REVERSING THE REVERSE
Maria Alice Milliet
In interviews and statements, Antonio Henrique Amaral is always one step ahead of the critics. He is gripped by an urgent need to understand, especially when his work undergoes obvious changes. He wants to understand the abrupt changes that occur within his painting and the surprises which life holds. He wants to understand for himself and to make himself understood. These thoughts do not rest with pondering the uncertain, they aim to clarify the existential state of his artistic production. He therefore analyses, divides and fragments in order to then show himself to be renewed before the other. In this eagerness, he has recourse to a language which is not his own: “art is how I relate to the world. It is the link between my inner subjectivity and the reality which surrounds me: people, things, places, feelings, life’s questions about what this might all be about and what death might be about. I am aware of the limitations and mystery of existence, without expecting to know the answers to fundamental questions. Between religious dogma and philosophical and scientific systems I stay with the simplicity and modesty of an activity which touches on the mysteries without revealing them.” For an artistic journey full of passion which his works never cease to affirm, it seems to me to be quite a cold analysis. It is like explaining the fire in terms of the water which extinguishes it. I suspect that this statement, lacking any sense of pathos, is merely tactical, an attempt at defense. Weighed down by a series of images which attach themselves to him (as though forgetting the silent power of the paintings) this discourse does not explain everything; it might be more a way of ridding himself of anguish, of freeing the heart, and of concealing just how much this stand in his art signifies resignation, or rather, surrender. Painting, neither simple, nor modest, is still there. Another way I can think of approaching the meaning of this image is through an ancient myth which I recall, as interpreted by Lyotard:
“I see the Sphinx lying against Oedipus, observing the ecstasy of one who considers using words to decipher enigmas and says as much beneath her claws, at precisely the moment when she is preparing to let him go and thus to destroy him, condemning him to fulfil his destiny... Despite the impassive fear in those brown eyes, the icy heat of her chest crushing his chest, the gentle shoulder moving over him, in a flash, he must have had the premonition that the female monster which made him weak in order to crush him, was truth and, at the same time, death. And he probably hesitated a second, thinking whether it would not be better to be seduced by death and truth than to have an answer for everything... then, overpowered, having renounced words, having given up escape, he draws with a firm hand what he sees in the eye of the monster: his own fear, his frozen hand, his crushed genitals.”
The courage to confront head on undergoes the kind of terror which makes one lose one’s voice, which leaves one unable to speak. Painting offers no solution to the mystery, it merely makes visible that which cannot be named. The act of naming is an act of possession, a reason which is imposed on the world, a knowledge. In order to paint, it is necessary to surrender to the unspeakable, to the inner cinema, made up not only of dreams but also of memories, scraps of memory, residues of what one sees from the window, what is shown on the television, inside the house, beyond time, at the beach’s edge. What remains is that which recurs and comes into the head when that song plays, once again, in the middle of the street, suddenly, after work. Painting here represents the other in the discourse. It is the acceptance of a deep void from where fantastic, ghostly images emerge, fragmented, brought together in improbable unions; it is the pull of this abyss which allows the painter to predict his destiny and the place from where, at the limit, he hopes for salvation.
Faced with the canvas, the artist knows that it is not enough simply to reproduce or invent forms. His tension exists because he is preoccupied with the sensory efficiency of the images. To make visible means to capture the intensity of things and not to take the visible as the object of the painting and representation as its aim. This principle, stated by Klee, holds figurative art in check as mimesis, a mere copy of what is seen. Immediately, doubt arises: could there exist an art subject only to the world of appearances? It is from this state of submission that modern art wished to escape by turning its back on the conventions which governed representation. In its escape it took two paths, one which fundamentally denied subordination to the point of reference: abstraction; the other, which moved towards the figure. When painting embraces the figure it is the figural and not the figurative which is achieved. The mandate of the figural (conceptualized by Lyotard) holds open the door for desire, confused, chaotic in its eagerness to be satisfied. From this convergence flow all manner of infringements: the distortion and deconstruction of the object, the disruption of narrative logic, non-sense, subversion of the pictorial space. These occurrences defy any attempt at categorization.
