Luis Camillo Osorio
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
In A Casa, published by Francisco Alves Editora, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2006
At first glance, A Casa (The House), this project by José Bechara appears to be a detour in his artistic trajectory. Taking up sculptorial values, relegating the oxidized and roughened surfaces of its Lonas (Tarpaulins), suggests quite a radical redirection in language. I do not think, however, that this is, in fact, the case. It is my intention in this small essay to emphasize, beyond this re-routing, the single underlying poetic direction to which new media and a new aesthetic intensity were added without marring the internal coherence of his work.
Some elements steer José Bechara’s creative action, a combination of appropriation, intervention and formal preoccupation. Each of these elements has its specificity, but their action is measured to the necessities of each single artwork. The artist’s intervention, in face of what has already been incorporated to the tarpaulin after years of use on a truck, responds to a desire for form that arises from within the action itself. Even if his training and his gaze are linked to the tradition in pictorial representation, it is not painting as a craft that motivates the quotidian at his studio. Painting is the horizon of his poetics, it is the place from which he conceptualizes art, but it does not set the conditions for his work’s need for expression, nor is it sufficient for him as creative intervention. The first sculptor that I heard him comment with enthusiasm was Medrado Rosso, perhaps the most pictorial of the great modern sculptors.
Painting, in a sense his daily priesthood, requires a practice of patience and contention that does not fit the physical nature of his aesthetic action, nor does it fit his accelerated existential pace. There is an impulsive urgency that, nevertheless, will not inhibit the necessary course of maturation of the artistic phenomenon, and will not accelerate the emergence of the visual occurrence. The time the tarpaulin takes to decant while it oxidizes instead of opposing or cloaking previous artistic actions makes them more potent, bringing them out to the fullest in newly conquered form. These are physical confrontations of wider breadth than the hand and paintbrush typical of painting. The artist’s process begins even when the tarpaulin’s prices are negotiated with drivers, having them taken them off the backs of trucks, transporting them to the studio, studying them, selecting interesting visual events, cutting them, starting the oxidizing process, waiting, interfering, stopping, interfering again, the entire process part of the final work, all of it contained within the works themselves.
We can see in the physical necessities of his poetic intervention that it was not due to external or casual reasons that Bechara traded, in the beginning of the 90’s, traditional painting and its materials for truck tarpaulins and oxidation. This redirection toward the tarpaulins and away from painting in the strict sense, responded to an intrinsic need in his creative method, to the internal rhythm of his style. One could also suggest if we look at these works a posteriori, that the greater physical breadth taken up in Bechara’s creative process implied in a greater concentration of matter and its dilation, eventually extrapolating the plane. The handfuls of steel wool that gathered up on its surface gradually became sculptural foci that emerged in the oxidizing process, releasing themselves into real space.
This appropriation of common things, such as tarpaulins from trucks initially, and furniture in his most recent phase, interests the artist as far as they bring along with them, inherently, an aesthetic potentiality, a set of occurrences that is selected and transformed due to a specific intervention. This intervention takes the form of rust or the precarious and tottering pile of furniture in search of a concentrated form. It is of little importance if we are facing a sculpture, a painting or an installation, an ambiguity all the more evident in this series with furniture which is at times closer to an installation, such as the show at the Paço Imperial, 2003, at times closer to sculpture, such as the show at the Tomie Othake Institute in 2004. In both cases the relation to A Casa (The House) is only suggested, in a certain sense veiled, by accumulation, concentration and deletion, the actions that constitute his work. It is a work in progress that at each retelling, each time it is brought up to date, makes its referent more or less explicit, investing in the tension – and that is what interests him most – between suggested referentiality and formalized aesthetic energy.
Allan Kaprow in a very well known text written toward the end of the 1950’s led us to consider Jackson Pollock’s legacy as one that goes beyond issues belonging exclusively to the pictorial realm. And to conceptualize these, the pictorial issues, as extrapolating the traditional supports of painting. Contaminations between supports and media have been emerging since the cubist collages and the surrealist assemblages, but it is with Rauschenber, Dubuffet and the Happenings of the ’60s that they acquire virtually canonical status. As Oiticica wrote at the entrance of his penetrable Tropicália: “Pureza é um mito” (Purity is a myth). According to Kaprow, “Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through pain of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists…. The possibility of discovering new materializations of the poetic phenomenon has been dissolving the a priori categories of art. They have opened an experimental field where freedom and quality have taken up new perspectives and relations. It is of little importance if we are certain whether this or that is, or is not, art, what is significant is that the possibilities of meaning unfold from a specific formalization so that they are allowed to disseminate and multiply themselves.
In Lonas (Tarpaulins) or in Casa there is an appropriation of mundane objects, they are artistically re-charged, their potency renewed through the artist’s proposed intervention and redirection. In the various phases of Casas, from the Faxinal to the MAM, to the others that are to come – be it through drawings, photographs, sculptures or installations-, Bechara will force us to consider the material nature of things and their symbolic re-materializations, in which the memory of real houses and the abstract possibilities of formalization co-exist in the act of poetic experience. There will always be tension between seeing a house and seeing a sculptural volume, between the referent and the abstract form.
