TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 1997

SMOKING MIRRORS: THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF MIGUEL RIO BRANCO

THEY SAY THAT CARAVAGGIO ground up flesh to make his colors. They also say he didn’t draw, but of course he did draw, only with paint, alla prima. He didn’t make drawings beforehand because he didn’t have time—only thirty-nine years to live, love, fight, outrage both clergy and humanists, and blast European painting out of the sinkhole of a tired and didactic Mannerism.

Born fifty years ago in the Canary Islands and later transplanted to Brazil, Miguel Rio Branco has had a little more time, but he doesn’t act like it. Like Caravaggio, he’s a hell-bent verist with a renegade baroque sensibility. Rio Branco’s realism reminds us that the Portuguese word barroco originally referred to pearls that were irregular and rough, not perfectly round. When French critics picked up the term at the end of the eighteenth century they used it to describe an art they considered “grotesque” and “decadent.” The art they despised was everything classical art was not (and everything Rio Branco’s is): sensuous, exuberant, crowded with swelling sculptural forms, light and color, pathos and drama.

Rio Branco’s full-blooded Catholic baroque is an art of “contamination,” to borrow a term from Pier Paolo Pasolini. For the Italian poet and filmmaker, contaminazione not only lacked the word’s usual pejorative connotation, the idea was central to his art. Responding to his critics, Pasolini wrote in his poem “Stylistic Reaction”: “They all swear they are pure:/linguistically pure . . . of course:/a sign that the soul is dirty.” For Pasolini, to let the dark contaminate the light (and vice versa) was as much an ethical as an aesthetic imperative. The Brazilian artist’s photographs have that same tenebroso heart, that same mixture of meticulous composition and sensual recklessness that lets in the accidents of seeing then works them into the whole with such precision you think they were willed into being.

Rio Branco’s photographic series “Out of Nowhere” (a portion of which was exhibited last September at Throckmorton Fine Art in his first solo show in the US) was made in the old part of Rio de Janeiro at the Santa Rosa Boxing Academy, named, we imagine, after that role model of the devotionally extravagant, the Rose of Lima. The first New World native to become a saint, Santa Rosa is the patroness of Central and South America. While alive, she slept on a pile of bricks, wore gloves filled with nettles, flagellated herself with chains, and gouged her flesh with shards of glass. In Rio Branco’s images, the boxers of Santa Rosa show the scars of similar rituals of faithful violence, and thus, too, are turned into phantasms. Instead of the effects of canonization, the transforming agents here are light, shadow, and sinfully sumptuous color. The light surprises and caresses the bodies of the boxers while the bright colorful bands—bandages, ribbons, ropes, and fetters—hem them in. If they move away from color, they die into the shadows.

Rio Branco’s colors seep out of their borders like bodily fluids, staining and contaminating everything around them. Bodies, bindings, wounds, and walls are wet with color. Even his mirrors bleed. In one image, a boxer jumps rope before a mirror and disappears in a crimson smear. In another, a fighter stands sideways as the light picks out his aquamarine trunks and draws the curve of his thigh and torso. He makes some sign in the air with his bandaged hands and they become white blurs tinged with red. The bodies of boxers are continually molting and turning into those of other creatures. A red splash on the wall turns a boy resting on the ropes into a bloody angel, while a boxer on the floor doing push-ups is transformed by time-blur into a scuttling insect. In one signature image, a boxer faces away from us, centered in the photograph’s square frame and again in a doorway. His muscled black back, which leans to the right at a forty-five degree angle, is bathed in a sidelight that defines the cleft of his spine. Cocked back to the left, his head merges with a red object hanging from the rafters (a boxing glove?) that appears to bloom from behind his right ear like a huge amaryllis flower. In the foreground, the blood-red ropes of the ring cut him at the waist, binding him into another sharp angle, while two black cylinders on either side of the doorway further compress the figure and form another frame within a frame. The deep reds and blacks of the center column are bound on each side by vertical bands of azure blue and tourmaline green.

