Rusting utopia

Agnaldo Farias
São Paulo, Brazil
Text written for the catalogue of José Bechara’s exhibition “Squares and Patterns”, in Koblenz, Germany, 2015-2016. Translated by Lis H. Moriconi.


Like so many of his peers who came out of the Visual Arts School, EAV, at Parque Lage in Rio de Janeiro, José Bechara’s starting point was a critique of Brazilian constructivism.  First introduced in Brazil in the 1950s through the “Manifesto de Ruptura,” the Concretistas led by Waldemar Cordeiro became a decisive presence in the timid Brazilian art scene. Later, in the early 1960s, the pioneering Concretistas were faced with a bold reaction known as the Neocontretistas, ranking among them artists such as Helio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape and Willys de Castro. The rereading in the mid-1980s of this important event in Brazilian art emerged as a tactical retreat from the wide reception given to German Neo-expressionism and the Italian Transavantgarde that had opened that decade in Brazil; a reception as enthusiastic as it was superficial. That it was no more than skin deep became clear in the great exhibition that marked the period “Como vai você, Geração 80” held on the premises of the very same EAV in 1984.

Bechara’s poetic proposition, which for the first ten years limited itself exclusively to painting, analyzed the limitations of Brazil’s robust constructivist legacy while offering none of its optimism, nor gravitating toward the social minded engagement that exerted such attraction on the Concretistas. The latter sought to associate themselves to the so called Desenvolvimentismo or  industrial develpmentalism, the economic policy implemented by president Juscelino Kubitschek’s administration. Kubitscheck, the man who not only founded Brasília, but who guaranteed an opportunity for the geniuses of Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa to give the new capital city the positive face of the future, confirming that the future had finally, in 1960, arrived. Bechara also refused to fall into step with the principles of Neoconcretism, its relational tone, its championing of interactive art that intended to shake the audience out of its passive comforts, and which implied in rethinking of the status of the artist, and with it, the status of art itself.

Our artist was not interested in the sober dogmatic pragmatism of the first group, neither was Bechara drawn by the sensuality of the second group that generated repercussions, as is well known, in the work of his contemporaries Ernesto Neto and, a little less overtly, Ricardo Basbaum. While keeping his distance from the aesthetic/political agendas of these two groups, Bechara did appropriate an element that is characteristic of both groups, present in his own work from the beginning: geometry. By incorporating it with rigor and method, Bechara confirmed in his particular vision Oiticica’s thesis as expressed in the latter’s seminal 1967 article “Esquema geral da nova objetividade”. Oiticica notes the “tendency towards the constructive vocation” among the first six items that contribute to establishing a “state that is typical of Brazilian avant garde art”. [1]

It was only natural that José Bechara would not take share in this lineage’s optimism, if anything, because his work began during the transition from the 80s to the 90s, coinciding with the most acute and prolonged political and economic crisis that had ever been experienced in Brazil. A crisis that began with unprecedented rates of rampant inflation and culminated in the impeachment for corruption of the second democratically elect head of state, president Fernando Collor de Melo, which played a role in dampening the morale of the nation. After 20 years of a cruel military dictatorship born in the fateful year of 1964, the nation that had only recently returned to civilian normalcy imbued with the feeling that it had recovered the utopian boost that had animated the inauguration of Brasília, was deeply shocked with the series of scandals.

It was a discouraging scenario that finally forced Brazil to accept that, at odds with its customary self-perception, it was no longer the nation of tomorrow. All that remained of such an anticipated future of promise was bitter nostalgia. The resplendent utopia that we imagined we would be able to bring about had gone to rust.

The idea of a Latin American utopia as nostalgia of the future is worth a couple of words. On considering American colonization, Mexican poet and thinker Octávio Paz argued that “before having our own historical existence, we began as an European idea”, and that “it is not possible to understand us if one forgets that we are a chapter in the history of the European utopias”. “For over three centuries” he adds, “the word American designated a man who was not defined by what he had done, but by what he would do.”[2]

There are echoes of this line of reasoning in Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes’ discussion of Brazil’s unique Constitution. The writer and founder of the Brazilian Cinemateque (Cinemateca Brasileira) stated:  “we are not European, nor North Americans, but bereft of (an) original culture, nothing is foreign to us, because everything is. The arduous construction of ourselves expresses itself through the rarified dialectics of not being versus being another.”[3] But perhaps the most precise rendering, the one that expresses the paradoxical sentiment of an innovating future that weighs on us like an inexorable destiny which has always marked Brazilian culture, is the phrase that Mario Pedrosa, one of the first critics to write on Brazilian Neoconcretismo, uses to open his essay “Introduction to Brazilian architecture”:

