Thais Rivitti e Ivo Mesquita
Carla Zaccagnini
Delfim Sardo
Paulo Sergio Duarte
Agnaldo Farias
Aracy Amaral


Thais Rivitti e Ivo Mesquita

MESQUITA, Ivo e RIVITTI, Thaís. “Carmela gross: a body of works”, a discussion. In: GROSS, Carmela. Um corpo de idéias. São Paulo: Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, 2010.

This interview with Ivo Mesquita, curator of Carmela Gross’s exhibition at Estação Pinacoteca, was conducted by Thais Rivitti, editor of this publication, a few days after the show first opened. Their dialogue brings to light some significant moments in the process of developing the curatorial work, as well as commentaries about the works on display and some issues regarding the creation of this catalogue.

Thais Rivitti: In the early discussions we had about Carmela Gross’s exhibition, which you were organizing, I remember you saying it would have only sixteen works, a small number considering her forty years of production. How did you start to elaborate this list of works?

Ivo Mesquita: When I start an exhibition project, it is crucial to know the space where it will take place. More important than imagining specific contents of the work that will be on show, I need to know where the exhibition will take place. The first image a visitor sees has to take him into the space, into the artist’s work. Because this specific exhibition takes place at Estação Pinacoteca, a place I’m very familiar with, I already knew the possibilities of discourse I could have there as curator: a possible number of pieces, possible different routes. In Carmela Gross’s specific case, the issue was to choose a trend, as she is an artist with an extended and diversified production, both regarding support – painting, printing, stamps, installations, urban interventions, works with light, videotext, film – and the issues with which she works: landscapes, urban spaces, construction of forms of representation, image systems, art itself. Carmela goes through more formal developments, such as in her series Facas (Knives, 1994) and Trem (Train, 1990), and more extreme strategies, such as in Buracos (Holes, 1994) or in her interventions with fluorescent lamps such as AURORA (2003). On the other hand, these are often ambitious, extended works: many unfolded chairs, many knives, many spears, many rocks. This made me consider a great deal of different factors, facing so many possibilities.

Parallel to that, there was an issue about painting, particularly painting from 1980 on, a theme to which Pinacoteca has been dedicating many different exhibitions to. On my part, I have previously realized two projects within this theme: Beatriz Milhazes’s and Leda Catunda’s exhibitions. I must say that painting is my favorite part in art history – without any loss regarding other media, issues or strategies. Therefore, I initially thought about approaching the issue of painting in Carmela’s work, as she deals with it in a most conceptual, analytic form, as constitutive part of her system of images and representations, taking it as historical reference, such as in Projeto para construção de um Céu (Project for the construction of a sky, 1980-1981), or many times using it to make ironic remarks, such as in Hélices (Propellers, 1993) or Fonte (Fountain, 1987). Differently from the two artists previously mentioned – who, although they also have a conceptual basis, are involved with pictorial practice, even though they do so through appropriations and collages, procedures characteristic of the generation they belong to – Carmela is not a painter. Carmela belongs to a previous generation, for whom painting is object of institutional criticism.

TR: The issue of painting is more evident in the first exhibition room, where we see the works Corpo de ideias (Body of ideas, 1981), Carimbos (Stamps,1977-1978), Hélices and Recorte preto I (Black cut-out I, 1995).

IM: Exactly. My idea was to choose a theme, an issue, a trend that would cover a path of her work in a precise manner. This is another interesting aspect in a curator’s point of view, this exercise in synthesizing, in speaking with little. Gallery spaces have their limits, evidently, and the greatest challenge when preparing a panoramic exhibition is to present a synthesis of the artist’s work. The first room is a kind of introduction to the artist’s repertoire. This idea of drawing as project, or representation as construction; a narrative, even though it is a form of fiction.

TR: Would painting fit in there, as a way of questioning representation, possibilities and impossibilities of representing something?

IM: Projeto para a construção de um céu is about representing clouds; painting, the clouds in the landscape are brought about. The sky where artists show themselves: this one does it like this, that other one does it more smoothly… At the same time, it is a completely transitory thing, there is no permanent form of cloud, it is in constant movement, thus we have the theme of what is ephemeral. Time, which is a theme in painting, is present.