It is precisely because of the difficulty in dealing with the figural as language that it is presented twofold: from this near impotence the painter makes his art and the critic his text. To write about painting is to confront the inadequacy and, at the same time, the excesses of language; in striving to capture the image, one tears it to pieces, not even managing to describe it and only being able to illuminate it partially with flashes, never fully. Just like Oedipus, feeling the pressure of the claws on his chest, in writing we search for the right word which restores the order of things (the answer to the mystery). Like any other mortal, we hesitate in letting ourselves be seduced by that which presents itself instead of seeking an explanation for everything. This hesitation paves the way to understanding the pictorial work: faced with a reality which resists language, painting and text surrender to the figure through which a path to the unknown is forged. It is through poetics that the union takes place. When the critic speaks about the works he breaks the silence and breaks its spell: the machinery is laid bare as is the scenery of the imaginary theatre, the characters are reduced to actors, then, to give meaning to the scene, he tells a story.
Antonio Henrique Amaral has been exhibiting since the fifties. His work continues to oppose the strategies which extol the death of painting while remaining faithful to the figure situated in the ambiguous area between representation of the real and the figurality of desire. The art he creates is energetic, linked profoundly to the pulse of desire in constant struggle against the suffocating conditions of society. The predominant state in his painting is sensuality. The more liberated this sensuality is, the less premeditated the pictorial input, so often tinged by formal restrictions, at times exalted by the linking of pleasure and pain. It is always the mouth, the tongue, the tree, the leaf, the breast, the knife, the rope, the fork, the sea, recurring symbols in a moral tale at once confessional and critical. Even when his painting appears to be more closely linked to abstraction, it is the human to which he refers. The animalistic behavior which he bestows on nature and objects is no more than an expression of occurrences which have man at their centre. Firmly rooted in tropical colors, in the swelling of forms, in a certain kind of barbarism which pervades the natural and the manufactured, the public and the private, in pleasure and pain, Amaral’s painting extracts the vitality of life in Brazil, where he was born.
His story begins in São Paulo. “In my house everything was verbal”, he recalls. “Words, words, many words and books, many books, discussions, conversations in a climate of political unrest and ideas in general, but nothing which particularly led me to art. Drawing was something personal, a world all of my own.” He remembers things from the past with the same intensity with which he tackles the present and he moves through time with same dexterity as someone who acknowledges his ghosts with whom, after successive clashes, he reaches always provisional agreements. “The decision to make art developed gradually as something personal. To write or draw were, for me, ways of discovering, of investigating my life and the reality which surrounded me. At any given moment, around the age of 18, 19 or 20, I didn’t know whether what I was drawing would illustrate what I was writing or whether what I was writing would supplement what I was engraving or drawing.” These plastic and literary manifestations progressed alongside one another, the first became public, the other, never published eventually will emerge. Alongside his vast artistic output there are diaries overrun, here and there, by graphic notations, glued on pieces of paper and scribbles as well as countless hand-written notebooks. This is the hidden face of the same coin: on one side there is the figure and on the other, the text... This duality of expression points to an inner tension which has in no way subsided with maturity: it is an urge to understand himself which drives him to read, to put his ideas on paper, and to paint compulsively, and despite any attempt at rationalization, there is a vigorous outflow which cannot be detained.
The dialectic between reason and emotion is expressed in his work through a greater or lesser control over the explosion of images, over the form, and spatial organization, without ever neglecting the artistic outcome. Since he was young, he understood “the need for discipline and method, because I sensed that I would follow an artistic career”. Marcelo Grassmann encouraged him to find him “a technique which might offer the strength to provide more of a structure to his drawing”. Following his friend’s advice, he joined Lívio Abramo’s printmaking class and under the guidance of this experienced printmaker “Antonio Henrique proceeded to make lino cuts with great fervor, and his images — having lost the certain mannerism which his drawing formerly displayed — acquired a superior strength, one could even say a certain violence and aggression...”. It was with this wisdom that the teacher praised the pupil’s “innate sense of composition” and the “peculiar and slightly barbarous flavor and energy” of his images, “revealing the traits of an interesting and well-defined character” among the new generation of artists from São Paulo. His first exhibition was in 1958.
