João Penalva

Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery

João Penalva’s paintings are willfully beautiful. Yet their charm is not something that obscures reality for the sake of a little rarefied sensation. Sensation there is, but as the viewer shuttles back and forth between different techniques, effects, and ways of picturing, the experience of the work includes both more overtly physical and more purely abstract moments as part of the larger texture of response. Penalva’s preferred format is a binary one: two panels, slightly taller than they are wide, placed one above the other. Whether he is working on a small or large scale, this configuration inevitably evokes the body. Penalva started out as a dancer, and there is little doubt that his paintings have a muscular as well as an intellectual component. Certainly, behind the visual appeal of their surface lies an unmistakable gestural grace.

But the vertical arrangement does not lead to anything as straightforward as a reading from above and below the belt. The two halves stand to each other in a variety of alternatively supportive and contradictory ways. Representation and idea, object and illusion, fragment and detail, focus and impression, close-up and magnification, meaning and function—each pair offers a different axis along which to explore the painting. For the most part these works are made with a mixture of materials—acrylic, oil, printed papers, marble and pumice dust, encaustic wax, gypsum, watercolor, and Letraset—and Penalva likes to enumerate these in the caption of each work. In conversation he refers to the materials as “ingredients.”

The largest paintings in this exhibition were a series of “Interiors” (all works 1991). Each bears the generic title together with a parenthetical tag: Interior (Top), Interior (Shed), Interior ( Photograph), and so on. Relationships between title and canvas are, at best, loose. What gives coherence to an otherwise disparate and heterogeneous list of references—(Old), (Top), (Print)—is that they all suggest various surface qualities. The lower panel of Interior (Clock) shows a black circle bisected by a long, diagonal red line, while the canvas above it is a jumbled tesselation of all the numbers between 1 and 12. Interior (Shower) has dribbles of acrylic running horizontally from right to left across its checkered upper half and, below, a spray of white dust and paint falling upward from the bottom edge. Interior (Shed) confounds artifice with simulation. Both surfaces suggest wood graining, but, whereas the top section consists of artfully rendered paneling in a natural color, its red-stained counterpart has several naturally colored scraps and strips “pinned” to it: a trompe l’oeil painting on an artificial surface of what is already ersatz.

The play between effect and materials used to produce that effect is foregrounded in Penalva’s untitled works on both paper and canvas: the mark is a record of experience as much as it is an invitation to experience the intervention of memory and progressing time. Apropos, Penalva also showed Calendar, a work in six parts. Again framed in pairs, one above the other, each sheet within these small works on paper is devoted to the visualizing of a different day’s date. In spite of the title, the frequent turns and shifts of stylistic focus identify this piece as a journal.

––Michael Archer