Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil" at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Cruzamentos: "Crossings," we're told it means, literally and metaphorically in Portuguese. Brazil is a country stuck together by a resilient filament of crossed races and cultures and here, in contemporary fine arts, by mingling of media, genres, and ideas that find names like inspiration, lack of inhibition, and necessity's inventions.

Cruzamentos is not a show to expect to see in a few hours. It's an event, an environment, a trip to a kinetic city whose life-blood runs in brilliant colors on the surface; where popular and high cultures mingle and reflect each other; where distinctions are important only until you cross thresholds. There prejudices drop and the strange becomes Carnival. Hey: It's the State Fair—common yet thrilling, with ordinary life compressed into a electrifying city of eros, manure, ambition, gaiety, private intrigues, and public fireworks. Cruzamentos closes on April 20, so start seeing it now.

Only a few works from among the many in the vast, multi-faceted show are approved for use by the press. The pieces I focus on here are among the quieter works that create pools of reverie in a show that is often defiant or ebullient.

Rodrigo Braga Tônus, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 
Three loop videos by Rodrigo Braga—Tonus 1, 2, and 3—play simultaneously on three walls of a darkened room, each bringing the viewer painfully and pruriently close to struggles for…survival? against the absurd? The longer you watch, the less clear, the more fascinating, brutal, and touching each becomes.

I find that the Portuguese word tonus means vitality, vigor, or energy. These English words describe not only the stirring content of the films, but the manner of their making. In two of the films, a man—for reasons that we don't know and quickly lose any concern with—is bound to an animal by rope in a way that creates a peculiarly equal relationship. In the still to the left, a man is tied by the wrist to a large crab about the same size as his hand. The rope's length is such that the two can't touch without an effort to shorten the distance. When we see the man finally clutch the crab, the result is thrilling because of the equality of the confrontation: The crab clutches him back. We think that the man will pry the crab's claw off, but what we see is almost a handshake, fierce, raw and muddy; an equal manipulation in which the grapplers are equal—they are "tied."

The tight frame shown in the clip is consistent throughout the brief film. The cinematography is so superior that the texture of the mud, the surfaces of hand and shell are real enough to make us shiver, cold and wet. 
Rodrigo Braga, Tônus, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 

In the two other films that surround us in the hall, a man's hand is bound to the hind leg of a goat, leaving neither able to rise nor even to fight nor to succor one another. Where the hands of man and crab mud-wrestled, these two are doomed to a rocky, scraping plain. 

In the third film, a man lies on his in total passivity in a pirogue that's filling with water, a large, rosy and shining fish on his belly. The two of them are unconnected, and the film cuts often to images of the fish flopping alone in a boat "freed" of the man, but also freed of the water that he is incapable of moving himself into, despite his beautiful vitality.
Rodrigo Braga Tônus 1, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 

There is even more content to the films. But on the broadest level, they provide an extraordinarily deep and rich experience. They are perfection of filming and editing. They rock the viewer through rough currents of emotion created by the subtle synchronization of three films of different lengths and a gentle soundtrack behind the jagged and poignant action. Best of all, Braga has found a medium for communicating profound ideas about mankind's situation in life and in nature. He creates powerful metaphors for how we live vis-a-vis nature. He looks clearly at the importance and the efficacy of our wills and at the meaning of action. I greatly admire the Tonus series and the mind behind it.

The elevation of the ordinary to magnificence is what attracted me powerfully to Luiza Baldan's Sem Titulo (one of two "Untitled" works in the series "Little Paintings"). This is a work which, even more than most, needs to be seen in person to be appreciated, it's surfaces are so delicately presented  

 Luiza Baldan Untitled (from the Pinturinhas series), 2009. Inkjet on cotton print 33.5 x 43” Courtesy of the artist .

on its massive geometry. It's a charwoman's Vermeer, a mechanically-created print with the delicacy of an oil painting in color and texture—that caressing attention to the smallest detail that betrays a passionate heart within the maker. The green plastic bucket aside, all the colors are given and natural, just like the daylight that glows in a Dutch window. The stairway of some coarse building of industrial design is humanized by the blushing color of the tiled floor reflected, rouge-like on the wall. The deep blue panel at the base of the opposite wall warms the concrete structures in such a way that they become ocean to the sienna and ochre of the tiled floors: a warm Mediterranean landscape stirs beneath the otherwise cold and threateningly depopulated zone, making it a place to return to.

It's the contrast between the lover's attention to the surface, the embrace of the raw structure, and the appreciation for the marriage of might and delicacy that make this "painting" work so well for me. A scene like this is of course a powerhouse of design. It doesn't have to be more than that, but it is, communicating a passion for human qualities where even the memories of their weary passage remains.

Luchia Koch's Rusticchella occupies an entire gallery wall. Its great size; its illusion of deep space; the overwhelming sense of softness that makes you want to touch the surface and break through it, into the half-lit room—all these things contribute to a truly enveloping experience. It's a work that transports the viewer almost literally, mind and body.

Lucia Koch, Rusticchella, 2013. MEDIA. 
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica 

The nature of the space is ambiguous in ways that create an effect similar to the one Baldan creates, above: A common space and materials are elevated to provide the viewer with a spiritual experience. 

The enclosure we look into appears to be a paper bag laid on its side, the expansion pleats on the roof and the floor. The hole cut in the right side turns it into a room; the bottom of the literal bag becomes a door, and the shape of its folds take on possible significance as a result. A portcullis? A sacred sign? 

The surfaces of the space appear to be glazed: the floor and the walls shine as enamel or tile would. On the ceiling and left wall are small, elaborate red writings in a language that I cannot decipher—is anyone supposed to? Light softly filters in from three directions, creating a dreamy quality, but enhancing the fragility of the ambiguously-sized structure. Are we indeed looking inside the ephemeral, a paper bag toy house that the rain or an errant footstep will destroy? Or have we entered an ages-old religious monument, its sandstone carved away by time and the elements?

It may be neither, it may be both. What I love about this is the sublime integration of all the possibilities in the great size and the soft surface of the work. Rusticchella is mesmerizing; you can move between and through its many ideas without having to make decisions. Its beauty and integrity remind us vividly that a work of art is an experience, one we can extend for as long as we like.