Convention, Illusion, Dissolution
There is a type of darkness one does not often see in big cities, not even during a blackout. Our forebears knew it intimately and it continues to limit vision in certain places of field and forest. It is like some dark night in which fish of abyssal depth live, miles below the surface where no ray of light reaches.
After the sun sets, one can see to a certain point, and all the rest is hidden from sight. That blackness is not the gray layer that hovers over all the objects in the world at night. It is darkness. Something more solid that interrupts the gaze. Cloudy sky, new moon. We can see but a few hands’ widths before us, after which nothing presents itself. Differences between ground and sky vanish and blackness renders all things indistinct. The absence of visual references is such that it might lead one to believe that, after the gloom, the world is no longer there. One can no longer make out shadow or air; pitch darkness covers all the rest.
It is no coincidence that Dante Alighieri describes the soul’s perdition, his confusion, far from the straight road, from the true way, like a fall into a dark, dreary wood.¹ There lies a gloomy place that only steers him away from the paths of righteousness. Nothing remains; he is lost, plunged in despair, fear and confusion. That dark wood is the first landscape described by the poet upon beginning his epic journey into hell. Only limbo seems to exist after the darkness of the woods.
Metaphor and Genre
It was in 2010, at the 29th Bienal de São Paulo, that Rodrigo Andrade first showed a group of black paintings loaded with matter. The series was named Matéria noturna [Night Pieces] [pp. 18-47]. Flanking two abstract paintings, the artist placed figurative paintings based on nocturnal images that depict six landscapes, as well as an interior — inspired by the image of his studio — and a painting called Grade [Grid] [pp. 38-39]. The latter is not a plein air broad view; it is not inside any place, there is just an alley. Night and blackness reveal a mysterious, unfathomable, and perhaps frightening (if we allow ourselves to be overtaken by a light dose of paranoia) space.
All of the figurative paintings in Night Pieces were based on photographs taken by Andrade. In this case, photography acted as a mediator between the artist and the visible world. It is not a painting of any view whatever, but the painting of a previously arranged image of that vista. Thus, the artist did not recreate nature, but another figuration. However, in the creative process of the painting, Andrade emphasized the discrepancy between the image of photographic origin and the material employed to paint it. To this end, he used a great deal of paint. With that load of black, the mass advanced some centimeters beyond the surface of the painting.
The figures are rendered with visible albeit discrete brushstrokes— much more subtle than his figurative painting of the 1990s, for example. It is a cold way to apply paint. Andrade did his best to annul any sign of expressivity. He was a painter who was trying to be as faithful as possible to recording light as it appeared in the photograph. An artist in search of the annulment of any individual style. The painted works are geometricized, graphic. Spaces and figures are drawn with dry and direct lines. The lines that separate what is solid from what is air are determined. The painting tries to be more of a derivation of photography’s gesture-less image than it searches for solutions that might ascribe individual personality to the work. They are generic images, and the way of painting seeks to render this hardly unique aspect of the works.
The contrast between air and solids is emphasized by the distinct manners of applying paint in each of them. A brush is used to paint the various objects. The brushstrokes recreate the modulations of light in detail. Every plant, every grating, every lamp- post is described with graphic precision and tonal coherence. There is a wealth of greens, browns, yellows and ash-colors.
After the canvas has been painted with the aforementioned spaces and objects, the mass of black paint is applied. Liters of paint are distributed upon the surface and contained by a stencil that Andrade spreads and smoothes with a squeegee, as if to put the paint in a silk screen. The mass describes the atmosphere, what is in the interval between one solid and another. The black matter that recreates the darkness is thicker at the top of the canvas and loses density as it approaches the base, until it makes way for the appearance of things that live upon the ground.
Although they are not quite vaporous, brushstroke and color reveal themselves to be much more fragile than black. In fact, the elements only appear when the shadow allows it by its absence. If we take the painting Estrada [Road] [p. 34-35] as an example, we will notice that the black sky is interrupted just before the painted grass. The latter appears as a mantle that allows the plants to emerge in outlined silhouette without fully covering them up.
