São Paulo

Rafael Carneiro, Balthus-chiclete (Balthus–Bubble Gum), 2020, oil on canvas, 59 × 78 3⁄4".

Rafael Carneiro, Balthus-chiclete (Balthus–Bubble Gum), 2020, oil on canvas, 59 × 78 3⁄4".

Rafael Carneiro

Luciana Brito Galeria occupies a modernist home designed in 1958 by Rino Levi, with elegant landscaping by Roberto Burle Marx. So it’s particularly apropos that Rafael Carneiro’s recent show there, “Casa Família Deleite” (Home Family Fulfillment), took “family values” as its satirical theme.

In the past, Carneiro often based his paintings on photographic images—for instance, a group of oils from 2013 depict wet-glazed desserts, tantalizing temptations to gluttony. Poised between hyperrealism and surreal excess, these works invite viewers to relish the somewhat icky boundary where mundane pleasures turn into glossy fetishes. Carneiro’s fascination with fetishization was also palpable in this recent show: Pelados (Naked) (all works cited, 2020), for example, depicts a nude gathering whose unabashed joyousness and dancey poses bring to mind Matisse’s Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), 1905, but also references uplifting images that Carneiro saw in French nudist magazines from the 1960s. However, an out-of-context monkey with a bearded human face—against a bright-yellow-and-green botanical-atlas backdrop—makes the figures’ hilarity seem incongruous rather than salubrious, even slightly hysterical.

Yellow and green resurfaced in Rauchiana—another surreal bucolic scene, this one referencing German painter Neo Rauch in its title and mimicking his contrasty color palette. But the two hues dominant in Carneiro’s painting are also emblematic of the Brazilian flag, a reminder that the show’s title evokes the slogan “Tradition, family, property,” which became the name of a right-wing Catholic movement that originated in Brazil in the 1960s, lending support to the military coup of 1964 and spreading worldwide. In this sense, the borrowing has a political tinge, riffing on Rauch’s critique of socialism and its equally authoritarian co-opting of the familial hearth. Totoro felt more personal, but nevertheless also quite Rauchian. It features the titular animated star of Studio Ghibli’s 1988 My Neighbor Totoro as a bodiless head with a toothy grin and perky rabbit ears. The folksy, carnivalesque scenario also includes elfin creatures and feces-colored waste spilling from a candy cane. In its ghoulish tableau of environmental degradation, the painting repurposes the familiar children’s movie in the service of throbbing subliminal dread.

Among the twenty-odd works on view—most of them oil paintings, interspersed with a few collages and drawings—Balthus-chiclete (Balthus–Bubble Gum) was perhaps the most enigmatic. Its template is an early-twentieth-century black-and-white photograph of blind children exploring taxidermied animals—two crocodiles, a tortoise—by touch. The borrowing from Balthus seems fairly loose, boiling down to a queasy, quivering domesticity and a hushed pallor of extinguished innocence. The eye glides uneasily over the children’s faces—most are blank, shut-in, somnambulent. And yet the work’s coloristic intensity (orange and burgundy offset by blue and green) imbues it with a hypnotic vitality. In a circular flow, a saggy string of pink gum snakes from child to child—Carneiro’s resourceful pictorial intervention. The gum drips onto a small boy’s shoulder, clings to a table leg and edge, pops incongruously from the mouth of a baby croc (another added detail). I couldn’t shake off this work’s affinity to Lygia Clark’s Baba antropofágica (Anthropophagic Drool), 1973, an action whose participants pulled from their mouths saliva-coated threads and stuck them onto a seminaked man’s body. In letters to fellow artist Hélio Oiticica, Clark referred to such actions as participatory and freeing but also linked them to a terror of being consumed—of being exposed, devoured, along with her art. Read this way, Balthus-chiclete struck me as poignantly self-reflexive, not so much in its art-historical appropriation, but as a comment on the risk of painting, and of feeling, the delicious danger implied when freedom dovetails with both sublimity and abjection. That Carneiro should find such riskiness in Balthus, an artist who has often been considered passé, is the sort of detail that makes his work so satisfying.