To swim you need to conquer the sea

António Pinto Ribeiro
Lisbon, Portugal, 2019.
In Oscilating Territory, published by Editora Barléu,  2019.

The dilemma of inheritance begins like this: what should I do with everything my father left me? Receiving the inventory on the day of his father’s death, the son asks, ‘What should I do with this legacy?’. This could be the beginning of a parable or an Arab tale. But the young José Bechara might have asked the same questions on the day he learned his father, a Lebanese merchant who had lived in Rio de Janeiro for many years, had died.

He wasn’t going to simply get rid of the things he inherited. To do sowould have betrayed the spirit of his family’s Arab ancestors. So Bechara chose to pay homage to his father by continuing the inherited business, but in his own way.

The dilemma did not, however, go away just because he had taken this decision. The question became what to do with other inheritances, no longer just his father’s assets but, for example, the legacy of the History of Art, which he had come up against when he was very young by signing up for an informal course in art and painting. What should he do with the legacy of the art history bequeathed to him by Charles Watson’s classes in Rio’s Laje park and by his training alongside other artists? What should he do with this intangible, enigmatic and seductive asset he received when he was 20? Again, he had to deal with it in his own way, accepting the elements that worked with his practice and rejecting those that did not offer any symbolic added value. Bechara’s acts of artistic creation always push against his inheritance and against his ancestors. Even if Bechara comes in the end to turn to them, even if in his own way he collects knowledge that allows him to contribute to art history, to justify his work and even his life as an artist. In this spirit, a few years later, he wrote in the introduction to one of his first books: “Every day I do the same thing: I look for things that do not exist”.1 As an artist José Bechara is highly aware of this imperative. Many artists before him have had the same dilemma. Some resolved it through confrontation; others by reworking memories. Even in his early years the artist had nineteenth century European painting, American minimalist painting, the drawings of Sol Hewitt, the works of Cildo Meireles, the sculptures of Waltercio Caldas, the dirt-filled’ paintings of Anselm Kiefer as well as the multicoloured phantasmagoria and the popular parangolés of Hélio Oiticica “behind him”. Zé Bechara confronts art and thinks, to repurpose Maria Filomena Molder’s words: “Any work of art is an applied effort to interrupt a current, to make it jump and splinter, to make a connection, a bond, jump and shatter in order to better express it, any work of art is also a resistance to the temptation to be dragged along, to fall asleep in the snow, a resistance to the pleasure of continuing to listen to perfect harmonies, to make them rumble.”(Molder 2016: 25) 2

Drawing is my journal 3

The earliest memory I have of José Bechara’s physical presence is of him sitting on the steps of the Culturgest gallery looking at the immense wall from which he had just hung dozens of sheets of vegetable parchment washed in rusty water that fluttered lightly in the breezes that blew through the gallery4. This posture of the artist concentrating on assembling an exhibition encapsulates an attitude that for many may seem to be indecisive but in fact represents a confirmation that he had taken a final decision. The artist rests at the end of another battle: the exhibition of a work in museographical territory. This work, entitled ‘Cadernos rápidos’[Quick notebooks], consists of a series of 80 papers which were produced, uninterrupted, over a short period of time. They went on show for the first time in 1999 at the Imperial Palace in Rio de Janeiro. Arranged side by side, occupying the whole of a single wall, they formed a panel that oscillated in the air flowing through the gallery. The papers had undergone a process of oxidation in various concentrations of rust. They were not quite sculptures, but nor were they anymore the sketched drawings that featured in the series ‘o outro’ [The other] (1992-2000)5. These ‘quick’ papers, however, exhibit a set of traits that constitute both a source and a repeated theme in his later practice: the artist is a designer, who draws and paints constantly; as Luís Camilo Osório aptly puts it, in “… the realization of painting, his daily priesthood … “6. The artist is in a permanent state of creation. Bechara confirms this when he says “I am not a project man, I am an artist of doing.”7. José Bechara considers both chance and its uncontrollable outcome (the random colours resulting from the oxidation of the papers, the unforeseen marks on the canvases) as the order imposed by geometry and scale. In each work there is a conflict about how to proceed and – whether latently or manifestly – each work registers the turbulence of its production. In his own and particular way, Bechara’s art comes from the same experiences that Caetano Veloso’s verse invokes: “life is art’s friend”.8

The postwar period brought to modern – then to contemporary – art: rubbish and remnants (Tápiès); lowly and handmade materials (Beuys); formlessness (Twoombly or Fontana); the abject (Piero Manzoni); and self-flagellating performance (Marina Abramovic, Ana Mendieta). These artistic modes proposed a break with traditions of representation and with the idea of a direct passage to a concrete and non-mimetic realism. This was the ‘The Return of the Real.’ As Hal Foster argued, “if some late modernists wanted to transcend the referential figure and some early postmodernists wanted to delight in the pure image, some late postmodernists want to possess the real thing”.9

