Wood and Memory – Dalton Costa

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Date : Opening – May 21, 2009 at 19 hours. Exhibit – May 21 to July 31, 2009.

Place: Galeria Pontes, Rua Minas Gerais, 80 – Higienópolis.

Curator: Olívio Tavares de Araújo.

WOOD AND MEMORY

Olívio Tavares de Araújo

This is the first Dalton Costa exhibit in São Paulo. He lives in Alagoas, a state that is starting to stand out, among other reasons, for its contribution to the field of popular art. It must have been in its wanderings in search of popular artists that Galeria Pontes – at first sight specialized in this segment of artistic production – ended up finding Dalton, an erudite artist who could have been anywhere else in Brazil. To be truthful, Dalton is not even Alagoan, he is Goianian, which has to do with some of his peculiarities.

Starting to talk about geography, it may seem that the author of this text considers the issue of nationality in art fundamental –  which is not exact. In fact, the project of making a national art emerges in different places and moments and this was an important priority for our modernists. They proposed to update their language according to European vanguards of that time, expressing in it Brazilian contents. This is what Tarsila’s painting did, first through a cubist slant (in the Pau Brasil phase), then surrealist (in the Anthropophagic phase). This is what Portinari’s accusing painting and Di Cavalcanti’s sensuous lyricism did, both under the influence of Mexican muralists and Picasso (to be precise, two different Picassos). And so on.

Times have made it their task to throw the pendulum to the other extreme. Even Volpi, who in the seventies started to be called “the greatest living Brazilian painter” – exactly for having led the Tarsilian synthesis to a more original and complex level – stated once: “Brazilian art is the one they make in Brazil.” They wanted him to theorize and this he always refused. However, Volpi was not at all of little intelligence or naïf. Quite the opposite. His phrase of a false simplicity implies in wisdom and experience: the true artist does whatever he feels is necessary, without worrying about labels or about having to subscribe to this or that ideological-aesthetic group.

It is certain that good art can happen be it searching for inspiration and sources within the country in which it happens, or without even remembering it exists. The choice (not always conscious) will also have to do with political circumstance. In the 19th century, great nationalist composers in Center Europe – Chopin, Liszt, Dvórak – were engaged in struggles on the behalf of the autonomy of their homelands. Each Polonaise by Chopin was a request for the support of the French public.  After the second world war and the defeat of the Nazi and Fascist nationalisms, the sense of the vector was inverted. This impulse gave way to our modern art museums as well as the absolutely internationalist São Paulo Biennial. [1] For good and for evil, the inclination goes on being internationalist. Among other reasons, because the channels for the circulation of information are so fast and accessible that any artist from the third world can copy, at the very moment, whatever his colleagues of the first world are doing. As far as this goes, Dalton Costa rows against the current. One simple glance reveals that his work could only be done in Brazil – or at least in some Latin American country with a poorer baroque past than the European one and with historical property chastised by time.

If in Dalton’s art there is no nationalism – meaning the fulfillment of a project – there are national characteristics. It is clear that this is not, in itself, either a quality or a shortcoming. The criteria for the evaluation of art are neither absolute nor universal. Whatever you disqualify in one artist can be a merit in another one, depending on the nature of what they have accomplished.

In the case of Dalton Costa, Brazilianity – in his case, so natural and effortless – is a quality. His production belongs to what can be currently called a school (for it has yielded disciples) that was defined more than thirty years ago by three men from Minas Gerais who were also involved with Brazil, more specifically with Minas Gerais. I mean Farnese de Andrade, Celso Renato de Lima and Marcos Coelho Benjamim. Never did they really form a school, group or movement. They worked separately and each one of them created his own style, different from the others. What brings them together is a certain ethos, an atmosphere derived from existential values embedded within their sensibilities, and, more explicitly, certain language resources, such as the appropriation of preexistent materials and assemblage as their chief technique. [2]

Here we find the significance of Dalton being a Goianian. Having before him the dazzling blue sea of Alagoas, and at his back a tradition of hinterland struggle, an artist such as him would probably not experience the Mineiros’ and Goianians’ nostalgia. The Northeast is either completely Sun and extroversion or harshness of the environment as well as of the individual. Goiás, similar to Minas, also had gold, cattle and farms (as in Drummond’s poetry), also saw its gold become extinct and even displays, in the city of Goiás Velho, an equally mountainous version of Ouro Preto. The fact that Dalton’s raw material is antique wood collected in destitute state, impregnated with its own memory, remains on the Goiás-Minas side. This is not ethylic psychoanalysis, it is rather cultural reasoning. It was in Goiás, by the end of the seventies, that he started painting, just like most of his age – the so-called eighties generation. More than ten years after, already in Maceió, he switched to  assemblages, into which he eventually inserts painted surfaces.

