New York

Julião Sarmento

Louver Gallery

As significant as the polarity of abstraction and realism once was to Modernism, the great watershed with respect to post-Modern painting has been not so much a matter of form or style but of how meaning is generated: either it is self-reflexive, and thus contained by and concerned with the frame of painting itself, or else it refers outside of the work to comment on worldly experience and the human condition. In place for quite some time now, this black-and-white logic has gradually faded into innumerable shades of gray. While it is probably not Julião Sarmento’s primary intention to impress us with this fact, his paintings nonetheless call into question the legitimacy of interpretations founded upon such readymade distinctions.

The considerable tension in Sarmento’s work derives not from a struggle with the nature of painting itself, but from the disparity between thought processes and the embodiment of those ideas in material form. In their commitment to representation, as well as to esthetic beauty, Sarmento’s paintings can be seen as traditional in the extreme. Their substantial surfaces, composed of thick, unevenly applied, and occasionally gritty white paint, are contrasted with obsessively hesitant, delicately penciled, erased, and repenciled drawings, the deficiencies of which are symptomatic of the synapse between language and that which we try to express through it. Central to Sarmento’s lexicon are images of the body—never whole but rather dismembered or incomplete, never individualized but always generic (though in many instances the simplified bodies are female). As frozen, flat, and unresponsive as any of George Seurat’s subjects, Sarmento’s faceless figures engage in activities such as undressing, holding a child, crouching under a table, or defecating. Participating in these psychological pantomimes are unisex body parts, doing the things that shoulders, arms, legs, and feet do: gesturing, touching, stepping, intertwining. Also dispatched to the painted surface is another image/sign language the signification of which restlessly shifts between pure geometrical form (squares, rectangles, cones, and circles) and images of domestic objects (tables, windows, drinking glasses, and bowls).

Scripting his hybrid works with such suggestive titles as Hideout, Foolery, Deep in Some Wretched Dream, and Being Forced into Something Else (all works 1991), Sarmento heightens rather than diminishes ambiguity. On the one hand, it is difficult not to consign to his fragmented image clusters a unifying narrative that begins and ends as an extended mediation on human relations. On the other, the narrative can easily be read as a meditation on painting itself. Though less overwrought than Alberto Giacometti’s drawings, Sarmento’s use of approximation as a pictorial technique, and his inclusion of ambivalent signs that function both as things in themselves and referential images (e.g. the square that is also a window), suggest that the prevailing mood of anxiety that quietly infuses these works isn’t exclusively dedicated to the pictorial scenarios but concerns the very practice of painting in its search for self-definition. Sarmento’s paintings certainly appeal to those who crave narrative, yet they are much more savvy, suggesting that painterliness, levels of psychological engagement, and symbols that bounce in and out of the frame need not be anathema to conceptual practice.

Jan Avgikos