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A few considerations on the work of Gustavo Rezende and the less unsafe harbors

Tadeu Chiarelli

Two works by Gustavo Rezende have particularly interested me: Retrato do artista quando jovem (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1998) and Hero (2001).

The first is a small backlight panel that, when lighted up, features a picture of Rezende’s head topped with a red cap. The similarity it holds with portraits and self-portraits produced by 15th- and 16th-century artists is no mere coincidence, neither is the reference to James Joyce’s novel. The small format of the panel and the luminous image that becomes visible at the touch of an inconspicuous button lend to the piece the appearance of a very old reliquary. The contrasting streamlined design of the apparatus and the old references of the image contribute added attractiveness to the small art piece. In the photo, the artist seems to take on the world with deliberate serenity by looking at himself and looking into the observer’s eye, face to face.

The piece Hero (composed by three digitized photos that have been slice-mounted on trilateral pieces coupled to a device that slowly moves them) features three scenes of an athlete swimming. The work is set up like the three-paneled louvered action outdoor signs that today begin to people large cities and that ordinarily display three messages in sequence, with short time intervals. As the louvers slowly rotate, the images show the swimmer in action, as if he were a model advertising fitness centers or an athlete employed to display merchandise.

One of the three photos reveals – not so plainly, that’s for sure – that the athlete-model is the artist himself. His eyes seem lifeless, patched by the dark swimming goggles; his mouth is open, and his body image shows his effort to take on the challenge.

 

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These two pieces are likely to serve as emblems for one of the numerous issues posed by Rezende’s poetics: the quest for a place for art and artist in contemporary society.

As we know, up until the mid 20th century art and artist relied (against the hegemony of individual subjectivity) on programs and projects that, when socially validated, allowed the establishment of well-defined artistic and aesthetic actions meant to transform social and political reality. In the last few decades, however, this picture began to change. The gradual collapse of those old projects and, consequently, the lack of guidelines have caused artists to become prisoners of their individual subjectivity in a society undergoing vertiginous transformation.

More than ever before, today’s society is deprived of values and projects that once guided the action of numerous artists in the last century; what is more, society is now ruled by control mechanisms found in all areas of everyday life. We live in a society that is overwhelmingly controlled and mediated by mass media. If in the past images were somehow connected with the real, nowadays they seem to be self-generating, as if they have replaced the reality from which they formerly derived.

Viewed within this state of affairs that composes the social context in which Pop Art emerged as a sort of paradise inexorably lost, art and artist (left to their own subjectivity as result of the complete lack of an exterior challenge) seem displaced in relation to any position within society; they seem divested of major signification. What does it mean to be an artist at the turn of the third millennium?

 

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The two works by Gustavo Rezende mentioned herein seemingly seek to answer – or problematize, once and for all – the following question: Should the artist go on acting as someone who takes on the world and insists on claiming for himself the role of orderer of the real, as Rezende does in Retrato do artista quando jovem? Or, in view of the current reality – totally informed by media technology and image reproduction –, should the artist deliberately become one with this new reality and become a simple image… a sheer and true indicator of one more commodity (as Hero, for example)?

Apparently, the on-going work of Gustavo Rezende endures considerable strain caused by the two conflicting models. In fact, this duality reveals the crisis in which all contemporary artists have plunged upon being pressured on the one hand by the traditional concept of the artist as creator – one who shapes matter in the world –, and, on the other hand, by the concept of artist as creature – totally conditioned by a sociopolitical structure that precedes, transcends, and to a certain extend does without him/her.

How to be concerned with creating forms and figures in a society totally mediated by systems that continually seem to state that everything has already been said? Systems in which the individual appears to be but a number within the network of structures that ignore him?

In the specific case of Gustavo Rezende, the use of his own bodily image does not suggest a merely narcissist rendition but a strategy that ensures, even if just barely, a sort of locus, or a less unsafe harbor, from which to speak in and about this world where Rezende (and all of us, in fact) is both agent and patient.

 

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The nature of the two afore-mentioned portraits by Gustavo Rezende differ greatly, despite sharing a same element: they portray the artist’s face, a feature that has always been viewed as “mirror of the soul”.

If the photos used in Hero most certainly were not shot by Rezende – the artist sees himself in them at the same time that other viewers do –, in Retrato…, of 1998, the photo clearly shows Rezende portraying himself, observing himself, and acknowledging the world through his own appearance.[1] Notwithstanding the flagrant disparities, however, the two works share a trait that is combined with the exposure of the artist’s face in both pieces, thus rendering them inexorably equivalent. Even if the echoes of a “sculptural intelligence” are observable in Hero and the attendance of painting is a fact in Retrato..., both works are photographs – or, at least, both works have their most remote roots in the photographic device.

Retrato… was produced as a slide, whereas the three photos used in Hero were electronically digitized.