Just like the exhibit, this text is the first one on Dalton, in São Paulo, and it carries certain obligations. More than exposing subjective impressions and flatteries, let us insert the artist in his own context. Let us go back to the Mineiros (from Minas Gerais). Celso Renato was incidentally born in Rio in 1919 and Farnese, in 1922, in the Triângulo Mineiro; they have died and I am not sure whether they came to know each other. Marcos Benjamim belongs to another generation; he was born in 1952 in the Northeast of the state, way up near Espírito Santo and Bahia. Farnese (who lived in Rio) was the first one to mature his work. Already a great engraver, by the end of the sixties, he started to collect waste material returned to the beach by the tides: eroded wood, destroyed pieces of dolls covered with barnacles, sea life calcified specimens, skeletons of small animals. Using them in assemblages and box forms, a popular support at that time, he created an original, tragic and unusual universe. A martyr of existential pain – besides eventual other specific pains – all of his work revolves around the dichotomy of life and death, in its tangible aspects and in the form of an acute cosmic anxiety.

Celso Renato, after being of little importance as an informal abstract painter in the midst of the seventies, started collecting pieces of sidings, those that circle constructions. On them he started to intervene with the incisive painting of few geometrical signs and colors (practically only white, black and red), producing tableaux-objets of unexpected, immediate beauty. Critics, the public and colleagues sensed their strength, and Celso Renato, from a secondary position grew to be a seminal presence in Belo Horizonte, beside Amilcar de Castro. They were great friends and, in art, they shared geometry and esthetic severity. Marcos Benjamim is among those who owe him this example.

Benjamim’s assemblages appeared at the end of the seventies and they also used risky materials, and unlike those of Farnese, they were non-figurative: small pieces of wood, chips, stumps, wires, nails, slices of rusted cans, leftovers of sundry everyday things that he transformed into small simple objects that seemed to have been born of effortless birth. Many of them looked like non-ambitious utensils: drains, sifters, bulbs – devoid of real functions.  Afterwards the objects grew and today Benjamim’s work is different. It is not certain that he and/or Celso Renato had desired to make ‘Minas art’. At least they did not theorize. However, in their practice, they established for this art a new non-thematic benchmark, setting it apart from that one Guignard and his disciples had established. Farnese did not at all seek it – though his work also  ends up being just as “from Minas”, owing to the values therein. [3] On the other hand, all four (I am now including Dalton) made tridimensional pieces that do not occupy space in the sense of a sculpture. They are more intimist and most of them must be placed on the wall, belonging to the category of an object.

There is no doubt that Dalton Costa’s objects do not participate in the apparent spontaneity and extreme simplicity of Benjamim’s antique-like objects. No matter how intuitive, they integrate a work full of thinking and consciousness, visibly more elaborate than that of Benjamim. They belong to the field circumscribed by Leonardo da Vinci: “L’arte è cosa mentale” (Art is a mental thing). Just the same, his surfaces do not resemble the gross sidings on which Celso Renato intervened. Dalton prefers the scraps of acculturated wood that man has previously handled.   They are mostly old doors upon which time has peeled off successive layers of paint. Although just a result of chance, the stains and hues show an elegance of “tachist” art, next to which Celso Renato’s economic rendering becomes almost minimalist. At first sight, Dalton presents a greater resemblance to Farnese. Details such as wood with its peeled paint and the use of heads and limbs from the ex-votos seem to draw them closer together. These are superficial analogies. To Farnese, the ex-voto, always within dramatic contexts, represented a metaphor of man; to Dalton, it is a composition resource, a visual accent. At bottom, in essence, there is nothing in common between the aching, somber, nocturnal pathos of the former and the latter’s serene vision of the world. In this perhaps is the first contribution of the Alagoas sea.

I have just been pointing out differences – but there is also no doubt that we are talking about the same family of artists. There are many differences all along history, but people sometimes recognize each other through physical similarities (you have the nose of a cousin, the gait of another), sometimes through similar ideas, values and passions. In Dalton’s case, both of these levels interact. A bit because of form, a bit because of spirit, this trio of Mineiros explains and legitimates the interaction. This does not even remotely signify that Dalton has suffered their influence. Moreover, had he suffered their influence, it would not have meant a loss of authority; influences are an inevitable part of human processes of learning and creation. Dalton knows and certainly admires Farnese. He is a little acquainted with the recent Benjamim, not with the one at the start. Of Celso Renato he has never heard. He arrived where he is by his own paths. If it is a fact that the three created disciples and even diluters (I have seen examples), it also is a fact that exist in Dalton Costa the talent and originality necessary for him to be more than just a member of a trio. He has very clear specificities that set him apart.