The album O meu e o seu (Mine and Yours) marks a culmination and a turning point. With it he brought to a close a period dedicated, above all, to printmaking and he did this with a bluntness acquired through a complete mastery of graphic resources, channelled, at that time, towards the denunciation of Brazil’s historical situation. Ferreira Gullar pointed to the rhetorical quality achieved through the articulation of the images in this series, so different to the artist’s “beautiful, technically perfect printmaking, almost mute, which spoke only of itself”, and which was so prevalent at that time. In contrast, “Antonio Henrique Amaral speaks to us about reality, opening it up right now before our very eyes so that we may see and, I would say, so that we may hear. Such is the intensity of his drawing, of his incisions, of his symbols torn violently from everyday life”, symbols like the paraphernalia associated with mass media: open mouths, microphones, loud-speakers playing music, flags, posters, hands clapping and gesticulating when, throughout the country, the dominant voice denied speech and silenced opinions.
Gullar underlines the almost pamphlet-like nature of this work, referring to the “crudeness with which the artist talks” although, despite his insistence on referring to verbal discourse, he is precise in distinguishing Amaral’s “true language” in stating: “his prints are writing pads of meaning, they are like disturbing ideograms in which thought and intuition are condensed, thus creating unexpected forms”. An artificial view, as opposed to a narrative based on reality is possible only by consulting the image whose reading is inherently cultural. The critical text deals a fatally repressive blow to the figure above all when loaded with the sense of morality or ideology pertaining to a particular sector of society. From this contingency results a possible variation in meaning, from person to person and over time. Therefore, the relationship between this album and the political moment, obvious when the work was shown in public, might, years later, lose intensity, thereby giving way to other interpretations. On the other hand, the creation of works is never innocent and is, in itself, loaded with meaning. In this case, by dealing with communication through technologically advanced means, the choice of wood engraving and the formal treatment used are important. They recall the popular woodcuts still made in the Brazilian North-East, technologically crude and unnaturalistic in design. And importantly: in this series the artist’s vocabulary of symbols begins to take shape, becoming, in his painting, something similar to a pictogram.
Through the iconic message, the most important thing is not to try to list the meanings but to understand that as part of the whole image (of the painting, engraving or drawing) they constitute what Barthes called discontinuous or, better still, erratic characteristics. In Amaral’s work, there are powerful recurring symbols. In given phases of his work these symbols persist while in others they occur less frequently, forever reappearing having been updated. The recurring elements are figures which use one part as representative of the whole — thus, through metonymy, heads are used to symbolize the people — the human body being the ultimate reference even when, later on, vegetable forms (banana, bamboo, fruit, leaf etc.) or manufactured objects (knife, rope, saw etc.) appear. Despite the artist’s deliberateness, his work as resulting from language or language which has been formed, lets the desire underlying the explicit meanings commonly understood as theme or message flow freely. Thus, the oral fluency exhibited strongly in this work recurs in all of Amaral’s paintings, not only in the eloquence of his images, but through direct references to the mouth, tongue, teeth and, ultimately, speech (the open mouth, microphone, loudspeakers), to food (fruit, meats) and to eroticism (the breast), to cite a few examples.
