Painting / Suturing* Paulo Herkenhoff
Hers is a painting of thicknesses – in fact, of many different degrees of thickness. To understand the body of the painting is also to understand the possible pain of painting and not abdicate from its sensuality and its specters. The thickness here comprehends not only the materiality but also the symbolic density of the pictorial discourse. Adriana Varejão’s work is the practice of an intricate cartography that covers the span from China to Brazilian historic town of Ouro Preto, between the image of a portolano and the signs of painting, from body to history. It is a collection of apparently scattered signifiers that acquire a connection within a logic of scenes constructed by the artist in a theatricalization of history. They are reports heretofore lacking unity in time and place, as in Severo Sarduy's fiction (1). This results in the establishment of a synchrony in the present, in which what was scattered finds its connection and meaning through the artist's poetic action. Varejão's work is also an iconological operation through which images extracted from the history of art ? where they were sculptures, monuments, chinaware, engravings, maps, and ex-votos printed in books ? shift to the condition of painting, their filter and denominator. The method, insistently, is to render the migration of images. The artist does not paint an angel, but, rather, the tile on which the angel is impressed. She paints a flor da pele [literally, “the flower of the skin,” that is, the skin's finest and outermost layer (tr.’s note)] in a tattoo. Angels and flower transform themselves into flesh and dwell among us through Varejão's painting. Therein we find a prime dimension of this painting, which consists of the symbolic thickness of the images. The artist operates here in the field that Giulio Carlo Argan has called the “culture of images", defined as fundamental in the history of civilization (2). In iconology, the history of art is the history of culture elaborated not by way of concepts but through the means of images, concludes Argan, explaining that "the history of art (from the iconological point of view) is, thus, the history of the transmission, the transmutation of images." After the iconology extracted from the history of art and certain systems of images, after the image itself and its pathos, lent tension by the introduction of some concepts, there then emerges, revealed in Varejão's work ? and it is necessary to place oneself at disposition to understand ? that which is defined as the pictorial possibility, but now marked by its specific density.
In the course of the development of Adriana Varejão's work, some issues have become problematic, issues such as the pathology of the baroque, the constitution of a Brazilian China ? indicative of the historical presence of traces of Oriental culture in the art of Brazil ? and the traumas of the process of colonial expansion in the wake of the Discoveries, in the tendency toward a unifying vision of the world. The appropriation and inversion of stylistic and rhetorical elements of the baroque would not admit that this painting would be reduced to the idea of citationism. What is consolidated is a thickness of history in these images.
In the process of symbolic mediation, confrontation, articulation and synchronic perspective define the dense significance of every image. Oleg Grabar, in his work The Mediation of Ornament, argues that the ornament can establish an immediate meeting between the spectator and an object of any culture whatsoever. To Varejão, ornaments and images, as results of the exchanges and circulation of symbols and technology, are propitiatory offerings of the meeting of cultures. The shape of the oval paintings was derived from the panels painted by Leandro Joaquim to adorn Rio de Janeiro's centrally?located park, the Passeio Público. In the case of Filho Bastardo (Bastard Son), Varejão deals with the process of violence in the colonization, brought up to present times as ethnocentrism. She invents a scene in which a priest rapes a slave woman "adorned" with a vise?like iron neck?band and chain, an instrument of torture. On another scene, an Indian woman tied to a tree sees soldiers approaching, the latter reinterpreted from the engraving Um Funcionário a Passeio com sua Família (A Civil Service Worker out for a Walk with his Family) by Debret. Power ? religion and the State, symbolically figured in the macho ? produces miscegenation as a violent coming together of ethnic groups, cultures, genera and societies in the intercourse of Europe, Africa, and America. Separating the two scenes, there is a gash, which alludes to Fontana and Merleau?Ponty: the torn canvas, like space violently divested of virginity, reveals the pictorial carnality of the work. Varejão's painting is located in a region between tactile, visual, and plastic sensuality and reason. The oval Mapa de Lopo Homem (Map of Lopo Homem) or Caminho de Adão (Adam's Path) refers to the map from 1519, in which the geographical continuity between Asia and America is drawn. Homem's cartographical fancy reconciled the ancient Ptolemaic conceptions in face of the discovery of America. It provided reassurance of Adam's Biblical role as the father of humanity. Varejão explores the continuity as cultural contagion from the perspective of the trauma of the knowledge and dogma regarding the order of the world. The slits in the canvas, stitched together with surgical material, procure the scar. A window on the world in the Renaissance, the picture places itself in the situation of a body in the world. The painting Quadro Ferido (Wounded Painting) ? physical victimization connects Varejão's painting with the edifying meaning of the life of the martyrs, parting from the baroque to the fundamental myth in Brazilian culture of the 20th century, Anthropophagy. Standing before us is the historical molding of the body by religion, by the violent and amorous encounters in the formational process of America, by the politics of gender in regard to women, by the lessons of anatomy from scientific knowledge and art.