TR: Projeto para a construção de um céu presents, let’s say, a field of interest in which many works by the artist are developed…

IM: In a certain sense, the show takes the work Projeto para a construção de um céu, of 1980- 1981, as a privileged point. From this work emerged the main theme of the show, that is, transition from the representation plan to materialization in a real presence in space, which transforms perception. Even though the artist’s earlier works date from the late 1960s, we can say that the following decade is characterized as an experimental period, in which the artist accomplishes works on image and representation construction through media such as rubber stamps, heliography, projections, thus constructing a repertoire of strategic issues. With Projeto para a construção de um céu, the artist asserts the issue of drawing as thread in her work, as conceptual basis for any project, and as primary reference for reflecting about art and artistic practice. This is an affirmative, ample, consistent work; a dissertation – a role it actually had in the artist’s academic life. Beyond that, within my initial idea of an exhibition centered on painting, it presents a classic theme: landscape. However, this theme is not explored in a traditional manner, from impressions of observation of reality, but from standardized and catalogued procedures in order to build some representation of nature and landscape, considered more “real”, according to topographic procedures. This is how it oriented the selection for this exhibition: it describes a path that goes from representing a landscape to more recent works, which are interventions in urban spaces and in specific sites.

Still about painting, her Carimbos are crucial as well, as they decode drawing procedures – types of lines, of brush strokes – in a cold manner, with rubber stamps, in order to construct some mechanical painting – which even then is manual. This work is a painting containing gesture, it is a drawing containing gesture, it is still done by a hand, even though in a repetitive or mechanical manner. And this idea of repetition, which I also consider quite important, this multiplication, occurs in Carmela’s whole body of work.

It also happens in Corpo de ideias, which gives the exhibition its title. In this work, the artist reproduces images from books thousands of times, juxtaposing them through heliography, creating this large platform, this large heliographic monochrome formed by images accumulation. In my view, it has a certain demarcation of an artificial territory, which is completely constructed, manipulated. It is a combinatory issue. Corpo de ideias is a large monochrome, it has this memory of a paint ing, and, again, because it is a heliography and because it is exposed to light, it is natural that it becomes bluer and bluer. Time is marked, it is a painting that attests its passage. I think this aspect of her work is very beautiful.

TR: Does it change throughout the exhibition?

IM: It gets darker. In the process of heliography, paper is sensitized by a product that burns the image superposed by the incidence of sunlight. Therefore, every time the image is shown, it is exposed to sunlight and keeps on burning. The paper is sensitized and that process keeps on going. It is even curious when you see old plants that have some sides burnt darker than others. Corpo de ideias keeps burning in the process of exhibition, as record of time passing since the work came into existence.

TR: And there is a painting on the floor, and because of this, it has a different rapport to the visitors.

IM: It is not some conventional painting. Even those two Hélices, they are two moving blue colors.

TR: Unstable paintings, in constant mutation, you cannot freeze one particular image of them.

IM: Exactly. And there is the work in fabric, which I like a great deal, Recorte preto I, which is topography permitting a flow from conceptual wall painting (that is in Cascata [Waterfall, 2005] and sometimes in older paintings such as Luar [Moonlight, 1987]) to volume, real topography.

TR: Recorte preto I also makes us think of Buracos, don’t you think? There is some space beyond the plane.

IM: Yes, it projects itself, you don’t know if it goes towards the inside or the outside. This same aspect appears again in Quasares (Quasars, 1983) and in A negra (The negress, 1987), which evokes this shadow, this denial of space.

TR: In this sense, the title Corpo de ideias is also curious, because it is a completely flat, superficial work, which she calls “corpo” [body], thus creating some ambiguity between two-dimensional and three-dimensional.

IM: It is curious. You look at the work and you see juxtaposed images, so it offers itself as a vision of the plane with some depth, something that turns inside, but it is almost a denial of this presence, in order to allude to the idea’s immateriality.

TR: For the other room, your choice was oriented in a different sense, without having the issue of painting as reference, it seems to me.

