Marilyn A. Zeitlin
Phoenix – AZ, USA, 2007
In Blefuscu, published by Dardo – ds, Spain, 2008
If artists have the ability to tune into the seismographic indicators of the Zeitgeist, then what can they tell us about the nature of the present in these days? In this time of tumultuous change, fraught with violence, Jose Bechara, in a prescient way, offers some propositions to address that query. His expression is precise though beyond language, set forth by objects that, while we know they are personal expression, seem to articulate the contradictory impulses that we navigate. He has been doing this through a body of work that he has made over the past five years under the overall title, The House. It uses the vocabulary of architecture, but the work is conceptual, not an analysis of architecture. Bechara is exploring form in space and at the same time investigating the social role of the most pervasive form of architecture, from primitive to sophisticated, and the place that the house plays in the psyche and in memory. He does not depict the house as an end in itself so much as simply to tell us what the house can no longer be. He evokes association and memory through his use of the form of a house, but casts an overlay of doubt and unease by making his house uninhabitable and unstable.
It is always a gripping tale to hear how an artist first begins to take on new creative work. The process rarely seems to be one of reasoning; or it is a reasoning that has been going on at a subterranean level, emerging more or less full-blown. As is the case of Bechara and the first House sculpture.
In Paraná at a conference of artists and critics in 2002, he was given all the painting materials he could want. He was, at that moment and until this decade, known almost solely as a painter, so painting was what was expected of him and what he expected of himself. But nothing came. Days passed, and nothing came. Frustrated, sitting in the small house given to him and his family for the duration of the retreat, he was suddenly assailed by the possibilities of the house itself. He saw pieces of furniture as solids that were waiting to be fit into the voids of windows and doorways. A mattress was thrust through a window, protruding like a thick tongue from a gaping mouth. Tables and chairs and couches explode through doorways. He moved his family out, and the house became the work.
Brazilian critic Paulo Sergio Duarte has made the point that Bechara’s sculptural works are not so much a break with his long trajectory as a painter but as a transmission of the work into three dimensions. Sergio says, “It is a form of the monochrome performed in space.”1 In both painting and sculpture, Bechara functions in continuity with the tradition of geometry that is a prominent manifestation of modernism in Brazil. But Bechara is not now and in retrospect does not seem to be dedicated to perpetuating that line. Even in his painting, it is clear that Bechara enriches the geometric with the organic. His lines are often hand-made, soft-edged. His process and materials record time. Narrative and autobiographical reference is encoded in a vocabulary that includes the systemic and geometric but is scarcely limited by any orthodoxy. His incorporation of accidental or aleatory features by using used canvas tarps that he gets from truck drivers by trading them for new ones interjects the activity of the non-art world to his practice. He builds up color and texture by intentionally rusting metal filings onto the canvas. He will sometimes use cowhide, again adding marks that are beyond his control, though he chooses them and frames them, to add creaturely life– and death– to the work. Now, in the sculpture, we see his strategy demonstrated in painting transmitted to the three-dimensional form: geometric at heart, it is not in the mode that seeks purity but, instead, draws experience into the pure form of geometry. He links himself with one of the most important art movements of the twentieth century through his continuity with the geometric. And simultaneously, he violates the purity and non-objective values of that tradition because it is experience– lived, untidy, outside the rules– that creates a hook onto which personal and historic meaning hangs.
In fact, Bechara refers to the sculptural work as “a sculpture experience.” That experience is his own, of course, and, as those who look at the work and feel its meaning both through the mind and the skin, ours as well. It is evocative of memory – personal and collective, private and historic.
Bechara both pays homage to and pushes against the geometric tradition. In this regard, he parallels the path of Hélio Oiticica,2 and the resemblance is more than superficial. Oiticica holds a place in Latin America modernism comparable to the presence and influence that Joseph Beuys wields in American and European art of the twentieth century. Oiticica (1937-80) was part of the neo-Concretist movement, and has left a rich legacy of works that investigate the power of color. But like Bechara later, Oiticica was attracted to objects–found and made, and a combination of the two – and to the life of the street. Oiticica’s performances originated in the favela Mangueira in Rio, where he took up the vitality and phantasmagoria, the Dionysian hedonism of carnaval, making his Parangolés, capes that are paintings that move on the body of a dancer. What unites the various aspects in the career of this artist is his obsession with color. What links Oiticica and Bechara is the performative in space.
