Mendes Wood DM published ‘The boy dances’, a text by Kiki Mazzucchelli for Paulo Monteiro’s book.
It was a short while ago that I first saw the black and white photograph taken almost thirty years earlier In it, the artist is a twenty-something youth gazing at the camera with a serious demeanor, leaning against the back wall of the room, his air half shy half cool. Around him, on the walls and on the floor series of objects built from materials that seemed to have been rescued from some corner of the studio, little nothings” or leftovers that may have taken years to accumulate. In that image there was none of the nobility and permanence of the materials of traditional sculptures, nor even the precision or the monumentality that characterized certain branches of three-dimensional work from the postwar period. On the contrary, they were arrangements made up of fragments of wood, rubber, tubing or rebar that seemed to find their balance upon transitory points of support, suggesting the imminence of motion or collapse. And, in spite of the rustic appearance of the materials many of them stained with paint or dirt or worn by use-each one of the pieces produced a situation in which the association of these raw elements in precarious stability highlighted their most tenuous and delicate qualities. More than the presenc or the sharp expressiveness of the material, what those relatively simple and rudimentary compositions sought to emphasize were the small interplay of forces structured by the physical qualities of the elements; games that, in their characteristic feebleness, created a field of impermanence, instability or even hesitation.
Although I did not know exactly why, that image remained in my mind for a long time. They were works that, until then, I had no knowledge of and, although fully aware that the vintage aspect of a photograph is able to elicit every manner of fetishistic hallucinations, the pieces possessed a raw but extremely timely nature that opened up a new dimension for me in Paulo Monteiro’s work. Some time later, the artist told me that those works no longer existed because they had literally fallen down; a fact that struck me as quite appropriate more than regrettable – as if the had somehow fulfilled their calling. Ultimately, for me they were much closer to speculations regarding the physical possibilities and limitations of the materials than categorical statements of permanent forms.
More recently, in another conversation, I became aware of a surprising albeit initially unimportant piece of information: to wit, that Monteiro is very interested in dance and has practiced ballet for many years. And so, still, quite vaguely, all this seemed to conspire to the reaffirmation of the importance of motion in the artist’s work, something that photograph only insinuated. It would not be a matter, however, of relating that idea of movement to the gestural painting of the beginning of his career influenced by the aesthetic of Neo-expressionism and of the Transavanguardia, but especially to that which belongs to dance: a certain immediacy in the doing finding points of balance, the torsions of the material or the singularity of the gesture that is inimitably executed each time.
The vast series of drawings in graphite begun in the late 198os, for instance, enhances the immanence of the black line upon white paper in unique trajectories that often surpass the limit of the support. In these works, there is no focus on narrative or representation although the hand trained to draw comic book stories during adolescence insisted on producing forms that occasionally suggest fragments of bodies. Absurdly think that in these drawings it would be possible to glimpse both the impact upon Paulo Monteiro of the discovery of Philip Guston’s work at the beginning of his professional career, and the dialogue he established with Mira Schendel, some years later a field in which the supposedly contradictory and irreconcilable forces of the persistence of the figure and the autonomy of the living line are to be found. Nevertheless, no matter how tempting it may be to delve into digressions regarding the possible origins of that series would mean to disdain aspects that seem to me to be far more relevant to the development of the artist’s work in the years that followed.
The obsession with which Monteiro dedicates himself to exploring the possibilities of the line, hundreds of times, upon the same vertical format for almost ten years is, at the very least, evidence of an urgency to pursue something that was not yet exhausted. To this end, he used one of the simplest and most direct techniques: only graphite and paper. And, although that process is marked by the ad infinitum repetition of the same procedure and by the almost Spartan restraint of formal variables, each one of the drawings is the result of a unique confrontation with the act of drawing, and their singularity resides precisely in the problems and solutions found each time the collision takes place. In that sense, there is no place to be reached, given that it is not a matter of a search for some stable or ideal form, but of a process in which the repetition of improvised action necessarily produces difference. Perhaps this is why the lines are never completely straight and the diversions and changes of course become apparent, recording in their trajectory a process of trial and error in which there is no pre-established idea of success.