In the lower left-hand corner of the canvas, the dark background becomes thinner and the road and the grassy roadside announce themselves in a muted tone, yet with enough clarity that we may see them. On the opposite side, below, where the black loses its density, the surface becomes somewhat greenish, gaining faint shades of brown, allowing us to catch a glimpse of the field by the roadside. But as they move away from the foreground towards the top of the painting, the colors darken until they have become black and become part of the dense, somber and uniform mass. There is nothing after it. But whereas black seals off the background, it also overflows and advances towards the image as though it might undo perspective and swallow up space.
In Grid, black not only seeps from the gate’s grid structure, but also removes the orthogonality of the intercrossing wires. A structure that ought to be rectilinear because it is carved into the compact black becomes structured, albeit with irregular lines. It recalls a painting by Agnes Martin, but radicalizes its gesture. In addition to undoing some of the painting’s illusory transparency, black also withdraws the regularity of things. Darkness is at once compact, acid, has weight and is dazzling, suggesting a violent nature in the narrative and a tense aspect in the way of painting. Matter and image are in permanent contradiction. More than this, the illusion is about to be destroyed by the black: the way of painting it sometimes intensifies what is illusory about the image and, at other times, unmakes any mistake and casts us into a cruel materiality.
In paintings from 2011, such as Mato em pedras com musgo [Bush on Mussy Stone] [pp. 68-69] and Pequena ponte de pedra com arbusto à noite [Small Stone Bridge with Bush at Night] [pp. 66-67], the proportion of shadow grows in the same measure as the contrast between black and color. It is a more intense color and a painting in which marks are more easily apparent. Black gains more density in relation to the Biennial paintings, demonstrating the tension between image and mass. It is as if painting intensified its presence so that it would expand and shine more brightly rather than disappear. These paintings are exemplary of the artist’s poetics, for they are among his finest works.
The relationship between image and materiality alludes to the dynamic of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Just as the psyche transforms Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, matter makes of the illusory image a bulky painting that threatens to destroy all sense of illusion. It withdraws what is strictly obedient to the photographic image and to the landscape genre in painting, just as it subverts the contained surface of the photograph. It injects ambiguity into what seemed organized, respectable and polished. Painting has two natures: it is illusion and combination of materials and brushstrokes. In these works, one nature complements the other, but they are forever at loggerheads.
Illusionism is belied by its shadow, in a fine metaphor for the destruction of the image by matter. The matter builds the illusion and leaves it in tatters, but does not destroy it completely: the image remains as ruin. The manner of painting simultaneously strengthens illusionism and anti-illusionism, without ever eliminating one or the other. It is an ambiguous game in which the materials used to make us see the mirage are the very same ones that lead us to lose sight of it. Yet what brings this strange ambivalence to the painting is not only its pasty mirage nature. The artist does not paint only a narrative, does not paint shadow as a sublime force of nature or an anti-illusionist diatribe (actually, the work does not stand against illusion; it merely regards it with ambiguity).
When Andrade makes a stone bridge [pp. 54-57], for instance, he paints the landscape. Moreover, he paints the painting of the landscape, an identifiable, well established, recognizable and disciplined genre. A model reiterated throughout the history of art that has already been reflected by centuries of tradition, problematized, reinvented by the moderns and even vulgarized in countless diluted versions of the paintings of the great masters. It is a type of painting that, because it already possesses such a large a repertory, occasionally seems to possess an anonymous nature, for it could be made only by the appropriation of genre conventions, as it often is. Andrade’s operation is based on those very same conventions, albeit with other layers of meaning. It refers to painting’s ambiguous relationship with illusion, but also to the effort to making an unusual artistic event based on a trivial image.
After the São Paulo Biennial, specifically in the works shown in 2011, at the exhibition Velha ponte de pedra e outras pinturas [Old Stone Bridge and Other Paintings] [pp. 54-87], their relationship to genres becomes clearer. Whereas earlier paintings made use of photographs of places that were affectively important to the painter, made without the ambition of being transformed into the subject of works of art, that year the artist chose what he would photograph already thinking about the painting that could be made from a captured image. Before clicking anything, he already glimpsed the canvas that would emerge from a landscape, a façade, an interior recorded by the camera.