Returning to his story, still in 1967, Antonio Henrique Amaral exhibits oil paintings, a technique he had been working on since 1965, although without exhibiting. Learning comes as a result of continued practice and through cautious exploration. “Color appeared timidly in my pictures since 1959 and much more frequently from 1962 onwards. I was terrified, insecure, frightened of using color. I first started working with gouache and water-colors to get used to it.” He paints “As bocas” (“The Mouths”) using a palate knife and some kind of paintbrush and — beginning with “Bananas” — he makes progress using the knife, achieving, in time, his own unique and unmistakable technique. On painting the banana he runs contrary to the social imaginary and, just like the sorcerer’s apprentice, he is nearly overwhelmed by the forces which he himself sets in motion. His paintings begin to sell, he asserts himself as a painter. In 1971, his life changed. He won a foreign travel bursary from the National Exhibition of Modern Art, and the two year stay he had foreseen was extended until the end of the decade. During this phase, the theme of his work unfolded into more complex relationships between the banana with ropes, forks, and knives. “I would paint obsessively, twelve, fourteen hours a day to compensate for the chaotic universe of my personal life.” The critic Damián Bayón’s account in the artist’s New York loft helps piece together what happened there:
“One late, cold winter afternoon, I found myself knocking at his studio door in the sleazy sophistication of Soho, where artists now want to live at all costs. When, suddenly, I came face to face with ten or twelve canvases all of them displaying colossal bananas, showing great presence and deeply moving, I knew that my instinct had been right. Barely perceptible in its transition, my scepticism turned into enthusiasm. This was because straightaway I understood that what was happening there, silently on the canvases in that studio, in a grey and inhospitable street at the end of relentlessly cold afternoon, was something important and original within Latin American art.” The series “Campos de batalha” (“Battlefields”) bears witness to the extraordinary technical perfection and thematic — formal complexity achieved during this period. In these pictures the artist uses photography as an aid to painting. The figuration is allegorical, the intention critical, and the plasticity gloomily exuberant.
One particular day a Rolls Royce stopped outside his door. Half surprised, half euphoric Antonio Henrique Amaral watched the growing interest of the Americans as he looked around the studio: at the end of the visit, he received a cheque for the purchase of six canvases and an invitation to exhibit in the Lee Ault Gallery on Madison Avenue. He celebrated. Professional success, however, could not prevent the crisis which was becoming known, the ramifications of which would hold important consequences in the life and work of the artist. His eventual return to Brazil was the subject of frequent discussions. “In conversations with Latin American friends, we used to ask ourselves what we had to do with the United States. We didn’t belong to that country. Deep down we courted the possibility of marketing our work since that is what they can do for us, get the machine working.” The machine was already working; the existential anxiety, however, persisted.
In 1975 he returned to Brazil. “I wanted a new relationship with my body, my feelings, and work methods.” At the heart of this internal revolution there was a break with a theme consecrated by critics and well received by the market and manifested through the abandonment of clear artistic methods. “The bananas are transformed over the years: they were unripe, they ripened, they rotted, and they were mashed up on contact with the knives, forks, and ropes which oppressed and destroyed them. That is the theme, that is the allegory. But what of the painting? Did the public realize that, in my works, the bananas, by constituting the central image, were and only ever were painting?” The challenge was also felt by the artist. Constrained by photographic equipment — camera, projector, slides — he wanted to set the movement free, to attack the canvas directly without interference. In this renewed contact with the tropical world he painted “Casas de Macunaíma” (“Macunaíma’s Houses”) and the “Bambuzais” (“Bamboo Stands”), one moment drawing directly from the landscape, the next photographing arrangements of vegetation and metals which he then transfers onto the canvas. In a rapid change of style, in “Expansões” (“Expansions”) the artist achieves a shattering of forms, from then on dispensing with photographic support. The transition complete Amaral comments: “perhaps freer, I bestow on the picture a greater freedom to define itself.”
This new stance, in his own words “less authoritative, less fascist” stems from a lowering of self-censorship, a desire to no longer obey what he thinks he should. He seeks greater harmony between his internal tumult and the artistic act, not that this has ever ceased to be the driving force behind his art; what he rejects is any kind of formula for success. A certain fear of rejection must have accompanied this move towards greater openness, after all he strips his work of the political purpose which he supported for so long in order to expose the inner anxieties, the fears, the eager journeys of desire. All this was already in place in “Campos de batalha” (“Battlefields”) although cloaked with ideological references, in a transfer of yourself to the other and vice-versa. When this dialectic loses its value, even by the general approval of the critics and of the public which tends to determine the roles, the artist retreats to his inner world. The tropical forest, humid and bewildering, serves as a metaphor for this journey to “the heart of darkness” (Conrad). On this rambling journey, the central axis around which the composition would be organized disappears and the canvas is covered from edge to edge with a tangle of leaves, branches, thorns, entrails and organs linked by pipes. Every inch of space covered, the background, which before was empty, is now filled with an intricate series of forms which appear to continue beyond the limits of the painting. In spite of this dynamism, the feeling is one of claustrophobia.
