Nuno de Campos

Clifford Smith Gallery

For his first exhibition in the United States, Nuno de Campos presented five intimately scaled tempera paintings (all titled Lap, 1999), each of which pictures the same seated woman from just above her breasts to slightly below the knees. Headless but not truncated, the model appears from panel to panel in a blue floral-print housedress from the ’70s, positioned frontally on a white, padded swivel chair. Shown in various states of animation, the figure expresses an emotional content through the strong arms, work-worn hands, and subtle shifts in body torsion, always with the lap as the compositional and symbolic center of focus.

The fifteen-by-fifteen-inch panels, installed above eye level, reference the icons of Campos’s Roman Catholic heritage. The Portuguese artist’s deliberate and painstaking egg-tempera technique also pays homage to the long tradition of religious panel painting. (He labored for three to four months on each image, painting onto gessoed linen with a tiny 00 brush.) Working from a selection of five medium-format photographs taken in his studio, Campos produced images of delicate texture and translucent color that depart entirely from the harshness of Photorealism. As the artist, a recent graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, suggests in his statement for the show, the “Lap” paintings are a hybrid of film still and religious icon.

Here, rather than the objectified passive figure one might expect to find in photo-based work, the seated model is active, speaking boldly through her gestures. In the first and least technically refined composition, she grips the chair cushion with her left hand, while resting her right forearm on her crossed leg, her powder-white hand floating gracefully above her lap. In another, she is more inviting and somewhat coquettish, placing her left hand on her hip, while the right hand caresses the knee. A third panel shows her as more aggressive, clutching both thighs with determined hands, and in a fourth she is similarly defiant as she folds her arms below her breasts and squeezes her knees together. In contrast, a fifth panel shows both hands resting together, thumbs crossed, in the center of her relaxed lap. With diligent attention to detail, Campos compellingly articulates every line, wrinkle, and shadow: The curving of the fingers, the swirls of light blue veins (which echo the patterns and folds of the dress), and the tiny white parallel lines on the fingernails all add to the hands’ eloquence. The woman’s image is both still life and sculpture.

The abilities to protect, seduce, confront, retreat, and comfort are all revealed in the various gestures of the woman’s long arms and powerful hands. Campos insists that his gaze is one of artistic reverence, yet the Oedipal dimension is implicit. The model’s lap is never full, nor is it waiting to be filled. Lap presents a contemporary Madonna whose empty lap has the potential for security and warmth as well as the power to speak, act, and even control.

Francine Koslow Miller