Adriana Varejão

Galerie Barbara Farber

Invoking memory and desire, the paintings and installations of young Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão reassemble tired historical narratives to produce fresh ones. In many of her early works, Varejão drew inspiration from Delft and Portuguese tiles, with their blue figures and ornaments, and her new work continues to incorporate this motif. At first glance, this recent exhibition, entitled “The Banquet,” seemed to include mosaics of cracked and chipped antique tiles, but on closer inspection these proved to be painted images.

Varejão’s works reference the colonial history of Brazil, and they often deploy a Baroque style and a craquelé effect to underscore the historical allusion. In Entrance Figure, 1995–96, Varejão pieced together a figure from fake antique tiles, whose shoes and clothing (parts of a uniform) suggest a man, while the hand and hair look like those of a woman. The face was composed of white painted tiles, and the figure’s outline was built up of various parts so that its identity was ultimately impossible to determine. In Eye Witness Y, X, 1996— two oval paintings that seem to have been lifted from an old portrait gallery—Varejão portrayed herself, as Indian-Brazilian and Chinese-Brazilian. Where the eyes should have been in each of these portraits, one found instead a gaping, hollowed-out wound; a pair of gouged-out eyes, with small photographs mounted on each, lay on a glass table. The photographs depicted two people sitting on the chairs, one offering the other a cup of poisoned tea. This murder scene could be examined only with the aid of a magnifying glass.

In the work entitled Meat in the Franz Post Way, 1996, fragments had also been torn out of a painting, but here the pieces were glued onto plates that had been made in the style of antique china, which were arranged like slices of pie around it. This “wounded” image was inspired by a work by Franz Post, a Dutch artist who traveled to Brazil in the 17th century to paint landscapes. Varejão’s work served up historical fragments in a new guise, but not without leaving wounds—an idyll appeared to have been destroyed, a cannibalistic history itself consumed.

The juxtapositions within these paintings and installations also induced a sense of alienation, as trompe-l’oeil effects left the viewer unsure of where appearance ended and reality began. Tea and Titles, 1995–96, again included ersatz Delft, Chinese, and Portuguese tiles, but here the painting continued on the backrests of the chairs, as though the images had been projected, so that the white outlines or shadows of the chair’s backs were visible on the canvas behind. The only thing that disturbed the tranquil setting in this piece was a red liquid—again suggestive of a poisonous brew—that floated in a teacup placed on a table. By invoking a decorous ritual, Varejão managed to engage issues about colonialism, thereby implicating the viewer in the work.

In all of these works, only damaged fragments remained, fragments that appeared to have been reassembled in an almost arbitrary fashion. It remained uncertain, for example, who actually drank the poisoned tea. As in a mosaic, these paintings rarely produced a coherent image, although all of the disparate elements had their place; while each work was only an interpretation, together they formed a provocative banquet.

Frank-Alexander Hettig

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.