With preparations underway for the next International Bienal de São Paulo in October 1998, the Brazilian art audience has had an interim update with the latest 'Panorama de Arte Brasileira 97', a survey of Brazilian contemporary art, with works by 36 artists, organised by the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM-SP). Every year since 1969 (biannually since 95), 'Panorama 97' has showcased works by mostly young artists, while surveying the recent production of a few more established artists. There is a group of very promising young artists to be found in the cities of Rio, São Paulo, or even Belo Horizonte and Salvador, and an exhibition of this nature is expected to herald emerging artists. But the best art shown this year was by more established figures and unfortunately, the curatorial choices were not as convincing as one would have liked.
'Panorama 97' addresses the recurring millennial theme of 'the artist's experience as the parameter for art' and Tadeu Chiarelli, curator of this year's 'Panorama 97', explains it with standard pseudo-academic drivel such as 'the construction of identity moulded by signs of gender and ethnicity, the individual and collective memory, the evidence of the human body, its pains and possibilities' etc. But if the curator's pursuit of this by-now-all-too-familiar discourse inspires more yawns than thrills, and if the exhibition does make serious mistakes, it still ends up highlighting some engaging works.
Mario Cravo Neto's black and white pictures are realistic portraits that give off a mystical vibe. The photo Carlinhos Brown como Exu (1996) draws on Afro-Brazilian mythology with sculptural dramatisation. Thrusting his forearm forward in phallic defiance, Carlinhos Brown, a singer/composer of funky black rhythms, poses as the incarnation of Exu - a pagan/divine trickster whose role is to shake loose limited, stagnating perceptions of self and world. With minimum technical manipulation and framed within the formal principles of photographic portraiture, Cravo Neto's works are admirably pure images. More deceptive is Rosangela Rennó's use of photography and the image of the body. By appropriating pictures found in archives of various kinds, Rennó constructs fictional narratives that unfold in the viewer's mind. On the wall are blown-up details of portraits of prisoners from a São Paulo State Penitentiary, in which Rennó enlarges the tattoos on the inmates' bodies. The images, such as one depicting a tattoo of an Egyptian woman around a male nipple, trigger a stirring sense of indulgence.
Iran do Espírito Santo's work has a more analytical nature, but it can also be unexpectedly emotional. In the past he has made a series of 'blind' drawings, executed with his eyes closed, of faces familiar to him. In 'Panorama 97', his work Divisor (1997) consists of a systematic, minimal array of briquette blocks hand-painted in off-whites and soft colours. It is a clear metaphor for incommunicability and loneliness - yet peaceful, a quiet beauty for the eye. The self-made, immaculately crafted wooden furniture piece of Edgard de Souza also conveys calculated intentions. But technical mastery doesn't veil the erotic urgency of de Souza's work. The chair, though hard and polished on the surface, is implicitly informed by questions of sensuality, a combination that casts an unsettling outcome. A kind of love-seat gone perverse, it is elegantly made but betrays a hint of the scatological.
'Panorama 97' finds the Brazilian contemporary art scene with one foot in the conceptual camp and the other in a more sentimental tradition. This latter feature is poignantly emphasised in the delicacy of Mônica Rubinho's small works made of glass, liquids, silk threads and other gentle elements. The relationship between content and material is charged with so much feeling that Rubinho's objects become ultimately too precious. The exhibition ends with three drawings by Tunga; the full significance of whose influential work - involving the fabrication of an individual mythology heavy with pained memory and the sweat of eroticism - still remains elusive. The drawings, at once sensual and cerebral, soft and hairy, are Dadaistic portraits of longing, an obsessive sexuality.
Rio and São Paulo are the country's capitals of culture and the art market, where the majority of artists come to inform and produce their work. Chiarelli seems anxious to apply his curatorship outside this axis and dig out new revelations in Brazil's vast territory. The result is that this 'Panorama 97' has many lapses between a few good passages. Another crack in 'Panorama 97' is a flawed representation of painting in Brazil's current art scene. One leaves with a most unexciting impression of contemporary painting production, but with young painters like Beatriz Milhazes and Adriana Varejão, to cite but two, this is an unfortunate misconception.