Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira Island, Azor

José Maçãs de Carvalho

Museu de Angra do Heroísm

One of the works that best defines the practice of the Portuguese artist Jos. Maçãs de Carvalho is To President (Drinking Version), 2005–2008. This is a video that manipulates a well-known sequence from the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, set in 1911, in which the character portrayed by Marilyn Monroe toasts then-president William Howard Taft. Maçãs de Carvalho altered the clip in which Monroe murmurs the phrase “To President Taft” as she raises a glass of champagne; the action repeats itself endlessly as the subtitles replace Taft’s name with those of contemporary political leaders including George W. Bush, Tony Blair, José María Aznar, and José Manuel Durão Barroso. All these figures, in fact, met in 2003 at the US air base in Lajes, on Terceira Island in the Azores, to discuss the impending invasion of Iraq by US armed forces and their allies. The work exemplifies Carvalho’s broader aim: to critique mediated reality by playing with the image’s sign value as a kind of language game.

This modus operandi was found in Maçãs de Carvalho’s latest exhibition, “Video Killed the Painting Stars.” The title echoes a 1979 song by the British group the Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” appropriately enough the first music video shown on MTV. If the replacement of one medium by another is a familiar art-historical process, Maçãs de Carvalho’s analysis addresses a more specific phenomenon that has recurred from the Protestant Reformation through the French Revolution to the dictatorships of the twentieth century: iconoclasm. Here he exhibited eleven videos made in 2007, nine of them titled Video Killed the Painting Stars followed by the name of an artist, and showing attacks on or transformations of reproductions of famous works by artists from Caravaggio, Velázquez, and Manet to Andy Warhol, Jeff Wall, and Helmut Newton. Two contrasting pieces are titled Iconofilia. One shows a forest being invaded by heart-shaped balloons; the other, two women being photographed in Hong Kong.

Consider, for example, the triptych dedicated to paintings by Velázquez (Las Meninas, 1656–57), Manet (Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1881–82), and Wall (Picture for Women, 1979), a sequence in which each work explicitly refers to and deforms its predecessor: All play with mirror reflections, the presence of the artist in relation to the picture, and problems of composition and opticality. Through special effects, Maçãs de Carvalho changes the structure of the historical works by, respectively, focusing on a detail, correcting the perspective, and inverting the position of characters. In other videos, like those dedicated to Warhol and Newton, there is a real obliteration of the image: In the first case, the artist pours water over a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, causing her face to slowly fade away; in the second case, his and someone else’s fingers spread a kind of lye over the mirror reflection of the photographer’s body as well as that of the photographed nude model. But it is the video based on Caravaggio’s Medusa, 1597, that best expresses the artist’s destructive impulse toward the image. To the rhythm of electronic music, the painting is systematically mutilated: The heads of the snakes are nailed, the Medusa’s eyes are drilled, and so on. This staging of ritualistic violence exponentially heightens the mythological vision of the original work, but it also suggests the allegorical potential of Ma..s de Carvalho’s project as a derisory interpretation of Western pictorial heritage. This contradiction runs through all the works in the exhibition and encapsulates Ma..s de Carvalho’s politicized art, which engages the deconstruction of contemporary ideologies of visual culture as no other Portuguese practice does.

Miguel Amado

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.