A Particular Collection: A Brief Primer on Brazilian Modern Art

Originally published in Art Unlimited N0. 37 at issuu.com.

Photos by the author and courtesy of the Pinacoteca

History is what hurts, Frederic Jameson tells us. It is a hurt which artists seek to address and transcend through their work, and an effort most passionately displayed by artists born into countries with trajectories of colonization and suppression. Uma Coleção Particular, which translates into both a particular, unique collection and a private collection, showcases art in Brazil from the 1980s to the present. Over sixty pieces from the Pinacoteca do Estado’s archive, some never before displayed, establish a dynamic dialogue between distinct mediums and generations of Brazilian and Brazil based artists. The underlying current of the exhibition is the “process of reorganization of political and cultural Brazilian life that occurs with the end of the military dictatorship (1964–1985),” per the Pinacoteca’s curator, José Augusto Ribeiro. Ribeiro hastens to add that the collection also underscores the Pinacoteca’s own reorganizational process, occurring between 1994–1998.

Originally built to serve as the city of Sao Paulo’s Lyceum of Arts and Crafts, the Pinacoteca was transformed into a museum in 1905. The museum houses an important trove of Brazilian art spanning centuries, from colonization to the present. One can peruse the evolution of national art through the lens of history — Rodolfo Bernardelli depicts the myth of the drowned indigenous woman Moema; Agostinho da Motta’s renditions of royal palaces and monarchy ascertains the inbreeding between Portuguese royals (that’s a joke, kids…almost); and Pedro Americo’s study for Emancipation of the slaves is a religious and political treatise on human liberty — as it reaches its current ideation. The evolution of Brazilian art is particularly important for we can see the movement from traditional, French-Italian schools of painting to current, unfettered original works. Equally important, this evolution dismisses and transcends the stereotypes imposed on the country throughout history as much more than hedonism, soccer, Carnaval, and beaches. These stereotypes have been set and reinforced for hundreds of years, as evidenced by a particular painting the Pinacoteca has chosen to display, as means of significant comparison, a seventeenth century oil on canvas by the German Stephan Kessler. Entitled America, the work shows the arrival of European explorers to the heathen shores governed by naked, lazy, cannibalistic Injuns and their bare bottomed monkey friends. We must grant Kessler some leeway, for he himself never set foot upon any stretch of the Americas, yet his depiction clearly espouses the perception of European settlers, and that of their progeny for years to come, of the new lands.

As Brazil liberated itself from monarchy, slavery, military dictatorship, and continues to struggle with racism, corruption, and poverty, so too do its artists shed the confining influence of outside schools in order to invent its own tradition and culture of art. These artists have moved from traditional modes of expression namely by reappropriating the artistic space beyond the canvas, unfurling their imagination into other dimensions replete with vibrant colors, unexpected textures, and distortions of space.

The discourse of power and tradition is immediately challenged by the entrance exhibition, a gargantuan bronze horse lain on its side, embedded into the forever in a wild fall, its entrails cupped out and filled with blood-red earth. This imposing piece of impressive verisimilitude, constructed from the cast of a real dead horse, is Cavalo by Vanderlei Lopes (Horse, 2003). The work unseats the traditional notion of horses in art, as instruments of nobility and heroism, by striking the animal into the ground. As much as a symbol of those in power — the Portuguese colonizers of Brazil, the current corrupt political system –the horse is also a symbol of the worker and the farmer. Vitally significant in the realm of agriculture and manual labor, the building blocks of Brazil, the horse is as much president’s as peasant’s. In this piece, the traditional hero’s horse is knocked down and hollowed out, filled with the worker’s earth. The unmounted animal is not defeated, but rather gathering strength to rise yet again — which side will tame it and ride it?

Sounding a more playful tone, there is Wagner Malta Tavares’ Herói (Hero, 2010), a tall fan suspended on spindly iron legs wearing a red cape. Once activated by motion, the fan turns on and its bright cape flaps majestically behind it. A visual pun, the work also addresses notions of self-reliance, as the “heroism” of the fan is activated by its own energy. Nelson Leirner’s Variação (Variation, 2003) is an equally playful collage of eye-popping stickers, emulating a pre-adolescent’s school notebook. Efrain Almeda plays with the isolation of modern man in his untitled piece from 2007. A large, blank elevated canvas positioned on the ground offers up a wood carved man, naked save for a modest goatee and serious stare. The man sits with his knees bent and his shoulders back, hands lightly resting on the ground as if he were steadying himself to rise.

One of the most evocative pieces, a synthesis of the traditional Brazilian art of woodworking and a bright, modern palette is the untitled 2008 sculpture done by the artist Véio (slang for “old” or “dude”; government name Cícero Alves dos Santos). A four legged curve of wood simply painted black and red, the piece’s body resembles a blinded anteater slinking away on its long, black legs, a Daliesque spider-anteater. Likely inspired by Véio, the Paulista artist Erika Verzutti has crafted Avestruz (Ostrich, 2008). Minimal and jagged, three lengths of bronze have been wrangled into a black coated tripod that resembles an ostrich burying its head into the wooden floor. Carmela Gross’s neon delight, Uma casa (A house, 2007) depicts a seemingly floating fluorescent house made of violet lights and metal tripods. Our general idea of what a house is — a home, a welcome, a shelter, something solid and stable — is transformed into something nearly intangible and precarious, made of light. Rodrigo Matheus’ Exterior (2013) is an intelligent collage reminiscent of Joseph Campbell. Encased behind glass, Matheus delicately juxtaposes suspended bird wings and feathers against original stock certificates issued by the Brazilian government and national banks. The bird wings, once vibrant and beating nature and now taxidermied into stillness, mirrors the decline of the Brazilian economy, the suffocation within a world that cannot be escaped. Tunga’s True rouge [Vermelho de verdade] (Real red, 1988) is a vibrantly varied array of textures. Suspended midair by red nylon nets are half-filled decanters and glasses, paired with elongated cleaning brushes. Transfixing and whimsical, the piece plays with the jumbling and transmutation of elements. Stepping into the world of Ping-ping — a construção do abismo no piscar dos cegos (Ping-ping — the construction of the abyss in the blink a blind eye, 1980) clearly elucidates Brazil’s shift into modern art and its desire to participate in the game of art outside of its own boundaries. Positioning yourself behind a pair of suspended sunglasses, a ping-pong paddle floating close to your right hand and facing a net and vertically flat traditional Ping-Pong table mounted against a blindingly white wall. Accompanied by a poem written by the artist, the installation questions the fleetingness of movement, the construction and limits of space, and the deceitful relationship between sight and perception.

Unbent by the weight of its history and the instability of its present, Brazilian artists have again and again translated the “jeitinho Brasileiro,” the little Brazilian way, of looking at and dealing with life onto their work — heads high, smiling, ardently marching with a hope that refuses to be sniffed out.

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Uma Coleção Particular

Pinacoteca do Estado

Praça da Luz, 2

Bom Retiro

São Paulo, Brazil

Nov. 20, 2015- Jan. 31, 2016