Art in different voltages
Paulo Sérgio Duarte
Reflection and experience
The beauty of this book and its precious edition of images may induce the reader to relish only the reproductions. His or her imagination will be drawn by the consistency of the work already perceived in its pure visibility. But let’s not be mistaken: this work is carried out with the reflective investigation that must be an object of knowledge of those who fully wish to enjoy aesthetical pleasure. For this it is only necessary to enter in contact with Suzana Queiroga’s reflections on her own work, whether in her writings or in conversations with Glória Ferreira, published here: one from 2004 and another from 2007. This happened to me when I began to write this study. Later, I had a recent appreciation by Suzana about the draft of this text that influenced its final developments.
The texts and the conversations are evidences that the artist develops an ongoing reflection about her practice and daily experiences. These experiences are metabolized in a sophisticated way — never directly appropriated. They are always submitted to mediations that avoid any prosaic presence of daily life circumstances. In this sense, the work is inscribed in a modern tradition, even in the projects clearly placed within the universe of contemporary art. There is even a distance from this world where art is constantly dissolved in the quite unsubtle stew of image culture. To use an old fashioned word, art is abstract, not in the sense of last century’s tradition, but while it turns its back to the most childish aspects of post-modern culture and easily dialogues with the present and its confusion of intercrossed and juxtaposed systems, both in a theoretical field and in real life. That’s it: the work easily travels in the universe of such things from the present without renouncing several conquests.
Suzana Queiroga can make installations, sculptures, performances; often, in many of these manifestations, the mark of the painter remains inerasable. It’s not about once more displacing the concept of “expanded field”, which Rosalind Krauss introduced for sculpture, and apply it in painting. In the case of sculpture, the modern and contemporary sculptural thought acts, above all, in a centrifugal thought in relation to the statuary’s past and conquests the new possible relations born from the Cubist and Constructivist operations in space; transmitting such expansion to the materials. It matters little the theoretical fictions sought by artists which depart from topology, the theory of relativity, rhizomes et caterva. Freed from the body of the statue, modern and contemporary sculpture will always need a space, a place and its substantiated materials, which begin to constitute themselves in an never-ending lexicon available to the artist, materials that are no longer passive agents of form, as it were the case of clay, wood, marble and bronze, whose virtues always were coadjutant to the sculptural form. Such is the field of sculpture in expansion.
Any contemporary pictorial manifestation, since the ones that employ the most traditional techniques of fresco painting or oil on canvas to the most daring investigations that invade the space and use unusual materials, is — whether it likes it or not — inscribed in this “expanded field” of painting; under certain conditions, for sure. These conditions take thought as departing point, and not the empirical field of painting making. It is in thought that the distinction between a broader artistic idea — like that of modern and contemporary sculpture or that whose reflection can only be materialized through a pictorial perspective — is affirmed. Is in this art, still in the state of “mental thing”, that the painter fulfills his destiny; even when he projects himself onto the space, builds volumes or engages the body in an action, most often prevails a thought that wouldn’t exist without the long experience of dealing with colors and canvases. On the contrary of the centrifugal force of the sculptural thought, here a centripetal rationale prevails. The pictorial axis exercises a constant attracting force and, in its center, the issue of color. The expansion of the field of painting is always submitted to the contraction of this force. This presence of thought, of art as a “mental thing”, as Leonardo da Vinci has put it, is far from transforming all painting into a “pure idea” that would happen ahead the act of its materialization. The idea of white, black, blue or red will never be the sensible experience of these colors when perceived in the world. And this is so with Suzana. An eminently sculptural work may eventually be developed, but at the core of most of her experiences vibrates an energy that couldn’t come from anywhere else but from painting. But Suzana’s work is anchored in the present and the present drives it out from the tradition of the stretched canvas. What we try to understand here are some traces of this work which spreads throughout over twenty years, and its fidelity to painting as a departing point.
