Featured in
The Venice Issue

Ismael Nery and Lewis Hammond’s Transatlantic Phantasmagoria

At Mendes Wood DM’s Casa Iramaia, São Paulo, two artists, separated by a century, are engaged in a nocturnal dialogue

BY Mateus Nunes in Exhibition Reviews | 18 JAN 24

At Casa Iramaia in São Paulo – an early modernist house that appears to float on piloti supports – spirits dance on the threshold of life and death. ‘Evocações’ (Evocations) – an exhibition presented by Mendes Wood DM at this architecturally significant off-site venue – features works by the late Brazilian artist Ismael Nery and contemporary British painter Lewis Hammond. The building’s usually sun-drenched, white interior has been metamorphosed into a labyrinth of partition walls, painted moss green and deep blue.

Ismael Nery, Retrato de mulher, 1929, oil on cardboard, 38 × 46 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM

Although Hammond was not familiar with Nery’s work before the show – the pairing was proposed by exhibition curator Germano Dushá – the two artists find common ground in their allegorical portrait paintings that, dense with mystery and symbolism, irradiate the broad possibilities of our complex existence. Nery’s Retrato de mulher (Portrait of a Woman, 1929), for instance, draws the viewer’s eye to the background where, beyond a pulled-aside curtain, a hilly horizon mimics the curves of a human torso. A similar formal play can be found in both Hammond’s The Sun Also Rises in Hell II (2023) and his uncanny Entrückt (Enthralled, 2023). In the latter, Hammond conveys the potency of human fertility through the swollen naked belly of a slumped and sombre-looking pregnant subject. In these images, ethereal physicality and substantiated spirit coalesce.

Nery and Hammond likewise use similar techniques for depicting light, adding drama to their compositions through pronounced chiaroscuro. From these intensely illumined environments – whether evoked by candlelight or spotlight – emerges a multiplicity of soul- and shape-shifting bodies. Compounding this effect, both artists often leave their subjects’ eyes undefined: for Nery, per Denise Mattar’s 2004 monograph, this phenomenon resembles deification; for Hammond, the effect echoes the evanescence of the soul. In the latter’s Juju (2023), for instance, a boy with hollow eyes appears in a trance state as his spirit ascends leaving behind his body, as open and empty as the skull tossed on the ground beside him.

Lewis Hammond, Juju, 2023, oil on linen, 180 × 130 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM

Hammond’s depiction of his subject as a mere vestige of corporeal existence acts as a counterpoint to the unyielding materiality of Nery’s Autorretrato (Self-Portrait, 1924), in which the artist’s face is illuminated to resemble a quarter moon, bisected by a mountain range formed from his own facial bones. Despite Nery having studied in Rio de Janeiro and travelled abroad to Paris, his work always retained the dense warmth and equatorial metaphysics of his birthplace: Belém, gateway to the Amazon rainforest. In Retrato de mulher com olhos verdes (Portrait of a Woman with Green Eyes, 1924), for instance, the subject – a figure combining features of the artist and his wife – calls to mind the Indigenous mythical beings from this region.

Ismael Nery, Autorretrato, c.1930, watercolour on paper, 18 × 11 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM

Tragically, Nery contracted tuberculosis at the age of 30, fulfilling a prediction he had made multiple times: that he would die at the age of 33, just as had both his father before him and – according to Biblical tradition – Jesus Christ. Nery specified on his deathbed that he wished to be buried in the habit of a lay brother of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis of Penitence, a realization of his longing for mystic and bohemian delights. Standing before Hammond’s Absence of Change (St. Sebastian) (2023) at Casa Iramaia, it’s hard not to relate the image of the two catholic saints – symbols of contrition and martyrdom – and imagine Nery’s own sorrowful internment and the hopeful realization of his longing for transcendence.

‘Evocações’ is on view at Mendes Wood DM’s Casa Iramaia, São Paulo until 3 February

Main image: Lewis Hammond, Study For Never & Always (das Meer), 2023, oil on linen, 130 × 180 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM

Mateus Nunes is a São Paulo-based writer, curator and postdoctoral researcher from the Brazilian Amazon.