Firefly flashes, an adventure in Oz, and the drawings of José Bechara

Fernando Cocchiarale
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, 2010
In como piscada de vagalume, published by Editora Réptil, Rio de Janeiro, 2010


Known as a painter and, more recently, for his installations, José Bechara also draws. Never before, however, have his drawings been shown or brought to the public as comprehensively as in this publication, although some of them had already been shown in exhibitions and catalogs. These drawings are little known, not only to the general public, but also for those intimate with contemporary art.
Like Bechara, a great number of contemporary artists draw, including those who became famous for using unconventional and experimental media, materials, supports and techniques. In the second half of the 19th century drawing began to gain a certain independence from the media it had served: its quick and synthetic renderings had made it useful for studies, preparatory stages for paintings and sculptures, which also deprived it of a purpose on its own.
In the dynamics of the modern urban industrial world, social transformations, and the speed of transportation and communications have meant valuing the instant and the instantaneous, systematizing the essential processes of human action, and, consequently, experimenting.
All this favored a new place for drawing in art. Deemed previously to be a lesser art regarding painting and sculpture, its singular qualities have, reacquired value because of the modernity of drawing. Three elements, project, expression and automatism, have found, in drawing, a privileged medium.
This expansion, however, was not limited solely to art. With mass entertainment, there came new forms of expression for drawing, such as illustrated magazines, political cartoons, caricatures, comic strips and posters. New possibilities emerged, as these areas grew opportunities for invention and expansion, as illustrated, for example, in the widespread use of graffiti and tattoos in the last few decades.
Of the various craft techniques we have inherited from the past, drawing was, therefore, the technique which most easily adapted, overcame obstacles, and updated itself. Nor is it an exaggeration to note that drawing also involves contiguity between gesture and result, thereby placing it on the same level as writing. That is not, however, to equate it to writing; its rationale and morphology are completely different. It comprises another irreplaceable medium for recording thoughts and sensation.
Drawings are, thus, products located at the root of the creative process. They can be seen as exclusive notations of singular poetic processes, expressions of intimate situations, predictors of artworks and projects, while also being the appropriate medium for imaginary buildings, whether laboriously or evanescently suggested. Drawing, therefore, if we allow ourselves some license to establish the analogy, suggests it is proximate to media of immediate technological visual capture, which have been made possible by digital cameras and video.
In the specific realm of the arts (both in art theory as well and in the practice and reflections of artists), drawing has also expanded (1) from the surface of paper into real space, to new media and to the body in action.
Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing shown for the first time in 1971 at New York’s Guggenheim Museum; a few of Dennis Oppenheim’s videos, such as A Feedback Situation and Two Stage Transfer Drawing, created in 1971; works by Cildo Meireles, such as La Bruja (shown at the XVI São Paulo 1981 Biennial) and the work Malhas da Liberdade, the first version of which dating from 1977; also, a considerable part of Waltércio Caldas’s sculptures (O Ar Mais Próximo, from 1991, A Série Negra from 2005 and Olhos D’água, from 2008, to name a few), are examples of the expansion of drawing (2).
It is difficult today to understand drawing if we base ourselves on concepts or repertoires used in the past to distinguish it clearly from painting or sculpture. The media overflowed the borders of their conventional supports, expanding their rationale to areas understood, at first, to belong to foreign techniques. In place of clearly marked ancient boundaries, new intersections emerged, overlaying and undoing borders. This happened not for lack of rigor, but as a manifestation of the modus operandi of late capitalism and its foundations on networks. The permanent connection and exchange of practices, ideas and concepts only became possible by stretching, to the pint of unraveling, boundaries that in the past distinguished (and separated) different specializations brought about by specific and easily recognizable areas, whether they belonged to specific trades, professions, to the theoretical sciences, or technology.
Such background issues can not only clarify the various fronts in which José Bechara’s drawings unfold, but also the connection between these drawings and his body of work: paintings produced through oxidizing surfaces of used tarpaulins taken from trucks; the Pelada Series, created from white leather of nelore cattle; installations recreating houses that seem to spew furniture from windows and doors, and the recent series, still untitled, made up of spatial drawings or graphic sculptures.
Bechara has become known for paintings that build on the marks left by the passage of time on objects appropriated by him. Bechara initially worked with tarpaulins taken from the backs of trucks, which had been worn out by daily use; he would offer truck drivers new ones in exchange for the used ones. Bechara would then work on the surfaces marked with the damage produced by wear and tear, oxidizing them by applying steel wool sponges. Taken from such daily use, the supports for his paintings had already been worn out before they entered the art world. By deliberately intervening in this field of random engraving, Bechara awards them new qualities it in another dimension of time
A similar process takes place in the paintings created on a very different surface: white hides from Nelore cattle, which is why they belong, according to the artist’s own choice of title, to the series Pelada.
