The tension of the gaze

David Barro
Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 2019.
In Oscilating Territory, published by Editora Barléu,  2019.

(Note for Carlos Leal: in a lecture on José Bechara, David Barro refers to the tension of the gaze and I therefore preferred this translation to the literal “in the fold of the gaze”, or “in the angle of the gaze – bechara

In an academic article, I found ‘doubling of the gaze’, the extension of the gaze through technology, which is not appropriate here. But it is another option.) D

What enchants me about José Bechara’s work is his particular way of invoking chance. In other words, how he gets the eye to unfold time, until the reflexive process of the act of creation is imposed as a method of achieving harmony, a creative order. A priori, it may not seem like something complex, but there is certainly nothing more difficult than embracing the unexpected and assigning this task to the eye. It is surely the most effective way of confronting the complexities of the 21st century, moving forward without neglecting to look back at history in the rearview mirror, in this case being capable of going through the European avant-garde, Brazilian constructivism and every kind of derivation that belongs to the tradition of painting and sculpture. 

Because, although I have always been convinced that José Bechara’s gaze is eminently pictorial, it is also certain that this condition derives from a kind of spatial connection, of dialogue with the space that accommodates or surrounds it. This is why Bechara so keenly feels the need to first map out the exhibition spaces, to engage with them and confer value on the physical experience, in keeping with the theories of the expanded field, about which there has been so much reflection, with Rosalind Krauss being the most paradigmatic thinker in this field. In the works of José Bechara, context becomes content. We are talking about the wall, the floor, the architecture. It is no minor question, when we note what I believe has been the sharpest point of inflection in his work, when it came to manifest itself, above all as an aesthetic experience. I am referring to his intervention The House (2002) in Faxinal do Céu, Paraná. A real experience. Inside and out. As if the house had retched up its furniture. The space was saturated. Paulo Sérgio Duarte referred to this as a kind of monochrome in space. Bechara himself tells how, after a visit to his studio, during the construction of The House, Paulo Sérgio Duarte compared the piece to Hélio Oiticica’s Penetrables, though the interior of Bechara’s piece was merely intellectual and did not allow the space in, but rather saturated it. As spectators, we arrived late to this intimate experience. But the windows that had remained closed were now open, and the space circulated. Time is interrupted, but flows, leaks out, although the gravitational challenge of some of his works seems to make this time freeze. 

It is not hard to intuit that this is due to another point of inflection, certainly less concrete and more expansive in time: the gradual introduction of glass into his work. The space is now occupied, but also lets itself be seen into and entered. Time fragments, crumbles. The relation with the image becomes more meditative and fluid. José Bechara still works with weight, scale, equilibrium, sculptures, but recently has introduced gravity and lightness—features which, if present, were more invisible at other points in his career. 

Theorists such as Hal Foster wrote about the way lightness was increasingly a feature of art and architecture. “An essential ‘ideologeme’ of our modernity, lightness supported abstraction more than had ever been seen in modernity”, he noted. Of course, this is because the materials and the techniques tend to this, to the point where they impose a kind of structural transparency. But there is also a contemporary need to emphasize the process and keep the work in permanent flux. Bechara’s more recent works are thus projected in the tension of the gaze. Everything is dense, even when the setting is light. José Bechara toys with disorder and margins until reaching an interesting state of suspension. He thus moves between the concrete and the intangible, opening ever fresher perspectives, largely thanks to novel use of light to create reflections and accidental effects. 

José Bechara’s work requires a viewer capable of experiencing displacement and energy, capable of valuing “between” more than “before” or “after”. He is thus a sculptor of “undisciplined forms”, in which we are presented with empty spaces that are sometimes denser than shapes. If emptiness is a material for Richard Serra, in Bechara, as in Medardo Rosso or Giacometti, it vibrates. I think of how Giacometti copied the head of the seated scribe in the Louvre, reducing the whole mass of the face to a polyhedral structure. Giacometti was fascinated with Dürer’s engraving “Melencolia I”, in which there is a polyhedron on which Giacometti’s Cube (1934) was modelled. In fact, Dürer produced Polyhedron on a Pedestal (1514), as a preparatory study. “Dürer indicates the vanishing point of this polyhedron with an eye. The diagonally opposite corners of the cube have been cut off and it rests on one of the resulting truncated surfaces. This creates an optical illusion of a polyhedron with pentagonal sides, in part because the point of view is decentered”. 

