PRINT November 1988


That art is non-conceptual in character seems to me self-evident; for what makes possible a work of art is not simply a good translation of ideas, but the capability of “somehow” betraying those ideas.
—Leonel Moura

AT FIRST GLANCE, WE MAY think Leonel Moura’s art is conceptual, that it is simply a good translation of ideas into the realm of the visual. On deeper examination, we find his “betrayals,” as he takes into account both the field of language and the field of icons, but ultimately escapes the self-referentialism of both. In Moura’s manipulations of images and words, objectivity and subjectivity are the two terms at stake. A variety of “objective” facts and preexisting ideas—philosophical, political, moral, esthetic—take their place in this work. Through a “subjectivity,” however, that refuses to take anything for granted, Moura succeeds in offering us, in any given work, multiple frames for the multiple notions operating within, frames of reference that are rigorous yet passionate, practical yet speculative, specific yet elusive.

In his homeland, Portugal, Moura begins his exploration. And Portugal—the country of white melancholy—is the ultimate land of the European continent, clinging to its roots to resist the Atlantic waves. Here the paths of two possible journeys meet, converge, and cross each other: the journey toward Europe, the solidity of earth, tradition; the journey toward America, the mutability of water, the “new frontier.” In a series of Moura’s works from 1987, we find blown-up portraits of Amalia Rodriguez, his nation’s most famous and popular performer of its traditional music, fado. (It is Amalia’s eyes, in fact, that we see reproduced on pages 128 and 129.) In these works, her face becomes an icon—cold and allusive, yet disquieting and sad, all at the same time. Across Rodriguez’s mouth, like a censor’s strip, runs the word Portugal. And so the notion of territoriality is declared, blatantly, but the declaration also becomes something of a suffocating cry.

Moura’s recent work, again and again, marks out territories and simultaneously negates them: with his series “Europa,” 1987, he makes the continent’s intellectual heroes (Machiavelli, Kant, Wittgenstein, Freud, Lenin, etc.) into monuments; in his series “North Territory” of the same year, America’s monumental skyscrapers (by Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Michael Graves, etc.) become heroes. Two systems of thinking, feeling, and behaving, transformed into icons, constantly face one another in Moura’s work. But by stating and underlining their status as icons, Moura forces us to see that these “frames” can also frame what lies outside them: the wide gap between a culture that overly validates images of its present, and a culture that overly recycles the values of its past. The territorial labels Moura places over his images pin them into their respective contexts, telling us that these differing systems do not relate. And yet, because Moura’s work consistently refutes any notions of cultural superiority, the images themselves seem to flow together in a cultural stream, apparently reconciled, to posit a sort of planetary egalitarianism.

In this project for Artforum, Portugal is once again the port of departure (North, South, East, West) as Moura acknowledges our differences, our limits (The one can learn a language-game that the other one cannot), while he challenges those differences at the levels of reason and morality (Would it be correct to say our concepts reflect our life?). But each time, the “largest” metaphysical assertions coexist with the smallest observable detail of our utterly physical life on earth—a human eye, a flower, a mossy plain. These too are the territories Moura negotiates for us, and with us. If this is an art of betrayals, it is certainly not one of treachery: perhaps we trust this gentle guide because he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but certainly asks the interesting questions.

Ida Panicelli