To see the visible

by Eucanaã Ferraz

In this exhibition, Raul Mourão once more devotes himself to the difficult marriage of construction and chance. Careful not to override each other, the entwined tensions engender through taut interplay solutions that reject judgments of decision or classification.

Thus, with such destabilizing interconnections, Mourão’s works convey familiarity with the principles of printmaking without however being defined by reproducibility. Mourão borrows procedures from monotyping, but his images do not emerge from the usual process of painting on the surface of what is often a sheet of glass, subsequently pressed against paper. It would be too little to say they share an affinity with stamps. Nor are they completely alien from the procedures of painting. Mourão’s work is not about choosing this or that surface, this or that material, or even this or that pigment. It is not the definition of a technique that is paramount: all efforts are directed toward the experimentation of technical possibilities, from which solutions will burst out to engender new problems to be resolved later.

A critical review overly concerned with classifications would also find it challenging to define the conjunction of straight lines and the fluid abstraction of space between them. Even as we are faced with Mourão’s frugal economy, how can one speak of minimalism when his methods are not hidden away in his works, but rather embrace unpredictability, prizing imperfection? Or how to define his work as informal, when we are offered rigorous construction of planes and geometric arrangements?

Abstraction in the works of Raul Mourão has always been based on indistinct and problematic dynamics at play. Mourão after all, takes his geometry from day-to-day objects, such as building facades, soccer fields, railings and signs from public worksites. If, during his career, Mourão aspired towards progressively freer formal arrangements, at the same time he never hid from view the memory of his research processes rooted in the everyday experience of city life. This has led to a form of recognizable abstraction, one that is contaminated by bodily, symbolic, emotional experiences, individual and collective reminiscences. In other words, we are looking at impure geometry’.

Earlier works from Chão Parede Gente (LURIXS 2010) had taken that direction. And this new exhibition brings greater depth to those issues. Looking at the window-sculptures we see that Mourão continues investigations that, while unceasing, are not linear. Mourão’s steel sculptures at first suggested an urban chronicle or sociological commentary as they displayed the aesthetic situation that was born of a crisis in public security: the overpowering and indiscriminate use of bars and railings for protection. His sculptures came out of a process of de-functionalization, their lines and volumes dimmed due to utility. Over the past few years however, Mourão has moved towards more classic abstraction, closer to the works of Amilcar de Castro, Franz Weissmann or even Calder. In the sculptures on show at LURIXS, bars have exited the focus of interest, abstraction has also retreated, offering us instead, something prosaic and recognizable, something that they had prevented us from seeing: the windows themselves. What we have before us is invention, and an invented architecture that is fragmentary and mobile, it dances thanks to kinetic matter that brings back to us spectators, to our eyes, and touch, states of weight, volume, movement, balance, time and value.

What draws our attention here is less the functionality or usefulness of things than their situation or ontological nature. Mourão’s gaze is turned above all to the apparent intelligibility of shapes, as if they spoke directly to us. His ensemble of works – sculptures, drawings, painting, prints, videos, installations, performances- always scoured subjectivities in action, in permanent coincidence with the real space in which they move. Since however cities do not separate themselves from their inhabitants and vice-versa, there is no real interest to be found in landscapes or time and space contingencies treated as mere background: shapes pulled out from cities are important in as far as they allow us a vision of the memory of social practices. For that reason, instead of pure forms we have an impure geometry, it is not abstraction strictly speaking nor is this mere figurative art.

Looking at Mourão’s “stamps” we experience the illusion that there is something to be seen in the in-between spaces, the intervals, created by the window frames as if there were something to look through to, an outside. Is there anything to see outside? Is there an inside and an outside? Our eyes tend to see something, want to see something. Mourão knows that and teases us. Almost inevitably we are reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In the film, windows exist because of what can be seen through them: a world where the old bourgeois privacy dissolved as middle class clustered promiscuously together in apartment buildings. It is a gaze that delves, indiscreetly, into narratives, facts, into the intimacy of others. By refusing that content, Raul Mourão creates windows, and doors, that are facts in themselves. Or even, concentrates on surfaces, creating a universe with no opposite side, it is bottomless, and there is no inside-out. I recall the Portuguese poet Sophia de Melo Breyner Andresen, who mentions the “vehemence of the visible”. Raul Mourão’s every gesture seems to look for this type of total presence.

We are a world apart from the effects of the trompe l ‘oeil. With no desire to imitate reality, but quite the opposite, Raul Mourão’s works are an effort to make the eye see. Even when Mourão recreates the LURIXS Gallery façade windows inside the main exhibition area – his aim is not to make visitors feel they are inside a (false) reality. Instead of feigned reality, visitors experience a displacement, an estrangement and are made to ponder, sharpening their perception. All is what it seems: form, texture, color, weight, volume, movement, density, rhythm, and memory. Each construction has the “vehemence of the visible”. Instead of sleight of hand, we are faced with a lucid game, with the playful proposition of an art that will return us the pleasure of seeing things, and our own selves, in new situations. Thus by rejecting illusion, cheating, and deceit, Raul Mourão reaffirms the ethical and political dimension of his work even here, in this new exhibition whose works are at a considerable distance from those that carried a more explicit political statement.

Duchamp’s 1920 Fresh Widow steel multiples created a curious historic line, since they at once recovered the ready-mades (a key strategy in Mourão’s work) and the historicity of objects -in this case the window- which in the history of architecture and the discursive fields has been adopted as a privileged sign. In much the same way, Mourão’s various versions of window frames remind us of the cubist grid and concrete art. In this sense it is possible to detect a clear critical and metalinguistic aspect that prevails over the entire exhibition – composed by paintings and sculptures (as far as it is possible to use such definitions) –in which subjective expression holds aspects of philosophical commentary, both on Raul Mourão’s singular poetics – there are many echoes here of his obsessions – as well as of (his own) history of art, always understood as, to use an expression by Giulio Carlo Argan, “storia dell’arte come della città”.

Eucanaã Ferraz
Eucanaã Ferraz

Poet, professor of Brazilian literature at the Literature Department of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and literature consultant of the Moreira Salles Institute, where he organizes publications, exhibitions, debates, courses and shows.