A heterodox relation
When Suzana’s work came into being there was in vogue a new wave in painting that occupied both the institutional scene and the market. Suzana was at Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro, when the famous
‘80’s Generation’ brought to Brazil some issues that confronted the reflexive art of the 1960’s and 1970’s in Germany, Italy and United States.
With the advent of modernity we got used to think of art as relatively autonomous from the course of things in the world, especially in relation to social and political contexts. Truly speaking, such autonomy does take place at times, but often this is not the case; a great deal depends on the producer: the artist. The perspective of a renewal of painting, a claim for “spontaneity”, a “free act”, where the great Expressionist art of the beginning of the 20th century was summoned to historically corroborate new 1980’s maneuvers against critical and “conceptual” trends coincides with the development of Neo-liberalism in both sides of the Atlantic: Ronald Regan on one coast and Margaret Thatcher on the other. The praise of the market as regulator of the whole social live in detriment to compensatory policies carried out under the State’s intervention is the predominant mentality in power.
The dreams of 1968 were definitely buried there. A new figure appeared in our everyday life: yuppies (young urban professionals) replaced the hippies and their utopia of an alternative and communal life; and the neologism is not coined randomly. Individualism, fondness for famous brands and the valorization of social climbing are part of this larger context where art assumes its role of decorating living rooms and liven up ambiences for the enjoyment of marchands. Something like: “an elephant bothers many people but an installation bothers many more”. By the way, there is nothing wrong in a work of art being decorative. Matisse is quite decorative. The problem is found in the intentional low-level formality of the then called “new painting”, in most cases, with the ensuing ridicularization of an intellectual attitude and the excessive employment of gadgets explored ad nauseum.
More than that, there is an evident investment on the obstinate opposition to any language that would explore — not in its themes, but in its syntax — a critical outlook and demanded an intelligent regard.
Suzana, painter, does not join the new wave that she sees growing around her. Keeping a distance, her work rereads the constructivist past in a heterodox and independent way. This is the solid ground on which Brazilian Modern art matured and emancipated itself from the 1950’s and 1960’s on. If we observe the works of the artist in the 1980’s we find the materialization of this research. Geometric abstraction has always weighted a great deal in Constructive demands, a self-assured rationalism functions as a road without danger due to its controllable regularity; removed from its historical context, the assertion of reason against a nationalistic naturalism and the search for local “essences”, typical of the 1940’s, would now function, for some works, more as a refuge than as a new frontier to be explored. Many contemporary artists keep this safe and established inheritance, practically
not taking risks in the prolongation of such past. In her rereading of Constructivism, Suzana, from the very beginning, broke this apparent rigor and dared to introduced in some black paintings, besides reliefs and the conjunction of autonomous elements, the irregularity of lines that do not obey the orthodox grammar of geometry. The Constructivist lesson is resumed through the most difficult path, one that does not mimetize procedures hallowed by history, one that does not attempt to reproduce the success of of the Other.
This complex relation with the Constructive tradition is maintained, acquires a corpus and gains organic aspect without incorporating the biological or psychological effects so present when we appeal to a metaphor of the organism. The exploration of strong chromatic contrasts, the idiosyncratic palette unaligned with the epoch’s standards, the artisanal zeal in handling painting, everything goes against the wave of “spontaneous” affections of most painters of her generation.
The incorporation of a curve and sinuous line into the configuration of Suzana’s work deserves special attention. Along with the development of her palette; and here we find an element that plays a role we only realize when we look more carefully at her work. The “drawings” of these forms, for instance, quite evident in the paintings exhibited at the Sergio Porto Cultural Center, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2000, present a discreet strangeness. They do not intent any symbolical violence, nevertheless, along with the chromatic choices, they differ from all forms already seen throughout abstract investigations. The large format of the canvases contributed to make this new presence evident.
