Albuquerque Mendes

Galeria Canvas & Co.

Albuquerque Mendes came to painting after having been involved with performance since the mid ’70s. Combining the vivid, expressive colors of traditional Portuguese folk art with aspects of conceptual artmaking, his work can be seen as a model of resistance to the banal realism that has dominated Portuguese art in recent years. His work engages essential aspects of recent Portuguese culture; at the same time, it is rooted in more general European traditions and the memory of a strong popular and folk culture—a mix of influences that is perhaps the reason for Mendes’ successful reception in Brazil. Among European artists, one can also find affinities to the work of Arnulf Rainer or Hermann Nitsch, whether in Mendes’ obsessive thematicization of the Crucifixion, or in the way his work is inscribed in a tragic consciousness of his own body as a site of expiation.

In his recent installation “No Jardim das Oliveiras” (In The Garden of Gethsemane, 1997), Mendes once again presented a self-portrait. But while his previous self-portraits appeared to be linked to the Crucifixion—the artist’s own image blurring into that of Christ—here the cross disappeared, to be replaced by a tree. This image evoked the tradition of popular prints, in which human faces appear in trees either as a spectral presence or as the macabre evidence of a hanging. Floating among the leaves like a piece of fruit, Mendes’ face was the painting’s most compelling motif.

Another painting, which was copied from a pre-Renaissance Italian engraving, depicted a white pyramid, a red-brick Tower of Babel, and a cross that linked the two. The show also contained a triptych in which—as in a sequence of movie stills—the same Cézanne-esque landscape was shown at dawn, during the day, and at twilight. These mysterious images hung on walls that were painted a strong blue like a night sky, creating a theatrical effect that reinforced the work’s abstract dimension. At the same time, each element functioned as an integral part of a drama whose meaning remained obscure. In order to better understand this work it is perhaps necessary to return to earlier traditions, such as the cult of the ex-voto. These roots are perpetuated in Mendes’ work much as the breath of Brazilian paganism can be felt in the work of an artist like Hélio Oiticica.

Bernardo Pinto de Almeida

Translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Glaser.