I believe that the first specificity is coloring – when it exists, for several works remain with the original tone of wood. His coloring is sober and nevertheless seductive; much more at skin surface (if you know what I mean) than that of his Minas cousins. The second specificity is the slightly hieratic character that symmetry confers to a great part of his objects – a possible reflex (I do not know whether conscious or not) of Northeastern religion. There is not any religiousness among the Mineiros (except perhaps for occasional Satanism in Farnese). However, the greatest specificity consists in the dialogue that his work accomplishes with a certain popular “visuality” – without looking like it. It is worth repeating that they are distinct phenomena of an entirely different kind. I must nonetheless report my personal experience. Without even knowing the name of the artist, I became acquainted with two or three pieces, some months ago, on the Galeria Pontes walls, surrounded by dozens of Northeastern popular art objects – small animals, little dolls, characters, processions, all of them in dazzling polychromic terracotta. Surprisingly, there was no conflict. In a growing order of incompatibility, it is evident that Benjamim, Celso Renato and Farnese would not harmonize with the environment. Not Dalton: he was perfectly integrated.

It is difficult to objectivize how, through which formal procedures, the dialogue becomes possible. It does not seem to me that Dalton Costa has ever had as a target translating the Brazilian people’s soul – but undeniably, much more than us urban people of the South, he is there in the very inside of it. Moreover, he is a researcher on the subject, having made several videos on popular Northeastern artists. I stress again that it is not a matter of influence. His work is not even figurative, it is abstract.  It does not have the narrative elements that characterize the expression of the people. [4] As in the case of the three Mineiros, there is the same ethos among them, meaning breathing the same air. Perhaps it is something similar to what happens between the engravings of Gilvan Samico and the engravings of cordel literature – an ancestral identity, above all influences and other objective explanations. Here we spot the second and fundamental contribution of Alagoas.

At this point, a correction is necessary. In the first paragraph of this text, I said that Dalton Costa could have been in any place in this country.  Nevertheless, I now realize that his work would not have been what it is in other circumstances. There exist, no doubt, artists that are immune to their environment; he definitely does not belong to this group. Processes of creation are always rather mysterious. You think you are making use of one source in front of you, when in fact the energies are coming from other sources of which you are not even aware. You target at something you are sure of, but you get something else that escapes your assuredness. Underneath bubbles the magma of cultural matrixes and of individual memories, and of the two unconscious minds – the personal and the collective one. All of these forces cross one another so that the Goianian Dalton Costa could have happened in Alagoas, with a whiff of the Mineiro spirit, and could now be a pleasant discovery for the rest of Brazil.

Notes

[1] Few people currently know of the terrible fighting around the creation of the 1951 Biennial. The Left hurled such things as “swampland of modern formalism” and from this downwards. The Biennial would bring abstract art and leftists considered that only figurative and nationalist art held the privileges of ethics and humanism. The Biennial, according to them, would guarantee the entrance of Yankee imperialism at the service of an “international trust” for brainwashing, led by Nelson Rockefeller.

[2] An assemblage (with the same etymological origin of assembly,  conveying the idea of reunion) is a collage in three dimensions. It descends from the papiers collés by Picasso and Braque, in cubism, and conquered its space since the marvelous work of Kurt Schwitters.
[3] As becomes clear in Drummond’s entire poetry, the pain of existence composes the Mineiro sensibility in its essence. Speaking about the Prophets of Aleijadinho in Congonhas, Drummond reassures us: “These prophets are Mineiros. At that, they are 400 year old and also contemporary, sullen, crepuscular, messianic and melancholic.” Among these adjectives, only sullen does not fit Farnese. Since he yells, he fits into another Mineiro category, the Baroque.

[4] Popular abstract art may happen, but not through the media that the people themselves consider their essential artistic expression, like painting, modeling on terracotta, metal reliefs, etc. It occurs in weaving, utilitarian ceramics, ornamentation of surfaces and other forms of applied art. I also remember photographs of sets of painted wooden stools, seen from above, in a market in Bahia. I also remember the photos by Anna Mariani, showing façades of little houses in the Northeast. They offer abstract art – but, in this case, with the decisive collaboration of photographers.

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