Bechara, even as a painter, has never made canonical geometric works. When he broke open the house at Paraná, disgorging furniture through every aperture, he moved from painting to an exploration of space and form in space, “both formal and symbolic.”3 He also opened his work to richer association than it had ever carried before. From this point until the present, the three concerns of geometry, architecture, and association with lived experience evolve together.
In this work with the form of the house, he will sometimes use an actual house, as he did at Paraná. But that house is now a geometric object, one that retains some functional features transformed into formal ones and, through the bridge of architecture, mines associative sources. When he turns the house inside out, the furniture in a slow explosion from the interior to levitate as it cascades from an opening, he is revealing what might otherwise be hidden, private, even secret. A Casa, 2004, shown in Panorama da Arte Brasileira 2005,4 shows the relationship of geometry to lived life. The central core of the piece is a cube: plywood, unadorned and only provisionally finished. As if a force from within the cube has pressed the contents out through every orifice, furniture explodes outward. A table lies on its side, parts of a bed and chairs have been disgorged, balancing on another geometric rectangular prism. Bookshelves seem to have penetrated the wall on another side, with another table and a mattress balance atop it. While each element is placed with the same formal consideration that is invested in any compositional exercise, the impact is still one of spontaneity – even violence – and carries meaning through form.
A Casa is a bold contrast of order and mayhem. On a formal level, the cube is animated by diagonals and forms moving from the center. On a narrative level, one wonders what has happened inside to break the purity of the cube, what has occurred to reveal the detritus of everyday life so immodestly. A psychologist might suggest that the piece shows simultaneously the orderly exterior of the self and the turmoil of interiority.
Bechara matured as an artist with a love and respect for the geometric tradition that distinguishes Brazilian art. But I sense ambivalence even in the paintings, in the breakaway from geometry expressed in the use of his painting materials, in the puncturing of the geometric to convert a cube into a house, and even in his drawings. In a drawing on rice paper using pencil and red pigment, Bechara adds two bold red diagonal lines.5 They are purely expressive. The drawing, I think, reveals that his deepest intention is to hold aloft not just the geometric and the narrative, but to do so with an emotional honesty that is often removed from or even repressed in the interest of order and harmony.
Bechara, when I last visited the studio, was working out the strategy for the exhibition he was preparing for the rotunda of the Pinacoteca do Estado in São Paulo. He was talking about resisting the obvious, which would have been to use the existing windows and doorways to make another of the house pieces. The studio was filled with rectangular tables and classic office chairs. He was thinking and developing the work through the strenuous process of dragging these tables and chairs around the studio. And as he was moving them, he was telling me that the piece was about the impossibility of communication. It was about domestic misunderstanding – or any thwarted communication – expressed by making these tables and chairs fit together so closely that they were uncomfortable. The tops of the tables would be tilted slightly to suggest turbulence. The piece, Ok Ok Let’s Talk, 2006,6 fills the octagonal room almost wall to wall with tables. They nearly touch, making the space claustrophobic and impassable. Tightly inserted into this landscape of tables are two chairs. They face one another but are at a distance too uncomfortable for conversation and the arrangement of the tables prevents the possibility of moving them closer. But they can also not be placed further from one another. Bechara sees the work as an allegory of relationships in which parties are linked inexorably but also kept apart, a situation that talk can scarcely ameliorate.
Never working in the realm of the pure geometric, in this work, Bechara owns up to the content that floods our perception of art. We bring who we are to it just as the artist expresses through it. He has opened a new way for himself, connected to the present and to his own and our experience.
Even when Bechara makes a sculptural structure using some of the forms and strategies of house-building, the form goes only far enough in its familiarity as a house to suck us in, to lure us into trust. It is never complete, never quite right, never trustworthy.
By breaking the surface between inside and outside, Bechara pierces the protective role of the house, opening it to outside intrusion. By opening it, privacy – so important an aspect of security and of psychological comfort – is violated, the domestic leaks out and the public – with eyes that pry or evaluate or even appreciate – bores in. Under scrutiny as an art object, the house becomes like the bodies now preserved and being shown in museums around the world: the universality of these bodies and parts – we all have these parts – makes them no less intriguing because they are common. It is a modernist trope, to objectify them and thus convert them or contort them into art objects, the focus of contemplation and awe.
Not only is the house as a whole subjected by Bechara to scrutiny for its formal properties, the separate parts and furnishings are as well. A chair torn from its function is a complex form. Yet we never quite allow it to be leached of all its function-meaning. It is always a chair, even suspended in air or delicately cantilevered from a wall.
