Luiz Camillo Osorio
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 2011
Text written for the catalogue of the exhibition Fendas, MAM-Rio, Rio de Janeiro, 2011
It has been a great pleasure to write this text for the catalogue accompanying the José Bechara exhibition at MAM-Rio. First, because of our history of collaboration that goes back to our first exhibition in 1992, but also because I am the museum curator during this exhibition of the past twenty years of the artist’s work. Spending two months with a representative sample of the Bechara’s work has made me delve a little deeper into this career. I have still not had time to come completely out of the water and get a clear view of the horizon that stretches out ahead; but I believe I can share a few preliminary observations.
A mid-career retrospective involves re-appraisal, reflection, and projection. It brings together a significant body of the artist’s work in an effort to bring to light the shifting focuses of his work. You can see how his style has developed, which is nothing more than a search for something that is artistically unique, the expression of a principal of individuality within a shared historical context.
If, from the outset, his work was predominantly pictorial, as the years passed and as he developed his own style, it came increasingly to incorporate sculptural elements and to enter into a more direct dialogue with architecture. The canvases come to be more saturated with oxidized elements as the artist’s creative process matures and to project out more into space. This play of saturation and structure runs through the whole oeuvre. At times it is the density of the material that predominates, at time the accumulation of elements that are concentrated and thrown out; at others, it is the effort to create structure, the geometrical grid and the line drawing.
I think that in the first ten years of his career Bechara directly confronted the issue of painting and the crisis it was going through. In his case the historical dimension of this crisis—which affected all the young artists who emerged in the 1980s and the at once festive and nostalgic “return” to painting—was allied to personal limitation caused by a medical condition that did not allow him to come into contact with paints and solvents. His solution was to use truck canvases marked by time and rust made with steel wool. The first stage in the process is the selection and cutting up of the already visually interesting pieces of canvas: torn and stained, with a visual memory built up over time by constant wear and tear. This selection process was already a form of painting based on the artist’s eye and sense for what the canvas might become.
In the paintings produced before the mid-1990s, the tension came from the clash between the temporal pulse of the rusting, the accumulated visual memory, and the geometrical organization of shapes on the canvas surface. As, through daily empirical struggles in his studio, he wrestled to gained control of the oxidation process, the pulse increasingly began to derive from the density of the material expanding within the geometrical grid. The outward movement, the leap beyond the flat surface, began. At this point, at the beginning of the last decade, there was a poetic shift in his work. The obsessive concentration on the use of a single material and a restricted process repeated to the point of exhaustion gave way to a more disparate engagement with the outside world, obliging the artist to diversify both the materials and his artistic strategies.
From this point on, with this move away from the flat surface, the clash comes to derive from the friction between the work and the surrounding architecture, from the destabilizing effect it has on its own geometrical order. There is an intense play between serialism and singularity, between inside and outside, between (monumental) scale and (intimate) affect. Whereas, in the rusted canvases, the used canvas was a “thing” found in the world that was transformed by the artist’s intervention, becoming virtual on the flat surface, now, in the more recent polyphonic work, it is the very space of the world that is destabilized by the shifting tension between geometry and the pulse of the matter, arising from the heart of his pictorial vocabulary. The play of scales, the diversity of supports, the movement (or rifts, as the artist would have it) between inside and outside, virtual and actual, build up magnetic poetic fields on the edge of the symbolic, at a point where metaphor and thing, the literal and the poetic compete for attention.
In the more recent works, one of them put together as the exhibition was assembled, using glass, rust, paper, formica and the museum wall itself, the corners of the room and the reflections of the light, Bechara seems to be shifting his poetic focus towards a more virtual play of body, space and architecture. With their mixture of fragile materials, precise geometrical incisions and compositional instability, these pieces bring us back, in their own way, to the tension between the intimate and the impersonal referred to above. Everything is on the brink of melting away, breaking down, being decomposed. The colors, which also begin to appear more clearly in the artist’s recent work, are a curious novelty. In these glass pieces, despite the cold tones, a faded pink and green, color in its empty opaqueness, almost kitsch, comes in to destabilize the geometry. In the drawings in which the artist’s bold use of strokes is the most striking feature, the color, though vibrant, is the element that holds the form; different from the oxidizing copper, whose greenish tone waters down the structure of the grid.
There is something of the challenges of the contemporary world in this tension, somewhat anguished, but always renewed, between formal structure and individual creativity. Various stages in Bechara’s career could be described like this and his most recent work seems to update and intensify this relationship.