The New São Paulo Painting: André Ricardo

Ana Gonçalves Magalhães

 

André Ricardo is a painter in a context in which painting has many times been questioned – both by modernist tradition and by contemporary practices. Therefore, he works in the opposite direction of the latest tendencies of contemporary art. But, to him, this medium is translated into an artistic activity that belongs to his own time, in which he seeks to make a synthesis of the elements of urban space through color. His motives emerge from aspects and objects he has seen around the city: between 2011 and 2012, with a series of dumpsters and bulldozers, he tried to perceive them as primary elements for the construction of a new painting. Mainly their form and color suggested him compositions. He progressively extracted from them – as we notice in his most recent work – the “grammar” of his works until they resulted in absolutely abstract shapes. But, beyond form, Ricardo is interested in researching color, its materiality, its luminous density, its texture, its relation with other materials and its constitution. Whereas the artist has started by creating large format oil paintings, now he practices his craft using varied formats and techniques that, as he himself suggests, has to do with his practice as a teacher. After revisiting traditional procedures in order to teach painting, Ricardo quickly embraced them in his poetic, re-signifying them by means of a process that synthesized colors and elements observed in the urban landscape. So, after the 2011-2012 series in which the forms of the objects he used were more perceptible, here we are facing abstract compositions. Besides, by using tempera, casein, plaster, paper, wood, and canvas as the base for his new painting, he can explore different color dimensions that relate to its material presence and luminous quality. So, there is the emergence of opaque transparencies and surfaces that form spatial aspects in the compositions, which our gaze crosses and sees through, create intense depths, or seem to play between the surface of the painting and the real space. It is mainly the use of tempera that allows him to create transparent layers of color and, sometimes, the opposite: opacity. At times, the artist also sought to use different techniques in one single painting in which he puts in contrast the material quality of tempera and oil painting, or painting on wood, on paper or on canvas, and so on. Finally, also part of that experimental dimension of painting procedures (in the most traditional sense of the word), there are the frames, which are at times made out of dark wood or of light wood. In one particular case, the frame is combined with the white canvas on the side. It is the relation of colors that contains the memory of the urban space, of objects and elements Ricardo extracts from his everyday life. It is in this relation that the combinations of traffic signs and billboards survive, among other aspects of the myriad elements of the São Paulo urban landscape. It was primarily in his coexistence with this city that the artist learned such combination, for it is hybrid in its fabric and references, without ever having followed any sort of planning or specific policy regarding the construction of buildings, streets, circulation systems, etc. Therefore, the palette of each work proposes unusual combinations – never conceived according to traditional painting. In one of the versions that resumes the form of the bulldozer, there is a contrast in yellow and a nearly purple pink that transforms the composition in a surface resplendent of light, while evoking the possible color relations that exist in the universe of billboards, for example. In other moments, the triangular shape of an awning seen on the street is sublimated to create diagonal compositions contrasting areas of light and shadow, of transparency and opacity, in whose passages we see the long free-hand brush stroke created with a medium paintbrush. Another important aspect is that these paintings have a work in progress dimension, because the artist presents compositions that have been previously experimented in small formats, transferring them to larger ones. In this sense, the set of paintings in white, black and Prussian blue that allude to the form of the bulldozer is very representative of his modus operandi: in three small format paintings, Ricardo explores not only the dark shape of the object in contrast with white background, but also its possible compositional displays, its various cuts and materialities, by using different pigments and surfaces. Finally – and like the two colored versions of the bulldozer – he resumes this exercise in the large format, adding the layers of experimentation with these various materials. It seems that we return to the long duration painting; that is, to a process of work that takes place in the depuration of the motives collected by the artist and their possibilities of presentation in the paintings. Whatever Ricardo apprehends, by chance, as motive in the streets of São Paulo, must undergo a process of decantation and of “domestication” through the filters of painting. So, this motive is translated into the principles of painting and serves the artist to test the traditional practices of his craft. More recently, Ricardo dedicated himself to reading essays and texts on the history of painting