On ViewNara Roesler Gallery
January 12 – February 13, 2021
Nara Roesler Gallery inaugurates the opening of its new Chelsea space with the first installment of an ambitious program: to present a full panorama of Brazilian art. Cross-cuts is curated by the Venezuelan poet and art critic Luis Pérez-Oramas, and delivers the work of nine revelatory artists, seven of whom are currently practicing. It is a splendid point of departure.
One deceased master is Antonio Dias (1944–2018), who embodies the dilemma of all Latin American artists and writers of his generation: should I make political art or attempt to create an art without politics? In a single room, we see this predicament. On one side we find two 1973 images of North Carolina senator Sam Ervin, both titled The Illustration of Art/Uncovering the Cover-up. Here we see a problem endemic to both political art and, by extension, history painting. Does anyone under the age of fifty know who Sam Ervin is? Is Dias, who scrapes away Ervin’s eyes, nose, and mouth in his pictures, thinking about Ervin the segregationist, Ervin the nemesis of Joe McCarthy, or Ervin the chair of the committee that forces Richard Nixon to resign? In American politics, Ervin goes from ogre to folk hero because he eradicates Nixon’s attempt to cover up his crimes, so Dias’s effacing of Ervin’s eyes, an apparent defacement, seems to endow Ervin with x-ray vision. Dias’s actual intention is lost. More explicit is Nixon Surrounded (1972), the front page of the New York Times announcing Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory. Nixon’s picture is framed in blood red. But even here ambiguity seeps in. Is the blood for Vietnam or for Nixon’s Latin American policy?
Shifting now to the non-political: The Illustration of Art/The Body (1976) is a supremely elegant painting, a 35 by 39 inch canvas in portrait mode, bright red, except for a white square in the lower right corner. Attached perpendicular to the wall, an 11 by 7 inch wooden rectangle whose upper right corner has been cut out to form a right angle accompanies the larger canvas. The piece might be understood as minimalism open to other possibilities, as if Dias were saying that there are no limits to the imagination even when it works within the constraints of geometry.
Since the avant-garde Modernista movement of the ’20s, many Brazilian artists have been concerned with the “Brazilian-ness” of their art. Unlike the European avant-garde, the Modernistas were nationalists, to the point that some defined themselves as “anthrophagists” or cannibals. Like the indigenous Brazilians who, as Oswald de Andrade suggested in his 1928 Manifesto Anthropófago, reportedly devoured a Portuguese bishop, these artists declared they would “eat” European culture, use what was necessary and excrete the rest. The result of this mindset in the 21st century is an art that constantly refers to Brazilian history and culture, which these artists must “chew over.”
Marcelo Silveira’s Pele XII (2009/2014) is an elegant wall sculpture composed of thin ribbons of wood. The wood comes from tree roots from the state of Pernambuco in the northeast, where sugar plantations were established beginning in the 16th century. Wood was necessary for the refinement of sugar, so trees were cut down indiscriminately. The roots were left behind for Silveira to exhume and transform into a structure that is abstract, but clearly addresses questions of environmental depredation. Brigida Baltar is represented here by four embroidered fabric pieces. Two of these, from 2016, are titled Os Hematomas (The Hematomas). Taken as abstractions they might simply be delicate juxtapositions of embroidered patterns on a fabric surface, but taken as hematomas they can just as easily refer to violence against women or violence in general, both unfortunate constants in Brazilian history. The other two pieces, from 2017/2019, are titled Minha pele sua pele (My Skin Your Skin) and are autobiographical in nature. Baltar, white, is married to a Black man, and the pieces remind us that even if Brazil appears to an outsider as the most multiracial society imaginable, racism exists even there.
Paulo Bruscky’s Found and Appropriated Artists (1980/2017), a mixed-media wall piece, is an exercise in Brazilian cannibalism focused on art and consumer culture. Each of the elements included refers to a specific Brazilian artist or commodity. So, parody, another kind of socio-political criticism, is transformed here into a carnival that simultaneously celebrates and mocks Brazilian culture. The problem for the outsider is, of course, knowing who is who here and what soft drinks Bruscky is making fun of. Like much of the work included in Cross-cuts, Bruscky’s art is much concerned with the national history and identity that shaped it, so getting to know the inner workings of its rhetoric will require labor.
All in all Cross-cuts is rewarding because it shows the immense diversity of Brazilian art. We move from the either/or split between politics and art during the ’60s and ’70s with Antonio Dias to a kind of abstraction that simply will not relinquish its national identity with Silveira and Baltar. At the same time, there is room in the Brazilian context for pure abstraction and gestural work: Brazil is an artistic universe.