São Paulo

Adriana Varejão

Galeria Camargo Vilaça

Although Adriana Varejão is best known as a painter, in her new work she has turned to photography. Alegria (Joy), 1999, consists of a series of light boxes—backlit panels with a stainless-steel finish—displaying pictures shot in a market in Taxco, Mexico. The work superimposes images of cuts of meat for sale there onto local scenes of everyday life: men playing cards, a woman working, children smiling. In one photo, the artist shows a little girl playfully sticking her finger in the mouth of a dead pig lying on a meat counter. Overlaid on the image is the phrase “Joy is the unrestricted acceptance of the real.”

Varejão, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1964, has always charged her paintings with a powerful sense of drama, redolent of the Brazilian Baroque, and a feeling for human diversity. Often her paintings have been given craquelé textures, like that of Chinese porcelain. They have been stamped with the image of the blue-and-white tiles of the Portuguese Baroque, or with pictorial fragments of the bloody human body—an allusion to the violence that characterizes human history. Other canvases have shown bodies marked by tattoos, recalling the traditions of the Japanese yakuza, or by the henna painting characteristic of Indian and Arab cultures. These images open up to expose depictions of raw meat—vital, organic tissue—pointing to the timelessly corporeal substratum of everything related to human life and its historical and cultural products.

This symbolism—that of tearing open the cultural surface, represented in Varejão’s previous work by the historical scenes, maps, images of people, or even self-portraits, to expose the most basic level of physicality and its characteristics of putrefaction and disintegration over time—has become a kind of paradigm for the artist’s work. Whether it appears on top of Portuguese tile, forms a border around maps, or even, in the new work, shines in the photographic backlighting that illuminates the Mexican butcher shop, the image of meat functions as a kind of seal or signature of the human experience. It is an element that fills the memory of the body and, in the set of superimposed, fragmented images that the artist uses in her works, evokes new and powerful meanings. A bit of human flesh on a ceramic plate is the translation of sexuality. The playful movement of children frolicking around the meat hanging in a butcher shop becomes the image of a celebratory ritual.

This state of “living flesh” that Varejão invariably evokes in her works—and, as a consequence, in their viewers—elicits sensations of pain, fragmentation, anguish, and dismemberment. Her photographic work, like the earlier paintings, also speaks of blood, of passion, and of the most inarticulate stratum of the human condition. The artist constantly reminds us of the inexorable fact that we are all made of the same substance. For in the full acceptance of the drama and carnality of our own bodies and our own lives resides the joy to which she refers in her latest work.

Katia Canton

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford Landers.