Adriana Varejão seems to be guided by the Alfredo Bosi of Dialética da Colonização: “Fantasy is Memory either Dilated or Composed". Anyone who seeks to understand the colonial condition by looking to symbolic processes for an answer must confront the coexistence of a culture at "ground level", which was born and which grew up in the midst of the practices of the migrant and the native, and another culture that opposes the machine of the routines present in the mutant faces of the past and future, looks that superimpose themselves on or convert one another (3). Varejão knows that to articulate the visual past historically means to take possession of a reminiscence, of a visual evidence so that it produces flashes of light in a moment of danger. In this respect, her art acts as an agential process of history. It is symptomatic that we find many self-portraits such as Eye Witness X. Eye Witness Y. Varejão knows how to keep a distantness from these images and how to utilize them from her angle in reconfiguring history. This is the state of exception: to demonstrate the nature of some of the spoils and seek out the subject of historical knowledge. Giving new proper names to geographical spots in the Americas may have been the first act of conquest. Name?giving was a crucial battle in the semiotic war (Tzetan Todorov) and in the anthropological war (Jacques Derrida), in the confrontation between heterogeneous symbolic systems and in the change of cosmogonic relations between names and places. Varejão seeks to detect and fragment saturated configurations. Every image is a passage to a discontinuous and even heterogeneous time. The painting Carne à Moda de Franz Post (Meat a la Franz Post) alludes to the first great art work with Brazil as the subject. The work confirms the idea that the reconfiguration of the past is not a mere reconstitution of a previous era but the recovery of a history in terms of its being able to make for validity today. In Adriana Varejão's work, any citationism is not a mere embarkation in the History of Art, but a production of understanding of the thickness of history and its process of condensation and exchange. After all, it is Walter Benjamin who declares, "The past brings with it a mysterious index, which impels it to redemption. The past, like an irreversible image that emits flashes of light, only lets itself become fixed, at the moment in which is recognized.” (4)
At any moment whatsoever of her production, Varejão renders a hyperbole of matter. This exaggeration denudes the persuasive model itself of baroque religious typology and its witnesses of martyrdom. Such iconography no longer has a faith that would sustain the miracle and the edifying example. The dogma in colonial Brazil did not face tensions. A baroque without clashes of faith was produced. Even so, to Varejão, baroque is linked in lesser degree to the idea of movement and rhythm that is the élan vital of Eugênio d’Ors. Baroque assumes the political nature of Rhetoric and persuasive form, allowing it to approximate a name as disparate as that of Cildo Meireles, author of Missões (Missions). For Brazilian baroque, by being the focus of competition among religious brotherhoods of the same faith, its pulsing crisis was the liberty and social place of the slave and mulatto artisan. The fact is that the monument itself was experiencing its crisis.
