The action – José Bechara, dense weights

Wilson Coutinho

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

In the catalogue “José Bechara”, published for the solo show Comendo Margaridas (Eating Daisies), exhibited at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1998


What does it mean to paint nowadays? One of the most astonishing things of the end of this century – or at least of the 1990s – is that painters have continued to paint. The work of José Bechara first captured public attention in 1995 when exhibited in Rio de Janeiro gallery. It was striking, powerful, and even rude . With the freshness of spring in painting, but also the insolence of strong winds, crudeness, bleakness and beauty were paved onto large surfaces, in what seemed to metabolize much of what had happened in Brazilian art since the 1970s. There was a conceptual nucleus that unraveled into an informalism and from there into a constructivist grid. All of this partly loose and partly attached to a strong tension of the material, which isn´t often seen in recent Brazilian art, from Iberê to the last paintings of Jorge Guinle Filho. And beyond that, there was a method, which in the case of José Bechara, cannot be perceived separately from his painting. For him method and end are one. Now he has been invited by the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro to meet a challenge; to occupy a vast space with immense ceiling height, a place where many painting tend to wither due to the scale of he space. For over a year, working in a studio in São Cristóvão (a deactivated factory, today taken over by stray dogs, discarded pieces of carnival floats, and a certain sluggish silence under the sun that beats down onto piles of refuse, dumped objects and industrial trash), Bechara prepared giant surfaces (4x5m), oxidized; his only task was to work for the space that was offered to him. One could say, that without abandoning the area of painting, Bechara tends to make something that transcends it, by the fact that it is the site that is put in question.

This simply means that the painter doesn’t merely put “windows”, painted canvasses, on the wall. He doesn’t even propose – an many artists have done or tried to do – an installation to involve and resolve the difficulties of that complex space. Bechara’s means, compared with those of the installations, are in fact quite minimal: painted surfaces, or a group of 2- dimensional planes that visual stimulate the viewer. And yet they are works of action and strategy: action over the space and a strategic force to fix that site in the current of artistic attention . The works confront the dimension of the space which itself brings to mind a gap, an abyss, a devouring spiral. Is a battle whit the wall; a problem not altogether unfamiliar to artists. The wall is something that closes, that surrounds, that impedes. The first action envolvem the wall (besides, of course, the cave paintings) is the creation of a scene, as seen in frescos and mural paintings. The scene against the silence of the wall has been worked by artists in many ways over vast expanses of time until the advent of contemporary artists who, after the exhibition, undo the work they fixed to the wall, acknowledging that it was made to occupy that space just for a moment in time. In this situation, there is no sense in maintaining the work in place after the artistic event, nor in removing it to some other museological context, or even in placing it for sale in a gallery.