Clearly, Bechara chose Nelore leather for its chromatic and graphic characteristics. To Bechara’s eyes the whiteness of the leather shows the unmistakable remains of scars and brandings made with hot irons on the cattle’s bodies. This aesthetic sense adds symbolic and semantic content to other spheres of meaning. The abrasions on the skins are more than random graphic markings; they have also become the marks of a life fated to certain death in the slaughterhouses. If the whiteness of the skins is a graphic evidence of life, it also, on the other hand, evokes the blood shed before these hides became immaculate. Landmarks in José Bechara’s path, these works already show signs of the poetics recurrent in his work, the crystallization of time and space.
The tarps, patched and stained through everyday use, and scars on Nelore leathers are signs of the random action of time over surfaces. By interrupting time, by appropriating himself of these surfaces, and appropriating himself of them, Bechara adds another layer of temporality to the one instilled in the previous existence of the support. They are, therefore, works conceived as a condensation, in the realm of the work, of various periods of time.
Similarly, the artist’s installations and graphic sculptures also take on poetic meanings through the spatial condensation of previous events impregnated in them. On the other hand, unlike the paintings, these works do not explore the marks that life produces on supports (as in the case of the truck tarps and the Nelore skins) prior to the artist’s appropriation.
Bechara’s work is the construction of spaces in which unique and fictional eruptions take place (such as, for example, houses spewing furniture through windows and doors). Here, as well, though in a different manner, the reasons for such events do not belong to the work rationale, since they are not sequential narratives, but rather are signs. Their meaning emanates from the tension between such states of flux and crystallization in his work.
The inexorable action of time on objects, taken on by the artist as a fundamental part of his own work process, continues in different pace after the work of art is finished, although works of art, when compared to daily objects, may seem eternal. Bechara not only accepts the inevitable wear and tear of objects, but appropriates himself of it as part of his own work.
All these poetic operations are permeated by his drawings. They have their own goals and specific demands, but remain permanently connected. The drawings can emerge as notes for projects and for other works, as exercises and unbounded reveries, or can become intersections with painting and sculpture.
If we disregard taxonomic concerns, it is possible to group Bechara’s drawings provisionally in five sets: Cadernos Rápidos, free-style drawings, project designs, spatial drawings (or graphic sculptures) and finally, the Air Series drawings.
In Quick notebooks, Bechara exposed eighty Japanese paper sheets to programmed oxidizing for a period of one hundred and twenty days, much like the tarp paintings.
The title would seem contradictory, in light of the oxidation time frame. Yet, in this case of Rápidos (Fast), speed does not refer to the time elapsed while they were impregnated with rust: speed relates to simultaneity. Eighty sheets of paper began and finished their transformation in a single period of time, without interruption.
Shown for the first time in 1999, at the Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro, the work took up two walls at an angle to each other, in which the sheets of paper placed side by side, and from the ground to the ceiling of the exhibition room, created an oscillating panel that swayed with the movement of the air displaced by the visitors in the room.
The oxidation was programmed to thoroughly stain, the surfaces of the Quick notebooks‘ sheets of paper in various shapes of rust. They are, therefore, neither drawings nor paintings, as the spread of color tones, on the one hand, and the affirmative use of paper, on the other, place the Quick notebooks at the crossroads of these two practices.
There is another set of drawings, created regularly since 1987, remaining on the borderline of the issues featuring the body of Bechara’s work. They are free-style drawings showing no overt commitment other than joy in the medium, but which, nevertheless, according to the artist himself, bring about flashes or snapshots which, like the flashes of fireflies, ignite ideas for new works. Bechara had never given these drawings an important role in his poetic constellation: the drawings are almost always still lifes of minimal elements, lightly sketched in ink and, at times, with light watercolor washes.
The figurative elements in these drawings, vases, and fruits are not a characteristic of his work. The latter goes beyond the traditional use of techniques consecrated in painting – the canvas, brushes, and paints – and, more recently, sculpture, because his poetic strategy is not associated to valuing the skill and artisanship. In addition, the figurative content and flow of gesture of the drawings seem foreign to those of us who know José Bechara’s work.
Located at the wayside of the more recognizable aspects of his production, these works are now being shown for the first time. They can be understood as the other side of his work, an alternative until now invisible regarding the projects being developed. A means to forget and escape habitual artistic practice, albeit certainly contributing to formulating issues present in his work.
In the opposite direction, but also on the borderline of the core of his works, are the project drawings. They do not properly constitute a series, since their role comprises jotting down ideas and thoughts, as part of the gestation process that does not always lead to work execution.
This spatial geometric organization – an organization historically associated to reason and to the project, as opposed to expression and chance – is also characteristic of Bechara’s other series. But quite unlike what it may suggest, such organization is not the result of a prior detailed project, even if some of these drawings contain notes on size and even color and materials. These drawings, therefore, do not entail even independent works, or comprise projects in the habitual sense, which show a detailed and precise prefiguring of the final work.
The deliberate incompleteness of these projects the foundations, thus, of processes, and not results: the action of time in space, paintings oxidizing on tarps, and the Quick notebooks, open installations and the graphic sculptures, for example, are signs of works produced based on ideas in which chance is the vital poetic component.
