Iberê Camargo: work situated between times

Iberê Camargo Foundation

Painting, printmaking and drawing, all of Iberê Camargo’s art production is essentially modern, positioned quite clearly in the field of modernity. The essential characteristic that produces the wealth of meanings and attests to its underlying quality is its extraordinary position in different times. Unlike other works of modernity it did not break with the western artistic tradition and, in contrast with many of his Brazilian contemporaries, neither did looking at the art of the past represent resistance to modernity. It resulted instead in a productive synthesis, in which elements of painting, printmaking and drawing from previous centuries and from the humanist tradition served as the qualitative substrate for the development of a new modern work.

This strategy became particularly evident after the Carretéis (Spools), the signs, symbols and figures of his mature work. [...] He developed a body of work with this group that is driven beyond its own historical period. Rooted in the questions Iberê raises and even surpassing them, it opens itself to mechanisms that are part of contemporary art. The work comes into the 21st century raising issues for the field of art and questioning us through the way of seeing that it produces. Work situated between different times, operating in the tension of questions that were part of modernity and continue as part of the present.

The idea of the man-painter concerns Iberê as a person and the persona he created as an artist. This definition of himself comes from his statement in the book No andar do tempo, “Life and art are mixed together for me”.[1] [...]

The man-painter was also involved in the struggle for art in all its different dimensions, from preservation of its memory and history to the quality of materials and the free circulation of works, together with the creation of institutions for containing them. On issues such as these, Iberê fought with other artists, led movements and took a public stance throughout his entire life. At the centre of it all, although always based on his own work, particularly painting, were improvements to the quality of art. At the core of his self-definition was the stance he took towards his own work, lived as experience, always allowing the possibility of risk and error; but always continued until he got it right, or destroyed it, in pursuit of his best. [...]

Ultimately, it is the work that counts. It is the work that remains through time and is always current, often taking on new dimensions. New layers of meaning are applied to it, depending on the history of the gaze, the values and interests of each moment.

Iberê attacked the surface of his paintings with the brush or spatula. The idea had generally been worked out in drawings on paper. [...] It is interesting to compare the small-scale drawings with the finished painting. Despite the artist’s assault on the canvas, the accumulation and removal of material, the making and remaking, overlaying and scraping, the finished painting often bore a surprising resemblance to the drawings, even though strictly speaking they may not have been preparatory studies. Rather than copying them, the painter established a relationship involving gesture and thought. This included losing control of what he was doing along the way, often seeming to go into a kind of trance. But more than once he commented that at the end of the process “his critical eye” awoke and led him to judge what he had done, to accept the result, correct it, or even more radically, to destroy it and start again. [...]

The work occurs between tensions, which involve all its elements and its situation between different times: the exchange or superimposition of different regimes of representation and the activation or reactivation of paradigms of different times. Which involves the use of pictorial mechanisms that propel it into the 21st century – and is why productive dialogues can be established between several artworks of today and the paintings of Iberê, regardless of the artist’s intentions, without establishing direct relationships, but within common constitutive questions triggered by the works themselves in the diversity and openness of the contemporary setting.

The process of doing, undoing and redoing has its own duration, which is part of the creation of the painting and also of the observation of the spectator, revealing details that are only perceptible through a long period of looking, which is connected to the various different timescales connected, juxtaposed and superimposed by the works, particularly in his figurative late period. The thick layers of paint in these pictures, and the way in which they are a made, also affects their field, tensioning it without breaking the boundaries but causing it to overflow, causing the painting to advance into three-dimensional space. Here they approach the contemporary paradigm of literalness in which the two-dimensional forms of modern and traditional painting are transformed into objects or installations that occupy real space. [...]

Solitude appears in these paintings at different times, from the empty urban landscapes produced at the start of his artistic career to the solitary human figures in desolate landscapes produced at the end of his life. The paintings in the Tudo te é falso e inútil (Everything is False and Useless to You) series are fine examples. [...] A monochrome blue pervades everything: a nocturnal scene with no depth, in which the flesh of the world is lost.

Solitude and the fear that accompanies it are also expressed in the self-portraits, particularly from the 1980s onwards. [...] Several self-portraits from this phase centre on his persona, the man-painter: as if he needed to declare to himself and to others that this was more important than the public individual, who had been capable of committing such an inexcusable mistake.

