1928), and Fernando Mignoni (b 1929). Making their first apparition at the Galería Neblí in Madrid, the group opposed abstraction using a neo-expressionist style that would express and record the harsh realities of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.
Throughout the seventies, Orellana remained in New York, participating and contributing to an explosive artistic scene that would mark art history textbooks up to this day. While working closely with art dealer Martha Jackson he developed an expressive gestural technique that art critic, curator, and Guggenheim director James Johnson Sweeney defined as an élan, a source of human energy that brought audiences face to face with their own fears. Never truly one to settle in one city or country, during the seventies and eighties Orellana divided his time between New York, Madrid and Milan. His art provoked a diverse array of reactions, from awe to scandal, from admiration to puzzlement, which drew magnate and collector Joseph Hirshhorn to purchase one of the artist’s key works, Train in Flames (1969), which he saw at the Spanish Pavilion at the 1970 Venice Biennale, and which currently features in the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC.
“Gastón Orellana is the most interesting artist
Spain has given us since Tapies and Mirò.”
– Christian Stein –
Going beyond the limits of figuration, Orellana’s work defies abstraction and plays with the visual provocations of Conceptualism, essentially appealing to his sense of aesthetic play to reach beyond in aesthetics as well as representation. In the 1990s, this estheticism caught the attention of Arte Povera pioneer gallerist Christian Stein, who defined him as “the most interesting artist Spain has given us since Tapies and Mirò”, and with whom he would work until her death in 2004.
The uniqueness of his style, the constant challenge of the medium combined with a delicate use of diverse materials –from lead to mirrors to terracotta and collage– acquired increasingly impressive simplicity during the nineties and early two thousands. As art critic Tommasso Trini analyzed, Orellana wedded some aesthetic principles of conceptualism to figuration, overcoming the limitations of Arte Povera itself and taking conceptualist art a step ahead, embracing the potential of the latest developments of contemporary art.
Since the seventies, Orellana’s work has featured in major solo and group shows worldwide (among which the FIAC, Paris, Triennale Internazionale d’Arte, Palazzo Reale, Monza, Italy, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan). His works are presently part of the collection of key institutions including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, The New York Public Library, The Lannan Foundation, The Museum Salvador Allende, the Vatican Collection, as well as private collections such as the Tempelsman and the Legado Juana Mordo collections.