Paulo Pasta: Adventures of Experience

For Lorenzo Mammì

I

Since the impressionists, a considerable part of the best modern art has aimed to represent reality as something that is not immediately seen, but rather perceived through a process, an operation of forming the world.

I think that there are two decisive reasons for this choice: to break away from the conception of a compact reality that is given a priori (and, for this, the discontinuity of the impressionist brushstroke was decisive) and, consequently, to reveal the active dimension of the perception in the structuring of the visible world, an artistic metaphor of the human capacity to intervene in and transform things.

Each in his own way, Monet, Cézanne, Giacometti, Morandi, Klee and many others responded to this challenge, raised by a social and technological dynamics that prevented the continuance of the more traditional techniques of representation, begun by the great artists of the Renaissance. The solidity of the world had become a chimera and it was up to painting to reveal this new social experience.

Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Malevich, Miró, Rothko and company chose another direction, in which the intensity of the colors (I’m not thinking about the analytic cubism of Picasso and Braque) led to a quicker and fuller presence. Also for these artists, however, and with very different solutions, reality bid farewell to its old solidity, either by the splintering provided by the decorative elements of Matisse, by the plasticity conferred to solids by the Picassian deformations, or by Mondrian’s ability to confer an equivalent presence to very different color fields.

The paintings of Paulo Pasta, born in 1959 – and here I consider only his abstract canvases, since none of his landscapes are featured in the show to begin on September 6 of this year at the Brazilian Embassy in Rome – have similar concerns, formulated in part according to what the artist learned from the great modern painters who have the most say about his poetics. And this decisively involved the mediation of important Brazilian modernists, such as Alfredo Volpi, Amílcar de Castro, Milton Dacosta and Iberê Camargo. Roughly speaking, Paulo’s current painting consists of vertical and horizontal colored bands of various widths, the vertical bands generally being tasked with establishing the most decisive moments of the canvases, since they tend to expose the areas of color that define the coloristic identity of the artworks. They are what allow us to speak of yellow, pink, green or blue canvases. Nevertheless, the horizontal stripes do not play a secondary role. Without them the vertical bands would lack a backbone and could not acquire the rhythm that is essential for the artist’s works.

This sometimes well-defined warp and weft is very characteristic of the mature painting of Paulo Pasta and finds a decisive counterpoint in the colors he uses. There are certainly yellows, greens, oranges and earth-reds that speak their names loud and clear. The prevailing hues, however, are the subdued, discrete tones made with paint mixed with wax to prevent them from reaching an obviousness that would entirely contradict the perceptual slowness that characterizes the meaning of his works.

Thus, these paintings are constructed by two apparently opposite movements. One (nearly) delineated structure, consisting of colors that insist on problematizing the clear geometry of the artworks. I believe that this oscillation gives rise to the great relevance of Paulo Pasta’s painting, that is, its ability to simultaneously identify the volatility of the contemporary experience as well as the attempt to reconstitute through painting the place of an exemplary experience.

II

In an interview given by the German theatrologist Heiner Müller to Frank Raddatz, published in Brazil in July 1992, the artist states that “The true problem of the technological era is the derealization of reality: its removal to the shelter of fantasy.” To a certain degree, Heiner Müller’s diagnosis of our era is similar to that of Lorenzo Mammì, for whom the question is to know “if the world is still there to be painted.” I believe it would not be a mistake to understand both statements in the sense that the era of technology – which became even more radical with the expansion of the digital field – tends to reduce the hardness of the natural elements to nearly nothing. In a primary example, we can consider how much the crudeness of the mineral of iron, for example, loses its solidity when it is converted into iron or steel. What is the similarity between a stainless steel knife and the rocks of iron mineral that lie at its origin?

And when the natural products enter into the composition of substances further removed from nature – resins for example – this docility is accentuated, since, unlike a block of marble or a tree trunk, the synthetic materials have a hardness that is totally different from that of their primary elements. And things do not stop there. When the commodities (iron, petroleum, coffee, sugar, soy beans, etc.) are transformed into negotiable instruments on an exchange, what is left of a possible experience of nature in this movement of the market? An operator of a commodities exchange may never have seen a coffee bush or an oil well in his or her entire life.

And our growing tendency to have contact with happenings or people based on images disseminated by the cultural industries certainly removes us even further from the possibility of having a personal experience of the world. Andy Warhol was the artist who best unveiled this process. For Lorenzo Mammì, Paulo Pasta’s painting depends on a moral decision: “Its all-over intensity, which makes the things neither bands nor columns, is the manifestation of an aesthetic experience of the world where the landscape, along with history, has disappeared – a situation in which the pact between spectator and painter no longer involves a shared cultural heritage but rather a moral wager: if we accept to maintain a certain prägnanz in relation to the perceptible – not by an external stimulus, which no longer exists, but by one’s own will – a common terrain of experience can be established.”

