The late Brazilian installation artist Lucia Nogueira had a taste for things that flew and floated. This show of drawings and watercolours, most of them done in London in the 1990s, features images of balloons, helicopters, ghosts and kites. In one piece neat white teeth hang from a horizontal red stripe against a dark backdrop, looking like clothes on a washing line. In another a helicopter hovers over a column of wispy yellow patches that seem to trace its rise. Elsewhere colourful faces float against the white of the paper, trailing lines of paint below them as released balloons trail lengths of twine. In Nogueira’s world gravity has little pull.
She had a light touch. Her drawings, with their gawky lines, thin washes and pared-down imagery, play themselves out in a minor key. They take pleasure in coincidences, in odd conjunctions and non sequiturs, but they often push their whimsy up against something darker. The floating objects are touched with lightness and humour, of course, but also at times with an understated menace. Their weightlessness is not a sign of ethereality but of a randomness that occasionally has dim undercurrents of pain and horror. It is a measure of Nogueira’s wit and judgement that you don’t immediately ask what those heads are doing without bodies, or those teeth without a mouth.
Many of the drawings show groupings of similar objects – a trio of televisions, a set of tables, an army of buttons. The items are removed from their context and left in a kind of semiotic limbo. But not all of them are ordinary household objects; Nogueira also had a liking for isolated body parts and prosthetic limbs. In one drawing lone feet protrude from long tubes. In another, Pinocchio’s wooden arms and legs are separated and laid out in rows and, in a clever play on the story, the red of his conical hat seeps out of its triangle, as if the dismantling were really a dismembering. This is one of several images in which runnels and stains of water-colour obliquely mimic the dripping and spreading of blood.
Nogueira was alert to the slipperiness of shapes and symbols. She knew how to make a plane look like a sea creature and a rabbit like a snail. In one piece she painted mathematical signs against a dark backdrop, labouring over their outlines as if the meaning of a plus sign were contingent on its painterly treatment – although the signs, which form a horizontal band, could also be read as a luminous fence in a nocturnal landscape. The drawings regularly treat the conventions of picture-making as seductively foreign. The laws of perspective are at times teasingly undermined, as in the drawing of a ladder against a black background. There is no telling whether the ladder tapers towards the top or just looks wider at the bottom because it is pictured from below. And, leading nowhere, it serves no obvious purpose.
The viewer is often left wondering what to make of pictorial gestures that look too significant to be entirely accidental but too anomalous to be deliberate. Three garden chairs appear in a row, but their seats are hidden behind large black forms that look faintly like patches of rot but more clearly like the ink blots that they are. A drop of enamel paint interrupts a dark expanse of watercolour, faintly resembling a figure in a landscape, though it could just be a slip of the brush. A large black rectangle which may or may not be a key ring hangs from a chain. These motifs – the ink blots, the drop of enamel, the hanging rectangle – are apparently abstract not by design but by default. The forms in Nogueira’s drawings often look as if they were somehow deflected from their initial and more confidently figurative intentions.
The artist was plainly drawn to the gratuitous. The drawings relay senseless pictorial events that are by turns threatening, puzzling and funny. Figures appear where they don’t belong, and once functional objects lie about uselessly or gather in mysterious assemblies. Things lose their weight and substance and hover before the viewer, slipping in and out of legibility. And if the gratuitous, as it surfaces in the drawings, occasionally has undertones of pain, it also provides a deeply pleasurable release from the drudgery of common sense and purpose. Nogueira’s world is shot through with a senselessness that manifests itself in a muffled violence one moment and a throwaway generosity the next – and occasionally in both at once.