Constructivism departed from the universal lexicon of geometric forms cataloged by mathematics; Suzana, since the 1980’s, moves in the opposite direction. She prefers idiosyncratic drawings that combine curve and straight lines and acute angles. In painting, these forms are per se distant from the polarized scene between constructive rationality and the extravagancy of bad painting.
Later, theses "drawings" will gain space in sculptural experiences that incorporate emptiness as an active component. Although originated from painting, they detach themselves from it and gain an autonomous life. By determining their own space, they make evident a characteristic that we may call by architectonic; they are like the models of imaginary buildings, extremely economic in their pure outline. There the role of curve lines becomes more evident. In a certain way, more than breaking the rigidity of a tradition, in Suzana's work the curve softens the form, but not to the point of dismantling it, as we shall see in one of the environments of the exhibition Topos, held at Funarte in 2007.
This trajectory prepares the ground for the investigations carried out with installations and sculptures in large spaces.
When the works grow to the full occupation of ambiances, they move among investigations that take painting as a departing point and give continuity to pictorial issues from the perspective of new spatial languages, which also gain autonomy in relation to the ground on which a significant part of the artist’s experience is settled. Let’s examine the occupation of Parque Lage’s Couch-House in 2004: In Between. There are three works: Stein und Fluss (Stone and River), Dobra (Fold) and Hermes.
The painter speaks, “There is a route. Mentally for me it is a triptych”. Not by coincidence, the image found for articulating the different spaces of the installation is the one of triptych. It’s not a mere “manner of saying it”. It is the pictorial axis exercising its centripetal attraction even in a work where the spatial issue strongly participates in its development. And in spite of the evident disjunction between the three works, of which the artist recognizes the autonomy, they are united in a traditional image of painting: the triptych. Suzana continues, “the question of the triptych is in the fact that it is composed of works that are independent, but that in their proximity they form another work. The rooms could easily exist separately, but the route was also thought of as a work, and it occurs in exactly this order: first the pulsation is happening in the first room, in the painting, Stein und Fluss — a time of passing images, a critical time since it is pure contrast, where the actual pictorial field becomes a moving flow. In the second room, Dobra (Fold), I present a white route which is already
a transformation of the actual notion of time and space, and puts us into a situation where the image, instead of coming to the spectator’s eye, the opposite occurs: something must be sought out in that apparently zero, neutral space. And, as one follows the route, one begins to find a universe of subtlety in this white: the encounter with a special relationship, a work with a greater silence. (...) And finally, in the third room, I present a work where the time itself will be constructed.” (see p.200)
In the first room there is the confrontation with the monumental painting Stein und Fluss (Stone and River — 400 × 900 cm). A real confrontation because the painting was on the back wall, in front of the entrance, and the strong chromatic opposition between the intense red surface and the green squares caused the whole space to vibrate.
In order to increase even more the movement of the eye, the distribution of the green squares do not follow any minimalist regularity.
And they don’t have the same dimensions. Nevertheless, these variations obey a certain compositional order, and a sense of randomness is not made explicit. These oppositions of places on the painting and, specially, between the green and the red, were already manipulated by Suzana in previous large size works, but never in such scale. Given the horizontality of the format, the body is involved by this internalized landscape whose strength is increased by the building’s rustic architecture. Suzana comments on the title: “I called this painting Stein und Fluss, which in German is stone and river, terms that seemed interesting to me, since “Fluss” is “river” and is also connected to the idea of “flux” (according to Heraclites, the only fixed idea in existence is the certainty that all things are in transition). Today I substitute “flux” with the term “time”, it is what is to come, the permanent “passage of something”. Something that we understand or call time: some state
between before and after, the now, in sum, the presence. It is only a passing instant.” (see p.196)
A comment must be made here. If there is a time, it is a vertiginous one, by the movement of the green here and there, a quite actual time, in which we cannot determine a before and an after. A paradox: a synchronic flow that does not suggest any diachronic regard.