Since José Bechara sculpts and paints at a distance, yielding to it, shifting, in line with Dürer’s aforementioned decentered point, tension between lines, forces and empty spaces facilitate the measurement of space. The drawings are always intriguing, with their enormous physical presence, while their unfinished appearance embraces craft and thus dodges an unavoidable association with a minimalist legacy. It is also about measuring space, decision making. Experiencing a Bechara is an exercise in the difficulty that forces us to entertain contradictions. Le Corbusier frequently reminded us that architecture is circulation. Much good architecture is effectively intended to provide pathways that spare us its complexity. It is through such pathways in the architecture that we discover the landscape. Personally, I am constantly finding more landscape in the work of José Bechara, in keeping with the Proun that El Lissitzky himself defined as a way station between painting and architecture. A sense of movement, the plastic dynamism that Italian futurists taught and Russian constructivists honed to a fine art, is intrinsic to the work of José Bechara. It is present within the painting and without and even more so in his installations, where the architecture is tighter, often by pure chance, randomly. For, as Mallarmé so fittingly put it, ‘every thought issues a throw of dice’. Bechara conjures chance out of intuition, but with a steady hand. As if he wished to depict an avalanche, constantly treacherous and unstable. This is all brought about by a contrast between clearly outlined forms and a series of shifting gestures. 

Sigfried Giedion once aptly remarked that “life is never quiet. There is no reason for lamentation in this struggle between the ephemeral and the eternal. It is this tension between constancy and change that creates the very essence of life that is movement”. José Bechara’s work activates the surrounding space in multiple directions, generating enigmatic zones. It is no place for exactness or evidence. Our gaze is resolved by a kind of frontier that allows no solutions or certainties; the horizon is never sharply defined, and the fragments in his installations are equivalent to the erosion in his paintings. Time is thus a kind of passage through different moments, distilled into scenes as landscape. Imagine time curved to detach each little detail from the rest, like a shipwreck—but a shipwreck of indeterminate duration, in which the images circulate, and need to circulate, float, as if belonging to various times simultaneously. 

The works of José Bechara plunge us into the void. The abyss looks us straight in the eye. Everything seems to be floating. For the viewer, it is an intense inner voyage. I know that the artist has already been there, especially an artist like Bechara, who has always been interested in testing the limits, the edges of reality. No matter the scale; the stress is on the weightiness of the gesture. This is how the everyday is turned into speculation. The framing does matter, but, above all else, the focus is on interruption, the invitation to speculate, instability. We talk of the logic of feelings, as when Deleuze points to sensation as the guiding thread that links artists such as Cézanne and Bacon, the latter insisting that sensation is capable of passing from one order to another, from one level or one domain to another. This passage turns the body into a setting and the image into a scene suspended awaiting a happening. The secret lies in deriving the image, in directing it elsewhere. Perec notes in La Vie mode d’emploi that, just as it matters little whether the original image of a jigsaw puzzle is considered easy or difficult, so we should not imagine that the subject of a painting or the technique determines its degree of difficulty, but rather the subtlety of the cut. Bechara pulls this off by acknowledging the time of space. 

The works of José Bechara take on new forms and are activated when we approach them, as if we were trying to encircle the various façades of a building. Hence the appeal of his changes of scale, as if he had dedicated himself to drawing landscapes in real spaces. The voyage of the eye is only possible after displacement of the body, which is ultimately responsible for generating the space of the gaze. The intention is to understand the spaces that appear between the lines. There is a certain interstitial tension. The border between each temperature is too tenuous to be seen clearly, because different planes define the space and succeed in giving it presence. 

Think of El Lissitzky’s Proun and the way it begins its work on the surface and moves on to the spatial model and, finally, builds objects in everyday life. There, for the first time, painting and sculpture expand, breaking definitively away from the canvas to conquer architectonic space. In Malevich we still find ourselves overpowered by the fetishism of the painting. But, in the pictorial installation, El Lissitzky goes way further in terms of fragmentation. It is all done with construction materials, whose form obviously owes a lot to suprematism. El Lissitzky’s environment requires that we move from the two dimensions of painting to the three dimensions of real space, and the inclusion of time, that is the viewer moving through the piece and through the space. He thus invokes the vertigenous, a kind of uniform, serene fragmentation. Something like becoming a mirror. El Lissitzky explains this clearly in Merz. “Whereas it was once said that time had reduced painting to a square for it to die in—which is the theme of the black square as the last painting—we say that, while this square blocked the narrow channel of painterly culture, namely perspective, its opposite serves as a starting point for a new volumetric conception of the concrete world”. 