This year in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Niterói, the Brazilian artist Antonio Manuel, decided to at against the obstruction of the wall. Although he did not break the actual walls of the museum, he suggested that the artist could consider and admit this possibility. Without getting into the sociology of the destruction of museums, an ideology which dates from the first part of this century, I imagine that Antonio Manuel was convinced that the confrontation whit the wall was something that comes from the depth of the history of art. He erected walls within the museum which he in turn broke through whit a sledge hammer(I). Bechara´s confrontation whit the wall is of course completely different. As far as I know he was never an artist (as others from my generation) enrolled in the school of anti-art; instead he seems indifferent to it, although his work employs certain elements derived from that movement. Bechara, from a newer generation, is primordially a painter. And yet his paintings also survive in a realm beyond painting, particularly because they are not painted, there are no paints, no brushes. Bechara uses water and rolls of steel wool, fire and used truck tarpaulins. The tarpaulin is not a blank canvas, but already a pictorial arrangement produced by chance and time, that evokes for the artist a painted surface. From this original “painting” Bechara makes his own painting, perpetuating the same temporal events um the canvas. I wouldn´t say that he paints on the canvasses, but that they are a pictorial given intertwined writ what he then goes on to effect on them. The exhibition of the pieces that he rightfully calls “material”, shown at the MAM and made specifically for the space, is an event that could be called the “glorious” and dramatic moment of matter”. The large pieces are loaded with nerves, textures, volumes, mass disintegrating from the effect of the water on the steel wool; infusion and deterioration, organic life and death, weight and density, measured and unmeasured. Especially, in this “occupation” of MAM, weight and density are on the surface and not anchored to the ground like a heavy sculpture. Weight and density are spread across the supposedly flat and stretched surface . The surface appears modeled by the material, as we see in the bulk of brillo the artist arranges across it. Bechara’s challenge with the historical significance of the wall (Antonio Manuel’s work at the MAC suggests that it is possible to destroy it) is to overcome it and not fear it. The wall can be outstripped by the scene, or the picture, as in frescos, murals and minimalist abstract art; that is, by setting up a dynamic. By overcoming the wall, I mean making use of the absolutely neutral, passive aspect of the wall for the affirmation of the artist´s pictorial statement. The Idea is to relegate the wall to the background so that it cancels itself out. What remains? In Bechara´s case it is the effervescence of materials, the density and the weight. There is also a specific palette of various shades of Brown, the colors of decomposing materials. Here there is no scene to provoke a dynamic response. The “scene” is produced by the positive presence of the work and not by the mere camouflaging of the wall. It is reasonable to imagine that there is a poetic, even an ontological link to the world in wall we see here. The wall, which serves as the blocking limit and the protective barrier at the same time, betumes irrelevant. It is through the density of the painting that we are able to obliterate the wall, even the great wall of the museum.The other aspect that the painting implies with its rude eloquence and its pictorial vigor, is the cosmology of materials that seizes us from the immediate; that which we can still see though it extends into a cosmos far beyond us. That which, for sure, transcends the wall.

I. I was not present when Antonio Manuel performed his work at the MAC. What I relate is based on verbal descriptions and reports in the press during the period oh the show.


The Beauty in the Remains – The method

Levi Strauss noted that society moves through three different type of exchange: of goods, of women, and a symbolic one, the latter especially effected through languaje. The work of José Bechara has its starting point in two of the models of exchange seen by the French anthropologist as founding conditions of social life . What draws our attention, furthermore, is that the two exchanges – of goods and the symbolic one- which set up the beginning of Bechara´s work, don´t use any anthropological basis nor does his work find a serious motive for mediation in an anthropological field . The gesture that drives him finds a basis in what Pierre Bordieu names the field of art, where esthetics insinuates itself . In this way, for example, his work does not share grounds with any ethology of urban life; neither does the artists assume when exchanging new orange tarpaulins that cover cargo trucks for other old, dirty, torn and gray ones, that he would be deconstructing the process of exchange. Not even is Bechara parodying the process of exchange. Not even is Bechara parodying the process of exchange of merchandise as if he were making a conceptual work or organizing an installation. Neither is it a ready-made, and nor does Bechara make a judgment over the value of the exchange . If there is an economy, it comes from the old Scottish school: the tarpaulins are products on the market, of interest to purchasers who may profit. This relationship of exchanging new tarpaulins for old ones of equal value would be very bad business for buyers if Bechara resold them for the price of new ones in a market for truck tarpaulins. As None of this happens, what really has value is symbolic, where only one of the sides confers worthy significance upon it . It is the artist who imposes the value, unrelated to what is specified in the laws of commercial transaction . It is this esthetic gesture that wears away the real value of those goods, producing an overabundance of value. whose economy is at first sight untouchable. There is of course another market waiting – that of symbolic goods – which calls for this new function. The value is plastic, so much that the artist says “it is my eye that chooses”. Therefore, what will act together with the exchange of merchandise with truck drivers is the symbolic exchange, where the artist imposes a decision unrelated to the specific values and laws of the first wearing away of the values of the merchandise bought from truck drivers takes place . In this case what is inscribed is an overabundance of values, whose economy is at first sight untouchable. Why an overabundance of value? The old tarpaulins lose their utility which is to cover trucks and goods useful to their natural commerce. Not that they lose economic use. Another market – that of symbolic goods-calls for this new function.