For that 2011 exhibition, photographer Rodrigo Andrade’s gaze sought to portray painting’s overused subjects. While he was seeking the right image to paint, he remembered classical ways of arranging light, adjust composition and arranging proportions. His subjects were associated with the great genres of art (such as interiors or, above all, landscapes). This is why paintings are akin to the languages of the photograph and, even more so, to established forms of artistic creation. How can one fail to recall the painting of [Gustave] Courbet upon gazing at one of Andrade’s seascapes? How not to remember the cinematic tics in his road paintings? How not to be reminded of Van Gogh’s perspectives in some of the rural scenes of 2013? Finally, how not to remember Bruegel in his panoramas?
The procedure is almost the opposite of plein air.² There is no question of its being painting made directly with an eye to nature: there is no search for unexpected effect or even for looser and simpler arrangements. The compositional model was given beforehand; all he needed was a reference image. To begin with, an image that is deeply informed by the history of art.³ According to Giulio Carlo Argan, every painter, whenever he looks for a landscape to paint, looks not for nature, but for the work of art itself.4 The historical memory of art acts almost as another tool for painting. The artist went out to photograph a new image, but one that would allude to reiterated models of painting. So often repeated that they had already lost their authorship.
Rodrigo Andrade, however, radicalizes that gesture. He choses subjects that have become clichés: stone bridges, cliffs, perspectives, waves breaking at the edge of the beach; subjects commonly used by more vulgar painting. A substratum that informs Sunday painters, the paintings we find at arts and crafts fairs such as the one in São Paulo’s Praça da República.5
Theodor Adorno has an unpleasant albeit amusing term for that type of art: “the heaped up atrocities of household ornaments are shocking due to their affinity with art-works”.6 They are paintings that surrender completely to their subject, that think of ways of painting as ways to adapt themselves to more recognizable conventions. Those painters reiterate those more or less coarse procedures as if they were the only possible way of making art. This is why that type of painting avoids new visual solutions. It is a creation of obedience. Made by painters who stick to the rules of a re-hashing of academic culture.
Rodrigo Andrade’s relationship to that type of art is an ambiguous one. On one hand, his work conveys the impression that he enjoys being close to that vulgarity. He is not harmed by the company of a making that seeks ordinary beauties, although he knows that those painters work within another system of image production. Yet when we look at his work, he seems to suggest the opposite way.
Rodrigo Andrade’s painting could not be more different from “ordinary paintings”. Whereas the starting point came from already known compositional forms, the formal treatment does not come from there. In the first place, because the artist decided not only to employ convention, but to base it on a photograph so as to render the procedure even more anonymous. As if it were a painting by nobody. Thus, there is no intent to strengthen the artisanal gesture as in kitsch painting. Aside from that, Andrade’s work does not dilute itself in conventions. It is not a competent way to use them. Those repeated solutions are his starting point. From there, painting and matter become dissonant. The artist changes the game and convention is diluted.
In that 2011 exhibition, Rodrigo started out with certain conventions of painting to create giant canvases that, because they were horizontal and occupied the walls from top to bottom, produced the impact of a movie screen. Although the gesture was freer, recalling the treatment of painting during the nineteenth century, the illusion referred to that produced by the photographic image.
We stood before a painting of a stone bridge — among countless others —, not of a work of art. It dealt with a mode of painting exclusively concerned with full identification with its referent (worse, with its subject). In Rodrigo Andrade, form is contradicted by the powerful contrast between the resistant matter and the illusionist painting. Absolute identity with a conventional form of creating images was brutally broken. The weight of the matter contradicted illusion and, slowly, conventions were diluted in paint, in mass. When the spectator approaches the canvas, he is no longer able to make out anything but the matter: the bridge seems about to come apart. Inasmuch as the painter carried his heavy material to the image, the referent lost its importance. Thus, identification of the subject becomes a bog of oil and pigment.