It might also be worth citing two seemingly more remote references. First, Robert Morris’s Mirrored Cubes. In Morris, the context creates a dependency on the object and vice versa. It is a reversible relation. The piece expands out as a single whole from any possible perspective. The second is Donald Judd’s specific objects, which inhabit a space half-way between sculpture and painting. These works acquire their character from their volume and the space they occupy, but also from the material appearance created by the surfaces, the color and the light effects they produce. 

With these references in mind, I look at one of the views of José Bechara’s latest exhibition at the Rio de Janeiro MAM. The room contains some cubes, in the foreground, a larger less compact group on the left, and a kind of constellation of three spheres suspended on the right, set against some crystals and the white backdrop of the wall. The expository form of composition is conceived, more than ever, as a landscape, and this is no minor factor, since it follows a certain rationale, distilled from the aforementioned legacies and everything is affected by the expansion that was formerly limited to each of his works functioning independently.  

I’ll make this more explicit, because what sets these artists apart is their way of seeing. It is not so much their way of accessing the image as that of being capable of exhibiting it. A constructive way of seeing. Think of John Berger in those texts where he describes the experience of seeing when space and time are one. There is a particularly intriguing one about a field that appears before him every time he comes home from the city center. For Berger, the pleasure afforded by deep observation of this field is a matter of counterpoised contingencies. Whatever happens within it takes on a special meaning, as it occurs during the two or three minutes he is forced to wait at a level crossing, which brings him to a halt when the barrier is down. It is as if these moments filled a time zone that fits perfectly into the spatial zone of the field. It is something I feel and sense in the presence of this José Bechara series, imparting even more meaning to his Angelas (2017). The artist manages to steep us in the experience, which occurs out of time, and not only frames objects, but also contains them, as if they were floating in the narrative time of real life. Our eye empathizes with the gesture of the artist. For the pleasure of seeing images is not abstract or intellectual, but visual and direct. No timeframe is imposed by their author. 

Still with Berger and his writings and with this image of the exhibition as a field where happenings transpire, I wonder how this sensation can be aroused within me by works as distant as those of Millet. Berger notes that Millet managed to paint activities such as pruning or manuring, with grand ambition of presenting an experience never before painted. An impossible task: painting a woman planting potatoes in the trench dug by her husband, with the potatoes in the air falling. You could film it, but it isn’t easy to depict in painting. Berger realizes that Millet has not achieved his stated aims, because traditional painting was not adapted to the intended subject matter. But these difficulties were crucial steps towards the break with pictorial space, a tradition whose genealogy starts with Caravaggio, and is passed down by Rubens, Friedrich, Turner, Monet and, of course, José Bechara. This is why I see a work such as “On Yellows” as a landscape—an obliterated one, of course, but definitely a landscape, with various planes capable of breaking the painted surface. 

Stéphane Mallarmé said that all thinking issues a throw of the dice. His poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897) was indeed a well-played move capable of breaking with the typographical conventions assumed to be normal until then, by regarding the double page of a book as a single space. The seven hundred words that make up this poem–upper- and lower-case, cursive or rounded–alternate with blank spaces that act like silences, embracing the sensations and working with the weight of the words or their temperature to determine the intonation and rhythm of reading. This poem also makes me think of the drawings of Ilya Zdanevich, Piet Zwart, or the magnificent cover and back-cover that Karel Teige created for Konstantin Biebls book of poems, ZLOM (1928). It also, of course, makes me think of the way Bechara composes and exhibits his work in space. Teige used metal ornaments and print cuts to configure an abstract hieroglyphic space in search of interpretation, in what he himself called “typomontage”. 

It seems inevitable also to situate Mallarmé’s poetic act as a precursor of Guillaume Apollinaire’s pictorial Calligrammes (1918), the free word compositions of Carlo Carrá – Manifestación intervencionista y Parolé in libertá (1914) – or the Futurist freedom of words in Filipo Marinetti’s Les mots en liberté futuristes (1919)—poems the poet confessed had been inspired by his experience in the trenches. For Bechara, the trench is his studio or the space of the museum, attracted as he is by the inevitable erosion of things. 

This kind of disobedient chance is also a feature of his paintings, especially those that use rust to lead us to abstraction. A series of layers of steel of different widths are sealed with no brushwork and then wetted, so that the agent is the action of time. This forms hues, the gestures that make the process artistic. Painting is thus a place of aggression, the action of time, a transformation. Meanwhile, the sculpture reveals the light of a landscape we reach through a kind of horizontal abyss.