In the eighties, his work is swept by a hurricane. A gripping energy draws to the canvas a profusion of scraps, sketches, and scribbles. This creative ecstasy throws all of the codes into turmoil: there is not a form that is able to resist. If it is difficult to control expression, it is even harder to maintain the balance of Euclidean space. Everything explodes. The agitated scribbles arose from the small drawings “which would emerge through my fingers and encroach uncontrollably upon annotations, notes, people’s addresses, lists of things to do, book margins and telephone messages,” the artist recalls. In so far as on the canvas he practices the same freedom of expression, he stamps his paintings with an energetic rhythm which encourages the decentred movement of the various elements. The topological asserts itself: the forms are increasingly voluptuous, curvy, and wavy. They are puffed up, stretched out, softened, painted in pink flesh tints, reddened, ripened like fruits and appetizing breasts. There is greed and pleasure. Desire runs free in the city which turns into forest which turns into sea.
In the midst of this production which brings together fragments of daily life and delirious landscapes, a sense of expression more akin to the automatism of scribbles outlines a type of handwriting described by Tavares de Araújo as “brutalist, energetic, showing archetypal forms.” In his large crayon and pastel drawings, although there is one with the title “Carta” (“Letter”) [p. 96], the dissolution of the image occurs as a powerful explosion at the level of chromatic inscriptions (Lyotard) while, on canvases such as “Correio marítimo” (“Maritime Mail”) and “O Casal” (“The Couple”) [p. 91], the arrangement of unidentified icons and symbols implies a coded message. Some identified in these occurrences the path to abstraction which the artist’s later work fails to confirm. Whether his art is figurative or abstract is, in fact, irrelevant. Figurality is not necessarily bound to analogical representation. The icon does not even constitute the externalization of the dream-like or of the unconscious, it makes us how desire operates; to understand this articulation is to uncover a subjective and cultural process.
At the end of the 1980’s a consolidation of particular lustful devices arose. The artist’s vocabulary, in formation since the fifties, was now characterized by a specific group of recurring visual symbols. These can be placed in two groups: instruments of repression and objects of pleasure always linked, not only antagonistically but very often in a subtle game of pleasure and pain. This ambiguity clearly reveals the superiority of image over speech, its power lying in the ability to condense meanings, to sustain a range of feelings, to let one see and to spy. In the bodies tortured by the rope which ties them up, in the knife which cuts, in the fork which pierces, aside from suffering, it implies a perverse eroticism. Frederico Morais standing before a work where the hanging rope divided the canvas in two symmetrical spaces connected by a breast which emerges from the base of the picture, asked: what could this mean given all the possible meanings of the breast as metaphor for protection, sustenance and comfort?
At this juncture, tortured nature returns, the dark side of Eros, the pulse of death. The most obvious meanings relate to environmental disasters — fires, deforestation, pollution — reduced to specific icons — flame, tree trunk, knife, saw, cloud — treated as solids even when volatile (fire and smoke) and contained within watertight compartments. The symbols gain a sense of stability. They are no longer merely marks on the canvas, unrecognizable because of the speed with which they are made — they slow down, later resting until they become immobile, each one in its pigeonhole. The division of pictorial space is by no means new, it had already appeared in the woodcuts of O meu e o seu (Mine and Yours) and in the large paintings of the end of the New York period. It demonstrates a constructive desire motivated by the fear of losing common control to the individual and to a society anxious of social disorder, environmental imbalance, uncontrolled language, losing one’s mind, loss. On the destabilizing will of systems he imposes a return to order. The picture comes to function as a kind of exorcism from chaos. Very soon, the segmentation of space ceases to be irregular, and the image of the enclosed figure in a constructive prison, repeated successively, becomes a decorative pattern. Within this encirclement, the symbol loses its identity and is practically reduced to a motif.
