Modern Fair: The Paintings of Patricia Leite
Text by Rodrigo Moura published in
Patricia Leite‘s first monograph, 2019
In a cold night in May 2018, I visited Patricia Leite’s studio in Perdizes, a São Paulo neighborhood, right before she sent her works for a solo exhibition in New York. During that visit, we spent a little over one hour walking around an unheated warehouse, looking repeatedly at recently concluded paintings to which she had dedicated those last few months. The artist showed a certain apprehension when talking about them. A mix of excitement and insecurity made her descriptions of her work simultaneously enchanting and unnerving. For a painter almost 40 years into her career, Patricia (I will give myself permission to use the artist’s first name in this essay) is far from having a close-minded perspective on her form of painting, a true relief in a scene that seems increasingly populated by artists full of certainties and devoid of patience to listen. Referring to one of the most impressive paintings in that small grouping, she asked me, disconcertingly: “Do you think I should cover the fruits with darker paint so that they more closely resemble jabuticabas?”
Simple in its format, the question hides broader implications. First and foremost, it echoes one of the fundamental precepts of modern painting, according to which objects represented in a work of art shouldn’t necessarily bear true resemblance to their real-world counterparts. The following quote by French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) came to mind instantly: “Remember that a painting – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote of some sort – is essentially a flat surface covered with colors, put together in a certain order.”
Secondly, the painting reveals aspects of the artist’s method, using preexisting images to create her work. In the case of Jabuticabeira [Brazilian grape tree] (2018), the trees which originated the painting weren’t fruit trees, but bare, dried out trees photographed in a European city, covered in Christmas lights. The yellow dots sprinkled throughout the trunks and branches suggested a similarity to what’s considered the most Brazilian of fruits, to the point where it’s used as a nickname for what only exists in Brazil. However, jabuticabas, or Brazilian grapes, are dark purple, nearly black. Hence the dilemma over the color of the “fruits” (they ended up remaining in their original yellow).
The large painting, structured by an expansive drawing that occupies almost the entire surface, was part of a group of works to be presented a few months from then in an exhibition titled Lusco Fusco, at the Mendes Wood gallery. The Portuguese expression, derived from the Latin (luscus means one-eyed; fuscus means dark), defines the moments between day and night when neither the sun’s light nor the night’s darkness has full dominion over the sky, leaving us in a kind of limbo, attempting to adjust our vision. That night at the studio, every painting was somehow connected to this specific sheen, illustrating it hard to capture phenomena. The exhibition’s eponymous work shows a sunset against a backdrop of indefinite color, between blue and red, with a dense mass of dark green in the foreground; a diptych showcases birds floating over a lake, their white bodies bathed in red highlights (Red Light District, 2018); yet another work presents a big reddish-yellow blotch against a black backdrop, where equally dark organic forms can be distinguished, creating an abstract image (Fogueira [Bonfire], 2018). As is the case with all her production from the last 15 years, landscape paintings happen in an exchange with abstraction: sun and moon are circles floating between the picture’s limiting vertical and horizontal lines; the reflections on the body of water are paint stains; the luminous spots in Jabuticabeira are a pattern of polka dots drawn over a loose outline.
Patricia Leite emerged in the art world in the early 1980s, when young artists experimented with a return to painting in various parts of Brazil. The exhibition at the epicenter of this movement happened at Parque Lage, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1984, with the humorous title of Como Vai Você, Geração 80?. One of the most active artists at the time was Rio de Janeiro-based painter Jorge Guinle (1947- 1987), known for his abstract paintings with heavy strokes. Other initiatives were appearing at the same time in other cities, such as the creation of Grupo Casa 7 in São Paulo, which participated in the 18th São Paulo Biennial (1985) as part of the collective presentation known as “big canvas”, where paintings by different artists aligned themselves in a big installation. In Belo Horizonte, where Patricia was born and studied Fine Arts at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil), the artist was close with a group of artists who would eventually take part in the Parque Lage exhibition, such as painter Ana Horta (1957-1987), who died at a young age in a car accident, and engraver and draftsman Mario Azevedo (1957), who later moved to Rio de Janeiro.