IM: I have to say that I worked a little based on the works I liked most. Of course, all of this was discussed with the artist. In many of the meetings we held at her studio, we wouldn’t even mention the exhibition, we just considered this or that work. Naturally, there are works to which I feel closer to or in which I am more interested in – something that is normal for any curator – without displaying any disinterest for the others, obviously. However, some of them are part of my own background, they constitute my visual experience, they are part of my professional background. Coincidentally, the first time I worked as a monitor – or educator, as we say now – at Bienal de São Paulo, in 1969, her works A carga (The load, 1968) and Presunto (1968) were on display. They were in front of a large iron panel, a painting by Roberto Aguilar made with a blowlamp, perforating the surface such as a graffiti mask; and, sometimes, because it wouldn’t always work, we inflated Marcelo Nitsche’s large yellow Bolha amarela (Yellow bubble, 1968), which would grow and occupy the space in the pavilion in a never-before-seen manner. These three works together brought something from the street – scale and content – to that Bienal, something fresh in a show boycotted by international artists due to beforehand censorship imposed by the military regime. They were among the best things in that exhibition.

Carmela is an artist whose work I have followed, but in a relationship a little different from the one I have with the works by Iran [do Espírito Santo], Beatriz [Milhazes] or Leda [Catunda], who, let’s say, are artists belonging to my generation. Not Carmela, she already was The artist, The young artist at that time, and I was only seventeen.

TR: A carga and Presunto, then, allude to production more inclined towards sculpture, another one of the artist’s lines of investigation.

IM: There is another issue in Carmela’s work, which is the body. A feminine body that is not feminist, a body that derives from sculpture, it is a body related to sculpture. In the same way, it is something she takes from painting. As I say, actually, she talks about painting, she has a painting memory, but she is not a painter. She is a sculptor. Drawing is the basis of her work, but she is a sculptor, because her work brings space into question. I believe A carga, most of all, shows this. The work comes forward in its presentation, it confronts the viewer. The canvas is modeled in pleats, folds, a body created by accumulation of calculated gestures. In the same way as Presunto, which makes use of the form of an industrialized ham, a transformed body.

TR: In A negra we can also see these characteristics derived from sculpture, isn’t it so?

IM: A negra, certainly, has the characteristics of traditional sculpture as well, but it is a volume on wheels, which can be moved, and in this sense it has a little irony as work of art, such as the paintings in the series Hélices, that rotate on the wall and create with their movement a color spot that is larger than their physical presence. However, A negra has qualities and issues that are present in other works. It floats like a shadow, it has an evanescent presence due to its tulle, which adds some diffuse materiality to it, just like the line of light in Uma casa (One house, 2006), where limits seem to be vibrating instead of defining volume. The opening on the top of A negra seems to suck in external space, reminding us of Quasares, which are these negative spaces, thus going against the affirmation of a sculpture-like body. At the same time, it can be seen as an opposite of Compactos (Compacts, 1991-1992), as they are projections of a painting that goes outside a plane, bodies that throw themselves from the wall into space, creating protuberances as pregnantbodies – to use a feminine image.

TR: Thus, the act of taking out the panels from one of the exhibition rooms, so that the space in the gallery would be connected to the exterior of the building, could be read as a decision derived from this narrow connection Carmela’s works have with the city.

IM: The idea of opening one of the galleries so that we could see the city, the space of work, was present since the beginning. In the process, there was a time when we gathered a set of projects, models, records and documentation about specific works or those that were related to this idea of intervention in the city’s architecture, and we thought about making a great glass window that would occupy the whole extension of the central room, so that we could highlight this relationship. Then the other two galleries, lateral to that space, would have to be turned into rooms presenting a synthesis of the artist’s path, with selected works. However, for me, this organization would be a little repetitive of my curatorial strategy used at Leda [Catunda]’s exhibition: a central room with projects, drawings explaining two ends defined by time. It was Carmela’s idea to use her work Hotel balsa (Ferry hotel, 2003), which belongs to Pinacoteca’s collection, to make the connection between the two rooms, opening the last one so that the works on the exterior could be seen, Iluminuras (Illuminations, 2010) and Se vende (For sale, 2008). In this way, we shrunk the exhibition even further, and the work assumed a crucial role within the curatorial discourse: it makes the link between the first room, an internal space for contemplation directly linked to the experience in the studio, to more conceptual and elaborated works, to the other gallery totally open to the city, with pieces created through direct and sharp gestures, which face the visitors directly. When you look outside, then, you can se fragments of Iluminuras and Se vende, a work that is ironic and challenges a specific situation in movements of urbanization and city development policies.