Such an overbearing sense of containment cannot possibly last. All of a sudden, the space on the canvas dominated by geometric progressions opens to make way for the anchoring of ghost-like scenes. In 1993, he painted, in one go, a dozen works which, seen one after the other, engender a fascination similar to that which a child experiences aboard a ghost train, where horror and fear generate excitement, a sense of unease coupled with enjoyment. So fascinating is the show that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes away: mutilated bodies, spreading guts, and instruments of torture imply a massacre. As part of the audience, we watch the stage scene behind motionless heads. In each picture the central organizational axis of the composition is replaced by a increased depth implied by a crude sense of perspective linked to the frontal nature of the original space. The convergence of lines to a central point of escape leads the spectator to witness without fear of distraction or disguise, what is going on. Just as Artaud desired, there is no intrigue, the power of the staging lies in violent incidents which violate common sense “in the magical bond, terrible through reality and danger” (Artaud). A theatre of cruelty — the repressed within, the repressor without — from which there is no escape.
Once the theatrical device is set up, normal in almost every way, even in the curtains which frame the stage, its role is subverted: on the stage, the area where the action takes place, there is silence and stillness, and where there should be scenery or a backdrop, it is left open to the outside. In some pictures, the segmentation of the human body, which never again appears whole in Amaral’s work, remains clear just as the body represented metaphorically as a banana, bamboo or tree is always shown chopped into pieces. Here, fetishism associated with destruction and death, returns with a difference: there is no attempt to aestheticise violence. The concern with the beauty of form, the subtlety of color in elaborate composition, held so dear by the painter of “Campos de batalha” (“Battlefields”), regresses to an hallucinatory state of plastic representation more akin to the iconography of circuses, funfairs, pamphlet literature and other popular forms of expression. As usual, the illusion of volume is achieved by the adoption of a system of violent contrasts of light and shade. The extraordinary thing is that the light comes from diametrically opposed focal points, one conventionally lighting up the stage from the proscenium, while the other comes from the back of the stage, in fact, from outside. In the work “Cartão postal com sombra” (“Postcard with Shadow”) [p. 92], this dual lighting is made clear by the shadow of the blade thrown onto the stage, while in many others, there is the feeling that the stage ends in emptiness like a slope leading to a precipice. The feeling of destabilization caused by such mechanisms, helps create a dream-like atmosphere. It is like a nightmare from which one cannot escape, in the same way that the characters in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, remain inexplicably held back.
In this series, above all, one work is symbolic: “Sob a luz do Cruzeiro do Sul” (“Under the Light of the Southern Cross”) [p. 219]. In the foreground, lust is suggested by the red of the voluminous curtains just as the lips of pleasure are fatally red. In contrast, on the stage, bathed in cold light, a quartered corpse is scattered over the floor, without any sign of blood or indication of execution. The dead man anonymous, the assassin unknown, the audience paralysed before the consummated deed, inaction prevails, a state of aphasia characteristic of social disarticulation. The outlined area is presided over by the great castrator: a blade (as phallic object) stands raised, supreme against the silhouette of a mountain range and the huge sky is dotted with the Southern Cross; it is the sky of Brazil (it is impossible not to make this connection). Inside is a hollow, inactive organ; on the outside is the law, cold and unforgiving, an authority which quietens everything by destroying it.
In “Jogos de cena” (“Stage Games”) [p. 93], the allegory is completed. A series of stalls and stages — a theatre within a theatre — refer to different levels of repression and act as floodgates designed to contain lustful energy: the tongue, fingers, hand, the arm, all chopped into pieces, are gathered together by the mouth of the other, by the spoon, in a disciplined transfer of small losses. In subsequent planes the toothed saw comes into play, along with the knife, fork and amongst them, the ball, which one moment is on one side, the next on the other, trying to evade these instrument’s blows, as in a pinball machine. In a window full of light, the hanging rope associated with the restriction of movement and of speech or even hanging itself, marks the end of this fatal game. The critique which is offered by Antonio Henrique Amaral’s painting goes beyond the ideological approach of current questions. In short, it goes beyond man and nature’s indiscriminate predation, undertaken by a so-called civilized and civilizing power. Furthermore, it does not limit itself to proving the alienation or, rather, man’s indifference towards the environment and others like him, but rather, makes a direct link between political economy and lustful economy.
