Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Review - Waltercio Caldas: The Nearest Air, at the Blanton

Paul Mullan

Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas, long influential in his home country, is less known in the United States. Co-organized by the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin, and by the Fundação Iberê Camargo in Porto Alegre, “The Nearest Air” is Caldas’ first US museum retrospective and is currently on display at the Blanton.

Co-curated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Director of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, and Ursula Davila-Villa, former Blanton Associate Curator of Latin American Art, the survey eschews a chronological installation. Viewers can start at either entrance to the ground-floor galleries and randomly step through the exhibition; Caldas’ different themes and approaches will gradually become apparent.

Waltercio Caldas, Aquário completamente cheio (Completely Full Aquarium), 1981, Glass and water, 13 3/4 x 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 inches

There is nothing physically in Completely Full Aquarium (1981) except water, which reaches the very lip of the clear, glass tank and does not manifest a discernible water-line. From a medium distance, the water evidences little movement caused by the air conditioning or vibrations from people walking though the gallery, and it can almost be read as “air”. Since the water acts as a lens, those passers-by and other objects in the vicinity appear as small, crisp images – reversed and upside-down – “filling” the bowl (but which blur, when the viewer is at a close distance). This imagistic interior is a dynamic, immediate, and ephemeral indexing of the work’s exterior. Each viewer can also become, from a vantage point always other than their own, an image “filling” the bowl. The conventional boundary between spectator and work breaks down.

The site-specific work Pre-Corner includes an orange, polygonal field which traverses the intersection of the west and north walls of the Blanton’s main atrium. In “front” of that field are four slender lengths of yarn hanging from the ceiling and terminating a few inches above the floor. From a close distance, the two vertical, black lengths of yarn visually mimic the darkened, linear recesses in the ceiling, such as the air conditioning vents and the tracks along which gallery lights are positioned. One of the other, orange lengths is located near a vent and slightly angled by the gust of continuous air; it sways only intermittently and gently. 

However, from the far distance of the atrium’s opposite corner, near the grand staircase landing, the swaying of the yarn is no longer visible. As well, a column blocks sight of the intersection. The irregular, seven-sided shape of Pre-Corner then appears as part of a continuous plane and resolves (roughly) into a quadrangle. The environment’s impact on the works’ materiality (the yarn) vanishes, signaling the secondary character of that materiality and the primacy of the pictoral; this was the case as well with Aquarium, with the physicality of the water being secondary to the images transmitted.

Waltercio Caldas, Longínqua (Far), 1986, Glass sheet and nylon strings, 39 3/8 x 47 1/4 inches (variable height)

Far (1986) is a rectangular glass plate, approximately three by four feet in size, suspended a few inches above a pristine, white pedestal by two continuous nylon threads, which are hung from the ceiling and run under the plate at each side’s midpoint. On an initial approach with a horizontal view, the work’s structure is more obvious: the glass is understood as massive and heavy and is conceptually counterposed to the thin supports which manage to keep it from crashing to the ground. However, when viewing the work close-up and from above, the precisely defined shadows cast on the pedestal, both by the threads and by the edges of the plate, are almost indistinguishable from those threads and edges themselves. Looking through the top, the glass becomes a picture plane flattening out the depth between the shadows’ sharp lines and the sculptural materials proper. By “compressing” the three-dimensionality of Far in this way, the pictoral is again prioritized and the underlying material structure rendered secondary; though whereas the images “in” Aquarium were derived from the context strictly outside of that work, those “in” Far are derived from the work internally.

Waltercio Caldas, A emoção estética (Aesthetic Emotion), 1977, Painted iron and shoes on carpet, 7 7/8 x 80 11/16 x 76 3/4 inches

On a rectangular cut of worn, pale-earthtone carpeting in Aesthetic Emotion (1977), a black pair of men’s dress shoes are squashed by the weight of an open iron arc, painted black. The iron is sheared off at, and is flush with, the edge of the carpet; if imagined to extend beyond that edge, it would constitute a circle. A small, metal plate engraved with the name and date of the work, and name of the artist, is affixed near a corner. This is analogous to the antiquated museum practice of identifying paintings via a plate attached to the bottom of the frame, and to the painterly practice of signing and dating a work at the bottom of a canvas.

Waltercio Caldas, Escultura para todos os materiais não transparentes (Sculpture for All Nontransparent Materials), 1985, Pairs of polished metal, wooden, and marble hemispheres, Dimensions variable

Thus, the carpet can be understood as a pictoral field, one which is, yet again, rendered primary over the material and which abruptly terminates the massing and weightiness of the iron. This most basic geometric form – the circle, or the sheared sphere in Sculpture for All Nontransparent Materials as well – can exist only when the spectator “completes” it conceptually. Nor do Caldas’ actual forms exist in an “empty”, homogeneous space of equivalent points, as demonstrated by the ultimate resolution of the orange quadrangle in Pre-Corner from the “correct” point at the staircase. In these three senses, then, Caldas’ work is decidedly not a variant of minimalism, given the latter’s emphasis on a “sculptural” form’s empirical facticity, wholeness, and mass and on the “filling” up of homogeneous space through serial repetition of such a form. Likewise, while the artist uses steel, glass, bronze, aluminum, and industrial materials widely, his compositions and aberrant shapes do not at all recall industrial production, another of minimalism’s common themes.

