Body Blow. Ronaldo Brito. 1998.

At first sight, these large drawings may look like oversize still lives. A brief review runs the risk of simply describing the connections and differences in relation to the traditional genre. To a certain extent, however, such considerations cannot be excluded, since the drawings were effectively produced within a debate with the tradition. They begin by testing, so to say, the contemporary viability of an orthodox studio practice – the systematic study of a few forms in a few compositions. Whatever was considered natural, even curricular, now involves an attentive personal choice. The reassertion of the aesthetic validity of the affective contact with unique objects, and their imaginary resonance, in a world that operates according to the anonymous serial logic, and which lives ultimately to assert the glory of the virtual.

Something in the perennial material non-realisation of these drawings suggests an uncomfortable, if not misplaced, position in today’s society. Their scale, as well as their frontal character, are evidence of an unmistakable desire of public visibility. The provisional aspect reveals itself – contradictorily – as an index of permanence: it signals to the essential ambiguity of human dimension, at one time free and frail.

Moved by the immobile universal belief which typifies high modernity, Morandi elevated the domestic scene of his still lives to a cosmic dimension. Painting was no less than an ethical life style and its daily chemistry oozed a stoic lyricism, valuable as much for the little it sang as for the much it silenced. Thanks to the wisdom of renunciation, compositional intelligence was restricted to minimal differential variations and, for that very reason, optimal. And then, on their own, they consisted of authentic universal examples.

In Gabriela Machado’s broken drawings, which look like precarious paper-sculpted pieces, the logic of composition, however, is none: a brief order of succession, apparently indifferent, simply aligns the elements. The artist tries hard to conjure up the seduction of contemplation, literally unfolding herself to oppose the conditioned reflection of compositional balance. Lying on the floor, leaning over particularly resisting paper, in quick movements she views and draws the ‘bottles’. At the same time that she wets paper, she uses Indian-ink sticks, never stopping to appreciate what she is doing, let alone retouch anything before the ink quickly dries up.

There is an irresistible temptation to call them still lives in action. They certainly aim at a short circuit in the relational logic which will place them near Pollock’s, Koonning’s and Kline’s action painting. To belong to the history of a placid genre par excellence, supposedly doomed to the minute exam of stable qualities, is another intriguing factor on its own. But as soon as we approach it, we must take a distance again, at least to neutralise its force. In the absence of the sublime pathos that typifies abstract expressionism, as the belief in the absolute gesture that redeems free individuality is suppressed, the contemporary artist’s urgency becomes less of an expressive rite than an anxious race for the re-invention of second-degree spontaneity. And – why not? – a reflexive race around the question of true content and the cultural reach of unique works of art inscribed in the `real`, ostensibly opposed to quality value per se, or else, that which makes an object identical to itself while distinct from all else.

Soberly, thus, let us limit ourselves to register the frankly corporeal character of the work. To draw with one’s body, to get physically involved with paper, ink, and the `models` – none of that `nowadays implies a heroic or trespassing proposal. Rather, those are spontaneous responses, the inevitable multiplication of unequal techniques by an artist eager to enlarge and expand the vital contact with a world threatened perhaps by aesthetic misery: neither horror nor starvation, but the mere nothingness of one’s presence.

The steady, loving contact with the same chosen models will find its expression through the casual trance of willing action, indefinitely supported by a glimpse: the unattainable ideal would consist of a permanent first sight, without ever falling into the contemplative routine of a still presence once and for all obsolete. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that there is no alternative to these drawings other than grow –in all senses – till they become hybrid aesthetic objects, imposing and far too heavy as drawings, but still fragile, irregular and difficult to adapt to any other category. Only thus can they assume the material form of their dilemma, to liberate poetic energy, human truth, too human indeed, of `gratuitous` visual experiences found to be `necessary`, culturally responsible, and inherent to the work of art.

In order to accomplish its problematic contemporary fate, Gabriela Machado’s still lives abolish the basic convention of the genre – scene in perspective – in favour of a planar, post-Cubist solution that guarantees a – so to say – ‘direct’ presence on the surface of the world. There is nothing less predictable than subjective aesthetic response. But we must not underestimate the objective strength of secular perceptive habits and the consequent establishing of unconscious formal standards. Before a still life, we automatically try to adjust to the painter’s viewpoint in front of its field of projection. In fact, the absence of a projective plan marks these huge planar drawings. Still, our first reaction, even the second and third, is to look for the correct viewing, the right distancing so as to contemplate a scene which no longer exists.

As for myself, faced with the unexpected, literal presence of those large, wrinkled papers, I resorted to the following critical device: at times I advanced inward to their area of physical irradiation until I found myself nearly under their giant figures; and at other times, I took enough distance so as to apprehend at once the whole, using a foreign eye. In the first case, the ‘bottles’ tended to assume a sculpted aspect of undisturbed totems or icons. In the second instance, they showed subtle elements of a minimalist combination, members of a logical series. It is unnecessary to add that both interpretations – together with other eventual readings – are not mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, we remain in the traditional terrain of drawing. The success of the whole operation depends ultimately on the merit of the stroke. Too hard or too soft hand pressure would compromise the final result. And no one would know how to determine the exact degree of such intensity… To some unpredictably precise measure, in a uniform manner throughout the series, the strokes are neither too soft so as to suggest intimate climates – or to yield to the ‘film of skin’ appeal of paper – nor deliberately emphatic so as to authorise the misleading impression of gesture expressiveness: they limit themselves strictly to the surface, as if they appeared through the edges and soon became an intrinsic element of the paper.

Ronaldo Brito published Experiência Crítica (published by Cosac e Naify books) in 2005 – a selection of texts written between 1972 and 2002. He is a professor on the History of Art and Architecture in Brazil course and the post-graduate program of the Social History of Culture at PUC, Rio de Janeiro. He was the first critic to write an article about the Neoconcrete Movement (1975) – Neoconcretismo: vértice e ruptura do projeto construtivo brasileiro, MEC/Funarte, 1985, republished in 1999 by Cosac e Naify, as part of the Espaços da Arte Brasileira series. Cosac e Naify also published his Sérgio Camargo (2001) and he has undertaken indepth analyses of the works of Amilcar de Castro, Iberê Camargo and Eduardo Sued among others. As a poet, he has published O mar e a pele (1977), Asmas (1982) and Quarta do singular (1989).