An Aids prevention campaign called on a number of artists to create posters. Antonio Henrique Amaral prepared a design for hoardings which ended up giving rise to a new series of works entitled “Torsos”, displaying great formal unity and using extremely subtle colors. In order to deal discreetly with such an explosive issue as sexuality, the painter adopted the most sober range of colors of his career so far. He set aside the primary colors so dominant in “Teatros” (“Theatres”) in favor of a range of neutral shades: from beige to greys, from browns to nearly black, he almost eliminated any color vibration. The rhythm is distinguished by sinuous lines and reverberates in waves which expand over the pictorial space and seem to imply that they go beyond like a bas-relief frieze. Where there once was bamboo, the human body is implied, where there was forest, now there are people. They are trunks glued together, silenced in mutual support. There is sensuality despite the impartiality of color: skin against skin, body against body, in slow propagation. Male and female, suggested only by protuberances which once were thorns and shoots, are mixed up in the androgyneity of contours so illustrating the lack of distinction between subject and object in the sexual embrace. There is no warning, no censorship contained in these paintings, only the presentation of the fatal of coupling within the infinite multiplication of contacts.
In this series, some works show the couple entwined. In “O início” (“The Beginning”) [p. 94], sexual penetration is implied and is surrounded by a frame formed by a succession of mouths, the same as those in the album O meu e o seu (Mine and Yours), and from the series “Bocas” (“Mouths”) in a renewed allusion to the erogenous function of the oral: the lips, teeth and sticking out tongue, could suggest here fear of the toothed vagina. In the paintings “Diálogo” (“Dialogue”) [p. 227] and “Lutas” (“Struggles”) [p. 226], color emerges between the torsos, like a flash, a flame which in “Torsos em branco” (“White Bodies”) [p. 95] is more a fissure in a single body covered in concentric lines like waves emanating from an energy source. “Couple Again” [p. 229] differs from earlier works due to the fact that the couple is reduced to a tiny mark at the geometric centre of a huge cloud which allows a dual visual reading: the explosion is generated from a central point, in which case, the symbol moves forward, or the centre empties (keyhole?) amidst an explosion, in which case, the symbol moves backwards. In a divergent move, three large canvases show figures in flight; the smooth, uniform color of the silhouette disappear and the body surfaces are infused with a sense of dynamism through the drawing and the color, when a body covered in a form of tattooing is transformed into a place of inscriptions, into a support for the painting.
Some years ago, Antonio Henrique Amaral stated openly: “My work was always obsessive, and possessed a productive rhythm. My sense of discipline exists in spite of myself, and my wishes. It is like a voice inside my head which keeps giving me orders: now we work until 7 o’clock... today we are going to work until 10 o’clock without stopping! The rhythm is always obsessive, with more or less intense periods. I certainly feel less guilt or despair today than 20 years ago.” But it was with despair that he recently painted, in two months, a group of 20 works, the majority of them large. In this creative impetus he gave free reign to his heart, he laid bare his passion. This discredited kind of sentimentality, long since out of fashion, makes love seem indecent with the passage of time. By wholeheartedly acknowledging this in his painting, the painter takes upon himself “the scorn thrown on all sense of ‘pathos’: formerly in the name of reason, now in the name of ‘modernism’ which is interested in a subject provided it has been made general”, Barthes used to say. Yet none of this matters when the only outlet for pain is to paint and paint.
Explode heart!... in the absence, the absence of the other, there is yearning. There doesn’t exist an imagination which is numb to a broken heart. It is the division of the part, of the cut, of the separation which captures the artist, or rather, the artist is captured because he paints compulsively. In this fit of emotion he reaches a common point: the heart as symbol of love. From the banality of this symbol he extracts a work monumental not only in size, but above all in the powerful impudence he shows in using such a vulgar means of expression, as vulgar as saying ‘shit!’ or when one says ‘I love you!’ in moments of intense feeling. This is because there is no room for discussion and, in any case, further elaboration would appear to be insufficient or superfluous. From this lack of composture, the most recent plastic production of Antonio Henrique Amaral emerges, a surprising fact in an intellectual environment so insistent on good manners.