A certain expressionist impulse moved the generation’s artists. On the one hand, this tendency had an international origin, since neo-expressionism was common to various European movements returning to painting, particularly among German artists. On the other, it was moved by direct influences from Brazilian art. Jorge Guinle’s work, for example, is commonly associated with Ibere Camargo’s (1914- 1994). In a brief lineage, it’s worth remembering that Camargo studied under Alberto da Veiga Guignard (1896-1962), cited as one of the main expressionist exponents in Brazil, having studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich during the 191os and 192os. When he moved to Belo Horizonte in 1944 to found Escola do Parque, Guignard (who is also a direct reference for Patricia’s painting) counted among his first students, neo-concrete sculptor Amílcar de Castro 4920- 20o2), who, in turn, taught Patricia at Núcleo Experimental de Arte, a workshop held at Museu de Arte da Pampulha.
In her first exhibition, a group show of drawings featuring artists Andréa Guimarães (1940-2000), Isaura Pena (1958) and Marcia David (1958) in the exhibition room of dance company Corpo, in 1981, Patricia presented small-format works, made with oil pastels on black cardboard. On neutral grey backdrops, the works used the winding movements of a single line to create areas filled with colors such as blues, greens and pinks.
Apparently abstract, the works were actually directly referencing the architecture of circuses and echoing influences such as Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Alfredo Volpi (1896-1988). In a poem presenting the exhibition, Amilcar de Castro congratulates his pupil’s “confident and determined” spirit and her belief in “sensibility”. Used in this context, the noun associates her work to the concept of “sensible geometry”, predominant in most of 20th Century Latin American constructive production, as an alternative to the hard-edge and mechanistic version of abstraction of the more orthodox concrete movements.
A representative of this line best known for his sculptures made of bent weathering steel panes, De Castro developed at the same time a vast collection of drawings, made with precise paintbrush strokes of black India ink on white paper, with a very singular expressionist accent (similar, for example, to Franz Kline’s [1910- 1962] paintings, in an unsuspected association). During the time when De Castro taught in Belo Horizonte, this body of work was, in a way, more present than his sculptures, directly influencing the generations of artists learning under him, particularly those who dedicated themselves to drawing and painting, an influence which Patricia didn’t escape. During that same time, she shared a studio with Isaura Pena, in an old house in the Belo Horizonte neighborhood of Funcionários, where they opened an arts school for children, Ateliê Risco Rabisco, alongside artist Monica Sartori (1957). Another floor of the same house served as the studio for painter and writer Maria Helena Andrés (1922), who owned the building and is also a former student of Guignard. The beginning of Andrés’s career was close to geometric abstraction, but after a series of trips to India, her work became more lyrical and mystical, deepening the influence of Kandinsky (1866-1944), of whose work she is one of the main receivers in Brazil. Also in that same house, the experimental music group Uakti, that surface, closer to a gestural language common to paintings at the time and akin to Jorge Guinle’s work from the 1980s. Although she doesn’t resort to elements such as drippings and stains, typical of that period, there’s a restless nature in Patricia’s surfaces from that time, in the insurgent way in which colors blend together in the act of painting, a stranger to her entire previous practice. At that moment, Patricia’s painting reaches a point of exemplary inflection, illustrated by a short anecdote told by the artist when we first met: one day, she entered a gallery and saw one of her paintings from afar. Upon closer inspection, she realized the painting wasn’t hers. The world turned upside down. End of story.
In December 2005, I organized a Patricia Leite exhibition at Museu de Arte da Pampulha, where I worked as a curator at the time. With around ten large paintings created in the previous three years, the show broke the artist’s thirteen-year streak without a solo presentation of her work. The discomfort caused by the artist’s unfamiliarity with her own language led to a season of seclusion during which she chose not to show her work, developing a type of landscape painting that resumed some elements from her earlier work yet led her further away from the more recent abstract path. This moment involved spending more time in a lonely painting studio, located in a small terraced room in her house. There, far from her artist colleagues and close to her family, plants and pets, with a big window open to the mountain sunsets and the buildings under construction in southern Belo Horizonte, Patricia began approximating color areas in a new way. Painting horizontally on large unprepared wooden surfaces, she patiently overlaid layers and layers of thin oil paint, from lighter to darker hues, letting some gaps, covered by an iridescent residue, show between the areas. As I wrote back then, it was as if the paintings had gone through various hours of the day until they found their due tint. Or, as explained by the artist at the time, she “tuned” the painting until it was ready, in a process consisting of creating a general light for each painting, “harmonizing” (to keep using music metaphors, of which the artist is so fond) the various elements. It was in that same studio where I met her in the early 20s, a little displaced, but more and more stimulated by the discoveries