 

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Early in his career, Gustavo Rezende manifested his artistic inspiration through painting. Soon, however, he began to render his poetics into sculpture. It was only toward the late 1990s that he adopted photography in his work in a more consistent manner.

Within this general stance (which Rezende shares with various artists in Brazil and abroad), the following question could be posed: What motivation leads an artist thoroughly familiarized with traditional artistic media such as painting and sculpture (to the point of being acknowledged as one of the most instigating sculptors of his generation) to express himself also through photography and produce these two portraits?

The photo image has been adopted increasingly among artists since the 1960s. Beginning in the 80s, however, this trend became increasingly popular and triggered off a true crisis in the field of the so-called “fine arts.”

It could be said that the growing employment of photography among artists is to a great extent due to the immediateness of the photographic process in comparison to the pictorial process and others. Possibly this nature of photography exerts a strong appeal on those artists concerned with rendering their visual contemplation on a contemporary society immersed in such fleeting reality.

Still, photography has a more problematic characteristic that may have contributed to its increased use among artists. More than painting, photography can render anything visually, with highly descriptive power and in great detail, thus transforming an otherwise unavoidable absence into an extremely powerful presence.

Barthes once stated that our only certainty before a photo is that someone (or something) once stood before the photo camera. On the basis of this statement we could add that, to a certain extent, the identity of the individual or thing is irrelevant. After all, he/she/it is no longer there before the came: that which we have before our eyes is simply a sort of shadow left at the mercy of future gazes.

Another statement could be made in tow of Barthes’s: every time we look at a photograph we can be sure there once stood someone behind the photo camera… and ultimately it makes no difference who this person was.

In photography, this irreversible tendency toward anonymity both on the part of the subject and on the part of the portraitist is perhaps due, to a great extent, to the absolutely planar nature of the photo surface, one that remains immune to any real topology and restricted to its referential character.

The painted portrait conserves in its constitutive materiality undeniable signs of a resolute creation, an authorship. The same does not apply to photographic portrait, no matter how “authorial” the framing, lighting and shadowing resources etc. may be.

It was apparently this character tending to “impersonality” that, beginning in the 1980s, has led artists derived from the most different “expressive” origins (painters, sculptors etc.) to increasingly explore photography. With this medium, they challenge not only the status that photographic image has been assuming over the last few years, but also, within this context, the social and political stereotypes that rule the mass society in which they belong.

Therefore, in Hero and Retrato..., Gustavo Rezende operates with the artist’s stereotypes disseminated in this society and, in so doing, seems to set apart the anguishing condition of this bipartite and paradoxical situation between the artist-hero who takes on the world as a creator and the artist-hero who launches himself in the world scene as merchandise…

How to deal with this stalemate and exercise the creative act within such restricted maneuvering space?

 

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Tradition has it that for centuries the portrait functions as a sort of double of the subject, often taking the place of the sign. A striking characteristic of Gustavo Rezende’s sculptural production is precisely his double pieces, habitually given double names or titled with double phrases, as for example “O imperador e seu dorso” (The emperor and his back, 1991), “O artista e o mundo animal” (The artist and the animal world, 1991), “Cara de cavalo e o drama da arte” (Horse’s face and the art drama, 1992/93), “O paradoxo de Thompson Clark e os pesadelos de Mark” (The paradox of Thompson Clark and Mark’s nightmares, 1999)...

At close inspection, the titles of these works will reveal that they often begin with a name followed by another name or phrase that supposedly conveys the meaning intended by the artist. However, the observation of these works reveals that when combined or set side by side the pieces tend to look quite alike, thus functioning as mutual reflections… or doubles. The question is, are they actual doubles of themselves or (an appealing title for one of Rezende’s works) a metaphor and its double?

 

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From the formal vantage point, these works display “post-Minimal” echoes in the concept of module coupled to poor material and a certain amount of handiwork. But the fact that the works are always presented in two modules and boast composite titles at once keeps them from being analyzed merely from the formal viewpoint.

Another fundamental element in the work of Gustavo Rezende is precisely its impossibility to be dealt with exclusively within the field of form. On the other hand, this characteristic seems to be closely linked to the loss of programs and projects we have mentioned before.

Well aware of the collapse of all the general projects that guided the actions of art and society until the mid 20th century, Rezende turns to his own subjectivity – a subjectivity in constant confrontation with a reality mediated by the technological means of image reproduction surrounding the artist.

Lacking “outside” parameters – or given the old parameters now transformed into mere signifiers deprived of all content –, Rezende seeks to discover among his own references and predilections the bases for a production that at least expose and render an extension of this conflict shared by all contemporary artists.

In this case, the references may be simply autobiographical, or they may originate from a diversity of sources. It is up to Rezende to bring them together and confer meaning not only on the formal appearance of the piece he is creating, but also on the title he gives it...

