Rio de Janeiro

Antonio Dias, Demarcando território (Demarcating Territory), 1982, mixed media on Nepalese paper, 21 3/4 × 34 3/4".

Antonio Dias, Demarcando território (Demarcating Territory), 1982, mixed media on Nepalese paper, 21 3/4 × 34 3/4".

Antonio Dias

Antonio Dias, Demarcando território (Demarcating Territory), 1982, mixed media on Nepalese paper, 21 3/4 × 34 3/4".

In 1977, while living in Milan, Brazilian artist Antonio Dias traveled to Nepal in search of handmade paper. Upon his arrival in Kathmandu, the country’s capital, he discovered that there were no suppliers. Thus began his search to identify local craftsmen who might assist him in the paper’s production. Yet this quasi-anthropological excursion is less important than the artist’s insistence on producing a support that would reveal its very specific materiality. In all the works in “Papéis do Nepal 1977–1986,” one could see how the handmade paper displays a certain warp and woof; how it flaunts raw rather than pristine edges; how it displays unevenness owing to the fibers’ buildup in some areas and sparseness in others.

It is because of such irregularities that the small geometric forms the artist has applied to the papers that make up The Illustration of Art (Me and Others), 1977, can be noticed, given that they are white-on-white. Once perceived, it is difficult to ascertain whether the forms—rectangles with one corner missing—were created through a different pressure exerted on the paper, or if this was the result of a cut. What is more, these five forms mimic in their shape the distribution of the five papers on which they are sited, which are arrayed in a rectangular grid with one corner missing. The overall composition consequently calls attention to a form within a form, as if the one generated the other. In another work from 1977, The Illustration of Art/Tool & Work, Dias used red clay on the handmade paper; its uneven application resulted in a range of hues from rusty brown to light beige. Each of the work’s two sheets also features the silhouette of a hand, which literally opens each support to the surface behind it, but also further exposes the actual underpinning’s artisanal character.

If these early, near-monochrome works evoke the history of art, as their titles suggest, those from the 1980s introduce a wider range of materials and signs. Three pieces from 1982, two called Demarcando território (Demarcating Territory) and one titled Bandeira (Flag), share a similar composition: In each, a rectangle mimics the work’s framing edge. The line breaks on the rectangles’ sides suggest openings and thus, perhaps, a floor plan. In two instances, the inner central space displays a faint grid, another visual tool for mapping space, while the third work’s central space is occupied by the rectangle with its missing corner. It is with the repetition of the rectangle-missing-a-corner form that one begins to understand how the series reworks the logic of collage. Signs are repeated and revised, appearing and disappearing, from one piece to the next. Sometimes the same sign is formed differently, as when the rectangle’s missing corner becomes a differently colored corner. What is more, for Dias the rectangle-missing-a-corner has also signified a flag for a nonexistent country, for instance when he displayed it in an abandoned building in Milan under the title The Invented Country in 1976. (That work is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and currently on view in its exhibition “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980.”) He has also used it to suggest a floor plan for a gallery, just as it signified the geometric form that drives a composition in The Illustration of Art mentioned above.

Dias also builds up and undoes meaning through his choice of materials. Some later works, from 1986, combine thick brushstrokes and imprints of, variously, a penis and a bone; there is also a repeated form that resembles a hammer. Iron oxide, graphite, and metallic pigments applied to the Nepalese paper afford a range of hues from dark gray to metallic rusty orange to salmon pinks. Both symbolic content and material speak to a common project: that of eroding stable meanings through formal and material play.

Kaira M. Cabañas