New York

André Cepeda, Untitled E0014, São Paulo, 2015, ink-jet print, 19 5/8 x 25 1/2".

André Cepeda, Untitled E0014, São Paulo, 2015, ink-jet print, 19 5/8 x 25 1/2".

André Cepeda

André Cepeda, Untitled E0014, São Paulo, 2015, ink-jet print, 19 5/8 x 25 1/2".

Portuguese photographer André Cepeda offered us two groups—and kinds—of photographs, nearly all untitled (but numbered) and all, in their different ways, more or less detached musings on aspects of his native country (his hometown, Porto, and São Paulo in Brazil, once a part of Portugal’s colonial empire). The color photographs of the latter, made in 2012, have a conventional clarity and obviousness; the former, mostly colorless photographs made in 2015, are more mysterious. The former feel self-conscious; the latter seem to spring directly from the unconscious. The muted light in Untitled A0026 and A006, 2015, makes the black forms—all architectural details—uncannily evident. Tonally sensitive, the Porto photographs grasp at a landscape that seems to be fading into absence. In contrast, the objects in the São Paulo photographs are frankly present.

Like the litter—two beer cans and two almost-empty cups—on the floor next to the bed in Untitled E0014, the nudes in E001 and E0010, all 2015, are effectively still lifes. Subtle studies of skin tone, these photographs successfully compete with paintings of the nude, both in their handling and their eroticism. In E001, the contrast between the shadow falling on the female nude’s torso and her brown skin alongside highlights on her right breast and right arm resonates aesthetically. Here, we saw the so-called male gaze in shameless action, even as it struggles for detachment from these fascinating bodies, sublimating desire by bestowing aesthetic cachet. As always, the aesthetic treatment of any object of desire, the life in it stilled by the artist’s attention, not to say aesthetic adulation, is a compromise. And yet the cans and cups suggest that desire was satisfied offscreen; perhaps the three photographs are clips from one narrative.

More to the artistic point, the bodies, the litter, and even the roof line in São Paolo Grande, 2012, seem posed in contrast to the objects in the more sober, not to say melancholy, Porto photographs. Was I deceiving myself in seeing the lineaments of satisfied desire in the roof, a sort of reclining odalisque, however less voluptuous than the figures of the nudes? The quality of the artist’s engagement with the objects portrayed in the images of Porto is completely different from that of the objects in the São Paulo photographs. Cepeda seems to have viewed Porto through a glass darkly, giving it a tragic aura, as though he saw his hometown as ugly, banal, alien, a dead end with a pessimistic future, and certainly in contrast to the high-spirited excitement implicit in the São Paulo nudes.

Light sometimes jumps out of the darkness, as in Untitled A001327, and A0020, all 2015—arranged sequentially so that they form a triptych, each photograph a sort of stanza in an imagistic poem—where the cloth in A0013 (a sort of eccentric abstract sculpture and/or grand expressionistic gesture) and the circular shape of the white tabletop in 27 are in unresolved geometrical tension. The allover sprinkling of white detail in A0020 affords an entropic release: Ingeniously, Cepeda has found nongeometric, geometric, and allover abstraction—the basic modes of pure art—in everyday objects and environments. One was reminded of Sol LeWitt’s Duchampian elevation of manhole covers in his 1977 book Photo Grids, with the difference that Cepeda keeps his found objects in the spaces in which they were discovered rather than attempting to displace and transform them as art. Cepeda’s pure forms partake in impure content, but they don’t leave their contexts. The artist plucks aesthetic epiphanies out of ostensibly unaesthetic environments—perhaps nowhere more so than in Untitled A0024, 2015, where a dirty smear on a wall becomes an Abstract Expressionist brushstroke (reminding us of André Breton’s remarks about the hallucinatory nature of Leonardo da Vinci’s wall). At its most insightful, this is what photography can do.

Donald Kuspit