“Out of Nowhere” is clearly no documentary on boxing. We see few faces here, no individuals, except in the full-on portrait of a one-armed boxer that is not part of the series, though it was the first image made, the seed for all the others. Rio Branco’s boxers are metaphorical warriors, actors in the drama of incarnation. They are engaged in a contest between light and dark, survival and oblivion, fought against the flesh-and-blood backdrop of the underground gym. As editor David Chandler writes in his introduction to the recent Boxer: An Anthology of Writings on Boxing and Visual Culture, “The gym is dark, claustrophobic, reverent, hypnotic, sexual; a space of intersecting rhythms, sounds, and images.” To further emphasize the theatricality of this arena, Rio Branco’s installations of “Out of Nowhere”—at the Havana Bienal, the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, and the IFA Gallery in Stuttgart—combined newspapers, mirrors, fabric, and sound with the images. A filmmaker and cinematographer as well as a painter and photographer, Rio Branco tightly edits his images into sequences and scenes so that the drama unfolds cinematically. A scarred punching bag is placed next to a boxer’s scarred torso, each punctuated by a wound in the shape of the letter A. Signs, signals, marks, scars, wounds, and tattoos are combined in sets of images that don’t reduce to documentary likeness but emphasize metaphorical relations. A triptych combines photographs of a boxer’s torso, glistening with sweat, a human skull sculpted out of polished wood, and a woman’s torso molded in wax. The three substances—wood, wax, and flesh—all perspire under a cruel and delicious heat.

Rio Branco creates a similar affinity among divergent textures in a polyptych entitled Barroco (Baroque), featured in an exhibition at the Fotografie Forum in Frankfurt in 1994. Surrounding a central photograph of a carved crucified Christ, red paint oozing from his stigmata, are eight images of sensuous surfaces: a coconut chopping block; a net heavy with fish; a burned-out tire resembling a hairy pelt; the skin and hooves of a dead horse; a faded drawing on board depicting a skeleton stalking a horseman; a pair of legs sheathed in ragged jeans; and a devastated landscape with palm fronds. In the accompanying catalogue essay, critic and curator Paulo Herkenhoff describes this mixture of parallel yet discordant images as unique to the Iberian Baroque. “[It] ends up by being the appropriate junction of [Rio Branco’s] sensual and violent images of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Amazonia with his gaze directed to[ward] Barcelona. . . . Under the influence of the[se] visual analogies, contagions and tensions are even more active.” That is, unlike the European Baroque of the Counter-Reformation, these images forgo persuasion in favor of corrosion and resistance.

In 1994, Rio Branco produced an extraordinary series of photographs in Cuba in which details again became signs in a poetics of ruin and vitality, a dialogue between life and death. In many of these images, it is the decaying walls that catch and reflect the light, while human beings hover around the edges and in the shadows, insubstantial and transitory. In that same year, he made a series of portraits, “The Kids of Rio,” depicting abandoned children in the care of the São Martinho Foundation. The kids pose against a rock wall, their faces at once emerging from and obscured by shadows.

In an earlier series from 1976, Rio Branco photographed the prostitutes who inhabit the zona, the decaying neighborhood of Maciel in Bahia’s capital Salvador, where he had gone to live. “Something very special struck me as I came to know Maciel,” he later wrote. “It was the melding of the decay of the area with the scars of the people who live within its wretched walls. I went into the zona two and three times a week, making portraits of the people there, which gave me passage into hell.” Like the Santa Rosa boxers, the prostitutes of Maciel show their wounds. One woman with horribly scarred thighs sits on a bed and moves her arms up and down like wings, as if attempting to rise.

Rio Branco’s is an art of contamination, contagion, and corrosion, but also of resistance and transcendence. He uses available light and supersaturated color to blur and penetrate the boundaries between the world of appearances and what it barely conceals. In that liminal zone, sacred and profane are mixed like blood and wine. He photographs the boxers of Santa Rosa, the prostitutes of Maciel, and the street kids of Rio for the same reason Caravaggio used the drowned body of a prostitute as a model for his representation of the Virgin Mary; namely, because the drowned prostitute was available to him, and the Virgin Mary was not.