Conversation with José Bechara

Paulo Reis

Dardo Magazine, no. 7
February – May, 2008



If an artist´s quality is measured by Promethean effort, then José Bechara has achieved this status through his persistence and intelligence in transforming something empirical into acknowledged artistic skill. True intelligence is often known through its non-apparent qualities. The Austrian writer Robert Musil wrote, in his seminal novel The Man without Qualities, that “unfortunately there is nothing more difficult in literature than describing a man thinking. A great inventor, when he was asked how he managed to have so many new ideas, replied: “by thinking about them constantly”. Indeed, we may state that unexpected ideas only come to us because we were already expecting them. They are largely the deserved fruit of character, of certain stable inclinations, of tenacious ambition and of tireless activity. How can such perseverance not be tiresome? Seen from another viewpoint, the solving of an intellectual problem is more or less like what happens when a dog wants to get through a narrow opening carrying a stick in its mouth; it moves its head from side to side until the bone gets through sideways; we do precisely the same, except the difference is we don’t rely on chance, we know more or less beforehand, due to a question of habit, how we should go about it. And even though it is natural for a full head to have more skill and experience to move than an empty one, it is still no less surprised when it manages to slip through the opening; things take place quickly and we clearly see within us a certain amazement as we notice that thoughts, instead of waiting for their author, were carried out on their own. This feeling of slight amazement is called “intuition”, after having been called “inspiration”, and we believe that there we see something beyond the personal, when it is merely something impersonal, that is, the affinity and homogeneity of the things that are inside a brain…”
One may discover much more than the character of a person when one disagrees with them. After all, sincere disagreement implies your antagonist´s right to defend his view as an illuminist inheritance. A disagreement leads us to think about our own limitations, to construct arguments and deconstruct axiologies, that is, to seek out the truth at the bottom of matters themselves. This short introductory note on the value of a debate reminds me of a meeting with the artist José Bechara, a few years ago. Strolling through the streets of Lisbon, he presented, in general terms, his new project to construct a large-scale sculpture in the form of a house. At that moment I presented a reaction against the project, questioning the reason why an artist consolidated in painting, with critical and commercial success, would need to radicalize, drawing up a project that is so different from his work. Several systematic discussions about the work in question followed on from that conversation. I accompanied all the initial phases, I saw models, I saw the sculpture in an old warehouse on the docks in the port of Rio de Janeiro, I saw the sculpture being set up, and unfolding into several other conceptual operations deriving from the original form. Veni, Vidi, Vici.

PR: Let”s start with the Casa (House) project. When you told me about it, I became a bit suspicious. According to your words, I rejected it. That moment, I thought: how can an artist, which settled himself in painting, having been acknowledged by critics as the newest, most fresh and important painter emerging from the 90s, was interested in risking himself in the new territory which was sculpture, in a distinct procedure from his métier? This question became stronger to me in consequence of the criticism published by Wilson Coutinho in the pages of Brazilian newspaper O Globo, at Segundo Caderno sample. He wrote you were a revelation, and after this you became the most prestigious painter of your generation. This question would have gone through my mind, for your entrance in the carioca (Rio de Janeiro) fine arts scenario represented a certain freshness in the painting disrupted by the Expressionist procedures of the former generation to yours. Your uncommon procedure in the modus operandi of painting, being called a painter without a brush, and branded by some critics as a formalist and by others as someone who produces a readymade painting. The truth is that your painting technique – opting for truck canvas, used, which later would receive materials so distinct as carbon steel straw and fire to create pictorial surfaces which don”t dialogue with the more traditional craft of painting; but contradictorily, approximates itself from the ruptures of the historical vanguards, as it maintained the modernist references, echoes of your admiration of the European Constructivists, above all Malevich. At that point it seem to me more of a meticulous ennui of an unquieting artist which “decided to experiment with another medium”, as he had already conquered his place in painting. Today, I evaluate the installations and objects of the Casa series as something valuable in your artistic trajectory and led myself to your perseverance, having used these pieces sometimes in exhibitions where I”ve acted as curator, essentially in group shows Casa – Poética do Espaço and Surrounding Matta-Clark. First of all, I must admit that I don”t feel the same enthusiasm towards the first branch of the house, the one from the Faxinal das Artes, for there it seems to me as an impositive artistic resultant, conditioned to living. It has more of a Merzbau then a modified readymade. There is something of a modernist Illusionism, maybe a functional ideology which makes me think what is its purpose. I am interested above all by the big scale modules and the small portable sculptures, which are for me like a boite-en-valise of a poetics of space. What is your initial vision of this passage of plane to spatial surface area, about the references contained in these sculptural experiences?