Baroque recovered its rhetorical thickness as a persuasive argument of catechism, the ideological preparation for the inroads of the Conquest. After the amazement, baroque acquired a serious inflection in the eyes of the world that it justified. Varejão's work deals with the interaction of planes of representation: the history of art serves for re?examining the supposed totality of the history that molds and is molded by art. A tissue of sectorial histories imbricates temporalities without having a one and only course. The history of art, the history of knowledge, the history of cultural exchanges, and the history of the body ? all are unexpectedly contagious to one another. A one and only history does not exist; there exist images of the past proposed from diverse points of view, Vattimo writes (5). Resorting to the code of signs and symbols of every epoch or culture, Varejão surreptitiously inscribes her own figures to subvert the continuity. With her perverse iconology, images are recaptured for infraction of the model; and to rewrite history critically. It has been seen how, in the canvas Filho Bastardo (Bastard Son), figures of Debret have been recontextualized in a new historical landscape, pointing out the violence of the ethnic formational process of Brazil. That which was forgotten and opaque in the history becomes visible. The process of making the past the present is a new transparency.
A play on ambiguities weaves a new language. A predatory eyeing of the history of art would restrain itself in the more immediate attraction to the set of images, abstaining from perceiving what is being articulated here as painting. In the expansion of the field of painting, first of all the thick pictorial load was modeled in the form of relief, because to paint is also to bring forth a body Once there is a body, it can crackle, wound itself Cuts expose a large quantity of pictorial mass as a parody of the painting's carnality. To Varejão, the rhetoric of matter presents itself as a tactile exacerbation. The non?substantial caricature of the sign is ironically reaffirmed in the theatricalization of painting, like corporeality and its dissolution. Varejão also paints with effects similar to "carnation”, the flesh?colored covering-surface found in baroque sculpture. In Proposta para Uma Catequese – Parte II (Proposal for a Catechesis – Part II), white areas and the dense images contrast, which would seem to indicate a bare wall or an emptiness of images. They are, nevertheless, deliberate denotations of pages of a book, bibliographic sources of the images utilized in the history of art. Above all, they are areas of rest from which to look upon the universe giddy with the baroque, as if it were a rupture of the accumulation, excess, convulsion and horror vacui in face of the minimum.
Religious orders crossed the oceans, trafficking in symbolic representations such as the chrysanthemums in the Seminary of Belém, painted by French Jesuit Belleville, on the way from Canton to Bahia. The peregrinator zest trafficked in the ray of the supra?national church of the Jesuits, who went to the Indies and the Indians. In the wake of European baroque, Brazil saw the dissemination of chinoiseries in the See of Mariana and in Sabará [historic cities in the state of Minas Gerais (tr.'s note)]. Scenes on the chinaware from Macao, executed in red and gilt, confess to the desire to produce lacquer. Milagre dos Peixes (The Miracle of the Fish) exemplifies how the surface (thick layer of cracked paint) recomposes its possibility to signify. Here or as in Linha Equinocial (Equinoctial Line), the painting organizes the surface with shards of chinaware or by the technique of “embechado” (decorating with shards of porcelain), reminding one of a ship?wrecked galleon sinking. Vestiges reconstitute the presence of China in Brazil (6). The work Passagem de Macau a Vila Rica (Macao to Vila Rica Passage) creates a horizontal narrative, as in Oriental scrolls. It looks like Chinese ink on paper. It refers to the dishware from Macao and to the baroque sentiment in the bleeding heart of lacquer. Brazilian churches are situated in the Chinese landscape of the mountains of Minas Gerais, converted into cliffs. Guignard, a dreamer of this China, risked the vertical perspective. In the route from Macao to Vila Rica, Varejão indicates the mental itinerary of man, who seemed to apprehend the world as a totality.
