Los Angeles

Miguel Rio Branco

Christopher Grimes Gallery

You’d be hard-pressed to conjure a phrase at once more earthy and more theatrical than “I won’t take anything with me when I die, those who owe me something will pay me in hell.” Miguel Rio Branco found the line scrawled on a wall in the Brazilian city of Salvador and employed it as the title of a nineteen-minute thirty-eight-second film he made between 1979 and 1981 and also as the title of this exhibition, which presented the film alongside photographs shot in Salvador in ’79. The textual lift is just one example of the artist’s penchant for finding baroque theater in the grittiest elements of the everyday—a habit of mind that led David Levi Strauss to compare Rio Branco to Caravaggio in these pages a decade ago.

The Rio Branco who gained notoriety in the ’90s is more polished than the one who made the work in this show, but the core of his project is fully formed even in these early examples. They focus on prostitutes, hustlers, and a cast of street urchins going about their business or mugging for the camera. The setting, the crumbling Zona, or Maciel neighborhood, has, like Salvador itself, been in decline ever since the sixteenth-century port city and later slave-trading center lost its seat as Brazil’s capital to Rio de Janeiro (Rio Branco’s home) in 1763. It is a perfectly postcolonial Afro-Latino version of the sort of decadence and decay that fascinated Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire.

Perhaps the defining image of the film is a close-up of an androgynous-looking boy gazing at once flirtatiously and hesitantly into the camera, his nose rippled with scars, bright but crooked teeth shining against dark skin like raw gems half-buried in earth. Scars turn up repeatedly in Rio Branco’s images, as do the sorts of incidents—street fights, hassles, shakedowns—that cause them, leaving young bodies prematurely aged.

The subjects’ scars and their simultaneous embodiment of fragility and endurance resonate with the architectural surroundings and with the activities in which they take part. These contextual elements become rough-and-tumble characters, and Rio Branco seldom misses a chance to frame them in a way that animates them. The results are captivating: architectural views and details that show the decorous blended with dreck; glimpses of people caught off guard or ignoring the camera; and scenes of people using their moment in front of the lens as an opportunity to pause and reflect or a chance to perform and revel in the attention. In one, a young man, his image cropped from neck down and gym shorts up, holds a rooster under each bronzed arm. In another, a nearly nude woman with legs marked by elephantitis flaps her arms so fast they appear to blur, like the wings of a hummingbird.

The photos, and especially the film, leave one unsure whether to group Rio Branco with Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman or with Walker Evans and Roy DeCavara. Rio Branco walks a fine line—chronicling without patronizing, enabling without exploiting—to create a kind of theater of the frank that is both discomfiting and elevating.

Christopher Miles