New York

Henrique Oliveira, Devir, 2017, plywood, tree branches, bark. Installation view.

Henrique Oliveira, Devir, 2017, plywood, tree branches, bark. Installation view.

Henrique Oliveira

Van de Weghe Fine Art

Henrique Oliveira, Devir, 2017, plywood, tree branches, bark. Installation view.

Now in his mid-forties, the Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira has a long exhibition history in both Latin America and Europe, not to mention scattered shows in the United States, but his installation Devir (Becoming), 2017, at Van de Weghe Fine Art was his first appearance in New York. As such, it may not have been completely representative: He is capable of very large-scale installations—Transarquitetônica (Transarchitectural), a maze of wood and brick tunnels at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo, in 2014, filled a space around 240 feet deep, while another walk-in piece, A origem do terceiro mundo (The Origin of the Third World), at the São Paulo Bienal in 2010, needed only around 150—but Devir was a mere twenty-eight feet wide. Even so, it completely filled the gallery, taking the form of a massive wooden tree that seemed to sprout from one wall of the space and run across it horizontally in midair to meet the opposite wall, while its branches fused with the ceiling and floor. I say “fused” with them because both they and the tree showed a similar wooden patchwork; although the patterns of this patchwork were organic on the tree and geometric on the walls, floor, and ceiling, the show’s strange arboreal intruder still seemed not only to have broken into the room but to have spread over and infected its structure. Visitors seemed to have entered a wooden cave, with wood underfoot, above, and on all sides, and their companion here was an apparently living thing rather larger than they were, something that seemed to have forced entry and grown. The experience was both alluring and unsettling. 

The medium list for Devir reads “plywood, tree branches, and bark,” but in works elsewhere Oliveira has used a wider range of materials, often scavenged from construction sites and junkyards. Some of the many that came up in an interview he gave last year to the Brazilian critic Aracy Amaral were pitch, earth, cardboard, stucco, cement, and wire mesh, as well as mattresses and blankets found in the street—tactile, gritty things with clear social histories. Being all wood, Devir lost those associations, though that may have been more true in New York than had the work been installed in Brazil, where some of Oliveira’s materials were imported from. American plywood, he told Amaral, is too high quality to be useful to him—he likes to forage the remains of a Brazilian kind called “white glue,” which falls apart in six months, presumably leaving him with the thin, pliable sheets of cheap veneer used for the skins of works such as Devir. At home, then, this stuff may be recognized as a socially exhausted castoff. In New York it lost that connection, making the work function more purely as sensual experience. 

As sensual experience, but also as metaphor, since the image of a tree penetrating a commercial space on Madison Avenue was productively provocative. There were also ambiguities in the work’s appearance, and in the way it was installed: Instead of entering from one side of the room and leaving by the other, for example, the tree seemed to enter from all sides, pushing the veneers inward rather than outward wherever it met walls, floor, or ceiling, and in doing so generating impossible vectors of force that accentuated its quality of the supernatural. Its suspended tubular shapes also evoked other things besides branches and bark—not only organic forms such as the veins and arteries of the human body, but subway tunnels, sewers, conduits, the hidden circulation of the city. I’d like to say, if only it had been bigger! But no 240-foot-deep space being immediately available, Devir did its job. 

David Frankel