In the painting Comida (Food), Varejão portrays a body hanging down among game animals. The viscera and parts of the human body in raw flesh are scattered about, an allusion to Anthropophagy. The pictorial quality of the work offers an appetizer as ballast for what appears to be merely the complex elaboration of the theme. Everything is contaminated to render the painting problematic. It is in the perception that the image and physicalness of the painting fuse. It is fitting here to argue that the brutish enchantment of Brazilian Anthropophagy would not be as close to Picabia's cannibalism as it would be to a pictorial back?ground that goes back to Rembrandt's Carcass of an Ox and Dr Tulp’s Anatomy Lesson, and to Goya's Butcher's Block and especially Saturn Devouring One of His Sons. The Géricault of Study of Dismembered Arms and Legs (evidence of cannibalism in his Raft of the Medusa) would be taken up by Pedro Américo in his Tiradentes. When the eye shifts from heroic history to social tragedy, Brazilian culture blazes in the living slime of Clarice Lispector's Mineirinho [a notorious Brazilian outlaw], which was transformed into the pure red pigment of Homenagem a Cara de Cavalo (Tribute to Cara de Cavalo ? tr.'s note: another notorious Brazilian outlaw nicknamed "Horseface", shot down by the police), Hélio Oiticica's fallen star, and in Barrio's blood?soaked bundles (7). In the mixture of representation, mimesis, and excessive presence of matter, Varejão's painting is a fusion point of the social times, condensing an updated history of the oppressed.
The painting Varal (Rack) looks like a panel of tiles depicting a hunting scene, inspired by decoration characteristic of the Portuguese art movement of the 1700s. From a crossbeam hang pieces of the dismembered human body of anatomy books, ex?votos, reliquaries with hagiographic symbols. The anthropophagic scene is diagrammatic of the pictorial problems that Adriana Varejão faces. Underlying the anthropophagy is the conception of “viscerality”, which reigned in the Brazilian art of the 60s. The painting acts as a parody of the theory of representation. Illusionism confronts ironies. The restoration of tiles, reproduced in Proposta para Uma Catequese (Proposal for a Catechesis)is rendered in trompe d'oeil, a dissonant mend that does not conceal the operation of the restoral. The sides of the diptych of different hues, one in blue and the other in grisaille, from a Ch'ien?lung plate, indicate a printing error of the color in a book. The simulacrum does not dissimulate. It shows the physical afflictions on the canvas. The left side of Proposta para Uma Catequese I (Proposal for a Catechesis I) depicts the interior of a building in which Indians, extracted from fantasized European representations of cannibalism, lunge forward, brandishing their tomahawks against a figure of Christ, reinvented from the work by Theodor de Bry. It is what could be called another catechesis or lesson of modernity, inasmuch as Indians teach Anthropophagy: "Only anthropophagy unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically. Against the truth of the missionary peoples." (Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto Antropófago, 1928). In the poetical recovery of history, everything acquires chromatic unity in blue and white painting, as in the style of tiling. It is almost like that of Mestre Ataíde ? in Minas Gerais ? who used to execute his painting on wood in the style of tile panels. The little cannibal party is headed by a plaque on which a passage from the New Testament on the institution of the Eucharist is inscribed: Qui manducat mean carnem et bibit meum sanguinem ia me manet, et ego in illo (John 6; 57). The transubstantiation dogma of the Eucharist confronts its analogy in the words of Merleau?Ponty: "It is by lending his body to the world that the painter changes the world in painting." (8)
“Open the supposed body and unfold all its surfaces”, writes J. E. Lyotard in his Libidinal Economy (9). The thickness of the body demands some dissection. Herein lies another relation between spirituality and the flesh, alongside of vanity, fetish, or status: tattooing. To be tattooed is to have the world represented on one's own body and to give one's body the thickness of the world. Sandi Feldman says that “like good Japanese calligraphy, the tattoo captures an instant for all eternity. There it was, the beauty created by brutal means. Discrete elegance obtained through violence” (10). Here the body immolates itself in autophagy. The art executed on the live human body is not lost in death. The decortication performed in Japan consists in the removal of the entire skin, its preservation in oils, and mounting, as can be seen in University of Tokyo's museum. The specimens are kept as masterpieces of the art of tattooing, or Irezumi. To Varejão, the canvas is the surface that man marks with his symbolic scars, and that is why we find the painting Pele Tatuada à Moda de Azulejaria (Skin Tattooed in Tile Style).
