Writing just a few days after the string of blockbuster openings that started with the 30th Bienal de São Paulo, moved to the countryside of Minas Gerais for the new Tunga and Lygia Pape pavilions at the Instituto Inhotim, and finished on the Rio de Janeiro beach for the second edition of ArtRio, I’m still in a daze. There is confidence and resolve in the Brazilian scene. This year, it seems that institutions are stronger than ever, and ambitious exhibitions and the discovery of new artists have carved out a more solid spot for the country in the saturated landscape of fairs, biennials and the like.
Luis Pérez-Oramas – curator of Latin American art the Museum of Modern Art in New York – put together a well-received edition of the Bienal, with associate curators André Severo and Tobi Maier and assistant curator Isabela Villanueva. The architecture of Oscar Niemeyer’s celebrated pavilion in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park makes for a clear, clean-cut exhibition, one that respects each artist’s work and creates new dialogues without imposing the heavy rhetoric that could easily drown this kind of approach. The strength of Pérez-Oramas’s endeavour lies in his well-timed rescue of often-overlooked figures in the art world, such as Arthur Bispo do Rosário, Absalon, Alair Gomes and Mark Morrisroe, to name just a few. Divided into constellations, as the curator calls his groups of artists, these acquire a brilliance of their own – quiet stars that shine under a new light.
Bispo do Rosário, an artist who made much of his work while locked up in a mental institution in Rio, and Absalon, an Israeli soldier who became an artist in Paris, both address confinement and its different impacts on obsession and artistic creativity. While Bispo do Rosário weaves intricate patterns and writes ciphered messages in fabric, Absalon translates the vocabulary of Modernist architecture – forms that originated in the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier’s constructions – into solitary living units, all stark white. This Minimalism sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, a low-profile, solemn sequence of artists who deserve a second chance.
But while understatement is the case at the Bienal, museums and other institutions in the country have made serious attempts at staging lavish, heavy-duty survey shows of artists ranging from Caravaggio, Alberto Giacometti and Impressionist masters to Lygia Clark and Adriana Varejão. The Pinacoteca do Estado, perhaps under the influence of Venezuelan curator Pérez-Oramas at the Bienal, hosted important retrospectives of kinetic master Carlos Cruz-Diez and the famed series ‘Coloritmos’ (1955–1960, loosely translating as ‘Colour-Rhythms’) by his contemporary Alejandro Otero, making São Paulo the centre for exhibitions of Latin American art this year. The same museum also presented a retrospective of the Brazilian concrete artist Willys de Castro, one of the most powerful shows it has held to date. De Castro is known for his ‘Objetos Ativos’, or ‘Active Objects’, paintings that bear striking resemblance to Otero’s ‘Coloritmos’, but appear to go a step further, jutting out into space, like three-dimensional compositions.
In the galleries, traditional commercial powerhouses like Millan, in São Paulo’s Vila Madalena district, and their neighbours Fortes Vilaça and Luisa Strina, have made serious efforts at going beyond standard white-cube solo shows. Millan hosted a Tatiana Blass exhibition that involved tearing up the pavement in front of the gallery and sinking a car in a pool of wet concrete. For Henrique Oliveira’s show, also at Millan, the space was transformed with sloping walls and ceilings, an empty gallery that seemed to melt in the artist’s hands.
But while Blass and Oliveira are now household names in Brazilian contemporary art, the emerging Mendes Wood gallery in the Jardins area of São Paulo has made a name for itself as the leading spot for new discoveries. Theo Craveiro, Deyson Gilbert and Adriano Costa are three names to keep an eye on, all having had successful solo shows at the space. In a sense, they translate the canons of concrete and constructivist art in Brazil into neo-conceptual installations, and take an abrasive look at geometric abstraction.
Rodrigo Braga and Berna Reale are two artists from the north of Brazil who have been gaining recognition in the dominating southern exhibition circuits of São Paulo and Rio. Both speak of violence and animal instincts in charged performances that involve crabs, goats, dogs and vultures. Braga, whose work is now in the Bienal de São Paulo, considers the limits of human enterprise and how man is outdone and overwhelmed by nature, a poignant question for a society in transformation such as Brazil.
It would be impossible to assess the past booming year in Brazilian art without mentioning one big disappointment, however. While the scene is teeming with positive initiatives, such as the new Pivô cultural centre in Niemeyer’s Copan building in downtown São Paulo, one gaping hole in the circuit remains evident. The Museu de Arte Contemporânea, the University of São Paulo’s rich modern art museum (despite the word ‘contemporary’ in its name), still hasn’t moved to the refurbished Niemeyer building prepared to receive it. It shines white and new across from the Bienal near the Ibirapuera Park, but remains empty, burdened by state bureaucracy in a country whose institutions seem otherwise to be on the move.