Waltercio Caldas, As sete estrelas do silêncio (The Seven Stars of Silence), 1970, Silver needles in chromed steel box lined with velvet, 1 3/8 x 11 3/4 x 9 7/8 inches

The Seven Stars of Silence (1970) is presented at tabletop level, which forces the observer to look downwards. The sculpture is a shallow, steel box with clean, simple lines and no décor, aside from two oxidized, ornamental latches. The box is opened, revealing seven silver needles lying flat in a velvet-lined interior. Those needles are: of varying shapes, linear or curved; of varying lengths; and aligned horizontally. How they might resolve into points or “stars” is not obvious. However, as with Aesthetic Emotion, a small, metal plate with the title of the work is affixed to the bottom edge of the interior, then interpretable as a pictoral field. Given the velvet’s dark tones, this field is further analogous to the flat blackness of a starry sky.

The box resembles either a type for holding precious, luxury objects, such as jewelry, or a type for storing delicate medical or surgical instruments. The former reads as allegorizing the private or domestic; the latter as something quite sinister. In either case, the box secrets objects away from public view when shut. This sequestration is posed as within, not an intimate (and silent) enclosure, but a vast expanse of the natural world, the nighttime sky.

Waltercio Caldas, Centro de razão primitiva (Center for Primitive Reason), 1970, Gold needles in velvet-lined box, 11 3/4 x 3 7/8 x 3 7/8 inches

Center for Primitive Reason (1970) is a second, finely-crafted box: in dark wood; a foot tall; elevated on a pedestal; and with a metal plate, identifying the title of the work, attached to the exterior. Four gold needles are mounted vertically on the velvet-lined interior and are highlighted against the black lining of the open lid behind them, constituted as a pictoral field by the frontal plate. If a viewer circumvents that field and, instead, aligns the eye straight above the points, those sharp, menacing ends actually resolve into faint, hazy “stars” proposed by the companion sculpture.

Waltercio Caldas, O Louco (The Madman), 1971, Lead figurine in velvet-lined box, 2 3/8 x 31 7/8 x 3 1/8 inches

The Madman (1971) is a third box, shallow and very wide. A metal plate with the title is secured to the frontal exterior, as with Primitive Reason. Represented by a tiny lead figurine, only a few millimeters in height, is a worker wearing a red cap and with a bundle slung over their shoulder. From the close-up vantage required to see the figurine’s details, the worker trudges across the interior of a vast “landscape” analogized by the velvet lining. It is notable that Caldas, elsewhere, only rarely figures the human body directly.

Waltercio Caldas, Dado No Gelo (Dice on Ice), 1976, Chromogenic color print in lightbox, 29 1/2 x 27 1/2 x 3 15/16 inches

The photograph of Dice on Ice (1976) shows a die frozen in a solid cube of ice, which, until it thaws, arrests any potential for chance. 

These four works from the 1970s use a somewhat different strategy, and have a strikingly different tone, as compared to works of later periods. Dice on Ice, Seven Stars, Primitive Reason, and The Madman rely upon a traditional figuration: static, unlike the dynamic and ephemeral indexing operations of Aquarium; sculptural or photographic, unlike the perceptual effects, and sense of compression, in Far; and unitary, unlike the conceptual “completion”, demanded by Aesthetic Emotion, of interrupted elemental forms. These representations are strictly internal to the composition, an impression further reinforced by the closed, insular character of the jewel-box forms and lightbox; the only relation to the broader exhibition context is the conventional spectatorial position demanded by a pictoral plane. Finally, these earlier artworks are heavily metaphorical or allegorical.

Brazil’s left-wing President João Goulart was ousted in a coup d’etat in 1964, ushering in a notorious military government. It was only the first in a wave of reaction: vicious, authoritarian regimes were invested over the next ten years, throughout the continent, to smash popular movements. Caldas, who began his artistic practice in the late 1960s, was not a political artist in any conventional sense and did not create agitation or propaganda.

However, in a return of the repressed, this objective historical context forces its way to the surface, and is a necessary part of any interpretation, of Caldas’ art from the period. The hidden threat (and reality) of massive state violence and torture is analogized in both Primitive Reason and Seven Stars. The statis of the political situation – the dictatorship was in power for more than two decades – is allegorized in Dice on Ice; and the laboring body – working class upsurges were very much the target of the South American coups – in The Madman. These were elements of everyday experience for many in Brazil. Given the attacks on genuine collective, political action and shared language, however, their memory could only exist sequestered in the isolated private or domestic domain – or, encoded in a language more acceptable to the armed bodies of men ensconced in high office, as allegory.

“The Nearest Air: A Survey of Works by Waltercio Caldas” is on view at the Blanton Museum of Art, the University of Texas at Austin until January 12, 2014.

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