In the paintings entitled Laparatomia Exploratória (Exploratory Laparotomy), decorticated tattooed skins lie scattered on tiling. A devastation of bodies seems to have occurred here, a traumatic way of making it possible to reveal their secrets. The body explodes in blood vessels of flesh and ceramic vases with patterns that are Chinese, Islamic, and Chinese with Islamic influences resulting from the contagion of cultures. In Libre, a chest of decorticated Irezumi skin flies over tiles, tracing a course of blood as [though representing] a loss of matter in the trajectory of freedom, says Varejão. The vertiginous trail of tattooed angels' wings is the route of the eye itself. In Laparotomy III, two decorticated skins open out. In one, the artist has "tattooed" the calligraphical flow of the classical work Ten Thousand Wives Of the Yang?Tse River by Ma Yuan (Song dynasty). On the opposite side, below the umbilicus, there are the concentric waves of the oceanic sea, having come out of Behaim's Le Globe(1492). The eye crosses the time?river or rests on the umbilicus of the world. The eye meets with the carnality of the painting, the probable mirror of its physical dimension.
It is the anatomy lesson, the discipline that can elucidate the thickness and the body of the skin, as in the lamination of an image. In Varejão's work, a type of interest in the thickness of painting is manifested, which would be that obtained through the tattooed skin and the tilery, both with their images impregnated in the support?body. The tile is the skin of the edifice and temperature of the surface. The tattoo is the image that most completely adheres to the human body. It is an indelible image made flesh, as permanent as the body in life. The thickness is no longer rendered merely with the accumulation of painting on the support of the work; rather, in Varejão's case, the thickness comes about inside the pictorial surface. The cuts strike at levels deeper than the canvas surface itself. If the image already had its corporeality, announced and palpable, Varejão now opens it as though she were carrying out her work on an operating?room table. Varejão operates on a more remote physical point. She acts inside the canvas. Bodies now explode in blood tubes, an orgy in cadmium, alizarin crimson slices of fish, pieces of carmine, canvasses of skin, pieces of pictorial mass, ceramic flesh, porcelain blood vessels ? shards, ceramic vases that will come to rest as living flesh in its day of existence as pictorial mimesis.
In the canvasses, the pictorial covering spreads over the surface as mimesis of the body of things, not only by representation of the image but also by a certain ideal transposition of the volume. Iberê Camargo, in his painting Lapa (1947), gave Brazilian art its first production singular in the treatment of matter by endowing the image with thickness according to a logic of the elements in the scene. White walls are painted tablelands. They are plastered and smooth as if the painting were the mortar or plaster of Paris used by a stonemason. The trees are treated with a thick mass of paint. Upturned brushstrokes in relief form the concrete volume of the crowns of the trees. In Pop Art, Wayne Thiebaud's work follows this logic, with reliefs applied in pastry?maker style over the images of cakes. This is the logic that we find at first in Varejão's initial production, in canvasses such as Oratório (Oratory) and Anjos (Angels) (1988, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). The painting is in relief convulsed as if it were a baroque cut. At this moment, now the painting expands to assume the character of a relief, only later attaining the condition of being modeled with paint. At the 22nd Biennial of São Paulo (1994), Varejão presented four paintings, which ambiguous title, Extirpação do Mal (Extirpation of Evil), was followed by the respective therapeutic procedures: "by overdose", "by puncture", "by revulsion", and "by incision". The painting is scrutinized by science's scenic stare. Knowledge and the theatre unfold from this unique fountainhead. The painting flows in tubes, immerses in basins, is sucked up by cupping glasses, perforates itself with needles, and finally the thickness of the image can be laminated and the body of the surface collapses dramatically onto a gurney. The painting is the personage of the scene.