TR: Iluminuras is a new work, made especially for this exhibition. Se vende had never been displayed in Brazil. They have a more direct relationship with the city, they are inserted into urban spaces. Maybe they are the tip of a process initiated with A carga and Presunto.

IM: A carga and Presunto bring a street experience to an institutional art space. Works accomplished by Carmela from the 1990s on come back to this space as pointed and specific interventions, asserting themselves more and more as a commentary about real landscapes and about possibilities of exercising art. Iluminuras is a particularly meaningful work. Evidently, it has more narrative aspects, related to the history of the building (which used to be the DEOPS, State Departament of Public and Social Order). The character of warning emanating from the yellow lights marks this reference. However, it can be regarded as a great sculpture as well. The building of Estação Pinacoteca is from 1911 and, today, it is part of São Paulo’s historic heritage. However, the city has grown and developed, transforming the scale of its buildings, its urban planning, relationships within this space. When you look at this work, particularly in the evening, you see a large volume, an urban sculpture, according to the city’s current dimensions. It is as if it were a new version of A carga, or a new load.

TR: Se vende is probably the most polemic work, because it mobilizes political contents that can be more easily perceived in a more direct manner. Particularly because it was a provocation to set it between two public buildings in downtown São Paulo.

IM: Se vende is an augmented sign, just like Uma casa. And it is due to its urban scale that it resists to its literal meaning and opens itself up for its specific poetic: choice of color – red – irregular gesture of handwriting, memory of something common and impersonal but precise in its sense. The idea of sign is greatly present in Carmela’s work. Uma casa is a sign, the stamps are a sign, this is something issued from her generation, who worked largely with semiotics in the 1970s. The idea of meta-representation itself, as in Carimbos or Projeto para a construção de um céu, is due to the presence of semiotics in articulating issues and debates about image, language, emergence of new media such as video, electronic copy and experimental cinema at that time. In the same way, her interest in landscape comes from the same period. In 1968, Robert Smithson published The Sedimentation of the Mind, in which he discusses landscape as an idea; at the same time he was starting to develop his land art projects. This notion can also be perceived in her Projeto para a construção de um céu, just as in works by other artists belonging to the same generation, such as Luiz Alphonsus, Mario Cravo Neto (before he committed himself completely to photograph), and Marcelo Nitsche, among others.
Coming back to Se vende, however, it is at once sculpture and red painting, which makes everything colorful… Evidently, if it was placed in the Bom Retiro District, in São Paulo, fifty years from now, maybe it wouldn’t make sense. Not the same sense it makes now, when the area has been going through changes, seeking renovations and valorization. It is curious to think that, within the context it was exhibited for the first time, in Madrid, where it was part of the special projects section at art fair ARCO, it was perceived as something ironic about the nature of the event, where everything may be or is for sale. However, when it was displayed at Matadero, a newly created cultural center at Arganzuela District, it alluded to strategies used in re-urbanization and revitalization projects of degraded areas in the city, in any city, through creation of highly powerful cultural devices and equipment, adding value and promoting changes in quality of life in those neighborhoods.

TR: Uma casa belongs to Pinacoteca’s collection as well, and it isn’t in the first or the second room, but between them.

IM: Uma casa is a light sign. Someone has said this before, its drawing does not have determined, precise lines, because it is light. However, at the same time, its sign is so precise [that] a kind of play is constructed once again.

TR: Something quite concrete, solid, such as a house, presented in an evanescent form. And here again, just like in A carga and Presunto, an industrialized material is used, and she did not order customized lamps of a certain length, she used what was available.