There is, However, a difference. One may buy linen, stretch it and paint it- and sell it . In such a case, the pieces of linen are neutral. Bechara´s tarpaulins are not included in this classical classification, though still in the artistic field- to where they are really mean for: galleries, museums, institutions, critics, collectors and the press-which allows them to rest with relative autonomy in this field where one finds since the Nineteenth Century the free subjectivity of the artist. It is in this way that gray tarpaulins, worn out, showing the scars of their duration as useful merchandise, patched so they can be used longer, spent to the last thread, durty owing to innumerable trips, serve as a background. Moreover, a background filled whit the symbolic force of choice. It is the corrosion of time. Inverting the process of the ready-made, they are chosen for a subjective overabundance; their esthetic value, tarpaulins that please the artist perception, and that will be both the basis and the object of his work. In a certain way there is an “informality” that does not play with the unconscious gesture of the artist, but whit the ambiguous relationship of control and lack of control of the material.

Time does its unavoidable informal work on things, creating its net of textures; some may be classified as everyday maintenance ( the patches for example), but of curse they never occur in a pre-organized fashion.It is the artist in his sovereign autonomy who chooses the cuts he makes, the stains that must appear, the scratches and coloring adequate to his poetic convenience. So, the choice of tarpaulin is pure esthetic action, a game where the value of the merchandise is only a trace of the exchange. One may say this was what, for example, the great masters did when painting still lives. They would choose things from nature, selected from the corner market, and would organize them seeking beauty in the arragement and searching for the best manner to capture light, etc. Any will in that arranged nature would succumb to the painter´s esthetic will, in a way that those goods, fruits, vegetables, pieces of ham or game, would express nothing but the pleasure of perception. Having a genre as a model, the still life painter would enjoy the pleasure of the code while at the same time imposing his artistic personality.

One may suspend the comparison at this point. First because Bechara must invent a method where there is no genre, unless one considers abstract painting loaded with matter as a genre within the modernist tradition, canonized with Abstract Impressionism. Furthermore tarpaulins are industrial products, not vegetables. The arrangement of time over this surfaces if not totally random, cannot be constructed in a space far from that of representation. It is an impression on a surface, on which time printed its marks, as if this “Silk-screen” extracted from time owned the Bergsonian “Durée,”this “Durée” that would be incrusted in matter and not, if we strictly accept what Bergson meant to say, in the memory. In this sense we may suggest that Bechara´s surface is involuntary matter, over whitch the artists’ poetical intuition made its choices.

Yet this is not all. Although many of Bechara´s works may deal only whit the tarpaulin as material and surface, they are organized by the artist in way that some works take on an order that suggests a constructive atmosphere. Other types of pieces consist of the disintegration of steel sponges on tarpaulin, creating a dense matter, industrially organic, whose color is derived from the chemical dissolution of the material. The disintegration produces a crust, layers of the surface.

Therefore, Bechara´s work seems to play whit a series of models and systems, but they are all intensely involved in giving the surface of the canvas a problem to be solved in a technical and poetical way. From the outside this painting made without brushes or uel paint evokes a temporal dissolution. Time that corrodes , enlivened by the use the truck drives make of the tarpaulin, and time of the steel carbon filtered by water, that deteriorates and leaves on the canvasses the marks of their dissolution . From the inside, it is the conquest of a surface that was determined by the physical mutation of this industrial product. In a way, this surface may recall the great masses of paint of a revitalized informalism. A visit to the artist´s studio takes us beyond this definition . Although Bechara cannot control the entire chemical process of sponges that disintegrate with water, he orders his layers in such away as to draw out certain predictable effects. Neither temporality nor corrosion are foreign to the whole of the artist´s process. If in this time of ours, where painting seeks to feed on new processes to once again recover its symbolic and imaginary space, Bechara´s work blends with his method, and his method extracts poetry from the process he invented. So it happens, that on these canvasses of great visual impact, where a strange matter pulses over the surfaces, the painter can only represent the incorporation of his method, like a force that incites beauty in the remains.



Wilson Coutinho was an art critic, journalist and professor. He was also a curator at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).