First impressions of Lydia Okumura’s work can easily be misleading. For almost 50 years, the Brazilian-born, New York-based artist has been investigating the interstice between two-and three-dimensional space through precise, site-specific installations. Mostly using acrylic paint, cotton string, painted aluminium sheets, charcoal and pencil, Okumura constructs abstract geometric compositions that project into three-dimensional space from the walls and floor. Although her practice can be framed within the minimalist tradition, op art is also at play. Through modest interventions, Okumura enhances our awareness of our bodily presence in the exhibition space. Yet, the cracks, scratches and scuffs on the gallery walls and floor subvert the illusion; Okumura’s conscious inclusion of these cues lends a certain expressivity to her otherwise austere minimalist gestures.
The artist’s recent show, ‘Dentro, o que existe fora’ (Inside, or What Exists Outside), at Galeria Jaqueline Martins, is a welcome opportunity to revisit her oeuvre. The exhibition comprises nine, site-specific works spanning the breadth of her career, some of which have never previously been shown. A series of line drawings and precisely collaged or annotated photographic studies – the main source for her installations – evoke the documentation of 1970s conceptual practices. But it is when these works take three-dimensional form in the gallery that Okumura’s intuitive approach becomes evident: the artist adjusts her modifications for each given space. Her paint-and-string constructions are not idealized: glue marks and under-drawings are intentionally incorporated to subtle effect in the finished pieces.
Before moving to New York in 1974, Okumura studied art in São Paulo, during the hardest years of Brazil’s military dictatorship. At that time, her practice responded to the conceptual art of the period, exploring the boundaries between artistic practice and mundane labour in works that appropriated printed ephemera. For Cartões de Ponto (Timecards, 1970), for instance, Okumura photocopied timecards from the advertising agency where she worked, in which she recorded ‘commercial art’ time (hours spent working on the job) and ‘art-making time’ or free time. During those formative years, she also founded the collective Equipe3 with artists Genilson Soares and Francisco Iñarra. Equipe3’s collaborative installations led to their participation in the 1973 São Paulo Biennial, where they presented the site-specific piece Pontos de vista (Points of View) – a large rock installed in a painted corner, which Okumura demarcated with string to create a volumetric frame. Equipe3 described the work as a ‘game of mutual interference’, emphasizing the space between illusion and reality that manifested in their playfulness with geometrical forms. Pontos de vista might also be considered the departure point for Okumura’s signature style, which applies geometric abstraction to site-specific installations.
While the artist may have taken inspiration from Fred Sandback or Sol LeWitt, her original influences are Brazilian post neo-concrete artists, such as Cildo Meireles and Artur Barrio, whose work includes elements of abstraction, conceptualism and expressionism. By drawing from these sources, Okumura breathes life back into the often cold and cerebral aesthetic of minimalist art.
Main image: Lydia Okumura, ‘Dentro, o que existe fora’ (Inside, or What Exists Outside), installation view, Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, 2017