“If I could define the civilization of a nation such as Brazil with a single sentence, perhaps I could say that it is a nation ‘condemned’ to the modern.” [4]

The most powerful and productive artistic trajectories are born inscribed in certain historical realities and frequently are at odds with them. José Bechara’s work confirms this principle. The energetic and at times explosive content of his work – paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and photographs- are redolent of, superimpose themselves on, a desire for order, the will to establish clear parameters that runs up against idiosyncrasies of the materials, against the resistance of a world that does not allow itself to be tamed. There is a constant clash between materials and structures in his works. Even when they are not fragile, they are unstable in their organization; they are under the attack of powerful if discrete forces, much like the surface of iron immersed in a warm and humid atmosphere becomes a bed of rust that buds and flowers.

Bechara’s discovery of truck tarps and his use of them as support for his art came as a natural result of his conjectures on the size his paintings. It is important to note right away how this material relates to a nation whose industrial development was associated to the establishment of the automobile industry; how violently and arbitrarily highways expanded across a land where a railway transportation system would have been the most sensible choice, and ten times cheaper, that is not even consider the potential of the nation’s extraordinary waterways. At the same time, Bechara’s use of worn out tarpaulins signals his election of material that has had a previous life. The marks, stains, inscriptions, stamps, lacerations, excoriations, incisions, tears and patches of a truck tarp have to do with the passage of time, with the production of a changing and labyrinthine drawing thanks to a continuous buildup of layer upon layer of actions, many of them surmisable, others whose origins are impossible to fathom. Anonymity commands a process that has as its hidden actors the force of the elements buffeting the material, the sun, the rain, wind, castigating it with a taut crisscross of ropes, rough frictions, the permanent creases and folds left by the sharp edges of boxes of merchandize being transported to and fro. And there is, finally, the aspect of the material as it circulates about the world set in an economic life permeated with a variety of situations and locations.

José Bechara however, went beyond the reserved attitude implicit in the plain and simple appropriation of the tarps. His focus has always been on production, on taking part in a live arena, on directing, timing, hastening, changing the direction of the preexisting play of forces, allowing his presence to be perceived through association, that is, as yet another presence and not as the only presence as many painters who face a blank canvas would have us believe. The procedure that arises out of this understanding is marked by the peculiar way the paintings are produced.

In the works selected for this exhibition, among which are “Two distracted comets” and “06-Untitled”, the process begins with the artist placing layers of steel wool and copper on a tarp spread out on the ground before soaking them. A mix of water and oxygen attacks both materials, dissolves them, and macerates them. The abrasive action of the metals reaches the outermost layers of the fabric lashing at it, and permanently staining them with the reddish brown and green broth spewed by the steel and copper. The process does not stop at this point, since, as with the majority of his paintings, once Bechara decides on the square or rectangular format, he uses long strips of adhesive tape to protect selected areas from the precipitation that will follow. Unlike the chemical reactions that run their course freely and would eventually elude his command, this stage involves total control. Bechara’s control is emphasized in a firm, crystalline geometry, by the wide variety of regular drawings that he will obtain at the end of the chain of fusions.

Certain works mark radical changes in the trajectory of an artist. In Bechara’s case, it was his work created as an artist in residence at Faxinal do Céu, a town in the interior of Paraná state in the Brazilian south that possibly became his most important one. In fact, “Side view 1” from the Series “Domestic landscape” or “I do not remember what we said yesterday” (2002) document an event that the artist could not have foreseen outside his studio, but that in practice meant coming to terms with other genres of issues, and which, from then on, led to sculptures, installations, and photographs, with frequent crossovers between these languages.

José Bechara cultivates intense, striking, gestures, materials and processes. To enter into contact with his work suggests conflict, tension, and when there is an equilibrium it is always precarious, balanced on the edge of crisis and destruction. Even his smaller drawings and sculptures are energetic in their making, an accumulation of rapid and expressive graphic elements, surfaces marked by oxidations and other signs that translate power and the bold development of a process beyond what can be seen. This said, we can imagine his reaction while putting up with the 15 day residence program located at an idyllic settlement, its 250 wooden chalets painted with the painstaking care of a Tim Burton scenario for Edward Scissorhands. After a few days of monotonous tranquility, Bechara was drawn by the idea of doing something with the most abundant and obvious materials in the place: the house and its furniture.