she was making. Titled Outra Praia, the exhibition we did soon afterwards in the mezzanine of the Museu de Arte da Pampulha represented a turning point in her work. If, on the one hand, it was possible to see a position of loyalty regarding her starting point as an artist, on another, she deepened her relationship to figuration and landscape painting which she would continue to do from this point onwards. The title of the exhibition referred to the seascapes contained therein, but also to the Brazilian informal use of “praia”, the Portuguese word for “beach” or “shore”, to mean an area of interest or expertise. Patricia presented herself in a new skin, in a different shore. One of the most characteristic works in this production, a huge untitled landscape framing the meeting between sky, sea and sand (or turquoise, blue and beige), was nicknamed Barnett Newman (1905-1970), referring to the abstract American painter known for his paintings of wide color fields. The work’s expansive nature did justice to the comparison, as well as the affectionate treatment given to forms, which seemed to come to life with each winding stroke. Presented together, two works with the same dimensions and colors created a sequence with the first, adding vertical mountain elements in the background and a palm leaf in the foreground. The third picture was nicknamed Caymmi, alluding to the composer Dorival Caymmi (1914-2008) from Bahia who sang about his state’s shores in songs with a certain nostalgic spirit shared by Patricia’s paintings. Using the exact same color palette, a polyptych composed of ten small paintings depicts a wave arriving to shore, its white surf progressively bathing the beige sand, connecting time, matter and contemplation. Seeing the sequence, the coming and going of the wave, one can’t help but think of Caymmi’s lines: “o mar/ quando quebra na praia/ é bonito/ é bonito” [the sea/ as it crashes on the shore/ is beautiful/ is beautiful]. With their seductive aspect and sensual colors, these paintings remind us of pleasant memories, and it’s easy to find in them something of the postcards where we fantasize about spending idyllic times at the beach (equally obvious, the connection to José Pancetti’s [1902-1958] marine paintings also accompanies this first impression). Indeed, Patricia frequently works based on pictures she takes or gets from friends, with direct angles leading her to a kind of zero degree of the painter’s point of view and the stripping of technical resources in perspective and composition. There’s no naturalist intention when transposing the images from photography to painting; often, the pictures used as sources are reprocessed by home printers with distorted colors, becoming mere pretexts from which there’s nearly nothing left to imitate and are completely reimagined. The result gives off an initial feeling of repose, but small tensioned by the open gap, with imprecise brushstrokes, in the center of the picture (the slashes made in steel rectangles by Amílcar de Castro come to mind).
The strategy of representing elements “against the sky,” title of an essay by critic Luisa Duarte on Patricia’s work, reaches a kind of apex with a series of paintings made from the last scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s (1912-2007) countercultural icon Zabriskie Point (1969). In the seven-minute sequence, Antonioni blows up a model of a house, repeating the action multiple times in the composition, from various angles, including a slow-motion shot where debris flies into the air after repeated explosions, to the sound of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic soundtrack. At first, Patricia painted four pictures on blue backgrounds, in different dimensions, with a fifth final piece recreating the “End” notice at the end of the movie’s scene, over a California desert sunset (in the film’s narrative, the end of an era). In these paintings, objects are transformed into unrecognizable elements, as if the tangible world of things had been reduced to abstract shards, to vestiges. Years after finishing the first cycle, Patricia executed two more paintings, even larger, where objects contrast a deeper blue in the background, revealing, in an even more ambitious and challenging way, the transformation of moving images into painting, of things into almost things. These pictures directly evoke Joan Miró’s (1893-1983) abstract paintings (specifically Blue 1, 2, and 3, 1961), however, the dreamlike skyspace of surrealist compositions is revisited here as the backdrop for a catastrophe. In her choice of iconography and technique, Patricia attains a semiotic explosion of painting.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st Century, Patricia Leite’s work raised, in a unique and complex way, a series of themes regarding painting. Her experience in her previous practice allowed for a productive dialogue with the Brazilian modernist legacy in which she was trained, giving new meaning to the Guignard-De Castro lineage. In this field, she attained a personal synthesis between abstraction and representation – she drew from aspects of the treatment of theme and matter,
which brought her closer to aspects of Guignard’s landscape work, and broadened the relationship between painting and drawing by organizing large areas with few colors to give paintings an iconic quality, echoing drawings and sculptures by De Castro. With exemplary freedom, she gave landscape painting a new perspective, approximating the Earth’s curvature to points, lines, and geometrical planes; she created synthetical light through her unique way of dealing with color, paint, and its application on the support; she brought her gaze closer to ours by revisiting threadbare panoramas and seaside landscapes; she threw it all up in the air with the suspended signs in Zabriskie.
