Calculation and chance – the story of a possible encounter

Luisa Duarte

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 2013.
Critique essay


The crystallization of time in space has become one of the most well-known procedures in José Bechara’s work. This is true of his use of oxidized truck tarpaulins made into canvasses/paintings ‘in process’, it is true of his use of Nelore cattle skins, even of The House series installations.

While we could argue his attempt to contain the hemorrhaging of the hours reveals the main pathos that animates much of his work, another indelible trait of his poetics is the variety of languages embraced throughout the years. Bechara has always experimented, run risks and refused to accommodate itself to the native comforts of field of painting where it all started.

Not that things are placid in painting, as already noted. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 90s, Bechara’s visual production develops through a mix of experimentation and visual eloquence, in other words, it is a production that does not see itself solely as an aesthetic event, but neither does it exempt itself from formal aspects and their power.

When Bechara choses to ‘paint’ on appropriated truck tarps, and by allowing the oxidation produced by the passage of time to be the genesis of the emerging image, Bechara lets go of the classic painterly, manual gesture and takes on a role akin to that of an editor. Time is the fundamental element of his technique. Time is, in a way, his coauthor. The changes the tarps go through are always, constantly, guided by chance while they are at same time directed by the artist who negotiates the transformations of matter. In other words, on the one hand the process is free from Bechara’s deliberations, while, on the other, everything in it calls for order. A method is born that is the sibling of chance.

I will never forget the day I was visiting Bechara’s studio, and how the sight of his canvas with vertical lines brought to mind Agnes Martin’s work (1912-2004). This thought of Martin, an artist known for her minimalist painting, led me almost inadvertently to catch something in the air, something pulsating in Bechara’s work: a presence and a mode of proceeding that brings us something of the 1960s and 70s, in other words, something that embodies both experimentation and a dry, directed visuality, devoid of lyricism. These gestures are in opposition to the effusive “expressiveness” that marked the return to painting in the 1980s.

Since his very beginnings in painting, his first home, Bechara has been subverting the issues of his time, bringing them over the years to surprising revelations in other forms, other languages. In his House series, an element of our day to day engenders a convulsion of the shapes of daily life, in installations that pile up, deform, eject and accumulate that which ordinarily is the locus of all that is established, all that is sound, of protection, of things in their places, in other words, a house.

The new crop of works that we see here, tentatively entitled Spatial Drawings or Graphic Sculptures, builds on Bechara’s characteristic polyphony, multiplies it. If the book of drawings “Desenhos – como piscada de vagalume” had already provided us with a window into a hitherto unknown production of Bechara’s, here we can catch a glimpse of his conception of three dimensional drawings.

Spatial Drawings bring us a lightness of stokes, it carries the impression of chance that is present throughout Bechara’s works to this day, and seems unscripted, challenging the rigidity of sculptural creation. We have before us a dance that fuses with the unpredictable.

The interplay of empty and full cubes brings us a graphic framework of strokes that belongs to the nature of sculpture. It is a web taut with tension. In Spatial Drawings classic Euclidian shapes, cubes, squares, are at the service of an undefined drawing that captures an organic quality and challenges resistance of grids.

This is a first layer of meaning set at play by the work. Another can be seen when the piece is placed in contact with “nature”. The assembly of cubes with intertwining lines gains new power when placed amid vegetation that grows without asking for permission. Just as seeing Bechara’s canvas brought to mind Agnes Martin’s minimalist stripes, in this work the cube, a dry and cold geometric element much like the grid (our modern lattice) is at play in a non-linear way, much like jazz and its provision for improvisation. Thus, when set against nature, this aspect is amplified.
Rosalind Krauss once said:

“The grid announces modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse. Never could exploration have chosen less fertile ground. Development is precisely what the grid resists. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, anitmimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.”

Let us see other elements that contribute to prove the thesis on an inner tension present in the Bechara’s work. The graphic sculptures are three dimensional procedures that invite a gaze on drawing. The sculptures are geometric pieces, placing its solid and empty cubes organically across space, as if they could not obey the controls that underlie their very shape, as if they said, yes, I am rigid, I am straight, monochrome, but I will stay wherever I want. Such a way of appearing in the world brings an inherent contradiction that generates intense poetic voltage in Bechara’s work.

While guided by icons of a certain modernity, the cube, the grid, these elements are given life in a way that subverts their iconic coldness and harmony. It is possible to recall at this point Waldermar Cordeiro’s concept of Sensitive Geometry. He wrote about the need to contaminate the rationality and order that are so dear to modernity with expressions of life and aesthetics.

Another name that comes to mind when looking at Bechara’s new series is Franz Weissmann. Apart from the literature about his exquisite interpretation of space and sculptures that allow us to see emptiness in which the air thickens, it was Weismann who created the Cubo Vazado in 1951. If Cubo Vazado is, in fact, “the first rigorously concretist work made in Brazil”, Weissmann was already interested in highlighting neither form nor material, but an impalpability that resulted in downplaying the importance of sculpture’s materials. It was the kernel of the nascent neoconcretism.

This brief historic reference has only been brought up because Bechara’s work, as a whole, incorporates dense vectors that bring us memories of the past and reconnect us to the present. The neoconcretists aimed to bore through the rigidity of concretism, and did so by bringing life itself into the fabrication of the work of art. Bechara, through his ready-made paintings, his convulsive House, even his Spatial Drawings has always been dealing with both poles, creating “sensitive geometry” in his own fashion. The truck tarps became “skins” of a body that is undergoing constant change, complicit with life (in other words, with the fact that life is finite). His Houses subvert a vocabulary associated to stability by evoking chaos in a flurry of actions that result from an act borne out of agony, out of the desire for transformation and change, a refusal to settle or exert control.

Spatial Drawings allow us to see that “emptiness has solidity, it is matter”. In other words, starting from classical elements of the language of art, Bechara deconstructs classical forms just as he uses them, showing them stricken by chance, obeying rhythms of unpredictability, allowing us a glance of those emptinesses and wholes, challenging each cube in its duration, in its wish for eternity.

Bechara’s works are, in the end, knowingly in tune with the fundamental elements that grant solidity and stability, the imprint of rulers and measuring compasses, but the works play with these signs so as to undo them, as if checking how far compasses can provide security. The fact Bechara’s work embraces this ambiguity consciously and lucidly makes his production an event in which present and future, project and chance, are intermarried. If we grant that drawing is originally a sketch, a project, an experiment of what will follow in the idealized work, sculpture is traditionally seen as the final piece, solid by nature. José Bechara’s production in Spatial Drawings or if you prefer, Graphic Sculptures, provides us both sides of the coin, at one and the same time.