Many of them, therefore, show the painter with brushes in his hand, or a palette, or in front of a canvas in the painting itself, in an affirmation of his role at that profound moment of crisis. [...] He looks for himself inside the painting and in the paint, questioning himself and the infinite possibilities of pictorial language.

Considering the process of painting as more like birth than emergence, he would transfer the characteristics of humanity to the paint, a material, concrete body existing in the world. [...] Flesh, viscera, birth, pain – painting is considered like a body and, for the artist, transformed into a body to some extent, a body that hurts but which is just as essential as his own. He sees painting as a being in the world, a pseudo-person, as defined by the poiesis, which the artist’s ethics require him to consider and respect as such.[2] [...]

At several periods in Iberê’s work questions concerning the specific field of painting arise, its unique two-dimensional support, defined by the edges of the loose or stretched canvas: the legacy of western painting, which Iberê used always, like many modern painters. Different from an approach in terms of the expanded field, the concept developed by Rosalind Krauss[3] in relation to modern sculpture, Iberê’s work reveals the constitutive elements of painting within its boundaries, which allow identification and analysis of these works in their specific field. It is interesting to see how the painter tensions and subverts this field, keeping within its traditional boundaries or, at the most, developing it into another painting.

The field of classical painting intersects with a modern field in which the artist does not expand beyond the support to spread onto the wall. Remaining within traditional limits, he projects it forward, into volume, within the confines of the canvas, accumulating a thickness of paint and causing it to expand, spreading forwards into the real world, creating a visible and palpable three-dimensionality. This expanding material transforms the picture into a painted body, in effect, almost like a relief.

Iberê never left the canvas, he never gave up painting in favour of more contemporary languages that might better express the intrinsic tensions of his problems – it was in the specific field of painting, and through thinking of painting that he attempted to resolve them, through the medium of painting itself, its materials, forms and colours on a canvas with defined limits. [...]

The canvas becomes overloaded with accumulated layers, revealing gestures, brushstrokes and spatula marks. The traditional field of representation is tensioned as much as possible because of its thickness, its real volume, which at the same time rejects any form of three-dimensional representation. The spools, the nucleus pictures, the figures from 1964-1965 and even later, both emerge from and create these masses of paint, like clay that begins to exist as the forms emerge from it.

This sense of volume brings painting closer to the literal nature of pictorial strategies, which concerns what in the past was simulated by the resources of painting, and which is addressed today in a literal way with concrete materials – as if painting were displaying its constructive elements outside the field itself:to emphasize or reveal them, stripping back the framework of its own language. In this sense, several elements of the tradition of painting which served to represent space and three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional surface are now used literally to address painting in works that introduce concrete, three-dimensional forms that occupy real space, generally outside their own field. [...]

These paintings always exist at the intersection of different time frames, generating tensions that remain in the works. Iberê worked through different times, calling on the classical tradition, whose forms, problems and technical questions he always sought to learn and re-learn. He would understand and strain the memory of the materials, supports, techniques and forms to create a synthesis between the open intersections of art history, recollections and the present action. [...]

Artists like Iberê have addressed these issues of accumulated times since modernity, together with a return to the memories of childhood without nostalgia but as the driving force of creation within a critical process. [...]

Iberê was aware of this intersection of times. [...] If his work since the initial landscapes brought with it open time frames that intersected and created tensions, which ironically led him to be considered “out of time” in relation to modern art, they would acquire their full meaning with his return to the human figure after 1980, when there would be a greater overlap between his works, despite the modern spirit and the “return to painting” which marked that decade and part of the following one, in which young artists were developing their own languages as re-readings, quotations and revivals of the art of the past. [...]

Iberê can be considered to have developed in his own way, with his own poiesis, strategies for positioning himself simultaneously in history, in modernity and, in the final decades of his career, in the contemporaneity of the 20th and 21st centuries, which probably explains his continued position as a reference for new generations of artists.

Iberê’s painting forms multiple places that create new conditions for the exchange of gazes between work and spectator. It unfolds through time, involving profound questions of life and death, form and formlessness, human and inhuman. In this exchange, both are formed in their own times, differing in essence but able to interconnect in the space of a human life.

From 1963-1964, the Figures and Nuclei series of paintings seem to explode into a dark viscous material, in which the masses of thick, violent, gestural paint expand from denser and more centralised centres to the edges of the canvas. [...]