This real thing was, for Bechara, the accidental encounter with a dirty canvas on the floor of a petrol station. This real thing revealed to him the passage of time within the texture of the canvas, the marks of its use, the holes of its wear, the contaminated traces of the various products that the canvas had covered and protected. The painting here was no longer about idealized form ab initio, or even about impulsive acts of putting ink on canvas as it was for Jackson Pollock. That said, Bechara’s early work shares with Pollock a dimension of physicality and combat; the appropriation of the objectification of time in the processes of ‘the readymade’ in Brazil. The process that led Bechara to create ‘A Casa’ [The House] is relatively well known. The artist was in residence at the May 2002 Faxinal Arts Program, inland in Paraná, and was unable to paint. The window of his room turned his attention to nature, framed outside. Through a process of accumulating household objects – tables, chairs, mattresses – he began to move to sculpture. His passage from painting to sculpting the house, and from there to the piece ‘Ok Ok let’s talk’ (2006) stems from the same obsession with controlling time. How to suspend the passage of time? In his paintings he was fixated with palimpsests of accumulated traces, of memories inscribed on the canvas. In ‘Casa’, the house vomits furniture from times gone by through its windows. The petrification of the spewing house emphasises this theme of frozen motion. It is as through a frame got stuck whilst a film was being projected, and the film had no future.

‘Casa’ and ‘Ok Ok let’s talk’ are a central diptych in Zé Bechara’spractice. Both are pieces in permanent mutation: the artist has produced several installations from both works over a decade. They are works that celebrate sculpture, works where both the materials themselves and the artists’ relation to building them take on an enormous physicality. With no shame, the artist who had been fighting ever since leaving Laje Park shows himself in these works as a sculptor dominating his materials, breaking them, cutting them, moving them to compose and recompose their form until they become art. Zé Bechara does not claim to be a socially or politically interventionist artist, yet in this athletic modelling he works with two basic units of society. In ‘Casa’, he deals with the home, a place shelter and ties, of formal or informal family. ‘Ok Ok let’s talk,’ is in fact about conversation and democracy. It is a work where sentences are built over the floor, where conversations are interrupted by chairs that intercept the continuum of the floor and where tables that almost touch are interrupted by chairs that break the continuity of the surface. This diptych is of course explicitly turbulent, but this is the artist’s mode of creation even when laying the foundations of a future.

This diptych marked the beginning of a period of intense production for the artist, in which he was always dissolving generic boundaries (which are anyway less important in the visual arts), making paintings, drawings and sculptures at various scales until the 2004 exhibition at the Tomie Ohtake Institute put his work on the ‘Casa’ on hold for a time. He then dedicated himself to sculptural abstraction, seeking the materialization of colour. I believe that in a whole suite of works he sought to get closer to a suspended and permanent beauty: ‘A rough index of suspensions’, Tomie Ohtake (2013); ‘Jaguars’, Imperial Palace (2015); ‘Flyers’, Marília Razuk Gallery (2016); ‘Interval between things’, Lina Bo and PM Bardi Institute and ‘Buzzing’, Lurixs Gallery (2017); ‘Brute Flow’, Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro (2018). Uneasy in this 10 quest, the artist seeks new materials, new formulas, experimenting with the gallery or museum’s pre-existing wall, with steel cable, marble, oxidized wood, photography and with glass or, more precisely, with transparency itself. The artist knows that before him many others spent whole lives trying to isolate colour: from Vermeer to Mondrian, from Malevitch to Mangold, from Monet to Rothko and many others. And the artist knows ancient practices of trying to isolate colour, whether in beadwork or in the antique glass paintings produced by painters on the west coast of Africa. But José Bechara, who comes from a Western tradition, deploys the techniques that he has mastered best. His glasswork is painting in transition to sculpture and back again to painting. When suspended, transparent, the coloured glass holds the immensity of the air. It is sculpture, therefore, in the geometric rigor that served as a technique but that now serves to subdue’ the materials’ turbulence. There is nothing natural nor acquired about the rule of perfection that comes from these sculpted colours. Beauty emerges from them as the product of constant creative work that goes on continually, daily and without respite, or as the artist says, to swim, you must overcome the sea.10

1 2010. Bechara, José. Como piscada de vagalume. Rio de Janeiro: Réptil Editora (publishing house).

2 2016. Molder, Maria filomena. Rebuçados venezianos. Lisboa: Relógio D’Água (publishing house)

3 Interview by Gloria Ferreira in José Bechara. Bechara, José. Blefuscu. Santiago de Compostela, Dardo Edition, p.156.

4 Exhibition ‘Um oceano inteiro para nadar’. Culturgest, Lisbon, 2000.

5 Cf. drawings in Bechara, José. Como piscada de vagalume. Rio de Janeiro: Réptil Editora (publishing house).

6 2016. Osório. Luís Camilo. Olhar à margem, SESI-SP editor, São Paulo.p.253.

7 In conversation with the artist in 2018.

8 Song verse from ‘Força estranha’ by Caetano Veloso.

9 Foster, Hal. The Return of The Real, in Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

10 In conversation with the artist in 2018.