It seemed an admirable conquest, and it would certainly be improbable that she could now confuse her painting with that of another artist, as had happened in the distant 1990s. However, she had gotten used to restlessness, the paradox that feeds great artists. Patricia decided then to search for other sources that could interact with her painting. The interpretation of modern European art would have to happen through new lenses. I remember seeing more and more in her studio, starting around 2012, the paintings that her father, self-taught painter José de Oliveira Leite (1912-?), showed at the arts and crafts fair in Belo Horizonte’s Liberdade square. These landscapes, which inspired Patricia and her artistic calling during her entire trajectory, gained newfound importance in this moment when she also began to dedicate more attention to the paintings of Amadeo Luciano Lorenzato (1900-1995). Oliveira Leite’s painting style was of impressionist orientation, with attention to light and to the brushstrokes. Lorenzato created one of the most singular readings of modernism in his trees, slums and sky landscapes. These two works served as beacons for the artist’s new moment. The paintings of Volpi, with his gradual transformation of façades of suburban houses to pure light and color, were also nearby. Popular sources, already manifested in paintings of circuses and fairground rides, would also come from music, which the artist had always considered a field of research and learning.
The series of paintings titled Saudade do Brasil/Missing Brazil, presented in an exhibition by the same name at the Mendes Wood gallery in São Paulo, in 2015, crowned this process. As starting iconography, they use images of the parade led by Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Estação Primeira de Mangueira (popularly known as the Mangueira Samba School) in 1992 as a tribute to Tom Jobim.
The Alegorias/Allegories, as the biggest paintings in the exhibition were called, reprocess images of scenic elements used in the procession, freely recombining their fragments. There, the artist deepens an issue dear to her: that of unclear limits between high art and popular art, which had already been announced in some of her previous paintings, where the themes of vernacular architecture and painting were present. The fact that Tom Jobim was being honored by Mangueira (highbrow for samba, lowbrow for the concert hall) offers a case study for the painter. She references the composer directly in the title of the series, borrowed from a song in his album Urubu (1976), but also in the way in which she transposes into the painting the decorative elements of Mangueira’s parade, turning into a source of high art what is often considered, through an elitist bias, inferior art.
This is analogous to what Jobim did, approximating samba and choro melodies to the symphonic form. In these paintings, Patricia reenacts the theatricality of the samba parades, using a language of cheap jewelry, garish colors, excessive decoration, and floral motifs (it’s no accident that the easiest repertoire used to decode these paintings is Matisse, one of the painters dearest to the artist). As I wrote at the time, her paintings are “transfigured landscapes, framed by the architecture of the boulevard and the parade floats.”
Another comparison that can be drawn between Jobim and Patricia is in the interest in nature themes that nurture the works of both artists. In my last visits to Patricia, I saw some of the paintings she has been working on based on different species of birds painted on the hollow of small wooden bowls. As I write this, I am staring at a Brazilian tanager painted on a 7-centimeter shallow bowl and remembering how Jobim liked to quote bird calls in his melodies, such as the stylized Rufous-bellied thrush song used as the coda for “Saudade do Brasil”. This title, the same Patricia used for her Carnival paintings, resonates perversely in these first months of 2019 when a romantic idea of Brazil is melting in the hands of an authoritatively-biased government with a voracious appetite for destroying nature. The ecological bent of Patricia’s paintings makes itself necessary, more than ever now.
After so many associations and genealogies with the history of art, this essay will give itself permission to end on an idiosyncratic note and remind its readers that, at the exact minute when I write these last lines, the same Mangueira Samba School that honored Jobim in 1992 and inspired Patricia’s paintings has just been declared the victor of Carnival in 2019, with a samba-enredo (the theme song composed by a samba school for the Carnival parade) that denounces how the Brazilian government has been trampling the rights of native, black and poor people, who are named in the flag used during the parade, in lieu of the positivist couplet “order and progress” (‘ordem e progresso”, the text featured in the Brazilian national flag).
The relationship between the painter and Mangueira immediately came to mind, as well as an idea for another motto for our flag, borrowed from a Luiz Gonzaga (1912-1989) song for her paintings and chosen as the title for this book. This brief plea talks about the affective nature of Patricia Leite’s painting while also draws attention to what is all around us and without which we simply cannot exist: “Look at the sky, my love.”