Perros (1969), exhibited at the La Nuova Pesa gallery in Rome, announced a new direction in Mensa’s career. Leaving his critical analysis of social and external reality behind, he now moved towards a critical analysis of internal and individual reality. Here the face mask, a key symbol in Mensa’s work, appeared for the first time. By inverting its meaning, appearance becomes reality. Inserted in an atmosphere of deliberate violence and oppression, his allegories or metaphors of the human condition attempt to recreate the climate of opacity that has invaded Western civilisation. In the 1970s, Mensa found his own language and expanded, especially in Italy. This is when his work aroused growing interest among the public and art critics.
Displayed in the La Nuova Pesa gallery in Rome, Perros (1969) indicated a new direction in Carlos Mensa’s work. With it, he abandoned his critical analysis of social and external reality to undertake a critical analysis of internal and individual reality. This exploration gave rise to the most profound and important part of his oeuvre.
From 1970 until the end of his life, Mensa created a symbolism rich in countless allegories that modified and developed his language, leaving behind his distorting sarcasm to push deeper into caustic irony. This is the beginning of what Enrico Bellati has called "the period of metaphors on the human condition seen as a conflict between apparent reality and the unconscious, between reason and the absurd, between perfection and degradation, between love and perversion".
Elements of reality, like clothing, weapons, animals and music, are the instruments that give shape to his condemnation of the contradictions that turn human beings into an existential tangle of heartbreaking tensions: composed or decomposed figures acting as symbols of hidden critical intent through metaphors expressed in imagery. Mensa dares to unlock their true meaning through enigmatic, beautiful, grotesque, provocative and even scandalous imagery.
A key symbol in his work, the face mask, appears for the first time in a series of infinite variations and transformations. This is a mask that paradoxically reveals rather than hides. By inverting its meaning, it becomes a symbol that transforms appearance into reality.
Mensa’s metamorphoses displace meaning: humanised animals and animalised humans; objects that invade the human world; the lucidity of a blind gaze; screams behind a gagged mouth; breastplates of protection-defence with helmets, armour and even fat; faceless sex; marinated, compressed or tragically destroyed meat and the constricting corset as an existential condition.
After an initial psychological shock, this atmosphere of deliberate oppression and violence invites us to reflection. As Roberto Tassi indicates, this violence "is not a graphic document, but intends to recreate the conditions of opacity that have invaded Western civilisation, thus transcending any local limits".
This interplay of paradoxes makes it difficult to label his work as part of any particular artistic movement. As Mario Vargas Llosa points out, "his strange reconciliation between modernity and classicism requires any description of it to draw on contradictions, as in saying that he is the most surreal of the realists or the most realistic of the surrealists".
Mensa himself rejected these labels, considering himself "free enough to use all kinds of elements, wherever they may come from: realism, surrealism, expressionism, pop". However, it must be said that starting in the 1970s, his painting could be defined as realism with surrealist implications.
The 1970s, Mensa found his own style and expanded, especially in Italy. Four people were fundamental to his artistic career: two gallery owners, Alfredo Paglione ( Galleria d´arte 32 in Milan) and Pepe Pinya (Sala Pelaires in Palma de Mallorca), who would exhibit his work from 1971 to the end of his life, and Enrico Bellati and Miguel Lerín, who would be his most important collectors.
Also essential was the designer Margarita Nuez, his life companion. Both Mensa and Nuez’s callings pervaded each other and even overlapped: haute couture and art, fabric and colour. As the critic and theorist Arnau Puig has pointed out, this influence clearly appears as one of the most spectacular elements of Mensa’s work: the detail in his clothing, the wealth suggested by his fabrics and the complexity of his draping.
This was also the period when his work aroused growing public and critical interest, while also capturing the attention of leading intellectuals. Mensa, a scholarly monograph written by Roberto Tassi, was published in Italy in 1976. In 1978, the writer and poet Raffaele Carrieri published La Stravaganza, which discusses Mensa’s metamorphoses, a series of small-format works painted during the period.
In Spain, Camilo José Cela Conde published Crónica de una realidad tangente in 1975 and the painter and poet Antonio Beneyto dedicated one of the volumes of his series Artistas españoles contemporáneos to him in 1977. Last but not least, the poet Blai Bonet dedicated the pages of one of his dailies, Els ulls, to his work.
(1)ENRICO BELLATI. Símbolo y crítica en Carlos Mensa: desarrollo de la intuición surrealista (Text in the catalogue for Mensa en el Palacio de la Virreina. Barcelona City Council, May 1983).
(2) ROBERTO TASSI. MENSA. Edizioni Trentadue, Milano 1976.
(3) MARIO VARGAS LLOSA. Text in the catalogue for Mensa en el Palacio de la Virreina. Ayuntamiento de Barcelona City Council, May 1983).
(4) CARLOS MENSA Interview with JC.CLEMENTE in Diario de Barcelona, 1973.