Contaminated Spaces

painting as an experience of differentiation

Taisa Palhares


In the year 2000 Rodrigo Andrade was invited to take part in the Projeto Parede [Wall Project] at the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) in São Paulo. The challenge was to make a temporary piece for the corridor between the entrance lobby of the museum and the main gallery. For the first time, the artist found himself offered the opportunity to give an ambiental dimension to the paintings with blocks of color that he had been creating since 1999. The space, which was also the way in to the café and restaurant, was an extremely noisy one. Rodrigo decided to place two pairs of geometric rectangular forms in oil paint (pink and orange, red and blue) straight on the wall, but positioned in such a way that they were partially visible from the front, as well as from the lobby or from within the café.

Even though his paintings were by then no longer restricted by the limits of the canvas, painting straight onto the wall raised new issues. It was so close to the viewers’ space, and in an area where it had to jostle for the attention of passers-by. Strangely, it took on the character of just one more thing among the other things; an ordinariness that Andrade had also seemed to crave in his canvasses. The monochromatic blocks of color were perceived not only as a purely pictorial visual system. In some way, it was now necessary to deal with a series of physical and cultural characteristics that the canvas was still able to keep at bay. Or rather: to make painting. The materiality of the blocks and the potency of the colors and the relations between them left it very clear that the painter’s desire was there, condensed into those colored masses.

The procedure fitted coherently into the work that the artist had been evolving since the previous year and that suggested a process of draining the pictorial field. Based on a binary logic, Rodrigo’s painting concentrated on exploring a relational system in which sheets of paint were applied over the surface of the white canvas,¹ without any prior composition determining their position. Of different thicknesses, at times sticky and at others smooth, the application seemed to follow no formal order, and this impression was reinforced by the displacements, irregularities and asymmetry with which they appeared in the space. Not without a certain irony, it was as if the paintings directly and simply answered any question about their specificity: the painting is reduced to the material, the color and the relationship between relatively unexpressive forms over a neutral backdrop. The procedure, following a basic common rule, becomes infinitely diversified because we never know how the colors, which on occasion are alien to each other, will react side by side. It is the color that singularizes, or perhaps, that introduces the infinite differences in this formulaic scheme.

The choice of the form, which would frequently return to the rectangle as time went by (with variations of size, volume and corner design), also appears to be aleatory. Even if it were possible to reconstruct the trajectory of the geometry in Rodrigo Andrade’s painting from the 1980s or from certain moments in the series from the 1990s, as a form in itself it has no special value. Its reiteration and lack of expression suggest a type of “ready- made form”. Its design is universal not because of any metaphysical meaning that it may hold, but because of the ease with which it can be found. The rectangle signals the urban world; television and cinema screens, graphic design, industrial prefabricated forms, road signs and billboards. Of course, in the rarified field of art history, it can also be associated with geometric abstraction, constructivism or minimalism for example. However, the artist appropriates it as a second-hand, banal form, and this is why it doesn’t in itself take on any particular meaning necessary for the understanding of his work.

While this geometrical form does not present itself as the measure of anything, its sheer presence on the surface of the canvas justifies it as something to model the color. It is due to this ostensive presence of the color as simultaneously material and visual sensation, as the cross between tactile and optical perception, that the work derives part of its interest. In a country where the establishment of an artistic tradition has undeniably been formed in an elitist manner, particularly in the field of painting, such ostentation is not naïve. As an artist who began his production in the 1980s at the time of the “return to painting”, and who continued painting despite its so frequently announced “death”, the affirmative character and vital joy of these blocks of color can speak for themselves.

On the other hand, even before its migration to the museum walls, Rodrigo Andrade’s production sought to conquer a space beyond the physical limits of the canvas. The trajectory of his painting showed the quest for a visual space that could solidify itself, in a real and not only metaphorical way, through the clash between the forms on the canvas and the viewer’s body. On the conveyor belt of a tide of contemporary art in which the space of the artwork presents itself as open, physically unlimited, the artist seeks to eliminate any kind of interiorization, leaving only the objective and corporal relationship between the sheets of color and their perception.

And so it would seem natural for him to search for a space for his painting that was not the one originally destined for it. A space in which it would be confused with the world, but in which it would maintain its identity through this clash. After the mam wall, Andrade made the painting Lanches Alvorada [Alvorada Snacks] (2001) in a bar in the neighborhood of Santa Cecília in São Paulo. He placed blocks of oil paint over the tiled walls of the bar, in colors that blended, despite their own mismatching, with the insidious characteristic images of an establishment of this type: the black price boards with yellow letters, the red plastic beer crates, the television hung high near the ceiling, the red-painted metal chairs, the aging printed tiles in pink, orange and yellow. What had been a relationship between the colors in the canvasses became here a broader and more contaminated conversation.

“Decorative paintings”, some may grumble. But it so happens that the presence of those bodies of color were not just good-humored. There was something intriguing about them (the work was destroyed partly because of the irresistible desire they awoke in people to touch them). While, on the one hand, they seemed to establish an almost mimetic relationship with the surroundings – and one could say that their surface acquired, almost as if by osmosis, the greasy aspect of the bar – at some point this connection was interrupted and imposed a strangeness, a reality that was concrete yet at the same time parallel, artificial.

