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The sensitivity of the look of Rodrigo Bivar, when selecting for the same exhibition works by two great artists, showed that the invitation made to him to be the curator was successful. And he realized even more: by uniting the sculptor Manoel Graciano and the painter Neves Torres through painting, he gave me an amplification of perception. I invite you all to make this trip.
When I met Manoel Graciano in Juazeiro do Norte, he was already an elderly man (he died in 2014). He was humble, quiet, and introspective. Had several kids, a big family! Some of his talented children also found in the sculpture the way for the creative expression. In the universe of non-erudite art, the so-called popular, when there is a tradition for children to "stick" to paternal art, this is a prominent family. Manoel was contemporary of another great master of Juazeiro, Nino. Although geographically close and both chose sculpture as a medium of expression, telling stories in painted trunks, the only thing that brings them together is excellence.
I got to know Neves Torres - who is still alive, and continues to paint - in one of the editions of the Naïf Biennial of Piracicaba. His painting of calm colors, reminiscent of country life, had a strong impact on me. I found out that he had actually worked in the construction industry and started painting after retiring, stimulated by his son, who presented him with paintbrushes and paint so as he could entertain himself. Thus began the work of this excellent artist. His first solo exhibition curated by Tiago Mesquita took place in our gallery in 2012, and drew the attention of the media and collectors, who perceived the courageous authorship, the strong artistic personality through an unusual palette.
With this show we open 2017. Others will come.
The first time I saw the painting of Neves Torres was in 2012, in an exhibition held at Galeria Estação. The impression I had at the time, and which is now maintained with greater knowledge and depth in his work, is that his paintings are those of an artist who fully dominates his means of expression, a mature artist who started late in the craft.
The same goes for Manuel Graciano. Both are artists who are aware of their poetics and are looking for challenges. The two do not indulge in easy solutions. Their works throw a new look on things already known and present us with new ones. They are free, poetic and deep constructions.
For the exhibition presented here I dealt solely with their works and a few written texts about them, since I did not have the chance to meet them in person.
On the occasion of the 2012 exhibition, Tiago Mesquita stated that one of the beauties of Neves Torres' painting is "in the way this simple trait brings us such accurate memories of the countryside, in such an original way." In addition to our memories, his paintings remind us of the simplicity of the best modern paintings. I think of Matisse and Dufy. Neves Torres’ screens are divided into very well defined color areas, a planar painting with the absolute mastery of color. This planarity is sometimes, cut by "things" like trees, houses, stones, hills, plants and animals (another modern feature that the artist uses are arabesques). And these "things", so listed, make his painting not have a narrative hierarchy. Everything here has the same importance.
On one screen we see a black animal in the lower left corner, an ocher strip in the lower horizontal. From there, two trees come out, and a stone with plants in the middle of the canvas that, if not for this well-conquered planarity, would be at the bottom of it. The details of the screen are fundamental to the composition of the whole. In another work there is a large pink bird in the center of the canvas, the contours of the areas of color around the figure accompany its design, and these, cut sometimes by branches, and in other points with agile touches of brush forming what can be both the crown of a tree and its root, since they are on the border between one spot of color and another. The painting of Neves Torres appeals and invites to the look and the contemplation without haste. Just as the life portrayed there, form and content are closely connected in these works.
The artist was born in the Rio Doce valley, in the state of Minas Gerais, lived in Mutum, in the same state, and now lives in Serra, state of Espírito Santo. His paintings are of the places in which he has lived, and not of the urban place where he currently lives. Even though it is now more to the neighborhood than to isolation, more to the coast than to the fields of Minas Gerais, a man's house is not just the one that shelters him, it is also what he brings inside of him, no matter where he goes. Neves Torres takes with him that country life. But the life of the country he paints seems no longer to exist; at least not in the way he left it. Everything there has been transformed, just as the artist transforms his birds and hills. Some images are recurrent, fantastic animals, the same type of plant, houses with the same construction (for this exhibition I chose not to show paintings with human figures).
Another striking aspect of his canvases is the colors and their relationships. Neves Torres has total control of them. Its colors are subtle, sweet, delicate and complex. I believe that this complexity is fundamental to understanding the artist as a nostalgic painter, but this nostalgia is transformed into art, it is not conservative. The imagination and the memory work, and quickly shuffle different things. His painting has this characteristic. And it also reinvents the past - but it has here to be seen not as something dead, but as the engine of invention. The idea of nostalgia occurs more often when the road is the road to the city, not the other way around. Common experience in Brazil: people living on land cannot make ends meet, and are forced to migrate to the city in search of better opportunities (Manuel Graciano leased a land where he planted beans and corn for his living). But Neves Torres does not see this with pity, he is proud to have been a great tractor operator when he lived in the countryside. His family has always been close. It was his son, incidentally, who bought screens, paint and brushes so that he would keep busy after his retirement.
