São Paulo

Luiz Zerbini, Serra do luar (Moonlight Mountains), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 94 1/2 × 94 1/2".

Luiz Zerbini, Serra do luar (Moonlight Mountains), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 94 1/2 × 94 1/2".

Luiz Zerbini

Galeria Fortes Vilaça

Luiz Zerbini, Serra do luar (Moonlight Mountains), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 94 1/2 × 94 1/2".

Times are tough in Brazil: With almost daily political scandals and a fierce drought in the nation’s largest city—brought on in part by poor resource management—Brazilians seem desperate to rekindle their faith in their country. Luiz Zerbini’s vibrant and elevating exhibition at Galeria Fortes Vilaça’s warehouse may have offered them something to believe in. In eight medium- and large-scale paintings, the artist’s juxtaposition of figuration and geometry, natural and man-made forms created a rhythmic visual dialogue culminating in the extensive mixed-media sculpture that lent its name to the show, Natureza espiritual da realidade (Spiritual Nature of Reality), 2012–15. This work consists of eight split-level wood- and-glass tables, abutted to create one large horizontal surface that serves as a sort of cabinet of curiosities, holding dozens of items collected by the artist, some of which he has said represent “the poetry with which debris is brought to the beach by waves”: stones, shells, moss, dead insects, driftwood, dried leaves, ceramic tiles, bricks, sound boxes, and fishing nets, to name some of the recurring types of objects laid carefully on sand in the three-dimensional grid formed by the work’s eight display tables.

Previous versions of this piece were shown in 2012 and 2014 in exhibitions in Rio de Janeiro. In the first version, the table showcased the same objects depicted in the paintings shown alongside it; now, however, the relation between table and paintings is no longer so literal. Its frame, natural pale wood in the past, has since been painted black, and the square display units in colors visible only when seen up close, not only highlighting the contrast between frame, sand, and objects, but also echoing the visual cacophony of the multitude of elements in the figurative paintings, and the colorful grids and optical effects of the geometric ones (as well as reminding the viewer of Zerbini’s earlier works with photographic slides). Here, the table functioned less as a display of references and more as a three-dimensional embodiment of the artist’s approach to painting, which is based on rich layering and complex relational systems.

When not painting abstractly, Zerbini often paints from life, almost to scale. His imagery evokes Brazilians’ resourcefulness. Buraco (Hole), 2014, shows water crashing against an open boxlike structure covered in colorful patterned tiles and a machine pump sitting precariously on top of a wooden fence on which tools are also laid out. It’s something the artist once saw at the beach, he told me, a cement structure where locals stored beer to sell; the tools and pump together comprised some sort of haphazard apparatus he’d come across somewhere. Chuvisco (Drizzle), 2014, was arguably the most intriguing of the abstract paintings, which varied from large to medium format, with colorful grids. One of the smallest wall pieces in the show, it is composed of a series of layered adhesive-tape strips painted to form blurred crosses in tones of blue, purple, pink, and green—some of them blocked out by black squares—on a primarily white background. When seen from afar, the black squares appeared to hover in front of the painting.

While the scale and relational complexity of these pieces were undeniably striking, the power of this show transcended the visual impact of the works on view. Indeed, the show’s title was well earned. “It is almost an obvious statement of what I am getting at in my work,” Zerbini told me. “We need to change the way we look at things.”

Camila Belchior