Bechara chose a house for his intervention that was identical to the others in the colony, and it was the perfect stereotype of a home. With its gabled roof and ceramic tiles, the bright white of its walls made of wood slats lightly reflecting the dark greens of the casements and the diamond shaped plane that connects the house’s face to the roof, Bechara’s house was archetypical.

Inside the house were its beds, tables, side tables, chairs, sofas, armchairs, mattresses, pillows, stools, dressers, frames, most in the various shades of brown of wooden things, as well as objects upholstered with courvin, lined with formica, in white and green, expressing someone’s desire for coherence with the color of the house. All this furniture was as schematic and as conventional as the house itself. Like a tear in a picture-postcard, as if throwing up onto this stage of managed normality, it occurs to José Bechara that the house could simply regurgitate the furniture that lives inside it, spew it out, while at the same time making it impossible to enter by having all its openings blocked. Doors and windows jammed with things poured in through casings and jambs, momentarily frozen in time. Venetian blinds are rolled up for the furniture to exit, and each window arrangement is set up with the care of a painting, each piece fitted in at a carefully studied angle, the lazy arches of the mattresses, table legs mounted atop each other, the green circles of the stools.

From his involvement with the house and its objects, both formally and symbolically, came a series of sculptures and installations, some in monumental scale. All of them imbued with a sense of instability, the movement of ejection found in commented photography, in the resistance that our finest dreams, our most fantasy laden utopias find. Taken even further, this path led to the “Gelosia” series, and the piece Pink Gelosia  which like the others is made of layers of square sheets of glass,with oxidized strips and other geometric forms, that are variously set on the ground, suspended from the ceiling, or leaned against walls, partially or totally painted.

The series combines graphic elements, pictoric, sculptural and even architectural elements in a creation that spreads out in various dimensions. The word Gelosia refers to Jalouisie, comes from baroque colonial architecture. It refers to a screen composed of wooden slats aligned at regular intervals in various designs that helped make windows safe, provided one-way transparency and protected the domestic environment from the curiosity of passersby. Its roots go back to Moorish architecture, to the ingenious Mashrabiya, its rereadings that incorporated the Jalousies and brought it –once more -to modern architecture, especially after its recovery by Lucio Costa, who was responsible for resorting to colonial building traditions as a source of the Brazilian modernist production.

If on the one hand “Gelosia” has to do with architecture, on the other, it shows its commitment to the genealogy of painting, whose classical phase practically starts the moment that it rids itself of the yoke of architecture and, thanks to the advent of oil paints, becomes portable, moving on to the easel and from it onto walls where it is displayed inside frames, a feature akin to window casings.

With an eye on the Arab architectural tradition of the Mashrabiya and Tatlin’s Counter-reliefs, the Russian artist’s invention with which he hoped to take a step beyond painting and sculpture, José Bechara’s own invention is founded on fragility, composed by pictorial surfaces and volumes that belong to sculpture, all of them in glass.

Whether transparent to a greater or lesser degree, glass offers limited depth with respect to whatever lies behind it. Glass is not solely a question of depth, or better, its depth is not defined solely by whatever functions as its background, but also has to do with its ability to reflect that which is in front of it, or around it. The quality of depth in glass is both inverted and divergent, it encroaches over the audience’s environment. Standing before glass, we can see ourselves seeing. To ponder on the properties of glass even further, its rarified corporeal presence has to do in part with the greenish color that comes from its thickness and its borders, how sharply it splits the surrounding space, and how it stands out from what is behind it.

Finally, the alternating strips of oxidized ink. Unlike glass, a material practically devoid of an inside perceptible by the naked eye, – to see it is to see beyond it- the oxidized, ferrous paint suggests an inside. Thick paint, while dissolving through corrosion, leads our eyes to stop at each strip, picking up the differences, as if guessing at the future and past of the process of the decay of the metal. The dense corpus of the visceral material quality of iron contrasts with the light innocuous body of the glass even if the metal is liquefied and applied as a thick layer on the pane of glass. Painted with these strips and placed atop each other so as to partially superimpose themselves, the panes of glass show us that both distances are the same. Painted in alternating order, the strips fit visually over the entire overlapping area. At the same time shadows emerge, adding to the four sided forms of the other panes, the lines edging borders, the entire arrangement irradiating a field of phenomena that come from disconnected, sliding surfaces, in ceaseless movement, fleeting or more prolonged, at the speed our gaze moves across the work.