In other works from the same exhibition in 2011, the mass of paint becomes more fragmented. In the intervals between the stones, shadows are shown as islands adrift in an ocean of image. Since the stencil drawing becomes more outlined, we are given a sense that the image is not swallowed up by the black, but is about to erode, breaking itself up into platelets of paint.
The painting stops short of reasserting pastiche; it eludes being ruled by a taste for “beautiful landscapes” and so it is possible to create a considerable degree of aesthetic violence. The question of pastiche was much debated in the 1980s and 1990s, precisely the period in which the artist began his career. Intellectual reflection on the pastiche owes much to the use previously made of the concept by Theodor Adorno. In pastiche, according to the philosopher, the obsolete styles and calcified genres of art are once again taken up in a non-parodic manner, that is, without any critical distance from the works referenced. So it would deal with an emulation of creations that have already been made, a technical exhibition of the artist’s ability to do something “in the manner of”.
As we know, Andrade’s illusory images begin with traditional subjects and from certain recognizable compositional models, but his painting establishes no identity or alliance with styles of the past or even with trivialized subjects that would ignore other, later events in painting. There is no adhesion. Unlike the logic of a diluted academicism, although the form is given beforehand, the way that matter and color behave is not. In the seascapes and stone bridges, when we pay attention to the subject that intends to be the symbol of what it represents, the image appears to be consumed by the matter.
If we take a canvas of the seascape genre exhibited in 2013, at the Centro Universitário Maria Antonia, [pp. 114-115], that movement of contradiction is clearly revealed. Even if the image of the wavelet rippling upon the sand can be taken as a symbol of placidity, this is not what the painting is about. From bottom to top, the canvas is seized by a mass of greenish blue paint that slowly changes its hue until it surpasses the horizon line and becomes vapor. In fact, water and vapor share the same substance here, which indicates another degree of harmony in the composition. Superimposed upon the mass we see soft brushstrokes suggesting the motion of the sea. Below, a small strip of sand (that occupies less than 20% of the work) is done in watery beige, directly upon the canvas. Were it not for the contrast between two ways of applying paint, everything seems to point to a cliché (albeit extremely beautiful) image of the ocean on a quiet day.
Not so much through the density of the blue, which is more discreet than the masses in previous paintings, but because of its contrast with the watery, greyish beige, we are given the impression that the paint in the upper part of the picture might collapse. The mass exerts a strong gravitational pressure upon the work. Thus, the placid image may also be regarded as an image of catastrophe. In the following moment, figuration (which is excessively identified with the subject matter, with ideals of painting) appears to collapse. The image is unable to bear the weight of the paint.
In my opinion, the best moments of Andrade’s recent work occur when the suggestion of the corrosion of the image fuses with the represented subject, whether as a result of the strength of the materials or their fragmentation, or whether by clear contradiction. It is no longer possible to recognize the bridge, the beach, the landscape or the original photograph: nothing remains but dissolution.
You lie in the dark with closed eyes and see the scene. As you could not at the time.7
I believe that the warping which Rodrigo Andrade treated in his previous paintings as a tension between hard matter and illusion appears, in 2013 and 2014, in the way of painting figures and treating their contours. Ever since the Pinturas de estrada [Road Paintings] series [pp. 122-133], Rodrigo Andrade began to use less rigid expedients to paint the image. Painting lost its photographic appearance and the artist slowly renounced painting’s fidelity reference. The masses of paint have left the background to become a way of attributing more solidity to the large figures. The mass of paint was no longer only sky and air; it was also the thickness of objects.
In the painting Estrada com paisagem de neve I [Road With Snow Landscape I] [p. 130], for example, in addition to composing the light, the mass of paint also ascribes density to those frozen hills. On the roads, brutality does not lie so much in the subjects of the figures as in the very paint of which they are made. This new way of painting became progressively looser. Thus, his most recent paintings put him back in touch with the comic strips that animated his teenage drawings and that dialogue with his work via Philip Guston and Robert Crumb, as always.