JB: First of all I do have interest in the Russian experiences which you are referring to, above all Malevich. In relation to the passage of plane to spatial surface area, as you propose, there was no strategy whatsoever for this. I did not plan to produce sculptural experiences even though I was already interested in producing works outside the painting plane. The opportunity for this was accidental, and it was born from the encounter-residency organized by Agnaldo Farias in Faxinal do Céu, in Paraná, 2002. There, as I searched for a work in painting which seemed impossible to take place, I was surprised by a rapid thought formulated in three words: filling the gaps. I immediately knew that I could create something from this, and that this was going to be more challenging and that it contained a more powerful correspondence with the thought which I motivated if I was a sculptor. In the hours that followed – I spent the entire night up, working, I thought about some possibilities and poetic connections from actions which organized themselves through the night. I thought about the relationships with my painting: the use of strange materials in the medium, the displacement of materials and objects from their common space, constructive fences and a certain geometry which makes effort not to undo itself, the tensions of a relationship between informality and a formal rigor. Besides, naturally, of crossings of symbolic order about time, memory, abandonment, finitude and lost. These formulations occurred as the work progressed, firstly at Faxinal and afterwards in the installations at Paço Imperial, at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, at Rio de Janeiro”s and São Paulo”s Museum of Modern Art, etc. The thought that I attempt to elaborate from this experience continues to confront new perspectives with works such as Ok,Ok Let”s Talk, which I presented at the Pinacoteca de São Paulo and at the “Paralela” show, both in 2006, in Brazil. Now, in February, I will present it at the Pátio-Herreriano Museum, in Valladolid, in large scale, and most recently in the Open House series dedicated to small dimension sculptures. Today, whilst we speak, I am working in a set of new paintings, still with the same materials, but with a more opened palette. I don”t know if there is a gain or a lost, but there are changes in the painting which occurred from the relationship with sculptural experiences. In regard to the references which you highlight: Schwitters and Matta-Clark, I”ve never had them as a research object to the work A Casa and I didn”t realize that until my work had advanced in some directions. Of course, today I think about the questions brought up by these artists, as well as those from Denis Oppenheim, Hélio Oiticica, and many others. In the case of Merzbau I think there are greater differences because the house, as an object, still has its “nature” guaranteed. In the second one, I think there is a relationship with the object, a disfunctionalization of the object, which interests me more. A Casa produces an inversion of use which disfunctionalizes it in such an order which the only remaining thing to the object is the poetic experience. I don”t know if I answered your question somewhere.

PR: Yes, you answered. But speaking about disfunctionality, I remember about this term used by Douglas Grimp about the Duchamp operation. For this author, Duchamp did not have the intentionality for by presenting the modified readymade he takes something already existent in the world, operates a transformation in this object and applies artistic value to it. For Grimp, only minimalism operates the disfunctionality of something functional, as the materials still continue in their raw stage, regrouped with another meaning, indicating that its initial function no longer exists. His pictorial work emerges from a taxonomy, as you have to choose the “happenings” which interest you in the old and worn out canvas of trucks. After being selected, cut, it receives a set of industrial materials which will be damped, incinerated, fastening its decomposition to create another matter, this one completely filled with memory, time. Your painting begins with “the eye and the spirit”, incorporates chance and ends in a singular painting between informal and formal, as you highlight. I think that all art today is an heir of the readymade, in some way. Your painting is a modified readymade or how much is there in it of a manual operation in the craft sense?

JB: There is a lot of craft. What it is has of ready-made is not enough, very much because it is not about that. The worn-out truck canvas is a surface which unites in a determined set of visual occurrences diverse signs and marks. In this I recognize a quality which fundamentally interests me. From there, and with this a set of actions, I seek to construct the area: cuts of sections of a large surface, use of chemical materials and combinations, calculations, observation of a neighborhood of colors, observation of weights, selection processes, use of brushes and other tools, process repetitions, observations of time and climate, observations of color temperature and, with certain relevance in the systemization from which you affirm arouses my paintings, accidents, many accidents. The operation of one work can take from 15 to 180 days. Regarding the “disfunctionalization” x “poeticization” relationship, I think there is more of this in A Casa, even thought I understand that the use of truck canvas, and mainly the instant where the exchange between a new and a used canvas is held, contains this same matter.

