Brazil is the largest country in Latin America and the world's fifth-largest country, so to write that an exhibition of Brazilian art has a deep sense of place is to acknowledge that the place is big. Yet "Histórias/Histories: Contemporary Art From Brazil" at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, with only a handful of participants, gives us a sense of what being Brazilian means, especially to those who share no part of the dazzle of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. Each of the five artists has different practices, but the show is unified by curator Noel Smith's use of the tension between the growing urbanity of the artists' country and the inevitable shrinking of Brazil's rural and forested areas. In Caio Reisewitz's landscape photography, that exploration is more literal; in Virginia de Medeiros' digital photographs, overpainted as lush portraits, that tension is expressed in the human consequences.
Jonathas de Andrade's eight-minute video strikes a balance. O Levante (The Uprising, 2012-13) documents a real-life struggle between tradition and progress that involves geography and those who inhabit it. Recife is a huge city in northeastern Brazil that boasts corporations, universities, first-class medical centers, an international airport and a robust tourist trade. And, also, a lot of poor people who live on its outskirts, people who traditionally hitch horses to carts and ride into the city to trade or sell their wares.
You can imagine the potential for problematic confrontations between the horses and autos. But instead of trying to find a solution that would benefit both sides, city officials decided to ban the carts. De Andrade's subversive plan was to seek permission for a cart race in the city's downtown as part of a fictional movie (not a documentary, which would have been refused), which he received. He printed fliers advertising the date of the race, on a Sunday, and several streets were closed. The film shows the doleful monologue of one of the participants before the event, the procession into town, the race and its gleeful participants.
Did it change anything? Probably not. Probably none of the art in this show is an agent for change, but there is not a hint of cynicism in any of it.
O Suicida Alto-Astral (The Upbeat Suicide, 2006) is an unsettling title for a beautiful mixed-media work. Luiz Zerbini lives in Rio de Janeiro and, as professor Agnaldo Farias writes in an essay, "The suicide is upbeat because it may be impossible to stay totally depressed in a place like Rio de Janeiro." Three panels stretching more than 30 feet are fabricated as giant window shades, each with a different imagined view. Lush tropical foliage is contrasted with details of rigid, architectural grids, and it is unclear whether urban or natural is winning. Most of the work is with paint, and it is masterfully done, especially a tree in the center panel with a thickly encrusted golden trunk. Suicida has a connection to traditional mementos mori and vanitas, paintings that used symbolic imagery to remind us of our mortality. Here, Zerbini uses bronze skulls and dismembered arms as pulls at the end of the ropes raising and lowering the shades. His self-portrait on a panel includes a bullet hole in his head, connected to a painted skull also with a hole. In this imagined death is a reference to the inevitable death of one thing when something else is allowed to subsume it.
The photographic landscapes of Reisewitz can convey grandeur or claustrophobia but have in common nature in the face of human intervention. Among the most striking is one enlarged on the grand scale of Thomas Struth's "Paradise" series. Goiania Golf Club II pictures a golf course planted with a leafy tree. The grass is so green that it has to be Photoshopped, but no: It's artificial turf, covering what once was a large forest bed. In a black and white photo collage created for this exhibition, the formality of Goiania is replaced by an erratic form in Urucuí. It's heaped with a forest shot from varying angles. Beyond dense vegetation, sunlight pours into a clearing; a snake looks ready to strike while another has left its discarded old skin hanging from a branch; vines and leaves darken an impenetrable area. And in the middle of it all, slum housing undulates down like a river while another shabby building is perched nearby like a jaunty tree house.
An unconventional domesticity informs the art of Sonia Gomes and de Medeiros. Gomes repurposes discarded clothing and fabric remnants into soft sculptures that fold into and out of themselves, their worn textures alluding to their pasts, still present but in a new life. De Medeiros sought out homeless people, interviewed them and asked if she could photograph them. The result is the series "Fábula do Olhar" ("Fable of Looking," 2013). The images have a painterly quality because the black and white prints are painted by another artist, Mestre Júlio Santos, who, we're told, is one of the few photopainters left in Brazil. The images, though true to their sitters, are fictive in this alteration. We know this because their difficult, sad lives are recounted in oval-framed texts. (Their stories are in Portuguese but translations are in handouts nearby.) Each is asked what they want to look like in their portrait and de Medeiros styles them accordingly. The temporary makeover is both uplifting and wrenching.
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A second show, "Sandra Cinto: Chance and Necessity," has a gallery of its own to house an installation and series of prints commissioned by the museum. It, too, conveys a tension between opposites but without the social dialogue. Cinto, who is based in São Paulo, creates serene and sublime landscapes using random spills of blue paint anchored by solid masses made from thousands of pen and ink lines. "Control and chaos," as she recently said while completing three large panels. Her work has often used these two natural elements but she said a trip to Japan made her rethink how she used water. Before, she portrayed it in meticulously detailed drawings; in this new work, she literally uses water, mixing it with pigment to create blue washes. The works reference the landscapes of Japanese scrolls with perspectives that climb vertically rather than spread out horizontally. She created five photogravures at the university's famed Graphicstudio to accompany the paintings, and they are equally sublime.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.