Contaminated spaces: painting as an experience of differentiation

In 2000, Rodrigo Andrade was invited to take part of the “Projeto Parede” held at the Museu de Arte Moderna of São Paulo (MAM-SP). The challenge consisted in making a temporary intervention in the corridor between the entrance lobby of the museum and the main exhibition room. For the first time, the artist was confronted with the possibility of giving an environmental dimension to his paintings with color blocks that he has been creating since 1999. The place, yet a passage to  the  café-restaurant,  was  extremely noisy. Rodrigo decided to set two pairs of rectangular geometric forms of oil paint masses (pink and orange; red and blue) directly on the wall, displacing them so that they would become frontally visible in part, whether from the entrance lobby, whether from the café.

Even if his painting already did not circumscribe itself to the limits of the canvas, the fact of producing on the wall brought new issues. By being very close to the spectator and in   a place where it was necessary to struggle to get the attention of the audience, it  strangely assumed its character of one more thing among others, an ordinariness that Andrade also seemed to aim on the canvases. It was not only within a purely visual   system that the monochromatic blocks of colors were perceived. Somehow, now it was necessary to deal with a series of physical and cultural characteristics  that,  on  the canvas, could still be kept at a distance. Along to this, it was necessary to make a    painting; just as the materiality of the blocks, the power of the colors and the relationship between them made very clear that the painter’s desire was there, condensed in such colored masses.

Such process coherently inserted itself in the production the artist had been developing since the previous year and that suggested a process of emptying the pictorial field. From a binary logic, Rodrigo’s painting concentrated itself on the exploration of a relational system, in which painted plates were set on the canvas white surface,i without any previous  composition  to  define  their  localization.  Of  different  thicknesses,  of  spongy  or smooth superficies, the plates were set in a way that seemed to obey a casual order; an impression confirmed by the displacements, irregularities and asymmetry through which they emerged into space. Not without some irony, it was as if the paintings simply and directly answered the question on their specificity: the painting comes down to matter, color and relationship between little expressive forms on a neutral screen and nothing beyond that. The proceeding, which follows a basic common rule, turns to be infinitely diversified insofar as we nether know how the colors, so distant one from another, will react when set side by side. It is the color that singularizes, or even better, that  introduces infinite differences in such patterned making process.

The choice of the forms, which, as time goes by, frequently falls upon the rectangle (with variation  of  side,  volume  and  design  of  the  edges),  also  seems  fortuitous.  Even  if  it  is possible to reconstitute the trajectory of its geometry in Rodrigo Andrade’s painting of the 1980s or in special moments of the 1990s series, as a form its value is worthless. Its reiteration and inexpressiveness suggest a kind of “ready-made form”. The drawing is universal, not because of some metaphysical signification it could have, but by the easiness with which it can be found. The rectangle refers to the urban universe, to the movie and TV screens, to the graphic design, the industrial modular forms, the road signs and the advertisings. Naturally, in the restricted ambit of art, it also can be associated to Geometric Abstraction, to Constructivism, to Minimalism, etc. However, the artist captures it as used up and common form, and, therefore, does not assume any particular signification for the understanding of his work.

If such geometric form does not present itself as the measure of something, its presence on the superficies justifies itself as something that molds the color. And it is from the ostensive presence, at once as matter and visual sensation, the crossing between the tactile and the optical perception that partially comes the interest of the work. As we cannot help thinking that, in a country in which the implementation of a plastic tradition is something sparse, even more in the ambit of painting, such ostentation is not innocent. As an artist who started his production in the 1980s, in the moment of the “return to painting”, and who kept painting despite of its so-many-times predicted death, the affirmative character and the vital pleasure of these color blocks speaks for itself.

On the other side, even before migrating to the museum walls, Rodrigo Andrade’s production aimed to conquer a space not more restricted to the physical limits of the canvas. The trajectory his painting developed indicated the search for a visual space which concretized itself, in a real and not only metaphoric way, from the opposition between the forms of the picture and the spectator’s body. In the course of a contemporary art movement for which the space of work of art is open, physically unlimited, the artist searches to eliminate any kind of interiority, maintaining the objective and corporal relationship between the color plates and their perception.

Yet, it would be logical if he searched a space for his painting that is not the one to which it was originally predestined. It would be necessary to confound it with the world, so that in such opposition painting could keep its identity. After the wall of the MAM, Andrade produced in a bar located in the district Santa Cecilia, in São Paulo, the painting Lanches Alvorada (2001). On the wall tiles of the bar, he set up oil paint color blocks that, despite their discordance, merged with the rather powerful and characteristic visual elements common in such kind of place: black price lists with yellow letters, red plastic cases of beer, a TV hung near the roof, metal red painted chairs, the old wall tiles with pink, orange and yellow drawings. What on the canvas used to be a relationship between colors, here becomes a vaster and more contaminated conversation.

Decorative paintings, some might say. But the presence of such colored bodies was not only cheerfulness. There was something puzzling (the work was partially destroyed by the irresistible desire to touch it). If, on one hand, an almost mimetic relationship with the environment seemed to exist – and we could say that the surface of the work, as for osmosis, got the greasy aspect of the bar –, in some moment, the link was interrupted, replaced by a kind of strangeness, a reality at once concrete and parallel, artificial.

The painting was not absorbed by the space; on the contrary, despite this strange coexistence, it kept to be a strange body changing the whole relationship that we, clients, had with it. First, it visually potentized our experience. After this, the time was other, the reality constituted by the visual dialogue that emerged among the colors. But the most revealing fact is that the singularity of the objects in the space and the color blocks on   the wall built themselves up within this system of contamination. As if the individual, the identity, could only be fully conquered within the collective, the ensemble, in relationships of closeness and contrast between things, the painting of the people present in the bar.

