Open Up the Game

by Luisa Duarte

The current exhibition is the third act of a triad which began with The World’s Smallest Carnival, in Salvador, moving on to Avoid Accidents, in Belo Horizonte, and now arriving in Rio de Janeiro, at Galeria Lurixs, where Raul Mourão is launching Open Up the Game. What these three shows have in common is the way that the artist turns the exhibition space into an extension of his studio. But such an extension is not the mere act of reproducing a place of work in a white cube, it is rather an attempt to share (whilst opening up the game) the dynamics of approximation and dialogue between the different works, in a similar fashion to what happens daily in the studio. 

If we agree that in Mourão’s practice everything begins on the streets, it is clear that in Open Up the Game his alliance with what belongs to the city, its hustle and bustle and public dimension, is not an opposition, but, conversely, a way of welcoming all that is introspective, delicate and whispered. In Mourão’s game, the big and the small, the fast and the slow, the heavy and the light, the strong and the fragile, walk hand in hand.

An example of this traffic can be seen in The New Brazilian Flag (2019), in which the artist makes a single and assertive gesture, removing from the Brazilian flag its central circle and, with it, its positivist motto – Order and Progress. Created during the recent dark years that have befallen the country, the work appropriates a segment of fabric that holds the emblem of a nation and, with a dry cut, reveals, at the same time, the abyss to which we have succumbed, the sense of precariousness that surrounds us, and a chance to reinvent ourselves, given that the void that now occupies the center of the flag can be filled with new and unknown sayings. Over time, the work has adopted different ways of appearing in the world – like multiples, photographs or public interventions. The repetition of the same procedure using different languages and scales is something recurrent in Mourão’s practice. Here, we move away from the fetish that permeates the aura of art making and closer to a mode of making that is typical of pop culture with its multiple levels of reproducibility and dissemination.

The persistence of a single motif and its variation using different supports can be seen in the series SETADERUA [STREETARROWS], which Mourão began as early as 1989. In Open Up the Game, the series returns in different-sized paintings and photographs. Here, a visual symbol that is inherent to the urban fabric has its usefulness upturned in the name of a constant formal re-elaboration. If in the city context arrows function as orientation, in Mourão’s work what we see, instead, are poetic deviations that mimic graphisms, compositions and chromatic games in a prolific succession that evokes different artists, from Daniel Buren to Raymundo Collares, from Waldemar Cordeiro to Judith Lauand. It is worth noticing how, in the paintings on canvas, there is no vestige of manual work, as if the typical anonymity of the streets took over the pictorial act. Their machine-like aspect, in turn, grants them a sense of order that contrasts with the unpredictability commonly found in the public space that surrounds us.

The coexistence between opposites continues in the kinetic sculptures made of weathered steel. The surprising element in these large-scale pieces is the combination of weight and lightness – the material’s rigidity gains malleability through movement, a movement that requires the attention of those who touch it. In the words of Eucanaã Ferraz: “The steel swings, plays, responds; what was once inflexible invites us to dance. But we must be careful, it is light, it is fragile; it is big, it is heavy.” By asking us to measure how much of our strength we use to touch them, Mourão introduces a dose of delicateness and proximity to something that could otherwise elicit inhibition and distance. And the twist continues when the artist reduces scale, and places the sculptures in dialogue with objects that already exist in the world, such as, for example, glass bottles or clay pots. It is a tenuous state of balance that holds the impenetrable geometric forms and the fragile index of mundanity and its different uses. 

It has been noted that the fact that these sculptures originate from drawings could contribute to the lightness that we see in them. That is, in the genesis of these artworks lies an essayistic trend, which welcomes risk and chance, resting on a thin sheet of paper, a material that has always been present in Mourão’s practice and re-appears in Open Up the Game in the series Janelas [Windows]. In the artist’s work nothing is an isolated fact, since everything is linked or communicating, conversing, causing friction, chatting with, touching, or rubbing each other. This is no different in Janelas. These are developments of Mourão’s works with grids. Whilst the iron sculptures present a “geometry of fear within a precise historical context”, these sort of monotypes conjure up another displacement of the geometric form. Here, black acrylic paint creates grids that frame windows which unveil a multiplicity of graphic landscapes. Albeit visually similar, they are always different. In place of the grid’s expected totality, we see a singularity that escapes any form of totalization.

The current exhibition’s title Open Up the Game evokes the idea of sharing with the public what is normally circumscribed to the studio. The works mentioned thus far have all been exhibited before, and many others have been joined by them, but their most significant common feature is the way they are presented and the neighboring links they form in the space. By bringing together a vast set of works as a way of triggering new dialogues and remaking situations we see in the studio, such as, a table populated with several small works, Mourão is reaffirming one of his poetics’ most dear methods, which is to think of each artwork not as an isolated unit but in relation to others. It is not unfitting to think that this form of art expands to his contributions to the cultural scene where he is constantly activating collaborations.

In this sense, Relixo Re-garbage summarizes much of what is at play in Open Up the Game. Produced in partnership with Thiago Tambellini, the video presents fragments of moving images captured by Mourão in the last ten years using cell phones and portable cameras. We understand how images in the digital era carry a paradox: they are stored forever in byte clouds but are rarely retrieved. The artist reverts the fate that condemns them to oblivion by rummaging through the garbage and editing it into a collage that unravels the nature of his gaze: both watchful and generous before a myriad of different experiences – a dance in Lapa, a rose swaying in the wind, children playing soccer, sculptures in nature, his son playing a video game, friends portrayed in paintings, building works, a naked suit in the middle of the street, a woman singing in the New York subway etc. By revisiting the past as a way of drawing the future, by undoing hierarchies, bringing together both what belongs to the public sphere and reflections on the domestic sphere, gathering noise and murmuring, and, as such, evoking unique approximations, Relixo emulates the operation performed in the exhibition as a whole.

By opening up his game, the artist offers us an event that, without resorting to any literal gesture, is positioned at the opposite end of an epoch marked by a regressive desire for separation, for unity through similarity, and the rejection of difference. The links between opposites brought together by Raul Mourão over his entire practice remind us that it is through an uncomfortable and contentious, yet pleasurable and seductive, proximity – rather than a safe and aseptic distance – that we can ultimately wake up to the unsuspected beauty that surrounds us.

Luisa Duarte
Luisa Duarte

Crítica e curadora independente, mestre em filosofia pela Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP). Foi membro do conselho consultivo do Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo e curadora de quatro edições do Red Bull House of Art, projeto de residências artísticas e mostras no Centro de São Paulo (2009-2010).