In looking at his paintings I have the impression that I am listening to a friend tell a story. Whether real or not, it does not matter, the pleasure is to enjoy the story being told, the company, the cause, rather than trying to make sense of what is being said. Nevertheless there’s no doubt that everything there is essential. His colors and shapes conquer at the first glance, his painting at first grab ones attention, then the look at the details.
Unlike the work of Neves Torres, that of Manuel Graciano was totally new to me, until the moment of choosing these works for the exhibition. But the astonishment was not less. I was taken by surprise by the quality of his work. His sculptures do not have the sweetness and subtlety of Neves Torres' painting. This is not a judgment of value, just a differentiation. I think his best sculptures are the most direct, almost crude, less precious and the most humorous. In these works his action on the wood and the paint applied on it reminds expressionist art. Manuel Graciano, besides sculptor, is also an artist who dominates the colors and integrates them with dexterity to the sculpted forms.
Like Neves Torres, the sculptor has a refined tonal, his colors vary, from lowered shades (paints prepared with aniline mixed with pitch and alcohol), to strong colors, using industrial paint or any other paint available. It is important to perceive the difference, not by a mere technical question, but because it changes the reading and understanding of the work. The sculptures of lower shades and without much preoccupation with the finish reveal themselves more slowly, are more mysterious, as if they "hide"; those of very strong tones give themselves more easily - difficult to say if only by the painting or by the own sculpted image.
The artist began to work the wood at the age of ten. In an interview with researcher Lélia Coelho Frota, Manuel Graciano says that he learned "with nature" to make pestles, troughs and toys that he sold to other children. His sculptures gained autonomy over time.
In compositions made of wood monoblock the artist prefers animal figures, very rarely including any human figure. The sculpture in which we see a snake on one side and a bird on the other is, for me, one of his finest pieces, alongside the work with a jaguar in three phases, seized with quick and systematic brushstrokes. In a large empty space on the trunk, the figures seem as if they are accommodated to it, very close to how they truly are in nature. That happens also in the sculpture of smaller size, but not less potent, where we see what would be a bat, or an owl, leaning on the back of an animal. These figures are carved into the wood in such a way that they seem to hide in that trunk. The artist also uses what the wood proposes to sculpt it, taking advantage of the drawing of the nature. These animals suggest at times the overlapping of different times. Often they are not in the same place.
His animals, snakes, jaguars, frogs, armadillos, lizards are often in permutation, or literally eating each other. In the sculpture in which we see what looks like a capybara opening its mouth to devour a snake, we notice that, just as in Neves Torres, some figures in Manuel Graciano are recurrent. In his animal sculptures the animal's teeth are always visible. Will they be laughing, hungry, defending themselves? Eventually they seem scary, sometimes comical. There is something absurd about his sculptures.
All these works mentioned above are made in what the artist Cicero Alves dos Santos, better known as Véio, calls “closed wood”, a piece of wood that does not open, something close to the idea of a totem. But there are some pieces of "open" wood in this exhibition. In one of them, we see a bird in which the tail is also composed by the design of the trunk. This bird seems to be very well accommodated in the wood, the only place in which this animal can exist. In this sculpture predominates the blue, perhaps the color of which Manuel Graciano has more dominion and control. Below the bird we see a frog (another one is just above his head), an alligator, and again that bucktooth animal. There is also a spider and a gecko. He takes advantage of all the space of the wood to carve his animals. There's a whole wildlife there. Everything that fits in the wood comes in. It is worth remembering here the critic Rodrigo Naves: "The procedure of identifying shapes and figures in objects and natural occurrences (erosions, geological accidents, stains, cracks, etc.), has a long tradition in history: from cave paintings and meditation stones of the Zen tradition to Miró's experiences with irregularities of walls and other surfaces. Also in the folk art tradition this is a common practice. "
In the other "open" part of the exhibition, the artist sculpts three human figures. A man, a woman and a child: a family? Maybe they are his less schematic human figures. In other cases in which the human figure appears we always have the same design and the same expression (the exception is his "Reisado", which did not enter the exhibition, where there are a variety of expressions.) In this sculpture men live with animals and plants. Everything is part of the landscape. There is also no hierarchy. His glance and quick hands at solving formal problems accompany his symbolic sculptures.
Manuel Graciano lives in Juazeiro do Norte. It is possible that he was influenced by the work of another great artist living in the city, Nino (1920-2002). Some of his figures follow the same kind of thinking and construction as the older artist. This does not detract from the greatness of Manuel Graciano. On the contrary: it shows how he realized the power of Nino and how he managed to create his own language and poetics.
To relate works of artists that seem so different - as in this exhibition - is not always an easy task. But of this possible incompatibility a powerful conflict arises. I believe that in the work of the two artists there is something very profound, archaic and respectful towards man and nature. There is mystery in the works of both, but not the mystery that wants to hide its end, which wants to preach a play. Mystery refers to phenomena that the verb cannot access. We can only experience it as the inherent condition of existence.
Rodrigo Bivar, São Paulo, February 2017