São Paulo

José Rufino

Adriana Penteado Arte Contemporanea

José Rufino, an artist from the northern Brazilian province of Paraiba, transforms personal memories into mythological narratives. For the past ten years, he has shown himself to be a skillful manipulator of symbols, turning his own life history into small, universal testaments to solitude, pain, love, and family ties. José Rufino is actually the name of the artist’s paternal grandfather; the grandson adopted it as part of his effort to penetrate the symbolic past of his family’s patriarch, who was the owner of a large sugar plantation.

Rufino’s installations refer to his ancestry and to the traditional, anachronistic agrarian society of Paraiba, with its strict rules and rigid formalities. First came Respiratio, 1994–98, composed of wooden drawers taken from antique furniture and filled with white cement and wet plaster. Vociferatio, 1996, came next, an assemblage of antique writing desks, whose legs are affixed to the wall and whose drawers have been left open. Lacrymatio, an installation that Rufino began in 1990 and completed in 1995, was mounted in this show. It featured over one hundred of the five thousand letters—all addressed to the elder José Rufino and dated between 1920 and 1950—that the artist inherited from his grandfather. Then came Sudoratio, 1997, a grouping of opened suitcases dis-gorging organic forms modeled in plaster. The titles of the installations, which are derived from the Latin for “breathe,” “yell,” “cry,” and “sweat,” respectively, are part of what the artist calls the “collection of sensations” connected with child-hood and family memories. They are, in a way, all sensations of purging, sensations that come from the very depths; in Rufino’s art they reappear as explosive secrets, kept and locked up for generations.

Cartas de Areia (Letters from Areia), 1989–98, his current work, is yet another rummage in the emotional attic. The genesis of the piece can be traced to the day the artist unlocked an old family trunk and discovered the thousands of letters sent to José Rufino grandpère at his home in Areia (which means “sand” in Portuguese). The artist covered the addresses with paintings and drawings, so that the envelopes become palimpsests—their historic traces omitted or barely suggested via stamps, numbers, and fragments of words showing through. The drawings—of fantastical animals, old pieces of furniture, kids playing ring-around-the-rosy, people fishing—recall the artist’s childhood. His outlines of blue trees reflect not an expressionist vision of nature, but an ironic view of the pseudo-reality of a family tree; they trace an irremediably altered personal history.

Katia Canton

Translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Glaser.