There was, in 2002, a decisive turning point in José Bechara’s work. This began at the Faxinal das Artes, an event held at the city of Faxinal in the interior of Paraná state. Bechara was one in one hundred artists invited from all over the country who, along with approximately 40 persons from other areas, lived an entire fortnight dedicated to the exchange of ideas and development of experiences. The group resided in houses which had once belonged to a teacher training center in the state of Paraná.
Bechara had been invited to paint, but time went on and, as he reached the end of his stay, he found he had not been able to come up with even a thread of a proposal. As he put it himself, he was then taken by an idea which changed the course of his work.
As he looked out of the window of his house, he noticed that it framed the night sky, but he did not see it as landscape – that is, not as the familiar metaphor created by Renaissance painters – the painting as a window – but as emptiness. The words came to him and he wrote them down: fill in the emptiness. He took the table in front of him and fit it through the window, then took other pieces of furniture and began to fill in the remaining windows and doors, suggesting that they were being ejected outside. New possibilities of poetic invention opened up, located at the ambiguous intersection between sculpture, installation and later, drawing.
Bechara was interested at first in the notion of producing sculptures through addition, not subtraction. Sculpture built through appropriation and assemblage – opening up hybrid paths by appropriating real objects, paths taken both by Marcel Duchamp (ready-made), and by late cubism (Picasso) – and not, as perhaps the term construction could suggest, from propositions derived from early 20th century Russian constructivism, whose fully projected buildings took on a unique structural makeup.
Faxinal is at the source of Bechara’s great installations, made up of life-size houses built by the artist (these were, in practice, parallelepipeds, with no other details than windows and doors) which expel furniture purchased in shops.
The installations unfolded into scaled sculptures produced in the 2005 to 2009 series Open House series, cubic structures contain openings like a house. From this series there was emerged, from 2009 onwards, a still-untitled three-dimensional series (there are four works so far) which can understood as spatial drawings, since they are formed by cubes comprised only of their edges and combined with freely-placed miniature installations in the corners of the exhibition area. They project shadows on the walls around them, extending the spatial drawings or graphic sculptures into real space.
Made of a variety of materials – wood, steel, aluminium and acrylics – and in various sizes, these works already point to the future of Bechara’s work.
It is, however, important to note that all his works centering on the house, which began at Faxinal, bear a thematic dimension lacking in his previous work. The house is, certainly, for practically everyone, a place for intimacy, coziness, comfort, security and protection. Bringing out this inner world through ejecting furniture is not, thus, an event of purely spatial meaning, whether related to sculpture, installation or graphic media. It is a choice which also enters other fields and reverberates in an also symbolic Dimension.
The instability suggested in the contrast between an inner world and the eruption of furniture reappears under another guise in the Ar Series drawings. Begun at the end of 2008, these drawings depict small, almost-childlike houses stamped on paper with a watercolor background creating an air-like environment. Beyond its unorthodox technique (if we consider that stamping a drawing is coherent with Bechara’s techniques, media and usual procedures) these houses in turmoil in an unstable movement, as if torn away from their original ground, suggest ideas and propose stories.
In particularly speculative exercise, devoid of pretentions to reaching final conclusions, we may, for example, take the drawings of this series as signs of the ceaseless dynamics of time changing everything, or still, as graphic icons of the tension that pits stability against movement. Or perhaps, like the Kansas house, wrenched out of a tedious life by a tornado, careening towards the world of Oz, the symbol of the promising insecurity which moves adventure.


[1] In this sense, see the article “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, by Rosalind Krauss, (originally published in “The anti-aesthetic: essays of postmodern culture” Washington: Bay Press, 1984) to characterize the new status of sculpture after its dissociation from the rationale of monuments.
[2] Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings were made directly on large walls based on the systems conceived by the artist, but carried out by third parties. They were shown for the first time in 1971, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The video A Feedback Situation (1971), by Dennis Oppenheim, shows the artist drawing free hand on his son’s back as the boy reproduces his father’s scribbled drawing on the wall in front of him. The order is subsequently reversed. In the video Two Stage Transfer Drawing (1971) both father and son draw simultaneously on each other’s backs.
La Bruja by Cildo Meireles (conceived in 1979 and shown at the 16th São Paulo Biennial in 1981) consists of a broom which, instead of bristles, has kilometers of cotton threads that spread across the exhibition floor, making their way towards the building exterior. The works that make up Malhas da Liberdade (1976) vary, from a rhizome-like expanse of cotton strings tied to one another and spread on the ground (version 1) to iron lattice structures fitted with sheets of glass.
Waltércio Caldas’ O Ar Mais Próximo (1991) is made up of strands of wool of different colors that hang from the ceiling in straight lines and curves. His Série Negra (2005) designates a group of works comprised of black tables with metallic structures and strings of wool. Finally, Olhos d´água (2008) combines aqua-green metal structures with wool.