The rawness and immediacy present in those drawings are qualities that permeate a significant portion of Monteiro’s work, from the three-dimensional experiments recorded in the old photograph to the group of lead sculptures made in the 199os. In them, the piece made from the lump of clay bears the undeterred marks of the arm and forearm, as well as all the imperfections stemming from a work methodology centered on the instant of the body’s action uporn matter. As in the drawings, there is no absolute control over the final result, although the artist establishes a set of rules that must be obeyed in each operation. Beyond this, in both cases the persistence of the figure is repeated, albeit not yet immediately recognizable nor seeking some type of a priori formalization. But whereas the figure appears in the drawings as an element that can both contain and free the line beyond the limit of the support without ever guiding it absolutely, it emerges, in the sculptures, primarily as an axis for orienting the forces at play in each piece, as Monteiro himself describes on following passage:
The lead pieces that I made were a continuation of the wall work. I’d get a lump [of clay] in the shape of a mound, or something like Guston’s Back View painting and made the thing remain vertical for as long as possible. When it was about to fall, I would squash it to deter the fall. But that alone was not enough, it was also necessary that some figure should have emerged as a result of that action, which I was already doing in the pieces I showed at Raquel in 1987 [..] a figure in the sense that if you look at the piece and see that it’s standing and leaning, and of no abstract form can it be said that it is standing or reclining if there isn’t some figurative allusion A smaller side on top, a larger side underneath… a head, a foot…
In the group that includes the series of drawings on paper and lead sculptures, Monteiro appears to have forged a language of his own in which figuration and abstraction insinuate themselves with greater or lesser protagonism, producing works that situate themselves in a zone of hesitation, duration, and motion. It is as if they inhabited a permanent state of uncertainty that does not allow for sweeping affirmative gestures of preconceived ideas. On the contrary, they create a kind of inventory of countless urgent and forcibly frustrated attempts, given that they do not strive for-nor even contemplate- engendering any type of redemptive experience through ideal form. With their apparent flaws, their fragile points of support and its distorted aspect, the sculptures rest directly upon the floor, eliminating an alleged hierarchy between artistic object and environment that presupposes the use of the base in order to create a place for mediation between that which is or is not art Evidently, countless artists before Monteiro did away with the use of the base in their sculptures and I intend to stake no claim here for any type of inaugural gesture in these works. However, the fact that they do not present themselves as objects apart from that which is mundane emerges as an additional fact that compounds his mistrust and discomfort with regard to what would be a “resolved” work.
Simultaneously, it may be said that Monteiro is a classic, in the sense that he works fundamentally with the most traditional art genres: drawing, sculpture and painting. Far from being a conservative classicism it appears to be nearer to someone like the iconoclast Michael Clark, a dancer and choreographer known for joining the technical rigor achieved through a traditional education at the Royal Ballet School of London with the experimental and transgressive spirit of punk and post-punk, at approximately the same time that Monteiro began his trajectory in art. But whereas the anti-establishment stance that gave rise to varieties of artistic expression in the United Kingdom emerged as a reaction to the Thatcherism that set off the process of dismantling that country’s social welfare state and the victory of neoliberalism, Brazil was experiencing a moment of democratic transition after two decades of military dictatorship. What should have been a period marked by optimism and celebration was, nonetheless, an extremely troubled period in this country. Amid economic recession and hyperinflation, various social sectors went on to organize demonstrations in favor of direct presidential elections, culminating in the great march of April 1984, that gathered one and a half million demonstrators in São Paulo’s praça da Sé. And although the Diretas Já movement had emerged victorious, a sharp political and economic instability characterized the years that followed, including the death of the first civilian president after 1964, still indirectly elected as late as 1985, and the subsequent swearing-in of a vice-president associated with the country’s most retrograde forces. The situation of instability and uncertainty would aggravate itself even further during the next decade, when political episodes in the country involving everything from drastic economic measures such as successive substitutions of currency denominations and the confiscation of savings accounts to the impeachment of the president and the unexplained death of his campaign trea achieved heights of absurdity such as might be found in a telenovela script.
This brief historic digression is necessary to situate Monteiro’s work and the work of his generation within a political environment far away from the progressive utopias of the post-war and from opposition to the military regime that so marked a large part of the artistic output of his predecessors. Indeed, as opposed to the openly political or militant character of the generation immediately anteceding its own, they reject the certainties of an activism able to identify its object of antagonism, which does not necessarily make them alienated. I do not intend to claim that the drawings and sculptures Monteiro made in the 1980s and 1990s somehow attempted to represent the political reversals that Brazil was experiencing at that moment, but in any event their nature of indeterminacy and a certain punk nihilism that becomes visible in the almost violent line or in the lack of finish of the sculptural form are symptomatic of the ideological stalemate of its time.
That feature already seems to have softened in the colored gouaches of the 20s, in which the large color fields are shot through by lines that resemble those of the graphite drawings. The appropriateness of the movement’s mistakes and hesitations remain, but now it is attended by different vibrations and intensities created by color combination. Yet while the line of the drawings or the gesture of the action upon clay were able to stretch the limits of the support, they were still contained within themselves, for the problems they articulated, though very often coincidental, remained intimately yoked to the properties of a given material or support and manifested themselves in series that were exhibited as relatively independent groups. In their most recent iteration, sculptures, wall pieces and paintings take on an environmental scale, insofar as they are no longer presented as autonomous works, but now as part of a spatial composition that establishes a series of relationships of force, intensity or vibration between each piece.
This essential difference in the concept behind the display of the works, which recalls the way his earliest three-dimensional experiments occupied the studio space in the image described at the beginning of this text, therefore retrieves an entire field of possibilities that, in a way, was already latent since then. In so doing he incorporates certain central elements developed throughout his work, such as the incisions that first emerge in the lead sculptures of the late 199os, present not only in the volumes but in the horizontal cuts that emerge from the contrast between two distinct color fields in some of his paintings. But above all, by establishing relations between certain qualities specific to each piece in space, he creates different rhythm:s that we only grasp when we experience the whole. No longer fated to destruction, like the sculptures captured in the photograph from the 198os, but possibly redeeming the potency of simultaneously distinct movements in a single environment contained in that image, the works finally dance.