Visions of Brazil
Reimagining Modernity from Tarsila to Sonia
On ViewBlum & Poe
April 30 – June 22, 2019
Visions of Brazil is an ambitious exhibition that seeks to locate itself within a contemporary discourse on the construction of Brazilian Modernism. Curated by Sofia Gotti for Blum & Poe’s New York gallery, the exhibition begins with historian Walter Mignolo’s assertion that coloniality is the “darker side” of modernity. Gotti suggests that if Modernism is the cultural output of modernity, then there are serious ramifications when this term is used to describe art from Brazil, a country deeply entrenched in colonialism. As such, the exhibition proposes to reconceive of Modernism in Brazil through linkages between art and questions of socio-political power structures and economics. By reframing issues of coloniality—class, gender, and race—as the center of Brazilian modern art, Visions of Brazil seeks to draw connections between works of art across mediums and decades.
In the past several years, New York City has witnessed a spate of monographic exhibitions of Brazilian artists: Lygia Pape at the Met Breuer, Hélio Oiticica at the Whitney, Lygia Clark at MoMA, and José Leonilson at the Americas Society. Visions of Brazil is an essential undertaking in that it brings these artists and others into conversation, while at the same time diversifying the very notion of the Brazilian art canon. It is a much-needed response to one of the most recent Brazilian art exhibitions—Tarsila do Amaral: Inventing Modern Art in Brazil, at MoMA—which struggled to take serious consideration of Brazilian Modernism’s ties to coloniality.
Tarsila do Amaral, and other exhibitions before, have depicted Tarsila as the creator of modern art in her home country. Visions of Brazil builds on this formulation, beginning with one of Tarsila’s lesser-known works titled Terra (1943), from a period when the artist was rethinking her own modernist production of the 1920s. Featuring a nude giantess laying ac
ross a deserted landscape, Terra eliminates the tropical optimism of Tarsila’s earlier work. Instead, it draws attention to the barren terrain and unidealized female body, subtle references to industrialization, gender, and race that the exhibition locates in subsequent forms of Brazilian art.
Terra was only on loan to Blum & Poe for the first phase of the exhibition, and the void it leaves gestures to the current reality of the Brazilian cultural sphere—one where millions of artworks were eradicated in last year’s fire at the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, and in which exhibitions are threatened by the far-right administration of Jair Bolsonaro. The haunting absence of Terra seems to foreshadow a dystopian future, when art of the past persists only through cultural memory, living on in more recent works of art through systems of transfer, or the repertoire, as performance studies scholar Diana Taylor describes.
Such acts of transfer are evident in the first gallery, which sets up a dialogue between Lygia Clark’s modulated planes, books, and Obra Mole (1964) of the 1950s and ’60s with the more recent fabric and wood sculptures of Sonia Gomes. This gallery suggests that Modernism in Brazil did not necessarily end with Clark, as scholars have previously proposed. Instead, Modernism may be continuing today in Gomes’s art, a framework that challenges the European and U.S. distinction between modern and contemporary art, a chronological division that has often been haphazardly superimposed on Latin American art.
The formal similarities between the artists’ practices are apparent in the visual dialogue between Clark’s Obra Mole of 1964 and an untitled work from Gomes’s Patá series (2005). Both sculptures are realized as undulating, anthropomorphic forms; however, while Clark uses synthetic rubber, Gomes incorporates found and gifted fabrics. The latter’s choice of materials references the textile industry in the artist’s home state of Minas Gerais. As Gotti intimates, Gomes’s textiles should not be treated as feminine or craft, as is the conventional analysis of such medium. Gotti’s choice to place Gomes’s works alongside Clark’s pieces, and not in the last gallery alongside the tapestries of Rubem Valentim (another Afro-Brazilian artist) is a stimulating one that points to the range and diversity of this medium. The exhibition intelligently highlights how the capitalist circulation of textiles, as it is related to issues of labor and industrialization, spans across decades of Brazilian art and engages many themes beyond “women’s work.” (With this in mind, Gotti might have considered including one of Clark’s later “relational objects” to question whether these pieces, in addition to their conceptual and performative aspirations, carry forth Modernism through their enactment of corporeal labor and utilization of industrial materials.)
The final gallery, titled “Coming to Terms with Marginality,” is particularly successful as it approaches the titular concept from the perspective of José Leonilson, who was diagnosed with HIV; Rubem Valentim; and Antonio Dias, whose painting Ambiente para o prisioneiro (c. 1968) addresses the subject of political prisoners under the military dictatorship (1964–85). Although Leonilson is represented here by his acrylic paintings, he is best known for his later embroideries, which he began to develop upon learning of his infection. The relationship between the practices of Leonilson and Valentim raises underexplored issues regarding men’s work with textiles, further complicating the perception of the medium described above. Concurrently to the first week of Visions of Brazil, Henrique Faria Fine Art—a gallery one block away—was showing an exhibition that included recent thread works by the contemporary Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, which bolsters the proposition that Modernism has continued into the present, just not in ways that one might expect.
The many bold interpretations offered in Visions of Brazil are slightly dampened by the galleries of the middle two floors, “Interior Landscapes” and “New Ways to be Modern: New-conretism in Rio.” These rooms present examples of Mira Schendel’s mixed-media geometric abstractions and Neo-Concrete works by Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, and Willys de Castro, among others. Though the works are outstanding, the curatorial intervention is less so: Geometric abstraction and Neo-Concretism have already entered the canon of Brazilian modern art. These sections work best if one conceives of each of the four rooms as individual ruminations on the possibilities of Brazilian Modernism. The realization of these two intermediary galleries seems to remind us that there are multiple strategies to contend with Modernism, a multifaceted concept both then and now.