IM: Just like the music stands she adapted to support the fluorescent tube lamps. The option for pink, a quite artificial color that once again alludes to painting – as it puts color on its whole space and spills into others. At the same time, this work has a huge amount of wires – silver-colored wires! They work as “spilling,” as if they were a wall covered in graffiti; if you look at it suddenly and upfront, the work gives you this impression of being graffiti.

TR: Uma casa is a work in space that can be seen as painting, in a certain sense… Alagados [Flooded, 2000] also does this same thing, it seems to me: from drawing, from line to tridimensional.

IM: Yes, Alagados is also a fundamental piece there, because it creates those contours and at the same time adds weight to the room. It brings about an idea of drawing, of trace, of a well-limited line, because it is a line of small iron bars hooked to each other. It is a fundamental piece.

TR: What about the catalogue? How can you preserve all these connections between the works in a book?

IM: Yes, the project is not only about the exhibition. It is a seminar, it is this publication. This is part of it, all these choices made come from movements seeking to affirm this reading, this interpretation of her work Pinacoteca do Estado is promoting, at this time, through our curatorial work. In order to open this reading, it is very important that we had two new texts, which were commissioned, in the publication. We start to offer more reading possibilities of the work, together with the exhibition’s reading. You need things as complements, because that exhibition is not final, total, definitive. It is a selection. The book has in large part this function of alluding, of presenting the context in which the work was produced.

TR: About these texts, you asked Marta Bogéa, an architect, to write one of them.

IM: She, curiously, adopted a strategy of constructing her text by accompanying it with images. I think it was extremely productive, she brings us again to that kind of street view. However, she talks according to a perspective of experience. And of networks, of maps built by the work.

TR: There is also a text by Carla Zaccagnini, an artist, which brings a very different view from that of an art critic. She allows herself to have more personal readings, less committed to art history.

IM: I always think that an artist regards the work of another artist in a different way from anyone else. I pay much attention to comments artists make about other artists, they come through some other place that is not that of a critic or of a historian.

Carla’s text talks about a certain notion of belonging, which I believe artists have and maybe we don’t know. This is important, also because it is a form of recognition that these works, these oeuvres, let’s say, are present, constituted, and how other generations look at them, how they realize they have a connection with them. In this case, Carmela is an artist of whom Pinacoteca possesses many works, from different moments. She is an artist who is within this great narrative that Pinacoteca builds through its collection, an artist who is often referred to by other artists; she is influent and, also in this sense, a reference. It was important that the book covered this issue. I believe this is fundamental in the museum’s work, not only to accumulate, but to propose different reflections on its works.

TR: And the book stays, while the exhibition is temporary. In this sense, its reach is greater and its unfolding happens through a longer period.

IM: Exactly, I think this is a second curatorial work. It’s not only about choosing works in a certain sequence, it is something pertaining to the total sense of the work, to what we want it to cover. The publication needs to articulate itself as another narrative, it does not have the same resources of an exhibition.
In this case, it was so evident in this project… When, in the first draft of the book, the gallery views seemed to be framed by the white of the pages, it seemed those were pictures about an exhibition; however, if you expand and bleed [the images], the whole page becomes the exhibition.

TR: These are editorial options that really change the way of reading. In this book, it was important to give priority to the photos of views, the relationships between different works. Of course, they will be seen again in the check list, enlarged and sharp, as well.

IM: It is true. In a way, the eyes do not dominate a bleed page, the same way they cannot dominate a room when we walk in. In a framed photo, everything is there. When the exhibition is very concise, it has to offer an experience. And Hotel balsa, in this sense, has a powerful role, which is the idea of an interactive experience of the exhibition, of interaction between the exhibition and the visitor. And it has to do with the work itself. It talks about this, about works over the past ten years, they have acted in this relationship, an almost corporal battle with visitors, which is what we have in the last room. It is a corporal battle, it is an urban experience, where subjects have to take a stand. I think it was important that the book would slightly convey this possibility. This is what we are talking about, this passage from representation to reality.