While in a pause to reflect on what he should do with his life, artist Henrique Oliveira, after a sojourn in São Paulo, where he studied social media at Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing, returned to his hometown of Ourinhos, in the countryside of the state of São Paulo, and opened a studio next to his father`s woodworking shop, which was kind of abandoned. Such change happened in 1997, the year he decided to dedicate himself to painting.
But how can one decide to be a painter? What makes someone call him/herself an artist and then become a painter? And, finally, how can someone assume his/her painting is art?
These questions were made by Richard Wollheim in his book Painting as an Art. According to the author, painting would be in certain acts of painting, acts that would create particular paintings. The book title alludes, according to Wollheim, to the different ways people paint, and what makes it a painting is what the artist does and not what s/he says.
Henrique Oliveira has a very peculiar way of painting, one that makes him a painter. The decision as to whether what he does is painting is not up to him, in this case. And it is this peculiar way of working or his artistic process that turns what he does into a very special painting. Far from conventional.
That would justify the development of his plastic research that has wood as the material of his installations and that I dare call paintings. It is not paint, but the scraps of wood that lend color to his “paintings.” Wood scraps that carry the discoloration of time. They become paintings that do not remain on the flatness of a canvas. They are engineering works of complex pictorialness and subsequent visual precariousness. They are far from formal constructive paintings. They would be rather classified as gestural abstract art in face of the obvious unconcern about the superposition of the wood sheets. To the viewer, it looks more like a visual disarray that is characteristic of the place that inspires him and where the scraps originate from and through the artist`s creative gesture are made pictorial.
The plasticity and sophistication of the movements on the large curves and amoeba-like shapes seen on these works are a profusion of this deformed wood of faded colors that sometimes seems to engulf us. They are rather a deconstruction of the form, as if they were melting on the pictorial gesture of Henrique Oliveira. Those are the same rough sea tides seen in the works by English painter William Turner (1775–1851). Or the same nonchalance in the gesture of painting or working on the canvas surface seen in the works by North American painter Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), with his action painting that registers his gesture of throwing himself onto the canvas.
But these works made of wood scraps came later on. Before that, the artist literally painted on the canvas. Today, when he paints on this support, he uses large brushes or even brooms on the canvases stretched out flat on his studio floor.
These have the same gestural nature that would link him even closer to Pollock`s paintings and to those by the Dutch painter based in the U.S. Willem De Kooning (1904–1997), but with a pop quality, according to the artist himself. That would set it apart from the expressive informality seen on the works by these two artists and by other expressionists from the group formed in New York in the late 1940s and early `50s. In the paintings by Henrique Oliveira there is a formal control that deprives his pictorial gestures of expression.
In that initial phase in Ourinhos, the wood was just around him. It was not yet part of his “way” of painting. It would come later, when he allowed himself to experiment with the language and use the scraps of wood found on the streets as pictorial material. Scraps like the leftovers used to cover the cheap houses in favelas on the edge of highways or expressways along the rivers in big cities. They are aged wood boards on the urban civil constructions. They are the discolored tints of such precarious buildings amongst the grays, yellows, or reds that function as ink on the surface of such “paintings.”
Back to São Paulo after that period in Ourinhos, in mid-1998, Henrique Oliveira went to study at Museu Brasileiro de Escultura under artists Paulo Whitaker and Nuno Ramos. That is when the “traditional” painter from the beginning of this text began to “deviate” to become no longer a painter or a sculptor, but simply an artist.
The first artist-professor, Paulo Whitaker, is determined; he has a solid training and positively insists on the language in a painting that remains on the canvas surface. He paints with conviction. The second, Nuno Ramos, is an artistic “chaos” in the good sense of the word. Ramos` work is pure deconstruction of the idea of painting. In the 1980s his painting was material and flowed out of the canvas. The volumes were made of grease, oil paint, oakum, fragments of wood, among other materials he had on hand. In the 1990s, his painting left the wall for good, adding all sorts of materials to lend it the colors and the forms of his large pictorial surfaces.
In a dichotomy, both Whitaker and Ramos have influenced him for bad, in the sense of what a conventional painting would be, and for good, in the sense of an experimental painting, if we observe Henrique Oliveira`s most recent installations. We could say that he learned how to paint from Paulo Whitaker and “unlearned” it from Nuno Ramos, in a good sense.
Without ceasing to be painting, Oliveira`s works question our notion of language by making them three-dimensional albeit hung on the wall or sitting on the floor, as seen in the presentation of works at Prêmio Marcantonio Vilaça in 2009 and 2010.