In 2003, the contamination of the painting space by outer space was developed from a projection of the street into the gallery in the exhibition “Passagem”. In a rectangular space de 10,20 x 3,60 m, Andrade installed on the lateral walls, face-to-face, four huge oil painting rectangles, which were multiplied by a mirror set on the back wall of the gallery. It has to be said that, situated in a popular district of São Paulo, the Gallery 10,20 x 3,60 principal characteristic was its direct relationship with the urban space, as a sole glass separated the inside from the sidewalk. Yet, Andrade decided to potentize this  relationship between outer/inner through the mirror, which, by this way, just as the white canvas of painting, protruded out the space of the work of art, setting an intense link   with the body of the spectator and an stimulating articulation between the limits of the different spaces (of the painting, of the gallery and of the public).

In Paredes da Caixa (2006), Rodrigo Andrade’s most recent installation, the same blocks, different in color, size, shape and thickness, were installed in some of the rooms of the Museu da Caixa Econômica Federal. Even if we are not dealing with a gallery space anymore, as in Lanches Alvorada, the issue is to explore the link between painting and the universe of everyday life objects.

The museum, which environment restitutes the first bank branch of this institution in São Paulo at the end of the 1930s, is characterized by a pompous and austere decoration,  with green and red tones, and walls partially covered by different patterns of varnished wooden panels. Witness of São Paulo State history of richness and progress, the whole place exhales other kind of reality. It is as if the past had been preserved in the objects  and was living hung up on the sixth floor of the building, on the central place of the city. Scattered all over the walls, academic style portraits of some remarkable persons of the history of the bank: names such as the emperor Pedro II of Brazil, the president Getúlio Vargas,  and  the  young  politician  Paulo  Maluf.  The  portraits  share  the  space  with  big bookshelves, maps, posters, fine furniture, writing machines, calculators and a strange room for medical care.

Despite the total difference in regards to the environment of the bar, here the color blocks, scattered in several rooms, and which are not always seen at first sight, also build  a relationship with the place, even if an ambiguous way. They certainly introduce, with their remarkable presence (the biggest rectangles, set in the Sala da presidência, measure from 110 x 180 x 2 cm to 175 x 215 x 4 cm), a kind of vital force in the local frozen by time. They also are seen as intruders, even if, at once, they seem to fit in the space.

For the spectator, it is almost impossible to abstract the peculiarity of the place and to focus“on the painting”. Almost unconsciously, the sight is foreseeing through the rooms some kind of similarity between the colors chosen by the artist and the objects found in the space. As if an adumbrative subordination between the physical elements of the museum and the painting could reveal the key to the enigma. If, on one side, it reacts to the pictorial quality of the objects and paneling (which, a long time ago, lost their utility and turned to be antiques), on the other side, the relationship between the color blocks is still autonomous, and not resuming itself to possible special links.

This continuous physical passage between two universes, the attempt to usufruct the  color as something autonomous, a purely aesthetical experience, disentailed from the environing space, and, at once, an incontrollable posture of searching in the room some other reactive and activating elements between the color masses, by this way increasing the reverberation field, reveals the potentiality of Rodrigo Andrade’s intervention. Once more, here are the permutations between, on one side, rectangular and monochromatic blocks and, on the other side, the museum which, seen as a set in constant action, assert itself individually. The web of relationships that they create propitiates the beginning of new significations.ii

Parallel to the production of paintings on canvas, the brief pictorial installations (or environmental paintings), search to stretch the borderline between the experience of art and the perception of the world (and, by the way, not as formal exercise). Obviously, since the very beginning Rodrigo Andrade does not question the individual potentiality of the color masses. However, this certainty does not allow that, in an overbearing gesture, they exist as ideal unities. The libido, driving power of every action, finds itself molded in these geometric forms waiting for a detonator. The contact between them and the outline will activate this energy. The result is a curious process of singularization which happens through changes and contamination. Someway, these blocks restore, for the everyday space in which prevails a limited, and somehow debased, experience of the world, the strength of a more vital experience. By stretching the limits of his painting, Rodrigo Andrade takes a risk. Everything could result into a pure decorative effect, if it did not add the possibility of differentiation.

i At first, this superficies could have any color, for instance grey-blue, that would be used as a background. However, this proceeding seems to be progressively discarded, giving place to the white canvases.

ii Rodrigo Andrade explored a possible interpretation of his work in the movie Uma noite no escritório. From the installation Paredes da Caixa, he made a video that narrates the history of a model employee, the young bank manager played by the artist himself, Dr. Wilson, who starts to suffer from an unknown “nervous disease”. Associating the painting Office at night (1940), by  Edward Hopper, with the Museu da Caixa, the movie deconstructs, somehow in a very funny way,  all the realism inspired by the environment of the museum, turning the color blocks into main characters of the movie. In an overtime night, Dr. Wilson starts to have hallucinations that put in danger his “exemplary career”. Suddenly, this dedicated and responsible employee turns to behave strangely after starting to see “forms, colors and matters”, i.e., “abstractions”, in unusual places (on the walls, the telephone, on the body of other employees). The fantastic, the unknown, the repressed desire, represented through these color masses, emphatically emerge as a kind of parallel world that threatens the patterned and well-managed reality of the young bank manager. A subterraneous universe or unconsciousness which also claims for its right to exist.