Love sickness: the absence of the other acts as a tourniquet, it suffocates, stemming the flow of blood, darkening one’s gaze and preparing love’s mourning. The darkened red floods and fills the heart barely contained by the canvas in a series of four breath-taking pictures. There is no pretence: a flash of lightning splits the heart from top to bottom. Convulsive brush strokes allow glimpses against this black of pulsating red, and sparkles of gold like magma in the mouth of a volcano, an inevitable spillage. In the painting “Desarmamento” (“Disarmament”) [p. 241], the heart is sick, reclining on a huge, white table, around it, fists of jealousy, of intolerance, of hypocrisy etc. scattered on the floor. What medicine, what magic, could alleviate love sickness? This image which brings together a whole range of feelings, signifies, in one word; surrender. The patient/passive one/heart dejected, the weapons laid down, the picture evokes the tragic happening: it is huge ex-voto.
And the hallucination of yellow comes breaking through the black work. If it reminds me of the symbol emblematic of sexual union, in its formal synthesis similar to an amulet, I find in “A distância” (“The Distance”) [p. 242], the destruction of this object, the disassociation of bodies. Arranged in isolation, each one with its halo occupies half of the canvas. Both are touched by a painful solitude, they are targets of the same impossibility. And what better image is there than the guillotine to declare such a drastic separation. The obviousness of this image attracts the painter. The acceptance of the obvious, and the kitsch treatment given to the picture reveals at the same time critical consciousness and a worn-out emotion. Against a blue sky the deadly machine is raised, of all the cutting tools, it is the largest, the most efficient. With the guillotine comes the climax, a persistent notion in his painting, the pulse of death here cloaked in irony, in insane happiness (did not the French ladies laugh when their heads used to roll?) which can be seen in the blade held up by pink rope and dotted with red flowers. It is the heart which it cuts maims, not the head.
In an ascent to the top, passion rises to the head. It is at this point that the painter resorts to coded writing. “A carta” (“The Letter”) [p. 251] is painting, albeit a painting doubtful of the efficiency of the image. Written on a heart of lead, the hieroglyphic text, although indecipherable, makes language fluent through the ordered arrangement of its symbols. An attentive observer will make out numbers and words amidst icons and symbols which preserve the gist of the written word. This allusion to literary communication works to reinforce the visual symbol, even though it is not tied to this symbol. A possible means to reconcile the verbal and visual language appears in “A poesia” I e II (“Poetry” I and II) [p. 247]. The poem by Reinaldo Castro, in the first painting, is written in a conventional Portuguese style, and in the second translated into English describes a helicoid. Possible reconciliation may exist by taking into account the subversion which the poetry engenders at the heart of the language system and therefore permeability towards of the eruption of the figural. The actual inclusion of the poem in the painting superimposes the discursive space onto the visual space, converting the words into sensitive forms. This superimposition constitutes a depth, an attempt to make a reverse reversal of the figure coexist on a single plane.
Finally, “Labirinto” (“Labyrinth”) [p. 98] adds a new icon to the rich vocabulary which constitutes the painter’s language: a mythical theme offered the same treatment as pre-Columbian stone carvings, gold, or earth-colored ceramics. However, faced with this image it is impossible to escape the Mediterranean myth which has cast a shadow over Western man since the days of ancient Crete. “Each language is a tradition, each word a shared symbol” wrote Borges, whose poem brings this essay to a close:
It will never possess a door. You are inside
And the castle encloses the universe
And it has neither an obverse nor reverse
Neither an outside wall nor a secret centre.
Don’t hope that the severity of your path
Which obstinately divides into another,
Which obstinately divides into another,
Will have an end. Your destiny is made of iron
Like your judge. Don’t await the attack
Of the bull which is a man and whose entrails
A plural shape which infuses horror at the tangle
Of the interminable interwoven stone.
It doesn’t exist. Wait for nothing. Not even
The beast in the black dusk.