PR: When I said that A Casa is like a boîte-en-valise for me, it is because I notice the variety of forms which you discovered to treat this space poetics, as it can appear like a big sculpture, with an imposing physicality, solid and precise in the minimalist blocks and clearly have an a priori drawing due to the specifications of construction, which we would call engineering, as the other operations derived from your poetry, like the site specific installations which you made in Brazil, “Área de Serviço”, at Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro; “Duas margaridas e uma aranha”, at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo, and the “Vespeiro” installation, at the Chocolataria Espaço de Intervenção, Santiago de Compostela; I also think about the model of Ok, Ok, Let”s talk, as there was also the conditioning of the area. These constructions depend on the area, their experience is necessary so that one of the models of this Casa operation works. There is a clear difference between the house sculptural model, prêt-à-porter, which can be put together in any generous area which supports its dimensions, and the site specific operations which emerge from the Casa combinations and which are “rearranged” in which the pre-existent area is combined in the sculpture, which we will call installation. And the third variant are the small format houses, Open house, multiple structures which combine sculpture and painting as you paint or oxide them, in a chromatic addition or subtraction, operating with full and empty solids, as you are used to calling them. Tell us about these visual games which emerge from a same sculpture and which are opened in infinite combinations, as a valise box of the works of José Bechara.

JB: As I”ve already said, I am not used to dedicating a lot of time to a great amount of notes and project drawings in order to create a work. So the operations are the ones which point out the directions and possibilities and there is always the mistake and the accident. The observation of a hole in the wall of a house set off the first work at Paraná, which in turn informed installations, afterwards A Casa, drawings, the series of photography and recently the series of works Open House. I don”t think it is what you asked but I wanted to say this. Now I will try to answer you. My first experience with sculpture was accidental and unprepared. But as I produced the work, in Faxinal, 2002, I made myself some questions about the presence of that work in the local landscape and of what from this landscape the work could count with, not only visually but also psychologically. I thought about scale and the implications which this offered. I thought about the empty spaces and of the possibility of sculpting them. I thought about the memory of the materials, their uses. I thought about Supervielle “pondo trevas de pernas para o ar”. I also thought about what was doable in different scales of the work. Today, as I answer you, I realize how important the reflection about scale and dimension of a work was to me. The big dimension installations and sculptures has amongst other things, the intention of confronting the real area, to confront it, share it, and even if from an absurd perspective, solidify to the empty spaces which were produced from the installation of these works. The same happened with the small sculptures, these from the Open House series. I thought that my relationship with the sculptural experience had to confront other problems, also related to area. The reduced scale gives me a liberty similar to the one which drawing gives me. I can relate a greater number of matters, introduce other elements, like the empty fences in some pieces. I can experiment more and get it wrong even more. Besides this, in this reduced scale, I can take the entire space occupied by the piece at the same time. I produce these smaller works with the same enthusiasm which I draw.

PR: Yes, I understand what you mean when I see that the works from the Open house series create possibilities, whether formal, conceptual, of creating many combinations. There is also photography which at first served as a register to the installation at the Faxinal. Exhibited later a work-register, they glimpsed a certain fragility as medium, they seem to me as they were not made with the meaning of photography but as a register of an artistic situation, complementary to the initial project. I think that initially their purpose was to complement an exhibition body of works. In the future you began to elaborate photography, conceptualizing the works, amplifying the scales, photography began to have as much importance as sculpture or site specific, gaining autonomy as a work of art. Today your idea of Casa is randomic, comprising several mediums and supports, but going around the concept of space, but to sum up, do you think that the Casa model is to exhaust or do you notice that there could still be derivations not yet experimented?

JB: I am constructing a villa, in real life scale, which utilizes, in part, the palette of my most recent painting, in turn borrowed from the series of sculptures Open House. It is a work more dedicated to the experience of interpersonal relationships and to certain dramas of the individual, but I still don”t have elements to risk myself in a long answer.



Paulo Reis was an art critic and curator. Publisher and editor of Dardo magazine. He was artistic director of Casa d´Os Dias da Água, Lisboa; assistant curator of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Riode Janeiro and cultural assessor of Museu da República. He was assistant Publisher of RioArtes newspaper, art critic for Manchete, Jornal do Brasil, Folha de São Paulo and redactor of VivaMúsica!