Chicago

Daniel Senise

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA Chicago)

Brazilian artist Daniel Senise’s first museum exhibition in the United States reveals an artist whose dogged pursuit of mystery more often than not yields results. Senise begins his paintings by staining, battering, soaking, scumbling, and abrading his raw canvas surfaces until they seem the tortured remnants of age and neglect. By a series of techniques, the results of which suggest frottage, Senise then selectively augments or draws out evocative forms from the mottled skins; over these he layers bits of recognizable imagery—rope, teeth, hands, circles—and occasionally English words or phrases that at first appear to be randomly scattered over chaotic voids.

This jumbled layering of incident creates arenas of ambiguity and wonder; it is as if the literal meanings of individual images had been obscured and overcome by time and subsequent experience. As in eroded frescoes or aged and faded religious tapestries, Senise’s elusive iconography peers through the veils of imagery; indeed, meaning seems to percolate beneath his surfaces, as if resting on the periphery of consciousness. Pictorial elements—disembodied hands shown in gestures of benediction, and bits of frayed rope that seem as if they might be derived from representations of Christ as Man of Sorrows—suggest the paraphernalia of mystic Catholicism. But Senise’s piety is decidedly skewed; his concern is more with the magical properties inherent in images that posit belief than with the dictates of any particular denomination.

In Fogo Fatua, 1991, elements shift in and out of focus, congregating to suggest a chilling touch of evil. Culled from this stained havoc is a largish flamelike shape, the contours of which appear to have been bent to mimic the silhouette of some aberrant raiment—a devil’s cap or fool’s motley. This shape seems to exude from a grate painted beneath it, like some specter just loosed upon the world. Radiating around this sinister image is a ring of more precisely rendered elements—disembodied teeth, gums, or perhaps segments of unattached fingers—that suggest the attributes of some nameless demon. The overall effect of this work is like that of a banner for an arcane, exhausted faith, a votive testament to a zone of ambiguity where will surrenders to wonder. Throughout this show, Senise mobilizes the trappings of belief to explore the poetic mysteries that animate his one true faith in the evocative power of art.

James Yood