The selection of a truck’s tarpaulin, the exchange with a truck driver, its acquisition, setting in a studio, the choice of interferences, stains, and tears that have gathered on its surface, cutting the piece, all this is the work of the artist, and, as I mentioned, part of the artistic operation. The oxidation soon follows, and with it begins the artist’s formalizing intervention. The artist considers the visual memory already in existence, organizes a set of new occurrences that will integrate themselves to it, conferring it new potency, reinventing it as a pictorial form.
This is a process in which form is born of the combined actions of extraction and accumulation, adding and taking away matter, nudging oxidations to the desired color and texture. The imposition of a geometric structure criss-crossing the informal pulse of rust and the handfuls of steel wool is an attempt at cooling down its dramatic character, at imposing order where there is chaos. But chaos, thankfully, resists.
In between the production of Lonas (Tarpaulins) and Casas (Houses) – mindful that this “in between” does not imply in having interrupted one in favor of the other, since the Lonas are being created to this day – there have been experiments with calf skins, eiderdown comforters and a series of “frustrated” attempts at oxidizing mattresses.
Germinating within this failure was, already, the operation of Casas, an appropriation of things that are in the intimate living spaces and not atop trucks or out on the open roads. Often it is the unsuccessful experiences at the studios, those that never reach the status of finished work such as was the case of Colchões (mattresses), which open new perspectives to a distinct poetics. However unconscious, it is a curious transition from pure externality that accumulates aesthetic occurrences directly from the clash with the forces of nature – rain, sun, wind, soot, dust, etc.- to these mattresses and comforters, and later furniture, the shelter to our intimacy, that hold for us the vestiges of a private memory.
The gesture of de-dramatization that meant a geometric structuring in the Lonas and that occurs in Casa through the right angled façade of external volume, its windows and doors, as well as the insertion of specially fashioned furniture in lightly colored plywood of spare design, furniture that is pristine, unmarked, without mysteries on its surface. This ambiguity, between house and sculptural volume, is reflected in the other ambiguities, between past and present, memory and matter. In the construction of Casa that which is intimate is expelled, ejected, turned out. In Lonas that which is a mark of the world and of external nature will be brought back and absorbed to the center of the canvas. This play on inside and outside, intimacy and externality, appropriation and extraction, formality and informality, is where the artist’s poetic structure develops.
The various stages of the process of Casa, or better, its many versions, indicate a work in progress; an action that constantly multiplies itself and that is continuous reinvention. It all began in 2002, when an internship program for artists at Faxinal do Céu congregated a hundred artists to live together in an abandoned village for two weeks, with quite an intense and open schedule of activities. No one was under the obligation to create works of art, but things were happening everywhere. Bechara decided to spit out his own house, the place where he and his family were staying at during the meeting. The photographs were taken by his wife, the actress Dedina Bernardelli, who was directly involved in this explosion. The opposite of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau in which the author took home litter picked up in the streets, transforming it into an assemblage, in a process that would end by driving him and his family out of his home; in Bechara’s work, and I refer to his specific work at Faxinal, it is what is inside that is cast out, intimacy is ejected.
Bechara’s Casa is completely exposed, while Schwitters’ is entirely brought inside. We are obviously not dealing with the German artist’s extremism here, Schwitter did in fact place his personal life in jeopardy, while Bechara creates a momentary experiment, a catharsis of intimacy which will later operate in the work’s formalizations in museums and not in the constant re-fabrication of life’s spaces.
In the shows that followed, at the Paço Imperial (2003) and at the Tomie Othake Institute (2004) sculptural abstraction superimposed itself over the concrete referent, the house. What would have taken him in this direction, toward the deletion of the referent? I believe that it has been his personal venture, since his Lonas phase that art needs to continue its existence as a field of formal experimentation free from the obligations of reality. There is a desire for form that permeates the artist’s appropriations and interventions risking an excessive formalism once the surprises inherent to the materials succumb to the technical dominance of the interferences. That is when the need for redirection appears, for the systematic investigation into other supports and materials. One of the strengths of the Casas project, one that accompanies it tangentially, is the invariable presence of drawings. They illuminate a gesture that is free and imbued with scale, suggesting a redirection toward monumentality that manifests itself in the actions of the quality of sculpture and installations present since Faxinal.
From what we have seen, it will be in this transit, among various possibilities of aesthetic action, through the recurring redirections from the plane toward space that will unfold the poetic trajectory of the artist. Without abandoning conquered territories, and equating at each new experiment a possible equilibrium between the precarious and the formalized, the work of José Bechara will unfold, alert to the need for interventions in the world, appropriating its raw and prosaic materiality. There is more in store for us yet in Lonas and Casas, there will be new redirections.
Luiz Camillo Osório is an art critic. He writes for O’Globo newspaper and is a professor at PUC-Rio and UniRio (Brazil). He is also the curator of the JP Morgan collection in Brazil.