Within the broad universe of references to which Rezende resorts (literature, philosophy, everyday life etc.), there is one reference that seems to be reiterated in each new work by the artist: art history.

We have mentioned the close relationship between Retrato... and Renaissance portraiture. As to Hero, besides the evident appropriation of advertising iconography (previously ushered into art history by Pop Art), the slow rotation of the trilateral louvers of this work bring to the viewer’s mind – and not completely free of all irony – the relief works of Latin-American Op art.

In O imperador e seu dorso, a “will of form” is evinced that, instead of keeping the piece immersed in the artistic and aesthetic formulations of the second half of the 20th century, push it further back to body fragments rendered in sculpture in the early days of international modernism, to certain parts of classical sculptures, or even to ancient works…

Art history has always informed the poetics of Gustavo Rezende. The artist is keen on moving within its realm when devising his production. Here, the expression “moving” is no mere figure of speech: Rezende actually moves to and fro with his body (or his image) in the field of art history, and this history acts as if it were a part of the artist’s body – a short extension of his less insecure harbor. Cloistered in this realm of concepts, forms, and images transformed into pure signifiers that today constitute art history, actually swollen by it, Rezende seems to emit signs of a highly particular subjectivity that insists in not being totally drawn in.

 

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In Hero, the notion of artist as mere commodity is problematized by the piece’s keen irony – an irony made perceptible mostly by the subtle reference to the Latin-American kinetic art, which is so dear to a certain collection gathering that helps set up the rules of the current Brazilian art market.

In several of his works Gustavo Rezende reconciles his own subjectivity and art history – particularly Brazilian art history –, with the purpose of criticizing its myths and, through this criticism (we might add), somehow legitimize his praxis in this very territory.

Within this scheme, the constructive heritage presently found in Brazilian and South American art tends to be one of the artist’s favorite targets. Some of his works are a sort of caustic dramatization (and even so no less serious or pertinent) of the mythical character of constructive trends and of the process of mystification that the local art system ultimately conferred on it, rather than of constructive currents themselves.

In this sense, Cara de cavalo e o drama da arte seems emblematic. Two triangular wood pieces worked in relief and set upside down in fact suggest each a horse’s head. “Cara de cavalo” was the alias of a Rio de Janeiro outcast to whom Hélio Oiticica paid a tribute with one of the most interesting and striking pieces he created in the 1960s.[2] By taking from Oiticica’s work only the “horse’s face” signifier and giving it, in principle, a different material meaning, he discusses and reinstates in the bólide at issue – one that today, unfortunately, remains a pointer of the Brazilian fashionable modernity/contemporaneity – art’s main drama: the status of the artist viewed as an equal to an outcast.

In two of his most recent works titled Taj Mahal (white version and black version), Gustavo Rezende constructed cubes with modules of white marble and black marble. In the white version he used mainly Carrara marble, and n the black version, Belgian marble.

Seen from a certain distance, the pieces bring to the viewer’s mind the entire constructive tradition of Brazilian and Latin-American art, particularly the formal rigor achieved in the work of sculptor Sérgio Camargo (another pointer of the afore-mentioned Brazilian modernity/contemporaneity), in which he also used white Carrara marble and black Belgian marble.

However, in combination with the awareness that the cube is the foremost symbol of logic and reason, all this initial comfort that the pieces in question afford us is inexorably jeopardized the moment we realize that the matrix chosen for the modules that make up the cubes is a box of an antidepressant medication, Prozac.

The drama of art that Rezende rendered in these pieces via the box of Prozac somewhat redeems the extreme formalism contained in a few concepts of the 20th-century Brazilian constructive aesthetics.

On the other hand, the title of the artwork itself and the fact that it comes in two versions of a same design suggest the story of a love affair that was never fully accomplished. In a way, somewhat like the constructive project in Brazil, the symbol of our modernity...

 

English version: Izabel Murat Burbridge

 

[1] Actually and paradoxically, Hero is the portrait of Gustavo Rezende as a young man; it holds a highly striking temporal and transient character. This character is further stressed by the fact that the work evolves not only in the realm of photography (which is so close to painting) but mainly in the temporal field of the device on which the photos are applied.

In turn, for various reasons, Retrato do artista quando jovem is a self-portrait conceived as a hero’s image, one in which the artist, placed above everyone and everything, views reality with a certain haughtiness. This self-portrait reveals the artist’s undeniable search for pictorial quality, not only in terms of coloring but also through composition. If the timing of sculpture is perceptible in Hero, in Retrato… what we see is the “non-timing” of pictorial perception.

 

[2] Here I refer to Bólide Caixa. Homenagem a Cara de Cavalo, 1966.

[Text published in Gustavo Rezende: Uma antologia por Tadeu Chiarelli. São Paulo: Editora WMF Martins Fontes, 2013.]

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