Bechara strips away all the associations of the house with comfort. That is the heart of the answer to my question about what’s afoot now. He forbids entry to the house. You can’t go home again because home is no longer a refuge. You can’t lock out fear; you can’t count on domestic bliss; you can’t even find much in the way of identity there anymore.
This vision of each of us somehow orphaned from the familiar is also applicable on the public level. Whole countries and certainly cities are veering toward chaos. Mass population shifts within countries are making cities fiercely dangerous through crime and disease. War, famine, drought and climate change are forcing populations to migrate transnationally at a frightening pace. This transmigration, for so long a source of enlivening of commerce and cultural hybridization, is now accelerated to such an extreme that much of the world is a place in which the familiar has been overwhelmed by rapid change and, in many places, by human suffering and anomie.
Homelessness suggests more than the people who have lost their homes. It suggests that even those of us who may have a place to live may not draw the assurances from it that the idea of home promises. The concept of a homeland seems so nostalgic, evoking an uncomfortable sense of nationalism. But the idea has sufficient power that wars are being fought to create homelands, to find a piece of earth on which to make a house. The real estate market is shaky from over-speculation in capitalist countries in the many arenas of warfare; nationalism is being used to channel ethnic competition to address what are scars of colonialism. The victims are human but also entire cities that are now being destroyed, the people who called it home turned into refugees.
Walking through the streets of a city, it is exciting and at the same time a bit frightening to overhear people talking on their cell phones in an array of languages so varied and, from my perspective, so often exotic that I cannot even identify what those languages are. Globalization is upon us, for both good and bad, and we are among strangers most of the time.
Bechara strips away the comfort of physical safety that we associate with the house. In his work, the house has walls that do not fully enclose. Privacy, he suggests, is close to impossible in a house in which walls are not contiguous. Inside is often disgorged to be the outside. Flimsy materials such as rice paper loosely tacked into place become the support for a large work comprised of drawing on rice paper.7
Yet we cannot help ourselves. We long for the house to be safe, private, comforting for our spirit, and redolent of family. It is also the receptacle of family memories. We long for it to be – dare I say it? – cozy, a domestic nest or, if that is too cloying, at least a place in which some people we care about can get along together.
Bechara adds to the tension of what the house evokes in us and what he delivers in denying that what we long for is unavailable by making us stretch to maintain our sense of the work as both architecturally-based and pure sculpture. The work is, at all times, both sculpture and architecture. Like the small parallax created by closing one eye to see something first from different angle and then, when you close the other eye instead, the same thing seems different from another slightly different angle. Sometimes the sculptural function dominates. At other times, it is clearly architecture. It depends upon which eye is open, which closed.
Artists who use house forms, allowing the viewer to enter and savor familiarity, remind me of a childhood incident. I spent summers in a community outside of New York City, at a house built by my grandfather and his many sons. Parallel to our road was another road with similar houses, but for reasons I cannot explain, these were uninhabited. With a few older cousins and friends, we would surreptitiously go into these houses, examine the kitchen utensils left unused for many years, smell the sourness of the old mattresses. We imagined ourselves escaping the control of parental norms that enforced cleanliness and ambition, to become vagabonds that would hole up in these abandoned shacks. We would never mention these forays to our parents. It was strangely thrilling with voyeuristic pleasure.
In the sense of estrangement and a house as an object, this experience resembles the feeling one has in the presence of Bechara’s sculptural house series. Bechara, in talking about the house and the richness of associations it brings, talks about the memory of his grandfather preparing food for him and his cousins, chopping vegetables on an old table. The house is replete with domestic memory since it is the container for living; the home is synonymous with family. Protection, identity, expression of who we are or who we aspire to be. But he is keenly aware that the domesticity that he describes belongs, for most of us, to another time. In deconstructing the house as a structure he also is deconstructing it as an idea, not indulging our fantasy of the familial.
But by the time he is making the object, Bechara does not evoke a specific moment or biographic thread. He pushes us in the opposite direction: away from familiarity and nostalgia. His house is a much more nearly pure modernist undertaking, with narrative postponed or distanced if not obliterated. Tension of reference and associations of house with pure form come first; association, later, though powerfully.
There is allure in houses that are in ruins or broken. A house under construction, at the stage at which its studs are in place like a dotted-line drawing, suggests the solids and voids to come. Yet the absence of the wall board or plaster makes the house permeable. We can walk through walls, like wraiths, eschewing doorways to pass from room to room without using the doorways. We are temporarily supernatural.
