Erika Verzutti, Tarsila with Orange, 2011, bronze, acrylic paint, 10 1⁄2 × 13 3⁄8 × 10 5⁄8".

Erika Verzutti, Tarsila with Orange, 2011, bronze, acrylic paint, 10 1⁄2 × 13 3⁄8 × 10 5⁄8".

Erika Verzutti

“There are fingers everywhere,” Erika Verzutti has said of her work. In the Brazilian artist’s first solo exhibition in a British museum, which includes more than forty works made between 2003 and 2021, fingers really are everywhere—or have been: fingers impressed, poked, dug, smoothed, caressed; fingers gouged into concrete, Styrofoam, or clay, which is then cast in bronze. Verzutti’s bodily work wants to make its processes seen, known, even felt. “For me, that’s a desperate need to share the experience,” she said in a 2015 interview, “the contact with the clay: wet, smooth, firm, cold, and so on.” In Swan with Work, 2014, the eponymous bird’s crudely shaped neck and head rise in bronze from a pool of concrete. The sculpture’s gray base has been scraped, pinched, and pocked so that it appears like some rough cloud from which the curved and elongated animal has emerged. The swan rests its beak on the wooden handle of a double-headed hammer propped vertically beneath. Is its head too heavy? Would the sculpture otherwise collapse? Was this the tool used to give it life?

Two bronzes prefigure the arched form of the swan: Tarsila, 2004–18, and Tarsila with Orange, 2011, both referring to Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral. The bowed shapes of these sculptures are prehistoric and vegetal—dinosaur-cum-cucumber!—recalling the eerie green objects on the horizon of Tarsila’s 1929 painting Sol poente (Setting Sun). Verzutti’s work is full of strange hybrid forms at once recognizable and made strange or humorous, thrown off kilter by their unexpected materials, playful juxtapositions of elements, and suggestive titles. References can be art historical or organic—from Jasper Johns and Surrealism to bananas, pomegranates, pineapple, and eggs. A bronze column of jackfruit-textured prisms painted obsidian and ultramarine, Pencil (Lápis), 2014, recalls Brancusi’s “endless” precedents. In Missionary Variation and Romana, both 2011, gourds made from bronze and concrete, respectively, are arranged to look like oversize phalluses. “The very essential desire for verticality . . . is the desire to make a sculpture,” according to Verzutti—an activity she has defined elsewhere as a “move from the clay up.”

Does a sculpture or an image, like a self, contain multitudes? Does it hold all the shapes, figures, and sources it and its maker have known, buried somewhere deep within? Verzutti’s work is in some ways syncretic: It fuses different aesthetics, modes of making and looking; refuses singular readings; disturbs the preciousness of precious materials. This leaves ample enigmatic space for the viewer to decide what exactly they are looking at, if anything. The surface of Lemon Libido, 2019, a bronze wall sculpture painted in a shimmering array of gold, flax, peach, and yellow, is lively with implied protean movement—spheres bulge from beneath or are affixed in haphazard, palm-shaped lumps. A careful depression holds a small, perfectly smooth golden pebble. The surface is divided into six segments by finger-drawn grooves, as if striving for order, but in places has been forcefully clawed. Vanilla Sky, 2014, another wall sculpture, prompts a tender feeling of wonder: How were we to know that this lump of concrete had pieces of sky—cerulean, cornflower, azure—hidden inside it all this time?

“I believe in art as something intangible and inherent to human beings, like our sense of vision,” Verzutti once said. “Art is a place of freedom; its rules are invented and in constant flux.” The artist’s work generates its own context and circumstances, rebels against control and completion, as if form itself were only provisional, always on its way to becoming something else. Verzutti’s sculptures are pleasurable, joyful, useless in the most confident and delicious manner. They draw the hand, which desires to touch, but they also engender a tactile gaze, as if it is possible for the senses to collapse, for seeing to be touching, feeling, even making.