Rio de Janeiro

Carlos Zilio, Tamanduá e o cosmos, 2017, oil and spray paint on canvas, 53 1/8 x 78 3/4".

Carlos Zilio, Tamanduá e o cosmos, 2017, oil and spray paint on canvas, 53 1/8 x 78 3/4".

Carlos Zilio

Carlos Zilio, Tamanduá e o cosmos, 2017, oil and spray paint on canvas, 53 1/8 x 78 3/4".

Carlos Zilio began his career in the mid-1960s, when Brazil was undergoing the trauma of dictatorship. His production has always addressed the political dimension of art through a powerful critical reading of reality; throughout his career, his works have continued to reflect a fragmented world, pitiless and constantly in conflict.

Zilio’s recent exhibition brought together paintings using the motif of the Tamandua, a genus of anteater, and objects reflecting on the theme of the artist’s atelier. The tamandua is not a new image in his work. It emerged following the death of his father in 1985, as the evocation of a family story that seems almost like a fable: The elder Zilio would recount the story of an anteater that he’d tamed and that would follow him around, until it died falling down a staircase. In 2008, the motif became a prominent part of Zilio’s oeuvre after he noticed a stain resembling the shape of the animal on the floor of his studio, which had belonged to Iberê Camargo, his onetime professor.

Zilio’s paintings are thus carriers of emotional memories, of reminiscences dear to him. They evoke a sense of loneliness, of debility, even of death itself. The tamandua always appears falling and in profile, never boldly confronting the world but remaining isolated, enveloped in a collapsing landscape. A saturnine atmosphere and a heightened expressive charge hover over the canvases, with the figure of the animal remaining in an area of shadow, sometimes even nearly disappearing. The image seems to pursue the artist, almost tormenting him. With their atmosphere of tragedy, albeit one softened by a tender lyricism, the paintings do not speak exclusively of his father’s death but of a larger meaning, of emptiness and loss that mark the artist’s understanding of his surroundings. The tamandua is any individual absorbed in a landscape of terror and fear.

The impetus behind these paintings may be very intimate, but the results are universal in their meaning. Likewise, Zilio’s more political works are not just about Brazil but about the world. His stories, anecdotes, and symbologies create a dialogue between past and present. His works lay bare a world dominated by suspicion of the Other, though without relinquishing the lyricism residing in the depicted narratives.

With his objects, Zilio takes an ironic view of the artist’s studio to engage in a dialogue with the history of art and in particular of the readymade. GOELDIBERÊ, 2005–13, for instance, is a teakettle with the word GOELDIBERÊ written on its side. The term is a portmanteau that refers to Camargo and to artist Oswaldo Goeldi, both of whom played a role in the emergence of modernity in Brazilian art. In contrast to the purported optimism permeating bossa nova or the nation’s modern architecture—for instance, the buildings of Oscar Niemeyer—a dense, tragic, pessimistic, and silent atmosphere besets Goeldi’s and Camargo’s woodcuts and paintings, which portray gloomy figures, sometimes in arid landscapes: a less sunny but perhaps more realistic take on 1950s Brazil, which saw the planning of Brasília but also high indexes of inequality and illiteracy. These references—the calculated poetry of Goeldi and the intense brushstrokes of Camargo—are of major importance for Zilio, who has never ceased to cast a critical and radical eye on the role of painting and subject matter.

Felipe Scovino

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.