International Center of Photography
May 16 – September 7, 2014
This summer, Midtown had a distinct case of Brazilian fever, and not just because of the flocks of soccer fans crowding local sports bars and tourists traps to watch the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Museums also joined in the fervor: the Museum of Modern Art presented the first comprehensive North American exhibition of the work of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, as well as a stimulating screening series, On the Edge: Brazilian Film Experiments of the 1960s and Early 1970s. For its part,the International Center of Photography presented Urbes Mutantes: Latin American Photography 1944–2013—a survey of photographic movements in the region featuring the work of Brazilian artists such as Geraldo de Barros and Miguel Rio Branco—as well as the first major solo show in the U.S. dedicated to Caio Reisewitz.
The latter exhibition, which features a varied but consistent selection of works made between 2003 and 2013, is an intimate, exquisite carousel of images that includes large-scale color photographs as well as tiny photo-collages almost exclusively of Brazilian subjects. Reisewitz, who lives and works in his native São Paulo, focuses his lens on the close physical proximity between the forests and the city, highlighting at the same time the psychological distance between the original wilderness and the later settlers of his surroundings. His large-scale shots of the extensive remnants of the Mata Atlântica—a forest almost as wild as the Amazon but just a few miles from the bustling outskirts of his hometown—perfectly capture “the struggle between abundant primeval nature and the voracious human appetite to exploit it,” as the curator of the show, Christopher Phillips, puts it.
The monumental size of many of the color prints on show, especially those from the early stages of Reisewitz’s career, underline the photographer’s tribute to artists such as Thomas Struth (think of his Paradise series) as well as to other members of the Düsseldorf School (Reisewitz’s “Real Gabinete Português de Leitura” appears a direct homage to Candida Höfer’s Libraries). Still, the evolution of the Brazilian artist’s practice is easy to trace, as his large-scale prints begin to incorporate elements of collage over time. For this later and particular body of work, Reisewitz first assembled the collages by hand, then photographed the completed pictures and printed them at a slightly larger size. The final result can be seen in works like “Paraitinga” (2010), where little houses and tiny architectural details magically appear in the branches of a tree. The human element, easy to miss at first sight, hides in the leaves, becoming a fleeting presence, ephemeral yet constant—akin to a slow process of erosion.
For Reisewitz, the untamed and the domesticated are neighbors that coexist, merge, and sometimes blend, like in “Tababuia” (2009), which employs dense visual layering and startling contrasts of scale. Here, a placid river shore works as a backdrop for a flurry of black and white plants that overlap with sepia cutouts of human figures and favela buildings. But the photo-collage that best epitomizes Reisewitz’s visual research is probably “Casa Canoas” (2013), an intriguing portrait of the house that Brazil’s most renowned modernist architect, Oscar Niemeyer, built for himself on the outskirts of Rio di Janeiro in 1951. The elegant winding form of the roof, symbolic of Niemeyer’s dismissal of the strict, angular lines of Bauhaus architecture, brings to mind the Amazon River, as it gently disappears amid the lush vegetation (some real, some collaged) which presses in on the glass-walled house on all sides. It is a mutual invasion: the roof reaches out to embrace the forest but the trees fight back, conquering the living room.
Once again, the forest and the city rub shoulders generating a pressure that echoes that of European culture and religion spreading over the centuries in the country. This tension also reminds one of the rapidly changing relationship between the urban and rural in modern-day Brazil, and poses some serious questions concerning the future of its luxuriant natural environment. The concern for environmental degradation and demographic pressure is a common thread in Brazilian photography. Possibly the most renowned photographer dealing with these subjects isfellow countryman Sebastião Salgado, whose latest traveling and highly institutional behemoth of a show, Genesis, will open in this exact spot on September 19th (sustaining the Midtown Brazilian momentum a little longer).
Genesis consists of over 200 spectacular black-and-white photographs of landscapes, wildlife, and indigenous peoples from around the globe: the land and life of still-pristine and often remote fragments of the world, from Brazil to Alaska. Yet, even if the premises of the work are comparable, the outcomes couldn’t be more dissimilar—visually, in scale, in scope, and in results. In the face of Salgado’s majestically-executed and elegantly-framed shots, the viewer, rather than being deeply concerned about pressing environmental issues, is often left in pure awe: there’s too much beauty, too much distance. As one attempts to relate to the graceful faces and the alluring gestures of the Zo’é tribe living deep in the Amazon jungle, it is hard not to feel like one is looking at beautiful creatures from another planet. In Genesis, nature is too profoundly beautiful to be perceived as neighboring.
On the other hand, for Reisewitz, proximity is the key, the light used to illuminate the complex relationship between humanity and the wilderness. In “Butantã” (2013), the pale, modern cityscape of São Paulo is pictured from afar, seeming to rise up amid the rainforest: a little white island in a gargantuan sea of green. As I was looking at this work I caught myself thinking that the struggle between the forest and the city doesn’t necessary belong to faraway lands and forgotten realms. On the contrary, it actually used to take place right here, in the backyards of North America. It was not so long ago, as William Faulkner put it in his utterly beautiful short story The Bear (1942), that U.S. citizens were the ones dealing with “the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it.” Today, Reisewitz’s work provides a poignant testament that the man is still “fatuous enough,” but in his narrative, the ending is yet to be written.