For some time now the artist has worked with images that were not originally made by him. He has painted landscapes taken from films [pp. 94-99], from important photographers [pp. 152-173] and from internet videos [pp. 100-101]. It is surely curious that in using the images by others, the artist creates more dissonance in relation to the image that inspired him, intensifying the drama and the catastrophic tone already present in his earlier paintings.
This imagery of catastrophe has haunted Andrade’s painting for quite some time. In the black paintings, one noted an allusion to horror and a mysterious distrust of sorts. In the paintings of the Old Stone Bridge there is a return to romantic, Byronic subjects, that now reappear in the dramatic form of ruins, uncontrollable forces of nature — like waves and picturesquely dense forests —, and disasters such as tsunamis. The artist appears to have brought along other rules to his game of illusion.
By means of this less orthodox relationship between painting and the photographic image, Rodrigo Andrade arrived at the duochromes [pp. 152-173]. Paintings that are derived from photographs of waves taken by Daido Moriyama and of woods shot by Don McCullin, from which the artist creates works of great graphic contrast that present no will to verisimilitude. Instead of reconstructing the entire tonal complexity of photographic greys, Andrade diminishes the quantity of hues and changes the color. The paintings come in pairs of colors, but not in black and white, as in the original photographs. They are made in blue and grey, blue and green, yellow and grey, black and purple, and grey and pink. While one of the colors composes the background and a few details, the other color composes the figures. Or rather, one color produces silhouettes while the other affords visibility to its intervals. Although the mixture of colors and the direction of the brushstroke always lead us to perceive the figures, landscape is presented at its limit, near abstraction.
This fleshless, flat, graphic aspect of a still impersonal type of painting, as well as his use of two colors, recalls some of Andy Warhol’s paintings. Yet unlike Warhol, Rodrigo Andrade does not appear to make of the image an icon that exists independently of what it depicts. The image does not show itself as an immaterial and industrially repeated model of existing things — it comes out of the canvas stretched. Thus, I would like to believe that painting becomes art, great art, when that absolute identity with the referent is brusquely fractured. The experiment of that work of art is a permanent tension.
Much recent contemporary art suffers from an excess of conviction and makes the work a vehicle for the most varied discourses, placing visuality at the service of identity assertion or as a condemnation of the world’s hidden wrongs. In these cases, we arrive at the work knowing more or less what we shall find. Then it is too late, little remains to be looked at. In Rodrigo Andrade’s work it is precisely the opposite that takes place, and therein lies its quality. In gazing at the image everything we thought we had found — everything that is defined, clear, or evident — becomes a ruin in the blink of an eye.
Tiago Mesquita is art critic and professor of Art History.
¹ The first verses of Canto I of Dante Alighieri’s Divine comedy: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray / from the straight road and woke to find myself / alone in a dark wood. How shall I say /what wood that was! / I never saw so drear, / so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear”. In Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: The Hell. (translation: John Ciardi). New York: W.W. Norton, 1977, p. 3.
² Open air painting. In the nineteenth century, it was considered by a number of French artists as a way of counterposing itself to the compositional rigidity of academic painting.
³ Much contemporary photography also appears to operate in this manner. Various artists seek traditional art’s ways of ordering. Let us think, for example, in Thomas Struth’s group portraits and in Jeff Wall’s recreations of scenes from the history of art.
4 “In the infinite multiplicity and variety of natural aspects, the painter makes a choice, that is, he identifies the values he deems most appropriate to be expressed in painting; but among them, of course, the ones that have already been expressed in painting are standouts (…).” Argan, Giulio Carlo: “The Picturesque”. In: De Hogart a Picasso. L’arte Moderna in Europa. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1983.
5 Praça da República is a public square in São Paulo where art and crafts are sold weekly.
6 Adorno, Theodor W. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (translation: Dennis Redmond), 2005 www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1951/mm/ch03.htm [145. Art-figure].
7 Beckett, Samuel. “Heard in the Dark I”. In: Company. London: Calder, 1996.
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