Finally, he radicalized in his installations that dialogue with the architecture of the venues he exhibits them on; in the installations at the Mercosul Biennial in 2009 and Bienal de São Paulo in 2010, the three-dimensionality of the previous works still fixed to the wall exploded definitively.
These are pieces or installations that could no longer be seen as mere sculptures or paintings. The most recent works are rather installations in which wood is not necessarily the scraps found throughout the cities. In some recent works the material is treated to gain more malleability and accentuation of the colors, now controlled in order to achieve the desired tones. In others, the natural color of the wood lends them the tone of human skin.
Resuming his career, after the courses at MuBE, Henrique Oliveira went on to study at Escola de Comunicações e Artes at Universidade de São Paulo. In 2003 he presented in that school the first work of the Tapumes series. A large, two-by-five-meter painting executed on a flat, canvas-like surface. He finished his visual arts course in 2004 and in that same year he showed in the program Projéteis, from Fundação Nacional das Artes, at Palácio Gustavo Capanema, Rio de Janeiro, his first installation-painting to stand out, with wood from the Tapumes series, occupying a four-by-twelve-meter area.
Another exhibition to be remembered is the 1st Mostra do Programa de Exposições do Centro Cultural São Paulo (2006). In that edition, the artist was awarded the Prêmio Aquisição – Centro Cultural São Paulo (Acquisition Prize), with another installation of the Tapumes series, occupying 3.5 by 12 by 1.5 meters of the area.
After attending the workshops at MuBE, the decision to take another college course came from an old desire and also because of the circumstances he was under—that meant he could go on having classes with good artist-professors and theoreticians.
The graduate course, on the other hand, was an option after he was granted a scientific scholarship. He got his master`s degree in 2007, at Escola de Comunicações e Artes at Universidade de São Paulo, in the area of visual poetics.
After that, in 2009, the artist participated in the 7th Mercosul Biennial, in Porto Alegre, with a large-dimension urban-scale work, still from the Tapumes series—Casa dos leões, occupying an old downtown house. It treated the house as if it were a body.
Henrique Oliveira constructed a large installation in downtown Porto Alegre. The great sculpture, or the great installation, or even the great painting flowed out of an old house as if it were regurgitating its living memories out to the city. In a way it was a startling vision. It could be seen from outside, from across the street. When people walked or drove by, they were rather surprised to see the installation.
And finally, in 2010 he participated in his first Bienal de São Paulo, with a work that we could consider one of his most important installations.
In this three-dimensional work, the spectator`s position is inverted. S/he saw it from the inside out. Like a body that opens up to the public. It reminds us of the installation made at Itaú Cultural in 2007, in São Paulo, at the exhibition Itaú Contemporâneo – Arte no Brasil 1981-2006, when for the first time the artist conceived an installation as a house, or better yet, as a cave, clearly inspired by the first great installation known, Merzbau (exhibited in Hannover, in 1937). A masterpiece by German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), an essential artist in the development of Henrique Oliveira`s artistic process. The approximation could be done with his delicate paper, newspaper, and poster cuttings, which remind us of the dirty walls and lampposts in the cities and could be very close to the wood “collages” by Oliveira.
Merzbau can be seen as a large constructive and three-dimensional collage, a house made with wood scraps. A sculpture-collage that resembled the interior of caves. Or even the cavernous body in a vagina.
The installation A origem do terceiro mundo [The origin of the third world], at Bienal de São Paulo in 2010, in a way revisits the concept of Merzbau or even the installation at Itaú Cultural.
It is as if we were thrown in the tunnel where Alice fell in Wonderland. An endless cave. We feel as if we had been cast in an abyss, in the entrails of a painting with all its pigments in large scale. They were like giant brushstrokes. It was as if a Pollock`s painting had become three-dimensional; like we were thrown inside the human body. A female body, to be more precise. Inside a huge uterus.
This concept had been visited originally with the painting The Origin of the World (1866) by Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). It is as if we stepped inside that figure that we see only partially. A woman`s “half” body with her sex covered by thick, dark pubic hair. In its time the painting was considered scandalous and has shocked people since 1995, when it was exhibited for the first time at the Musée D`Orsay in Paris. The frontal view of a vagina is exhibited in front of our eyes.
It is a small, forty-six-by-fifty-five-centimeter oil on canvas, representing the close-up of the sex and the abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with her thighs spread apart, her vagina exposed in its fullness without any suggestion of sensuality whatsoever.
