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Gustavo Rezende and the determination to carry on

Tadeu Chiarelli

When reflecting on the following texts, readers might notice that their authors repeatedly emphasize the dubious or even hermetic nature of the titles of many of Gustavo Rezende’s works.

Indeed, as Regina Teixeira de Barros points out in her 1997 essay (reprinted herein), Rezende’s titles are as important as his works themselves, in that they “take viewers to a different dimension: that of an intellectual game or play. It is precisely the title that draws in viewers and sets enigmas to be solved, or at least gradually extricated."

The author’s remark may be a useful adage for a few notes introducing the artist’s poetic realm. Not to exhaust or overtax the subject (which would be neither feasible, nor desirable), but perhaps to add different information that would bring out the interest of his poetics even more clearly (though no text will accomplish that which Rezende accomplishes with such aplomb in his art production).

In the above quote, Teixeira de Barros notes that work titles initiate the “intellectual game” into which a viewer is drawn upon reading them, but she may not have given due weight to the fact that visitors start playing this “game” the instant they associate a title with the artwork itself. In this respect, it could be said that a substantial part of Rezende’s production consists of tridimensional pieces (or pieces that tend to be tridimensional, depending on the case) and their titles. “Pieces and their titles” would do nicely to designate one of his works...

Of course, this “intellectual game” starts the very moment we set eyes on a work divided into two parts that are almost identical, if not exactly the same. Optical illusion? Not at all. In principle, two identical pieces placed side by side cannot be taken for a diptych, for the simple reason that, on the one hand, the notion of diptych relates more to the universe of pictorial production. On the other hand, in the two-dimensional realm, a “composition” – in most cases, at least – tends to expand through its two elements.

Even bearing in mind that a significant number of the “doubles” Gustavo Rezende produced in his early career behave more as if they belonged in the two-dimensional realm (they are reliefs, after all), the artist does not resort to a single plastic idea divided into two parts. Rather, he goes precisely for one and the same plastic form, which he then replicates.

However, upon reading the title of a work, we perceive – perhaps unconsciously      – connective and additive operations embedded in both of the forms we are looking at. It is as if an imaginary ‘and’ were placed between the two forms. However, the problem – or “game” – takes on more complexity when we read the title of the work  –  for example, O Imperador e seu Dorso [The Emperor and His Back] –  and realize that the title contradicts the connecting operations perceived in both forms. This is because when we look at the forms we perceive them as substantially equal, but the same does not happen when we read the title. "The emperor" and "his back” are not equivalent expressions, neither as signifiers nor – on first sight, at least – as signifieds.

In the above paragraph I drew attention to the fact that, in terms of meaning, "The Sovereign" is not the same as "His Back" (on first sight, at least, because on second thoughts, or on further examination, they could actually be taken as equivalents.) However, even if the two terms may seem equivalent to the artist – and it seems that they are, in all cases – the viewer-reader's operation of equating valence (making them equivalent) has a dimension that often verges on paradox. Indeed, it is deemed incomprehensible in most situations. However, it is accepted. Most people viewing Rezende's work-texts are disappointed because what seemed to be a simple demonstration – of an operation of connection or addition by equivalence – turns out to be an enigma. Thus, certainty edged over into doubt.

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Viewing Gustavo Rezende’s works may bring on frustration because he always works through description and fabulation. O Imperador e seu Dorso [The Emperor and His Back] is a description of what is obvious for Gustavo, just as Taj Mahal e a possibilidade do amor na era do cubo epistemológico [Taj Mahal and the Possibility of Love in the Age of the Epistemological Cube] is obvious for Juliana Monachesi. In her 2007 essay (included below), she described the work as “the great Brazilian work of art from the 1990s: it ends the decade of subjectivity and micropolitics with an enigma.” However, while these works (understood here in their integral state, i.e., material plus text / title) are apparently configured as precise logical statements, they do fabulate about themselves.

Another feature that might corroborate this argument (Gustavo’s works = description and fabulation) is the way he evinces their material composition, particularly in his works of the last few years. As Fernando Oliva rightly notes in his 2004 essay (also included below), we see “marks of process” or the truth of the material used for his wood (and bronze) productions. Here, the “ostensible absence of finishing” – Oliva's words again – highlights the descriptive dimension that doubles as a potent Modernist trace in his production. Lack of finishing, marks of process, and ‘truth’ of the material reveal the descriptive nature of Rezende’s ‘text’, although this particularity is always negated by the fabular structure present in his titles and clearly shown in the actual composition of some works, of which Gus e os pequenos animais [Gus and small animals] (2004) may be a good example.

