Rio de Janeiro

Tunga, Untitled, 2011, ink on paper, 29 7⁄8 × 20". From the series “La voie humide,” 2011–16.

Tunga, Untitled, 2011, ink on paper, 29 7⁄8 × 20". From the series “La voie humide,” 2011–16.

Tunga

Museu de Arte do Rio

There is a stark contrast between this exhibition, “O rigor da distração” (The Rigor of Distraction), and the first retrospective after Tunga’s death in 2016, “O corpo em obras” (The Body in Works) , held earlier this year at the São Paulo Museum of Art. While the earlier show presented a conventional display organized around discrete sculptural works, the show in Rio de Janeiro, curated by Luisa Duarte and Evandro Salles, focuses on drawing and presents it as a generative force rather than a stable medium. Given the protean nature of Tunga’s oeuvre, with its plethora of materials, multiple media, and elliptical narratives forming an elusive but palpable cohesiveness, this is a productive emphasis that clarifies his work’s trajectory.

One way of making sense of the show, and of Tunga’s investment in drawing, is to track linearity itself as it becomes polymorphous. O perverso, 1974, for example, can be read as a series of meditations on drawn lines that are driven by energy rather than purpose: Instead of connecting two points or fulfilling a projective function, the lines seem always on the verge of either exhausting themselves or culminating in a cloudy diffusion of black ink. As for the drawings of the series “Vê-Nus,” 1976–77—whose title literally translates as See-Nudes and alludes to the Roman goddess of love—their saturated black oblong shapes hovering on the charcoal-stained paper might seem to have little to do with line, were it not for small sections of their contours traced in minute and regular zigzags. It is as if that wavy, linear regularity corresponds to a well-nigh erotic striation at the edge of an otherwise indistinct and deep black pool, so that our sudden awareness of it draws our attention away from the color field over which it might otherwise roam diffusely.

The reference to the nude in such a context might seem extraneous, but this dialectic of innervation and release is actually at the base of Tunga’s constant appeal to eroticism. At first sight, Eixo exógeno (Exogenous Axis), 1986, appears to be a perfectly symmetric, elongated and baroquely delineated wooden pillar with a chalice-like metal top. But its material shape is only half the story, for, once again, the erotically charged contemplation of the nude is fundamentally at stake: The sculpture actually materializes the negative space between twin female bodies facing each other. But we perceive their profiles only by focusing strictly on the sculpture’s contour, which draws our attention away from the work’s sensuous material surface.

Thus, the logic of drawing inflects Tunga’s work in other media, such as sculpture, film, performance, and photography. To keep track of it is also to note the common thread that binds his many fictional displacements together. An untitled work from 1984 comprising a long hair braid sculpted in lead is yet another instance in which linearity is submitted to and emerges from a regular formal organization that is nevertheless haunted by an uncontainable sense of excess. Likewise, the three snakes that are shown sedated and braided together in the photograph A vanguarda viperina (The Viperine Avant-Garde), 1985, are tokens of an obdurate potentiality that resists instrumental manipulation; the film O nervo de prata (The Silver Nerve), 1987, directed by Arthur Omar, follows the snakes as they wake up and zigzag away, thus undoing the arrangement.

In more recent drawings and objects—the latter often overtly erotic—Tunga’s Surrealist affinities verge closer to the imaginary orbit of André Breton and Maria Martins, thus defusing some of the anti-representational, Bataillean charge that permeated his earlier production. The later objects, in particular, seem framed by a far more stable kind of symbolism than the sculptures from the 1970s and ’80s. And yet, in the very late series “La voie humide”(The Humid Way), 2011–16, Tunga traced virtuoso ribald arabesques by pen, resorting only rarely to straight lines and broken edges. By describing figures whose symmetry nevertheless fails to contain the flowing energy of the line, Tunga ultimately deflated the very symbolism he sometimes flirted with, and, in precisely this way, he remained faithful to the libidinal thrust of drawing.