Differently, Oliveira`s “painting” is jammed and gigantic. It is a throbbing painting. A living body that seems to grow and expand. It assumes the ghostly features of a cave that forces us to bow in order to cross it. But it also welcomes us in its interior, as if we were in our mother`s womb. It is not erotic at all. It is as plain as Courbet`s painting, not inciting us to any sexual urge—it reveals an anatomic aspect of the female genitalia. It is not the image of the beauty of a desirable woman who reveals her intimate parts. The woman in Courbet is presented more as a pictorial radicalization of the exposed female image. In Oliveira`s work, what we see is the process of transformation of the woman into an organic, life-generating object. The origin of life and the world, although its ironic title politically alludes to the existence of a “third world.”
In Oliveira`s case, the exhibition of the female body is more explicit, exposing what is inside—the internal parts of what a female sexual organ would be.
Courbet`s painting, before going to the Musée D`Orsay, belonged to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981); he was its last owner before it was finally acquired by the French museum in 1994.
Even Lacan found it difficult to hang it on his house wall because of its explicitness.
The psychoanalyst asked surrealist André Masson to make another painting, a kind of landscape stylizing the female forms to cover the canvas The Origin of the World. Lacan covered Courbet`s painting and showed it only to a privileged few.
Henrique Oliveira, on the contrary, with his A origem do terceiro mundo, exhibits it in its fullness at the 29th Bienal de São Paulo, but evidently in a different historical and social context.
The idea of the origin of the Third World might have a political connotation when referring to the Theory of the Worlds coined by Alfred Sauvy. What would be a proposal of revolution on Earth turned out to be an expression to define the poor Latin American, African, and Asian countries, in a purely geopolitical division.
But the question in Oliveira`s work might be another. A more literal one. Both attractive and repulsive, the installation also refers to a cave, which is a constant theme in psychoanalytical studies when referring to the female sexual organ.
But what are the relations established by Lacan in his studies, based on his interpretation of this work by Courbet? Why did Lacan keep this painting hidden from the general public for so long? These are the questions I pose here and would repeat to a psychoanalyst.
Why does the sight of the female sexual organ still cause so much strangeness, even if observed without a hint or eroticism in the eyes of the beholder? And the relation between Courbet and Henrique Oliveira is not restricted to these two works. Courbet also painted many caves and rough seascapes where we see frozen waves, like in a photographic snapshot. Those are landscapes and marines with a romantic nature, and caves that invite us to penetrate in their dark, humid interiors. It is the immensity of the world in his paintings with endless horizons overpowering us as insignificant beings on the surface of the Earth.
Rather romantic visions, but very real situations that prefigured the themes of the forthcoming impressionist and surrealist artists. Courbet`s aroused not only Henrique Oliveira`s interest, but also that of the masters of impressionism like Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet; masters of modernism, like Picasso; and surrealism, like Giorgio de Chirico, as well as Max Beckman and Marcel Duchamp.
Just like Courbet, who depicted many caves, Henrique Oliveira has a special interest for them, particularly after visiting many of them in Vale do Ribeira,2 while in his teens. The experience still fascinates him and reverberates in his work.
Coincidently, while writing this text, I saw a Gustave Courbet retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, Germany. His painting The Origin of the World was not on display. It seems to go on excluded even from a very important retrospective such as that one in Frankfurt. Although mentioned on the wall text, the taboo in relation to that work seems to be still alive, corroborating those who see a kind of “curse” in that work.
A good work of art promotes a constant dialogue between the audience and the artist`s production, causing strangeness or not, like in The Origin of the World or A origem do terceiro mundo, which transform the viewers in mere voyeurs.
A good painting or a good installation is, therefore, capable of an unending dialogue or an unending search for answers. It is the case of this text that, like many others, does not present answers, but questions concerning the work of Henrique Oliveira.
I believe the artist is capable of producing such clamor with his/her works of art. A clamor that makes us think endlessly.
RESENDE, Ricardo: “tapumes”, 2010.
In: Prêmio CNI SESI Marcantônio Vilaça 2009/10. Autors: Alcino Leite Neto, Luiz Camillo Osório, Paulo Herkenhoff, Ricardo Resende. Brasília, SESI, pp. 143-145, 2011. notes 1. “Tapume” is a Portuguese word meaning “wood fencing” or “boarding.”—Trans. 2. Vale do Ribeira is an Atlantic Forest Reserve in the states of Paraná and São Paulo.—Trans.