and became interested in the issue of the tension between representation and abstraction, if we may say so. In other words, he began to address painting-related issues by means of medieval painting, for example, in which matter, color, shape had to contain something that was external to them, that gave them a life of their own – the issue of the representation of the divine light, among others. Nevertheless, his painting does not have anything to do with this symbolic aspect found in tradition, but it is interested in the pictorial problem of its representation, which ultimately has to do with a painting technique able to give life to matter and to color. Therefore, the long duration is essential for the color to happen and come to the painter free from any symbolic readings: it seems that the time of the painter is the time of the chemist in his lab. Finally, André Ricardo’s work updates a Brazilian modernist canon, because one of his references is Alfredo Volpi, who is understood as the precursor of the São Paulo Concrete artists, whom he admires very much. This reference is connected to other references that are equally important for him, notably the 1950s American painting, of which he highlights Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko. With Johns and Rothko, probably Ricardo learned to use the large surface and transparencies, but he did not retain Johns’ “dirty” aspects or Rothko’s “spiritualized” aspects. He seems to have a much closer relationship with the 1940s and 1950s São Paulo painting, because of the treatment of matter, of his love for the mastery of his métier and the fundamental transition he made from what we may call naturalism toward abstraction. Volpi’s generation was very much attached to the practices of Italian painting of the interwar period, in which the values of the painting tradition were updated, mainly in the composition of landscapes, portraits and still-lifes, and in a way prepared the younger generation to absorb the experiences of abstraction in France to create their own abstract painting. Renato Birolli, an Italian painter from that generation said, in his Taccuino VI, that “La pittura si sostituisce alla natura e nasce e se sviluppa al pari di quella” [Painting substitutes nature and is born and developed parallel to it]. By means of this statement, Birolli sought to make legitimate his abstraction process in paintings not entirely unattached from a certain notion of naturalism, thus maintaining what he and his fellow countrymen considered to be the foundations between painting and life. These painters were responsible for the creation of an abstract painting process in Italy immediately after World War II that sought to escape from the accusations of decoration and autonomy of art, basing their procedures on this transition to an abstraction that did not move away from the observation of the surroundings, the landscape, and the exercise of still-life. In a way, we may say that Ricardo follows a similar procedure, which was also learned by Volpi and his contemporaries in a dialogue with their Italian peers. Not by chance, three times in the same decade, in different editions of the São Paulo Biennial, that 1950s generation had the opportunity to see the works of Giorgio Morandi – a painter who was very much admired by them and is considered, within the scope of Brazilian art criticism, an emblematic example of the relationship and the tension between this naturalism and abstraction, just like we aim at understanding in the present text. Ricardo’s teachers and professors were from a generation of painters who seem to have processed this root of the 1950s São Paulo painting by re-discovering American painting. From this encounter, it seems that Ricardo retains the work with the scale of painting, surfaces or color compositions, as well as the admiration for his craft. However, there is nothing left from the heroism of modernist painting. On the contrary, Ricardo’s work is, in this sense, cautious, questioning and skeptic regarding the reputation of painting and its author. He does not trust inspiration or any lyrical subjective aspect. Actually, his attitude is more of a researcher, a chemist in his laboratory, as previously said: he does not hide his procedures or techniques, and there is kind of rawness in its presentation, almost as verification. Ricardo’s working place is very revealing of his art-making process. The artist has painted white the walls of his small shed and covered them with white MDF boards in which he hangs his works. Those who visit his studio are not introduced to his works all at once, on the contrary: the artist shows each work at a time and sometimes proposes combinations, which are also economic. This concern with the subtraction of elements and colors certainly has to do with the effect of his painting: it is the synthesis and the economy that give strength to it, as well as enable it to create tensions experienced by means of colors and shapes in the artist’s working process. It is worth remembering that he extracts his motives from the cacophony of objects, colors and forms found in the streets of São Paulo, his work is one of depuration, of decantation. It seeks to make us gaze at a few essential aspects; it invites us to contemplate (why not?) with no intention to elevate us, but to make us aware of things in the world, as such.