The painting was not absorbed by space despite the curious cohabitation, quite the contrary; it held itself apart as a strange body that changed the entire relationship that we, the customers, had with it. Firstly, it gave a visual potentiality to our experience. Then it became another time, the reality constituted by the visual dialog between the colors. But what was most revealing of all was that the singularity of the objects in the space and of the blocks of color on the wall constructed itself within this system of contamination. As if the individual, the identity, were only fully achieved within the collective, the group, through relations of proximity and contrast between the things, the painting and the presence of the people in the bar.

In 2003, the contamination of the painting space by the exterior space was further developed in the exhibition Passagem [Passageway] by projecting the street outside into the gallery interior. In a rectangular 10.2 x 3.6 m space, Andrade installed four enormous rectangles in oil paint on two facing side walls, which were multiplied by the mirror on the back wall of the gallery. One should point out that, in a busy neighborhood in São Paulo, the main characteristic of the Galeria 10,20 x 3,60 was its immediacy with the urban space, as the only thing separating it from the sidewalk was a pane of glass. Andrade decided to increase the potential of this relationship between the outside and the inside by using the mirror, which like a white canvas in painting, projected the space of the work out- wards, establishing an intense link with the viewer’s body and a stimulating articulation between the limits of the different spaces (of the painting, the body, the gallery and the public).

In Paredes da Caixa [Caixa Walls] (2006), Rodrigo Andrade’s most recent installation, the same blocks of color in different sizes, forms and thicknesses are installed in some of the rooms at the Museu da Caixa Econômica Federal. In a similar way to Lanches Alvorada,

it explores the link between painting and the universe of quotidian objects, and not just the gallery space.

The museum, in a building which was the first of the organization’s São Paulo offices at the end of the 1930s, is characterized by its ornate and austere decoration in tones of green and red, with walls partially covered in several styles of varnished wood. It is testimony to the past of wealth and progress of the state of São Paulo; everything here seems to exude another reality. It is as if the past had been preserved in the objects and was living in suspended animation on the sixth floor of this city center building. On the walls hang stylized formal portraits of important people from the bank’s history: names such as Emperor Dom Pedro II, President Getúlio Vargas and the young politician Paulo Maluf. The portraits hang alongside large bookshelves, maps, posters, period furniture, type-writers, calculators and a strange room equipped as a medical surgery.

Although this space is completely different from that of the bar, the blocks of paint that are hung in several of the rooms – which are not always noticed immediately – also relate to the space in an ambiguous way. With their strong presence (the largest rectangles, hung in the presidential suite, measure between 110 x 180 x 2 cm and 175 x 215 x 4 cm), they most certainly introduce a kind of vital force to this environment seemingly so frozen in time. However, although they are also seen as intrusive bodies, they simultaneously find themselves strangely at home in the space.

For the viewer it is nearly impossible to abstract the peculiarity of the space and concentrate “on the painting”. In a nearly unconscious way, the gaze is drawn to the rooms with the idea of finding some similarity between the colors chosen by the artist and the objects found in the space. As if an indicative subordination between the physical elements of the museum and the painting

This physical passage continues between two universes, the color’s attempt to mature as something autonomous – a purely aesthetic experience, unconnected with the surrounding space – and, at the same time, the uncontrollable urge to look for other elements in the space that react with and activate the relation between the colored masses, in this way amplifying the field of reverberation, revealing the power of Rodrigo Andrade’s intervention. Again, we have here the permutations between monochromatic and rectangular blocks on the one hand, and the space (museum) on the other, which, taken together and in constant action, reaffirm each other individually. The fabric of relations that they create leads to a window that opens onto further new meanings.²

Parallel to the production of paint on canvas, these brief pictorial installations (or ambient paintings) seek to stretch the frontier between the experience of art and the perception of the world (and, I should say in passing, not as merely a formal exercise). Evidently, from the start Rodrigo Andrade did not question the individual power of his masses of color. However, this does not by any means allow them, through an all- powerful gesture, to exist as ideal units. The libido, the driving energy of every action, finds itself molded in these geometric forms awaiting a detonator. It is the contact between them and the surroundings that will jump-start this energy. The result is a curious process of singularization which occurs through exchange and contamination. In a way, these blocks rehabilitate the quotidian space, in which limited experience and something impoverished in the world prevail, but they bring with them the power of a more vital experience. By stretching the frontiers of his painting, Rodrigo Andrade takes risks. Nevertheless, all of this could of course result in purely decorative effect, if one did not believe in the possibility of differentiation.


¹ Initially this surface tended to be painted in a color like gray or blue, which served as the background. However, this procedure was gradually abandoned, so that the white canvasses predominated.

² Rodrigo Andrade explored a possible interpretation of this work in the lm Uma noite no escritório [A night in the office]. Based on the installation Paredes da Caixa, he made a video that tells the story of an exemplary employee, the young bank manager (Dr. Wilson), played by the artist himself, who comes down with an unknown “nervous malady”. The lm links Edward Hopper’s painting Office at night (1940) with the Museu da Caixa, and – to great comic effect – it deconstructs all the real- ism inspired by the museum surroundings, turning the blocks of color into the protagonists.
Working a night shift, Dr. Wilson starts to have hallucinations which put his “exemplary career” at risk. Suddenly, this dedicated and responsible employee starts to behave strangely, after seeing “forms, colors and material”, “abstractions” in unexpected places (on the walls, the telephone, on other employees’ bodies). The fantastic and the unknown together with the repressed desire represented by these masses of color, emphatically break in, like a kind of parallel world that threatens the routine and well organized reality of the young bank manager; a subterranean or unconscious universe that also clamors for its right to exist.

Text originally published in the book Rodrigo Andrade. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2008.