São Paulo/Vienna

“Neobarroco”/João Pedro Vale

Galeria Leme/Layr:Wusestenhagen Contemporary

Exhibited as part of the group show “Neobarroco” in São Paulo along with works by Camila Sposati and Friederike Feldmann, the most recent large-scale sculpture by the Portuguese artist João Pedro Vale, Foi bonita a festa, pá (The Party Was Beautiful, Yes), 2006, was constructed from a jangada, a balsa raft from the northeast of Brazil. This craft seems particularly appropriate to its situation in this gallery, the work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha (winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize), who has created a long, narrow, very high nave, much like an overturned boat.

Let us examine the metamorphoses and dislocations that Vale has performed on this raft (instead of the caravel of his colonialist ancestors) with which, as a Portuguese, he arrives today in Brazil. Vale painted the boat red, generating maximum contrast with the browns and golden yellows of its decorations: empty beer bottles and their caps. The red and gold recall, above all else, the Catholic Baroque theatricality that marks the Portuguese heritage in Brazil, and recall as well the red flags that played a major role in Portugal’s democratic revolution of 1974. The so-called Carnation Revolution is further evoked here by an arch of red plastic carnations that extends along the boat like the arches that typically decorate popular celebrations. The evocation of popular conviviality finds its most striking expression in the use of bottle caps from Sagres beer as if they were ornamental jewels. Sagres is the name of a town in southern Portugal, the site of the school where many fifteenth-century navigators were trained. The play between the “rich” effects of color and light and “poor” materials, between luxury and kitsch, is part of the dialectical play of contradictions that characterize this sculpture and the whole of Vale’s work.

A similar formal and symbolic dislocation using objects related to colonial expansion is evident in a set of thirteen smaller sculptures Vale presented in Vienna. Here the references were to objects in cabinets of curiosities such as that of Emperor Maximilian II, housed today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A product of the anthropological curiosity and the fantasies associated with colonial exploitation, these objects were intended to illustrate the exoticism of distant lands, supposedly inhabited by strange beings like the unicorn (whose horn turns out to be a narwhal’s) or the “wild man” (an African slave covered in goatskins)—this cruel invention being the reference in one of the most successful pieces in the Vienna exhibition, Ecce Homo, 2006. The shape of a trophy cup transforms itself into an exotic body, made with glue from a glue gun, a wig balanced on the inverted horns of a Viking carnival helmet lined with leather and gilded tacks, and the tip of an umbrella. A necklace of mock-tortoise pendants and a duster made of Chinese rooster feathers complete the assemblage.

Vale appropriates and metamorphoses preexisting objects, using both ordinary and uncommon materials to sabotage the distinction between beauty and horror, naïveté and sophistication. Popular forms of creativity are placed in the service of an analysis of colonialist fantasies; demystification of the fictions of domination opens the path to a hybrid multiplicity of egalitarian possibilities for plastic and symbolic interplay.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.