Geraldo de Barros, Untitled, ca. 1996–98, gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x 6 1/4". From the series “Sobras” (Remains), 1996–98.

Geraldo de Barros, Untitled, ca. 1996–98, gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x 6 1/4". From the series “Sobras” (Remains), 1996–98.

Geraldo de Barros

Geraldo de Barros, Untitled, ca. 1996–98, gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 x 6 1/4". From the series “Sobras” (Remains), 1996–98.

Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros’s first UK show, “What Remains,” is a beautiful and tightly focused exhibition curated by Isobel Whitelegg of Nottingham Contemporary and Karen McQuaid of the Photographers’ Gallery. One of Brazil’s pioneering avant-gardists, de Barros rose to prominence in the 1950s. He interrogated and tested various models of abstraction and figuration across a very diverse body of work, beginning his career as a painter before moving into photography in the late ’40s. The exhibition focuses on two discrete but interrelated series of photographs, the “Fotoformas” of 1949–51 and the much later “Sobras” (Remains), made between 1996 and 1998, the year de Barros died. The pairing of the two series shows de Barros’s early engagement with the European avant-gardes (he spent time in Paris) while asserting his contemporaneity as an artist still relevant to our thinking about photography.

For the “Fotoformas,” de Barros employed a number of techniques already familiar from the prewar avant-gardes, including the superimposition of images to produce geometric shapes; his jarring juxtapositions and montages of everyday objects evoke early Bauhaus experimental photography in particular. For some works, he drew directly onto the surfaces of his negatives, scratching away or adding lines and blanking out areas. The images display a formal confidence that recalls Rodchenko’s and Moholy-Nagy’s employment of photographic strategies for estranging familiar objects. It was through figures such as de Barros that a subsequent generation of Neo-concrete artists working in Brazil in the ’60s would encounter early avant-garde strategies of abstraction. The show reminds us of de Barros’s pivotal role in the international development of such practices. These would later be made wholly new in the work of later practitioners such as Hélio Oiticica; the exhibition thus offers a glance into both the past and the future.

Indeed, these same themes and techniques still held interest for de Barros himself nearly half a century later, when he made the “Sobras.” Here, he returned to the “Fotoformas,” reusing negatives and cutout portions of photographs, and employing a series of formal procedures that self-consciously, and playfully, dismantle the idea of photography as a means of capturing reality. In this reconsideration of photography’s representational role, de Barros subtly undermines, or perhaps even subverts, his earlier avant-garde stance. Abstract shapes drawn from the “Fotoformas” are transformed into figurative ones, color is superimposed on black-and-white, and ordinary objects are rendered surreal and surprising through processes of montage and incision.

When the “Fotoformas” were first exhibited at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1950, de Barros variously propped them on plinths or suspended them from hanging metal supports. The exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery likewise emphasizes de Barros’s interest in rethinking display, with a large glass-topped case containing small piles of photographs, glass-mounted negatives, and marked and cut-up contact sheets. Rather than being reframed, the printed sheaves of paper are presented complete with curled edges and faded surfaces. The small irregular stacks of photographs messily overlap, emphasizing that the photograph is a physical thing to be handled, shuffled, and arranged. For de Barros, the photograph was an object not taken but made. There is a deliberate aura of the “amateurish” about the mode of display—appropriately enough, since de Barros’s entry into the medium came through his participation in the photography group Foto Cine Clube Bandeirante, whose members, mostly part-timers or amateurs, practiced their own homemade brand of modernism. The exhibition successfully, subtly reminds us of de Barros’s decidedly local and material roots in photography, which disrupts more familiar narratives that situate him solely within a trajectory of abstract European modernism.

Jo Applin