III

The interpretation is noteworthy, but a difficulty remains. Can a painting so discrete and so unimposing as Paulo Pasta’s – and at the same time with a strong resonance in the perceptible world – find its justification in a voluntary decision (“by one’s own will,” in the words of Lorenzo Mammì)? I haven’t the slightest doubt that Paulo’s work has a strong ethical content, of a refusal of the poverty to which the senses have been reduced in our times. But I also think that Lorenzo Mammì’s essay opens the possibility that we evaluate, in regard to the artist’s painting, a different hypothesis.

Paulo Pasta grew up in a small city in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Ariranha, within a region of sugarcane plantations and factories for the manufacture of sugar and alcohol. He came to the state capital when he was 18, an age at which the personality of an individual is already considerably established. His art does not have even the slightest touch of nostalgia or yearning for bygone times. Rather, it possesses a strong and nonrhetorical memorialist dimension. In the mid 1980s, Paulo made some figurative canvases that evoked landscapes from his life in the state’s interior. A little later, his painting showed an interest for the investigation of the past by means of scrapings. Scraping off the topmost layer of paint allows for the emergence of vestiges of somewhat archaic figures in the lower layers. Gables, Gothic arches and columns arise shyly amidst skyscrapers, in an interrogation of an archaeological sort. I think that up to this moment of his work it is still possible to identify a relative utopia of the past and of the eventual virtues of childhood.

Paulo’s painting was to progressively incorporate into its own making the discussion of the passage of time and of the possible links on his art with humans and history. The very nature of his meditative and cautious colors points to a time whose currentness is always a little postponed. They are simultaneously a somewhat intense affirmation and its suspension. This movement is most likely what Lorenzo calls the “internal dialectics of color.” Only slowly do his colors become organized into more stable figures, the geometric web of his canvases. The man who grew up and was educated in an environment totally different from that of the big cities does not use these discrete tones to bemoan a barren destiny. He just cannot adhere immediately to a reality which, although posited, is not found on his horizon.

The implosion of the identity of things and people brought about by the new technologies, by the voracity of merchandising, by violence, and by the culture of the image will lead to an experience of the world that incorporates this dynamics of the dematerialization of reality. In keeping with this, Paulo Pasta’s colors have a porous aspect (even though they are as compact as Miró’s colors) which seems to refer to a world that no longer supposes the cruder operations allowed by the technological transformations developed up to the middle of World War II or the great social confrontations that began with the French Revolution.

Currently, the digital and nuclear (nonmilitary) technologies, as well as the developments of biotechnology and of genetics allow for transformations that are no longer brought about by an evisceration of reality, but rather by modifications that take place in the very constitution of the material. Although there are indisputably many ethical questions involved in these processes, this does not prevent them from being within reach of a considerable part of the population, in forms that range from transgenic foods to the new communication media. It likewise seems to me that it is difficult to formulate the social organization, as it was at least up to the Soviet revolution, in a confrontation between those who occupy opposite positions in the productive process: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Since the Bolshevik Revolution no other great process of social transformation has arisen on these bases. The Chinese revolution was essentially a peasant revolution. And with a clean conscience it is nearly impossible to deny that European social democratic reformism was more successful than the so-called revolutionary movements.

I believe that at least part of the greatness of Paulo Pasta’s work is owing to how it is able to formulate these more contemporary experiences in aesthetic terms. If the memory is an effort to make past events current, what takes place in his art – with all the oscillations mentioned above – has to do with the premonition of the intensity and of the terror of a life experience that simultaneously liberates us (by increasing our potentials) while placing us on the threshold of an apocalyptic destruction.

IV

In its development, the work of Paulo Pasta manages to convey to us a highly verisimilar experience of the rhythms of the passage of time – the various historical dynamics. From the lyrical feeling of a more subjective experience of time, it moves on to a problematic relationship with an overwhelming temporality, guided by promising and simultaneously apprehensive social and technological processes. From a memorialistic relation with his time he has moved on, in more recent canvases, to an anticipatory link with the present, the aspect of premonition in which we once again experience risks and possibilities.

The painting Anunciação [Annunciation] – inspired in the composition and colors of the likewise titled work by Duccio, and possibly the best work in this show – perfectly summarizes the complex career of this great artist. Made in very light tones of pink, blue and gray, it points to a lightness open to great possibilities as well as to a possible apocalypse. The new annunciations of the archangel Gabriel might be more than only blessed.