Washington, DC

Julião Sarmento

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

In the 1997 Venice Biennale, Portuguese artist Julião Sarmento exhibited a large mixed-media work from his “White Paintings” series titled To Take Off the Lace and Blow the Flower, 1997, an enigmatic image of three female figures (two of whom are headless) posed around a table. For his current show at the Hirshhorn Museum, he created five new “White Paintings” and two sculptures loosely based on the figural elements of To Take Off the Lace. In the resulting work (all 1998), Sarmento achieves a stylistic unity through an economy of means and an almost “styleless” rendering of form. In the paintings, the headless female figures are executed in sparse, even nondescript lines that locate forms in space—an expansive white ground that, in some cases, seems to be paint soaked through the canvas from the back—but have little vitality on their own. Similar compositional elements are used in the two unpainted, cast-resin sculptures: Each features a life-size, simply dressed female figure with no head.

Despite their similarities, the sculptures are less successful than the paintings. Because the hollow interior of the resin figures is not visible (Sarmento seals the opening at the neck), they appear not so much headless as beheaded. In the paintings there is no such overt violence—outlines simply trail off at ankle or chin. Moreover, since Sarmento’s modus operandi—the isolation of figures against the empty, metaphorical space of the canvas—doesn’t easily translate into three dimensions, the sculptures lack much of the mysterious undercurrent of the paintings.

In both their narrative tone and figural isolation Sarmento’s paintings are reminiscent of Nicolas Africano’s early works. However, while Africano structured his works around explicit events, Sarmento constructs ambiguous vignettes pregnant with subtle psychological and physical unease. In My Own Uncomfortable Secret, rather than the unfolding narrative suggested by the tide, we get a mood of quiet, even restrained desperation: Two female figures—placed back-to-back and bound together by a cord around their necks—gently pull apart and in so doing risk slowly garroting themselves. This rope motif and its theme of uncontrollable self-destruction recurs in two other paintings. In A Mouthful of Secrets, a female standing on the edge of a table gingerly leans forward, dangerously tightening the cord around her neck; as it presses into her flesh, a second female standing on the floor several feet behind gently raises her hand as if psychically willing the other forward into even greater jeopardy. The space between the two is almost palpably charged, a tension that is unfortunately disrupted by the inverted figure Sarmento inserts into the scene at the top of the canvas. This is not the case with Too Tedious to Talk About, the sparest and perhaps best work in the exhibition. Here a footless female figure stands with an outstretched hand in a pose like an ancient Greek kore; a taut cord pressing into her thigh and another under her chin dramatize the slight lean of her body toward the expanse of black canvas that forms the left two-thirds of the painting. Like Sarmento’s other figures, she seems inevitably drawn, as if by some inner destructive force, into the abyss before her. Here meaning and drama are communicated in small gestures—the way a tightening cord constricts breath, a raised hand encourages doom, shifting weight signals an embrace of danger. Such details, combined with the pentimenti that haunt Sarmento’s figural outlines, create moments of suspended anxiety and doubt that linger, unresolved, before our eyes.

Howard Risatti