May 3 – June 26, 2021
There is a Mayan carved shell in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art that, in the assuredness of its line, the elegance of its relief, and its repayment of close-looking, is something that Matisse would have been proud to make. It is mysteriously of its time—is that figure wearing a deer’s head?—and strikingly present at the same time; somehow utterly contemporary.
I thought of that shell often in Adriana Varejão’s latest exhibition at Gagosian and for several reasons. Titled Talavera, the show reveals a somewhat different direction for Varejão. The artist made her name by referencing the look of azulejo tiles, those iconic blue-and-white ceramic tiles seen throughout Brazil (by way of Portugal, by way of Western Asia, by way of China), and reconstructing their feel by pouring thick plaster onto her canvases and then manipulating it or allowing it to crack when it dries. For the current paintings, Varejão turns to Mexico and to the Talavera ceramic tradition of the Mexican state of Puebla, which combines indigenous techniques with those brought to the country by Spanish colonizers (who had also borrowed some strategies from Italy). Varejão’s works point to a complicated genealogy and thus when I looked at a painting such as Jaguar (2020), on which Varejão has painted an anthropomorphically crouched jaguar munching on a human head drawn in a recognizably Mayan style, the shell served as an art historical reference. Varejão has noted she pulled inspiration for the motif from a Mayan painted pot while the earth-toned canvas on which the plaster rests serves as a reminder of clay, a painterly support, and a Western-style frame.
But when I considered a tile painting like Estrella (2021), which depicts a white, four-pointed star with forked rays on a blue ground, I thought of the complex way that our looking gets all jumbled up and how references wind up bleeding into one another, how the way that I can best describe the achievement of the shell is by comparing it to Matisse, painting in a hemisphere the Maya artist could never have known. Estrella conjures up Frank Stella’s shaped canvases such as Port Tampa City (1963), and it also calls further back to indigenous geometric motifs, something Varejão acknowledges, as well, in the freestanding, columnar Ruína Brasilis (Brasilis Ruin) (2021), which has two rows of star-painted tiles wrapped around its base. Likewise, the eponymous white-on-terracotta spiral of Espiral (2020). A person versed in contemporary art might think of Spiral Jetty (1970) and Robert Smithson’s own grapplings with Mexico, but who’s to say that it doesn’t evoke the spiral pattern of the Nazca Lines or the hallucinogenic patch drawn onto the breast of a Moche frog ceramic vessel? Or all three? What you see is what you see, but where you’re from is also what you see.
Varejão’s most trenchant statements come in her meatworks. She has included three columns (Ruína Brasilis as well as Talavera Meat Ruin I and II, both 2021) that are carved and painted to suggest flesh … and maybe Barnett Newman. Varejão has suggested that her painted meat resembles folds of carne seca (dried meat), but of course it also calls to mind the head-hunting and cannibalistic practices of pre-Columbian indigenous peoples in South and Central America. Brazilian modernism grappled with and reclaimed, to a certain degree, its anthropophagic legacy with a manifesto written by Oswald de Andrade in 1928, in which the poet argued that the inevitable task of Brazilian moderns was to consume their predecessors; even if they didn’t do so consciously, he recognized that it was perhaps inevitable, as they were the inheritors of native and settler cultures. Artists today are still chewing (so to speak) on these ideas. Though some scholars believe the Aztecs ate human flesh, Mexico does not have an equivalent to the “Anthropophagic Manifesto,” and so here, the meat in Varejão’s pillars becomes more graphic and abstracted, roiling around itself in churning waves that recall Leonardo’s sketches of the movement of rivers.
Talavera ceramics are known not just for the variety and vibrancy of their color, which Varejão intimates in her current paintings, but also for their three-dimensionality. Talavera artisans use the medium to build up the surfaces of their tiles and vessels so that they are not only relief but additive sculptural objects. It will be fascinating to see where Varejão takes these explorations—will she use her own practice to suggest such dimensional surfaces? Or will she turn to a different contact-era tradition? The possibilities are complex and intriguingly messy, like the hybrid objects she investigates with us.