The series to which “Ultramar with  5 heads” and “Miss Lu Silver Super-Super” belongs to was conceived as “graphic exercises”, a set of drawings released from the two dimensional area of paper into space in the world. Considering that there are variations in the positioning and the arrangement of a single geometric figure – the cube- the “graphic” aspect, refers a particular mode of drawing, project drawing, or rational drawing that projects things outwardly.

Bechara’s choice of the cube, a geometric solid known as a pure product of the spirit is eloquent of his interests. When he materializes the cube as a sculpture, Bechara discusses the limitations of the bases of Platonism – Plato associated the cube to the earth as an element, because of the stability conferred by its square foundations. Testing its behavior under the imperatives of the materials, the force of gravity, the action of the elements over every living being, Bechara performs these exercises operating with a great quantity of cubes conjecturing on the observation of the following variables: their makeup, the way they were organized, the materials of which they are made, the colors that coat them, the light inherent to these colors, and finally, the lighting that Bechara himself designs to carve out spaces playing with the piece set directly on the floor.

Taking the opposite strategy to methodical action, the careful disposition of cubes in space defined by rigid and precise maneuvers, a cold ritual characteristic of the minimalists, Bechara choses instead to pile them up, apparently mixing up the geometric solids. Piled up, leaning on each other, fitted together, the drawing/sculpture happens spraying itself across the exhibition space like a scribbled sketch of confused vertebrae, a tangle of hard and straight lines that makes the best of the play of light and shadow, creating a curious set for an arrangement of modular pieces so closely identified with certainty and rationality. While the cubes set on the floor lying on one of their faces transmit a feeling of stability, the second, third and even the fourth layers built up of cubes, variously buried, inverted pyramids, misplaced, askew, leaning on the edges of the cubes underneath them. Here and there, perched on the tops of this unruly structure, an expansion that spreads to the four walls, are the closed cubes, that despite their heavy appearance, being placed at odd angles, oblique, hidden, yet they seem to float, like hard, dense fruit paralyzed in space. The overlapping lines stop us from counting the open cubes, and even if they are clear cut and countable, the lighting projects their shadows on the ground, varying the drawing from where they came, drawing it into a diffuse texture. To think about this work means to understand it simultaneously and paradoxically as a drawing that gains a sculptural body just as it risks dematerialization. To stand in front of it, as happens with most of Bechara’s work, is to perceive that the order that we so intensely dream of seems to be always one step away from chaos, on the edge of the chasm.



[1] Hélio Oiticica. “Esquema geral da Nova Objetividade.” in: COTRIM, Cecília; FERREIRA, Glória. Escritos de Artistas; anos 60 e 70 Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 2006. (pgs 154/168).
Strictly speaking, prior to Oiticica other authors had worked on the notion of a vocation for constructivism in Brazilian art. They saw it under a wider perspective, as a common root that branched out into Latin American art as a whole. Art critic and curator Frederico Morais in his 1978 article “A vocação construtiva da arte Latino-america – Mas o caos permanece.” (In: FERREIRA, Glória. Crítica de arte no Brasil: temáticas contemporâneas Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 2006. P 101/110) examined the “historical, sociocultural, psychological and even political and economic reasons” for importing ideas that originated in Le Corbusier and Ozenfant’s Purism, in Bauhaus, and in Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, reaching as far as Max Bill, while also noting the case made by two artists, Brazil’s Sergio Camargo and Argentina’s Leopoldo Torres-Aguero, regarding the sources of our conception of space. Camargo sees an Arab heritage that would have arrived in Brazil through the Iberian Peninsula, and Torres-Aguero, points out the contribution of the Far East that arrived through the Pacific Ocean and was disseminated via the Andes in the Pre-Columbian era.
[2] Octavio Paz – “Literatura de fundação.” in: Signos em rotação São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1996, 127.
[3] Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes – Cinema: trajetória no subdesenvolvimento Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1980, 88.
[4] Mario Pedrosa – “Introdução à arquitetura brasileira.” in: WISNIK, Guilherme – Mario Pedrosa – Arquitetura – Ensaios críticos São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2015, 74.