Fernanda Gomes’s first solo exhibition in London took place in 1997. Her delayed return follows a memorable contribution to last year’s Bienal de São Paulo and comes in advance of a solo exhibition at IKON in Birmingham. Sixteen years is long enough for Gomes to appear as both somehow new in the UK and somewhat generationally unplaceable. As an artist whose career began in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s, she sits (in a similar position to compatriots Jac Leirner and Rivane Neuenschwander, who also first exhibited in London in the 1990s) between the accelerated visibility of Brazilian contemporary art today and the age of its assumed ancestors, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. If Gomes herself does recall this ancestry, it’s less in the sense of the participatory ethos associated with those two artists than in her echoing of the formal origins of Brazilian Constructivism.
Her work is assembled in situ and begins with an extended process of observation. Gomes finds empty space (‘even a white wall’) to be full of information, and the construction and placement of her works (her preferred term is ‘things’) is organized in relation to the spaces she is given for exhibition. Her ‘things’ are more often than not found objects: the formally exquisite yet intrinsically disposable (a certain type of plastic bag); the materially precious but casually discarded (a parquet tile retrieved from a skip or street corner). Her interventions may consist only of dabs of paint (always white), though they more often depend on placement and relation – she joins one thing to an other through stacking or stringing or nudging. Gomes is the type of artist (or person) given to the careful keeping of compelling paper packaging, one who can, in her Rio home studio, get happily absorbed for hours in the correct storage of pieces of string. Prior to the opening of this exhibition, she spent a number of weeks within the gallery repeating studio habits as a process of preparation for display. She assembled works and produced new ones before editing their configuration to a perfect minimum and opening the doors to viewers (only eight at a time to avoid the displacement of a wooden baton or tiny cube balanced on the gallery floor).
Gomes has previously adapted her arrangement of things to spatially challenging venues, such as Rio’s Casa de Cultura Laura Alvim and the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Bienal de São Paulo pavilion, and she takes architectural noise as a prompt for intervention. Her exhibition at Alison Jacques was an intriguing response to how to be specific to a space that is (in the artist’s words) ‘perfect’ – i.e. the very model of the evenly lit and pristine white cube. One result of being specific to the non-place of an architect-designed gallery is that this space seemed, in the presence of Gomes’s work, to be drenched in its own whiteness. The artist’s fidelity to white might, here, have been a means of using up surplus wall paint rather than a nod to the history of the monochrome. After spending a prolonged time getting to know this environment, her placement of works also maps out a choreography of this ideal space for the viewer – who is led from a panorama of objects drawn in space, across walls, towards a zooming-in attraction to a stack of partially painted wooden blocks nestled into a corner (all works Untitled, 2013). A piece of Perspex propped by a block of dark wood marks the threshold between two rooms.
The extended time that Gomes spent here was replayed through objects that passed entirely unnoticed without prolonged viewing time: a piece of transparent thread; a white bag strung way above the habitual eye-line. The exhibition was no mere commentary on gallery space, though the work itself certainly adapted to this enclosure. The suspended plastic bag in the window was last seen in São Paulo as one half of a pair: one hanging outside, subject to wind and weather, was mirrored by its other suspended calm and still within the pavilion. At Alison Jacques, the bag was alone, partially hidden and safely preserved. If there was any knowingness here it was in the form of a work found at the far wall of the second gallery room: two Ryvita crackers mounted on the wall and punctuated by a 24-carat gold sequin. Gomes’s work is rarely weighed down with content external to itself and its placement, but the subtle cues communicated between these two works suggest a reference, however indirect, to the interplay of values (material and immaterial, precious and dispensible) at work within this specific space.