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It would be important to confront that ‘modernist’ device characteristic of Rezende’s most recent production with another singularity that marked his work of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Felipe Chaimovich discussed in his 1999 essay appended below, while drawing attention to aspects of The Paradox of Thompson Clark and Mark’s Nightmares (1999, MAMSP standing collection):

“The artist sought advertising stylization both in his image composition and in the material characteristics of the object. The hieratic pose and the arrogant muteness of the pilots suggest a slogan of virile and contemporary products; the naturalist dimensions of printing on paper and industrial assemblage, the impact of ephemeral posters.” 

Chaimovich then enunciated another key assertion concerning a feature of Rezende’s production, after pointing to the hermetic character of the title of the work in question: “Finally, Gustavo Rezende explores the abyss in communication between the subjective meaning of titles and the public’s apprehension of the works of art. Between paradox and nightmare, the work denies the viewer any discursive elucidation about the scene.”

In 1999, therefore, Chaimovich also remarked on the typical negativity of the artist’s production as basis for the multilayered frustration of all those who seek to ‘understand’ his works.

However, what I would like to emphasize in the critic and curator’s essay is its sharp deciphering Rezende’s desire (or lack of desire) for his work to reach a public dimension – something that would take it beyond the confines of established art through the use of advertising strategies.

But the artist had already been adopting procedures taken from the advertising world before O paradoxo.... For instance, the works Sem título (1996, MAMSP), Retrato do artista quando jovem (1998) and Nine feet sculpture (1998, MAC USP) [Untitled, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Nine Feet Sculpture] led backlighting – the advertising device used to further enhance the attractiveness of consumer images – into the field of Gustavo Rezende’s poetics.  

As regards the above-mentioned three works, besides having derived from backlit photographs, they all refer to a different realm in addition to advertising: the visual arts. The untitled work conserved at MAM-SP is a sculpture, as is the one in the MAC-USP collection, whereas Retrato... is a painting, or rather, clearly derives directly from the pictorial tradition.

The key point in relation to these works is that they are images of works of art (sculpture, painting) that only take shape through devices traditionally seen as belonging to the advertising world (photography, backlighting).

Only later Rezende was to invest in the flow of sculptures depicting the truth of his procedures and materials. In these works, he seems to be attesting the fact that art – as understood by common sense – may only be perceived and grasped within technical processes that are not traditionally its own. The artist was to adopt a similar procedure in the production of Hero (2001), after Paradoxos...

In Hero – which I reviewed in the appended 2001 essay –, instead of producing an ‘art video’ about an athlete (himself) swimming, Rezende chose to design one of the mechanical/louvered ad panels that were common in Brazilian cities from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, and that displayed three ads alternately as a practical use of space. Observing the sluggish movement of the set of trihedra, we see “the figure moving in the water like an advertising model (...) or an athlete lending his image to some kind of sales effort.” 

Why not make video art? Perhaps also because at the time the artist did not realize the possibility of producing art in institutionalized contexts, not even ‘cutting edge’ ones. In any case, a notable aspect of Hero is that the image is literally stuck in an advertising device so that it may be somehow (perceived as) efficacious.

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Another important issue to be raised is that both Retrato... and Hero – which, as we have seen, were produced in a setting of a certain skepticism as to the infallibility of art (hence, the need to resort to advertising strategies) – are self-portraits.

While using the image of his own body to develop his production since Retrato, or even earlier, Rezende introduces components that make his poetics even more complex.

On this subject, it must be emphasized that none of the works in which Rezende shows his own image is titled ‘self-portrait’. When featured in his works (as they mostly are), self-portraits or images of the artist are titled ‘portraits’ or ‘hero’, or even given proper names such as Maxwell, Allan, Thompson, or Gus...  Even ‘Gus’ – which may be read as the shortened form of Gustavo's own name – is not treated as such, although it resembles him. So when represented, his self-image is not only embodied in a materiality that is not his own (Rezende is definitely not a performer, or at least not the usual performer). Every artist that produces a traditional self-image embodies it in a different body (paint, paper, wood etc..), but Gustavo Rezende does not seem to be content with just this aspect of projection, because he projects his image onto others that are not him but – in his own words – could be him too.

When the artist was abruptly asked whether Maxwell, Allan, Thompson Clark, and other names were invented or referred to himself, he replied:

“No, I don’t think they are me, but there is me [there] too. Sometimes it’s my body, but obviously a different person. Each name came from something that happened, from experience. Thompson is a philosopher, Mark a friend. Poetic moments. When the name comes from a real person it's super cool, when it doesn’t, then it's an idea. Everything is about an idea of subject, verb and predicate... as I see it now, at this moment.”

Everything is about subject, verb and predicate. Everything seems to be made to lend order to our existence, to pose some meaning – however fleeting it may be – to the fact of being in this world. With Gustavo Rezende, it is being in the world with his multifaceted and complex presence, laden with fabulations.

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

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