View of “Rui Chafes,” 2017. Photo: Alcino Gonçalves.

View of “Rui Chafes,” 2017. Photo: Alcino Gonçalves.

Rui Chafes

View of “Rui Chafes,” 2017. Photo: Alcino Gonçalves.

Entering the exhibition space, one saw two parallel rows of vertical sculptures, apparently abstract, in black iron. This material and color are hallmarks of the art of Rui Chafes, as is the vertical format that the artist (in texts and conversations) relates to European architecture and gothic sculpture, and places in opposition to the horizontality that he considers characteristic of modern sculpture (except for Giacometti, whose evocation here may not be by accident)—above all, the American sculpture of the second half of the twentieth century.

Given the exhibition title “Incêndio” (Burning), one might have thought of the aftermath of a violent fire. What has burned? A cathedral, of which only some blackened columns remain? A forest, of which only some charred tree trunks are left? Of course, we would never know for certain if we were walking in the nave of a cathedral or down an allée in the woods or amid a military parade—or just through a contemporary art gallery in which were distributed, with the greatest geometric rigor, a series of sculptural variations on slim vertical cylinders—fourteen iron sculptures from the series “Incêndio,” 2016. But this referential ambiguity was far from any type of geometrical abstraction (Minimalist or otherwise). As to the works’ making, it is worth adding that rather than have them industrially produced, Chafes makes his sculptures himself, with the aid of a few assistants.

Observing each of the fourteen sculptures more closely, one realized that, despite the effect of unity resulting from the almost total symmetry of the installation, the works displayed some very significant differences. Four of them clearly evoked elements of the vegetal world (leaves, stems, branches) and seemed to suggest continual vertical growth, beginning at the presumed roots and potentially taking the works as far as the sky. But three others emerged as narrow barred cages containing objects of various shapes that at first appeared abstract but came to reveal themselves, on closer viewing, as possible representations of human bones. One was put in mind of some sort of vertical containers for cadavers, which would allow an extended reading of the work’s scale, somewhat larger than human height. Were we, after all, looking at a parade of cremated bodies? In any case, two sculptures that approach the simple form of a post possibly suggested places of execution or martyrdom. Finally, four sculptures evoked prostheses that prolong or sustain limbs, organs, or fragments of human bodies.

In a second, almost dark space in the gallery, a glass display case brought together a set of eleven small bronze sculptures, É assim que começa (This Is How It Starts), 2017, whose forms likewise evoked organs and fragments of human bodies. Can a sculptor produce a body? The diversity of elements contained in the apparent uniformity and systematicity of this exhibition allowed for a historical perspective; at least for someone like me, who has followed this artist’s work for almost thirty years, it was possible to encounter here echoes and presences of countless earlier series and phases, from the most “abstract” to the most “organic,” thus confirming a reading that underlines the extraordinary formal coherence and consistency amid the diversity of Chafes’s oeuvre. A more symbolic and speculative reading would suggest that this formal unity derives from an ethical principle. The artist considers sculpture a way of thinking about the relationship between the objects that a human being (an artist) can construct and the organic nature of living beings, who are endowed with a type of life that the artist can never bestow upon the sculptural objects he conceives. Or can he? At the limit, admittedly, the question is metaphysical and beyond the scope of a review.

––Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford Landers.