Rather than linking Bechara with artists who evoke the association of the house moving us toward the familiar, Bechara seems much more akin to Gordon Matta-Clark, who estranges us from the familiar to subject the house to an analytic process through cutting and laying bare what seethes beneath the surface.8 By cutting into the wall, he revealed history of the building, the layers of paint, the plaster, the infrastructure of wiring and plumbing pipe. We see its secrets so carefully shielded from us by the wall surface, see the thickness of the walls. At the same time, Bechara and Matta-Clark create something mysterious of the house, the way that lying in bed and looking at the ceiling and thinking of it as the floor makes everything new and a little terrible.
Simply by cutting into the house, it becomes an art object. Its parts become art objects as well. By isolating one aspect of it – a corner sliced off at an angle and placed on the floor – the familiar is eclipsed by the dynamics of form. The scale of materials and elements becomes suddenly new and visually arresting.
The linkage to Matta-Clark may also be a connection to Oiticica. Oiticica went to New York in the early 70s, the time during which Matta-Clark was making signature works such as Splitting (1974).9 It is difficult to imagine that Oiticica was not aware of Matta-Clark, who was a catalytic figure in the art community, even making a restaurant in Soho as a work, a social sculpture in the Beuysian sense. So one could conjecture that some of the impact of Matta-Clark may have traveled back to Brazil through Oiticica when he returned to Rio.
It is not just in the work of Bechara that the house comes to stand for the body. It is a metaphor that has roots in the Bible and throughout the history of poetry. Bechara makes us uneasy not only because the solidity of the house has been dissolved, but because we feel the frisson of the body’s vulnerability. The body is a receptacle for nerves/wiring and circulatory systems/plumbing. Both are covered by a thin skin, one easily penetrated. Splitting and Bechara’s own houses that are cut link the house with the body. It is as if the artist is a surgeon, making incisions and amputations to study the deeper levels of form and meaning.
Another Brazilian artist who has brought the geometric forward by welding it to present-day experience is Raul Mourão.10 His work first strikes one as severe, minimalist. It is not until you realize that the metal linear forms refer to the bars that secure the windows and doors of houses that you see that the work is narrative at the same time that it is pure geometry. In a subtle visual language, it refers to the vulnerability and incipient violation of privacy and security that is transforming urban experience. Mourão, who is a friend of Bechara, can also take the linear abstraction of the marks made on a soccer field and make sleek objects from this information. The work ranges from sinister to witty, and is sometimes both simultaneously. Both he and Bechara suggest a body – present by its absence – whether through a vacant house or the security apparatus and those who would live on either side of it.11
Bechara’s house structures suggest motion, not static form. They are not plumb. They are intended to suggest instability. They are sleek relatives of that creature from Russian mythology that terrifies children, the Baba Yaga, an animate house with chicken legs that rattles spoons as it walks.
The large-scale works are ominous. The installation-size pieces balance the stability of the cube with the centrifugal force of the elements that emanate from the openings. In the most recent work, Bechara scales down, expands his exploration in works with the series “Open House.” He recently showed these, with large-scale photographs, in an exhibition titled “Geometrica.” The title focuses our thinking about them from the very start on formal issues, on objectness and the relationship to geometry. In the “Open House” works he experiments with smaller scale, making works on what we might call a domestic scale— an irony, since the meaning of the work seems to depend to such a great degree on our giving up the faith in domesticity. Yet we still live in houses, as compromised as that notion may be, and these works now enter as art. Social relevance is now in the background, a much more subtle subtext. The works are complex, less assertive than the installation pieces not merely because they are smaller, but because the artists seems to be relaxing and allowing himself to pick and choose from a wide vocabulary of strategies. In Duas cabeças com vermelho, 2006,12 he pairs a skeletal form of the cube with a solid cube. The skeleton is often skewed, lifted to one side, like a shadow of the solid form. The pas de deux between them has a teasing quality to it. The works, in some cases, retain the ominousness of the installation-scale work. Black-Black is one of these, made more severe by the monochrome. This and others in the series are not-so-distant cousins of minimal sculpture. But none of them is completely devoid of the suggestion of narrative. Even Black-Black has extensions that are ramps or escape hatches.
What comes to mind in looking at these works is a reliquary or tabernacle. These also are forms that cannot be entered, not for art-conceptual reasons but because they contain a relic or text that is so holy that it cannot be looked upon. In that way – that they exist in form that can never be seen – they are, after all, purely conceptual.