From a formal kind of painting that runs through most of the spool pictures, these works slide not into the informal, but into the formless. Formless mass of accumulated material, formless colour, forming marks or fused together until figure is indistinguishable from ground.[4] Once these paintings are completed the figures are submerged. They lose their edges and mix together as if the formless were creating itself, arising from its own impulses, in the absence of the painter’s desire for organisation.

The colour range of these paintings, which will often be very dark, almost black, suggests a territory of shadows. This quality of colour, dark tones, obscurity, often resulted from the density of the material: layers and layers of accumulated paint mixed together and becoming darker and darker. [...]

Iberê welcomed darkness in his paintings. Both formal and existential, the shadows created dense, boggy areas, like his view of life and death as a drama. So it appears in the nocturnal paintings in the Tudo te é falso é inútil (Everything is False and Useless to You) series, with a single figure accompanied just by a bicycle or a table of spools and a mannequin, a recurrent figure in the final paintings. The mannequin: looking like a person. What is its role here? A simulacrum of humanity? A fetish, like the mannequins of Bellmer and Kokoshka? The presence of the inhuman in the human, as in the paintings of De Chirico? A symbol of death, the shell of a body, devoid of life and soul? A shroud of a body, like the one in the final painting, Solidão (Solitude)? Perhaps in these pictures the mannequin encompasses all those meanings.

The shadows in these works, the blackness of near invisibility, coexist with light and strong, luminous colours, however, just as the tragic spirit of the painter was always tempered by a degree of distancing marked by the irony that appears in the titles and even the subject matter of some works, together with the formal tendency that always led him to change the course of the paintings.

He approached the contemporary period through a critical revision of aspects of expressionism, yet without embracing neo-expressionism. Shadows pervade contemporary art as a recurring element, not always connected to drama but as a purely formal element.

Sometimes they even take the key role, replacing the figures “in positive”, and revealing a critical distancing that encompasses social issues and the art system alike. By replacing actual objects, shadows question their absence and their role as myths in a globalised society.

[...] In the paintings and drawings he probably began to develop his own end with the Phantasmagoria series. It was not just the individual Iberê Camargo who was coming to the end, but also the man-painter and his work. The paintings became a privileged arena where the artist could express his fears and concerns, his critical spirit and the clarity that was its key feature, and could also control them. Expressing himself, creating until overcome by the denseness of night.

[...] In the year of his death, fighting the illness that would kill him,the man-painter stands in front of a huge white canvas. In his hands he holds the small drawing indicating the figures: three silhouettes sketched in black pencil. [...] What kind of alchemy transformed the bodies in their migration from drawing to painting? How can the almost immaterial, barely a thought, such faint lines, become a painting of such force, full of colour, for which the initial sketch, becomes as always just a pretext?

If the painter’s death had not cut off its poiesis in its early stages, this painting would certainly have been painted and repainted, scraped, and scratched by incisions of the brush handle or spatula. The colours would have become progressively darker, but interventions in the colour layer would allow appearance of the initial glazes which remain on the surface. It would have developed until the painter had achieved the density of the previous works, until he considered it finished or destroyed it to start over again.

But this unfinished aspect, open and vibrating in permanent tension, regardless of Iberê’s wishes or intentions, is perhaps what most distances this painting from his own modernity and opens out relationships with the art of the 21st century. As often happens, the work went further than the man-painter.

Credits: Story

Fragments of the text A work between times, by Icleia Cattani, originally published in the catalog of the exhibition Iberê Camargo: 21st Century, in November 2014.

Edited and organized by
Gustavo Possamai

Bibliographic references
[1] Camargo, Iberê. No andar do tempo. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 1988. p. 95.
[2] Passeron, René. A poiética em questão. Porto Arte, 13(21), maio 2004. Porto Alegre: Instituto de Artes/UFRGS.
[3] Krauss, Rosalind. La sculpture dans le champ élargi. In: L'originalité de l'avant-garde et autres mythes modernistes. Paris: Macula, 1993.
[4] Bois, Yve-Alain; Krauss, Rosalind. L'informe: mode d'emploi. Paris: Centro Georges Pompidou, 1996.

Every effort has been made to acknowledge the moral rights and copyright of the images in this edition. The Fundação Iberê Camargo welcomes any information concerning authorship, ownership, and/or other data that may be incomplete, and is committed to including them in future updates.

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Credits: All media
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