Oscilating Territory

Luiz Camillo Osório
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2019
Text written for the catalogue of José Bechara’s exhibition “Oscilating Territory” at Iberê Camargo Foundation, Porto Alegre – POA, 2019. Translated by Paul Webb.

The collection of works by José Bechara on show at the Iberê Camargo Foundation is not intended to be a retrospective. Stretching back over almost 30 years, these works aim to illustrate certain key features of Bechara’s art, without exhaustively covering each phase of his career. José Bechara’s training as an artist, in the 1980s, was disrupted early on, because he had to avoid paints and solvents. The use of tarpaulin and his interventions involving rust originated in the early 1990s and staked out new extremely fertile ground in the field of painting. The novelty did not lie in the materials but in the way in which the artist appropriates them and develops unique pictorial functions. Concern for the material elements of the world, the experience of time, and the way time inscribes itself in the surface of things constitutes a modus operandi whose method is appropriation and whose scale is ultra-high precision. 

The work with tarpaulins was the hallmark of what I consider the first authorial venture of Bechara’s career—the experimental piece House, initiated during his residency at Faxinal do Céu, in upstate Paraná, in the early 2000s. This, however, triggered a whole new phase, marked by more radical use of what we could call a dilated field of painting, working directly on the exhibition space. 

His 1998 exhibition at the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art aptly demonstrated this extrapolation of the visual plane. The rust was regurgitated in clumps of high-density material and assumed monumental proportions, switching from the small scale of the wall to that of the surrounding architecture. Faced with the massive scale of the room in the Rio museum—a Brutalist masterpiece by Reidy—Bechara was obliged to create more muscular clumps of rust, blending in with the scars of the concrete wall. In these works, the fleshiness of oxidation over time seems to have sprouted there and then like a mold spat up by the very brutality of the gallery wall. At this point, the boundary both of the wall itself and of the painting as object has been breached. There was a need to remove the painting from this conventional setting. Not, however, to make this mandatory, but because it was an internal requirement of the work. The time for decreeing the death of art or of specific art forms had long since passed.

From then until the Faxinal do Céu residency, the artist grappled in his studio with inner turmoil and forged a new path. In that 2002 residency, along with dozens of other artists invited by the curator, Agnaldo Farias, Bechara was granted the opportunity to respond to the demands made by his own work. With a prefabricated house at his disposal, the artist resolved to experiment with the furniture, tossing cupboards, chairs, beds, mattresses out through the windows, turning the house inside out. A series of photographs and drawings was produced on the occasion and a whole new repertoire of materials and techniques now became available. Photography made it possible to visualize and make sense of the gesture of turning the house inside out. This developed, on the one hand, into the production of rapid drawings combining geometrical undertones with stains that ripple across the surface of the paper. On the other, a series of sculpture installations comprising an array of cube-shaped and household objects that are expanded small fragments of the cells of which Bechara’s art as a whole is composed. 

In this new act of appropriation, everyday objects are reorganized plastically and take on shifting forms. As in his paintings and installations, acts of geometrization and disruption occur simultaneously in an interplay of equilibrium and instability. Objects shed their utilitarian status and become shifting plastic forms. The house is deconstructed as a dwelling to become a modular geometrical unit, somewhere between object and installation. 

In the installation entitled Ok, Ok Let’s Talk, tables and chairs are piled up and create an absurd space, where no-one can sit. There is no conversation and mediation is barred. The quasi-Beckettian impression of suspension of communication and density of expression arises from the realization that the act of creation is disconnected from the production of discourse. This disconnect appears to be a metaphor for our everyday disorientation, in which much is said but little understood. The poetic act asserts itself in advance of insatiable interpretation. 

The next step was to use a new support—glass. A fragile, transparent material, difficult to work with. The muffled sound, which, in the tarpaulins, came from the accumulated density of the material, is introduced here by the sum of heterogeneous elements that combine through conflict rather than harmonious fusion—a hanging head, a loose cube, a wad of paper, a fluorescent light tube, a pictorial or chromatic insertion in the wall. All this congregates around the glass that is the material catalyst of the installation. 

In some way, we can say that these glass installations epitomize the art of José Bechara. They exhibit an expressive compression that brings together fragility and brutality, drama and impassivity. This was already present in the tarpaulins in the geometry introduced by oxidation, but here it is explicit; it does not stand on ceremony. The dramatic size acquired by the work strikes me as having been produced by the introduction of the light. This plays a decisive role: not only because of its effect on the temperature of the installation, warming the glass, but also through the play of shadows and reflections generated. This is also where the artistic experiment mentioned earlier takes on an emotional tone that was absent from the artist’s previous work—more speculative, more symbolist, laden with evocative scenery. 

A three-decade-long career provides us with a good overview of the ways Bechara has developed and shifted his focus as an artist. Some of these can be seen here, with the interplay of appropriation and construction being a recurrent feature. Moving from one distinct material effect to another, the artist places his faith in the opacity inherent in high modernity, in which saying and showing are in constant tension, without standing out from the surrounding din. Above all, he believes that artistic expression should not be reduced to discursive forms but should rather broaden its semantic repertoire and, along with it, the way we see and think about the contemporary world.