Again, the parallel to Matta-Clark is apparent in the attraction to the idea of making works that fit into the gallery. The objects that Matta-Clark created when he cut corners off the house from Splitting to make gallery-scaled objects suggest the discovery of new objects.13 Bechara seems to be doing something quite similar by luring his own houses into the gallery.
Bechara has made beautiful photographs of the house works from the beginning. In creating this relationship between objects and photographs he also recalls Matta-Clark, and for some similar reasons: the houses and large-scale installations are by their very nature impermanent. But beyond the preservation motive, the artists’ photographs are independent works, two-dimensional works, compositions of forms extracted from three dimensional objects. Perhaps these take us back to the beginning, to Bechara the painter, and, as he suggests, to geometry.
The relationship of large-scale, smaller-scale, and photographs that go beyond documentation to stand as works of art remind me of the production of Dennis Oppenheim. But the deeper connection is the more fundamental one: both Bechara and Oppenheim use formal precedent as springboards for their own more personal investigations. Both started their careers making astringent, minimal works, later moving to expand from this rigorous base or even, in the case of Oppenheim, to parody it.14 Both expanded their use architectural forms among an array of iconographic sources to comment on the social, historic, and personal condition. They both hang their narrative content and meaning on traditions, redefining the parameters of those traditions and creating new ways to set forth art as a practice that must constantly move into unknown territory.
A work of art is inevitably seen through the filter of our own time and our own experience. Meaning is sensitive to surroundings. Just as a writer sees work as it functions not only at the time of its making but in the present. What I am reading or what is on the news conditions my response to work I am writing about. So Bechara’s house forms tell me something about the news and the news skews my understanding of his work.
The vulnerability of the body as suggested, tangentially, in Bechara’s work, reminds me of a work by Caetano Dias, Cristo de Rapadura,15 shown as part of the 2004 Paralela, the exhibition organized by the art dealers of São Paulo to expand the Brazilian content of the Bienal de São Paulo. The work is a full-scale cast figure, a recumbent body of Christ made from brown (unrefined) sugar. The work welcomes people to break off a piece and to eat it, a kind of Communion. It is a much more literal expression of the vulnerability of the body than anything Bechara would ever do. But in its presentation of the fragmentary, in its double meaning of both death and disintegration, it also promises something beyond the object itself, beyond association with the body. Bechara would never, I doubt, be so optimistic. But the transformation of the familiarity of the house into pure form is, in a sense, its own apotheosis.
- Paulo Sergio Duarte. “This House of Bechara’s” in José Bechara: A Casa, Francisco Alves, Rio de Janeiro, 2006, p. 31-32.
- Mari Carmen Ramirez, Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Color, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Houston, Texas, 2007.
- From a communication with the artist June 16, 2007.
- Panorama da Arte Brasileira 2005, São Paulo: Museu de Arte Moderna, 2006, p. 14-16 and 23.
- A Casa: José Bechara, Francisco Alves, Rio de Janeiro, 2006, p 52-53.
- José Bechara, Ok, ok, let’s talk, 2006, tables, chairs, dimensions variable. Projecto Octógono de Arte Contemporânea, Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2006.
- José Bechara, Quick Notebooks, 1999, carbon steel oxidation on papers, dimensions variable, coll. the artist, Rio de Janeiro, photo: Paulo Schuenstuhl.
- Elizabeth Sussman, ed., Gordon Matta-Clark: You Are the Measure, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007.
- Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, was executed in 1974. It is documented in a series of photographs dated 1974-75.
- Raul Mourão, Rio de Janeiro: Casa de Palavra Producão Editorial, 2007.
- I once visited an artist whose studio is in a beautiful modernist house in the hills behind Rio. It has a view of the lagoon and Copacabana, is surrounded by tropical foliage. It is imprisoned by chain-link fence, electronic surveillance cameras, and guard dogs. It is safe enough, with these precautions, to be used as a studio, but no one can live there since it cannot be protected after dark. The house is disintegrating from neglect since it cannot be inhabited.
- José Bechara, Duas cabeças com vermelho, 2006, 1of ed. 2, from Open House series, oxidized MDF and oil, dimensions variable approximately 50 x 50 x 90 cm., courtesy of Lurixs Gallery, Rio de Janeiro.
- Sussman, p. 112-113.
- Germano Celant, Dennis Oppenheim: Explorations, Milan: Ediciones Charta, 2001.
Marilyn A. Zeitlin is Director and Chief Curator of the Arizona State University (ASU) Museum. Zeitlin holds an undergraduate degree in comparative literature and a masters degree in English from Harvard University.