In the work, such flow is like an instantaneous photo, a “decisive instant” of a colored and abstract Cartier Bresson, captured in the shapes of the green squares on the red field. The swift flow is in us when we observe Stone and River and obliges us to sublimate a time we had already incorporated in the rhythms of video clips and advertisement. Vertigo and velocity, so present in today’s world, begin to have an aesthetical dignity in this contemporary landscape, in which, if there is a river, it’s a whitewater. Nothing that may resemble the slow moving water passing before the eyes of a pre-Socratic philosopher like Heraclitus. Heraclitus’ river will never be the same even a fraction of a second later, but Suzana’s river, with all this turbulence, may be closer to Parmenides: although everything passes, all remains the same. Contrary to the artist, I see in Stone and River
more of an Eleatic approach than of Heraclitus: unity prevails over transformation.
In “In Between”, after the initial impact, the chromatic vertigo, in the next room, we are reintroduced to tranquility, but not as great as the white cube that receives us with its works hung on the wall;
we are in Dobra (Fold). With the exception of some discreet wall excavations, everything is white, even the counter-reliefs. The reliefs and counter-reliefs on the walls are rare and timely, there is no saturation.
On the contrary, everything breathes on the airy surface, there is no claustrophobia. Nevertheless, here and there emerges a certain anxiety. If the curvy reliefs mounting from the walls calm us down, there are others, the geometric ones with straight lines, cubes and parallelepipeds that invade the space as much as the spherical and curvy ones do, but that provoke us with their angles. Compared to the others, they are more aggressive, or, better saying, more affirmative, and they introduce themselves saying “Here I am”, as if entering a dinner party to which they were not invited. The force of some and the discreet presence of others establish a no dense game, in which all preserve their solitude and autonomy.
It’s possible that, through this opposition between curvy elements that make explicit a clear continuity of the surface and the almost regular cubic and other elements with flat surfaces, Suzana aims to an association — a legitimate one, actually —, with topology. Topology is able to transform curvy elements into straight ones and viceversa.
But these equations are possible through mathematical equations. Yes, if there weren’t excavations exposing the rough surface of the wall, its stones and bricks. This exposed archeology of the old building acts as small and expressive hurts and disagrees with the peaceful ambiance that could otherwise reign. The wounds won’t heal. It’s not about the realm of a conflict between a well-place and pacified body and one sore and injured. It’s about a more serene opposition, between curvy abstract forms — within a tradition inaugurated by Arp — and those in which a portion of gesture and pulsation emerges. The emptiness prevails and acts on these surfaces of the white cube that were transformed into a recipient of the painter’s reliefs and counter-reliefs. This poetical equation obeys procedures that follow no logic, in spite of the aesthetical fiction being enclosed by scientific references.
In the third environment we find Hermes. It is a beautiful sculpture with a large shape configured as the trunk of an inverted pyramid, but such trunk is cut in such a way that a vertex points towards the floor, almost touching it. On the ground, the organic forms of spilled pewter are arranged in a way to allow the attraction of the magnets enclosed in the vertex. Hermes is a motor continuum pendulum, measuring a time that hesitates in its irregularity. The large space of this third environment of the Coach-House leaves Hermes loose. Nothing disturbs its Apollonian image. The perfect manufacturing of the iron and the glow of the pewter on the floor contrast with the rustic walls of apparent bricks simply whitewashed. Time, wich is so dear to Suzana, is exposed in the oscillations directed by the vertex that randomly searches at times for a pewter puddle and at times for another. By breaking the rhythmic regularity of a clock’s pendulums, kept by the motor strength of its mechanisms, with gentleness she exposes us to another time. A useless time for controlling an agenda or making appointments. A time that restores, in the contemporary world, a relationship between art and nature.
To enter the painting: the experience of the inflatables
When Suzana moves away from painting, in the inflatables, it persists quite strongly in the monochromatic colors. In a certain way, these works, at times sculptures, at times ambiances, allow for a real experience of being inside a painting that, now only skin, takes a body in its inner emptiness.