Now tiling that is vulgar and geometrical, abstract, appears in Varejão's work. The neighborhood bar and the butcher shop substitute Portugal's landed estates [of the art movement] of the 1700s and the Brazilian convents with their panels of painted tiles. In her most recent work, the imagerial base on which Varejão casts her pictorial drama is becoming thinner in consistency, as in a programmed loss of thickness. The tiles no longer bear designs inscribed on their body. They are modern. Monochromatic. Severe and blind, aseptic. The white ones, like a canvas, suffer in their purity from the fissures of experience. In America (1996), the movement of the continents in the ocean of navigation is revealed in the unknown territories: America, South America, and Mexico. This is a possible map of bleeding, human parchment. The map is the landscape of dilacerations, bleedings, lancinations, collapses of the flesh. There is an afflicting distance in everything. The exploration of the territory in Espécimes da Flora (Specimens of the Flora) cultivates fleshy flowers that bloody the green and white tiles, an aseptic allusion to nature. It is a garden of decorticated flowers with skin and flesh, some of which have come from scientific botanical drawings and others from Oriental tattoos. There is an abundance of fleshy flowers, their sexuality exposed in the phallus enveloped by the white petal of the calla lily, from the manuscripts of Christian Mentzel or of Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira. The flora is completed with cherry blossoms, symbol of the brevity and transcience of life, and peonies tattooed by master Horijin on the mammilla of a man, all of which Varejão confronts with a landiparana, a flower whose pulp is breast?shaped. Eden is a garden of pain, pleasure, and instincts. In speaking of the Corpografias by Francisco Faria and Josely Vianna Baptista, Severo Sarduy recalled Lacan and the idea of inscription, scar or tattoo, suture (11).
On a bar shelf in the painting Distância (Distance), bottles aligned in rows render the existence of language. In the code of messages, the bottles containing a letter swimming in oil have no label. The green bottles bearing labels of the sea contain only linseed oil. These are images of seas coming from aquarelles for the expeditions of Cook and other challengers of the seas. The bottles with labels of heaven are transparent. One heaven is from Delacroix. The others are variants created by Varejão as the passing of time and its unapprehensible dimension. It is necessary to establish communication in this sea of linseed oil, which is utilized in the painting. Language structures itself even in the solitary shipwreck.
(Translated from the Portuguese by Esther Stearns d'Utra e Silva.)
* Published in Adriana Vareão: Pintura/Sutura. exhibition catalogue, São Paulo, Galeria Camargo Vilaça, September 1996.
The author's statements are based on interviews with the artist on 30/9/93, 10/3/93, 3/16/94, 16/10/95, 2/12/96, 2/15/96, 7/2/96, and 8/12/96.
(1) Irezumi, in Corpografias, by Josely Vianna Baptista and Francisco
(2) These initial ideas were developed by the author in "Adriana Varejão, da China brasileira à unificação do mundo", in Galeria Revista de Arte, n. 31, 1992, pp. 24?31, and Adriana Varejão: Páginas de Arte e Teatro da História, Galeria Thomas Cohn, 1993. See Argan's preamble to the Guia da Históia da Arte, by Maurizio Fagiolo (Portuguese ed., 1992).
(3) São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1992.
(4) Concerning the concept of history in Obras Escolhidas, São Paulo, Editora Brasiliense, n. d. There are several paraphrases of this text in these paragraphs.
(5) Postmodernidad: una sociedade transparente? in En Torno a la Postmodernidad, Barcelona, Anthropos, 1990.
(6) Paulo Herkenhoff, Varejão ? A China whitin Brazil in Varejão, Amsterdam, Gaierie Barbara Farber, 1992.
(7) Paulo Herkenhoff, Europa de Almuerzo ? Receta para el arte brasileño, Poliester, Mexico, 1994, 8: 8?15.
(8) L'Oeil et l'Esprit, Paris, Gallimard, 1986 ed.
(9) Économie Libidinal, apud Néstor Perlongher, op. cit. note 1 supra.
(10) The Japanese Tattoo, New York, Abbeville Press. 1986.
(11) Letter to the artists on July 10, 1992, in op. cit, note 1 supra.