The first Bubble, by Marcelo Nitsche, displayed in 1968, was an effective conquest of a sculptural thought that went beyond our provincial borders. In this work there was an intercross between Abstract Expressionism, Oldenburg’s pop art, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark (in its participative and environmental element), in an original and outstanding experience. But one had an outer relation with the Bubble.
Suzana’s inflatables can be displayed either as sculptures suspended or supported by the ground or as penetrables. Some are monumental and in their interior, besides the participation of the common spectator, there are performances with professional dancers or actors.
These large size monochromatic works definitely abandon the idea of emptiness as lack. Now it will present it as the nurturing place of a stage performance that is added to the plastic work integrating both languages. Inside we meet with the color’s vertigo and the world’s presence. Their transparency allows us to keep contact with everyday experience, “out there” everything goes on as usual, but inside we are enveloped by red or blue. We find ourselves in a thick volume of color and thin matter — this is the paradox that nurtures the experience inside Suzana’s inflatables.
Suzana Queiroga’s most recent paintings deal with urban network as we find it in city maps. Maps abstract a metropolis’ chaos in order to orient us. It’s not part of a map the whole complex visible and invisible network that constitute a city, from the underground systems of water, sewage, gas, electricity, TV and optical cables to the aerial virtual net formed by radio and open TV broadcast and image and data satellite transmission, not to speak of the most recent layer formed by the invisible interaction of the blogosphere. More than that, maps do not depict the people going from one place to another, the rustling, the mess. In maps there are no unpaved and shadowy streets, unbearable noise, garbage, the disrespect for public space or the territories controlled by outlaws. The maps of a city are incredible idealizations. If the city no longer can be restored, never more will be a polis or an urbs, if it is only the metastasis of a mode of production and the demographic movements it generates, a cultural stew; what about finding it anew in another way: in painting of maps? And Suzana decides painting them departing from several places of the world, quite different cities from those we have here.
Maps are simplified graphic networks. In them, often, many streets disappear, not to mention people and life itself. Such uniformity found in the cartographer’s world in a way anticipated the modern painter’s drive for truth and his turning towards the flat surface, painting’s statute of effective stage. Facing the truth of the canvas’ surface, he destroys the illusion of depth. But let’s not forget, for the cities there was a preference for the “artistic glance” a vol d’oiseau. The maps of these paintings by Suzana are blueprints of another city. Once again, I’m forced to think of a constructive inheritance. No geometric grid has so deeply marked modern painting as Mondrian’s, which, led by the titles, was soon associated to the orthogonal plan of Manhattan. Such desire to see figures everywhere takes hold of daily life psychology, for even clouds take familiar shapes. It is part of the multiple explorations of common sense supplying a basis for the uninformed and numbed gaze
of the middle class.
In the case of Suzana’s paintings, the departing point is indeed the city’s map. It will suffer transformations to make room for fields of color and the flow of the streets and pathways. We are deliberately distant from urban memory and only mediated by its cartographical representation. In many of these paintings the palette is diversified and take on more tenuous oppositions. Calm reigns and, here and there, according to the meeting of colors, one perceives a gentle disharmony, a dissonance that does not hurt the eye. The world of these paintings is peaceful; neither the colors nor the brushstrokes strive for affirming themselves. We are far from the high voltage game between red and green present in Stein und Fluss. The idea of a route of a flâneur’s stroll becomes visible in a city that can no longer exist. The scale of the pathways is adapted to the size of the canvases even in the larger ones. And perhaps for this very reason there is more urban presence in the velocity of Stone and River than in these paintings that bring to the surface the recollection of a city map.
This flow of the urban network opens a new chapter of this work in progress, which will again surprise us when reaching for new challenges.
Growing alongside fashion trends without caring for them, ferocious and audacious when attempting to break its own habits, loyal to history as a compass, Suzana Queiroga’s work presents itself as a body that effortlessly journeys between tradition and innovation.
Rio de Janeiro, November 2007.