Daniel Senise

Daniel Senise

Bernardo Mosqueira

Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition Daniel Senise – Museu do Recôncavo at Galeria Paulo Darzé, in Salvador, 2019.

Daniel Senise’s paintings remind one that memory is impossible without invention.

Before the cock crows

In 1980, as a newly qualified engineer, Daniel Senise was working on the Vídeotexto design project for the National Bank. With his interest in culture, images and literature, he decided to collaborate with a friend to make a film based on Fernando Pessoa’s dramatic poem “O marinheiro” [The Sailor] (1913). In this tale, three women dressed in clothes as dark as their surrounding watch over the body of a fourth woman dressed in white during the early morning hours as they wait for the sun to rise. They talk in front of a window through which a sliver of sea can be seen. Dimply lit by torches, almost in the shadows, they start to discuss what to do with the time they have left. Their exchange create an amorphous atmosphere in which it is impossible to distinguish whether what they are saying is invention, dream or memory. THis in turn creates a tension between the distanced, doubtful and dramatic nature of the three women’s conversation, and the real physical presence of the inert, prostrate, cold cadaver. A second tension (similar to Ferreira Gullar’s poem “As Peras” [The Pears] in the collection A luta corporal of 1954), is created by the absence of time markings in the face of the clear evidence of the approaching end. Suddenly, the cock crows, interrupting both the early hours and the dream. “O marinheiro” is a text that infiltrates the petrified rigour of death with a dreamlike quality of invention. As they were planning the filme, Senise susggested to his friend that they include a shot with a Chinese vase that was in the room of the house where they were meeting. When asked the reason for this unlikely appearance, he could not give an explanation. This stalled the project – and in the end, the film never came to fruition. It was this need to communicate through debate and argument (typical of team collaborations) that discouraged Daniel from film-making. Shortly after this, he decided to dedicate himself to painting, which was a field in which he felt free to take more pondered and intuitive decisions.

On the shoulders of giants

Daniel was always obsessed with knowledge and invention. From the start, he studied and experimented with short cycles of exercises that focused on analysing and painting in the “style” of artists who interested him. One of his first references was the work of Francis Bacon, which fascinated him both in its form and in the way it was areflection on the painter’s life. In 1983, on a trip to São Paulo while he was still working for the bank, he visited the 17th São Paulo Biennial, and discovered the work of Markus Lüpertz, who was part of the German cohort of represented artists. The exhibition included Lüpertz’ paintings from 1980-1982, which combined areas that were more expansive and expressive with others that had more precise and controlled strokes. The painting were of solids made up of a diverse range of fragments and volumes. It included the series “Five paintings of fascism”, with canvasses entitled “Gas”, “Resistance”, etc. His discovery of Lüpertz had such an impact on Senise that when he returned to Rio de Janeiro, he added this experience to his enthusiasm for foreign art magazines, and began to paint large-scale paintings that experimented and played with the international trend for neo-expressionism – and that quickly become a success of the market and in the press. At this time, Daniel was painting with acrylic paints that he mixed up using pígments (particularly the iron oxide pigment brand Pó Xadrez) with an industrial base (a white PVA glue).

Chapter One

After this, everything happened fast. In 1984, the young Daniel Senise started a teaching job at the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage [the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts]. That same year, he took part in the illustrious exhibition “Como vai você, Geração 80?” [How are you, 80s Generation?] (which celebrated its 35th anniversary on 14 July 2019) with the painting “Sansão” [Samson]. Soon after, he won first prize at the IV Salão Brasileiro de Arte [the 4th Brazilian Art Show] and was invited by Sheila Leiner to take part in the controversial 18th São Paulo Biennial (which became known as “A Grande Tela” [The Big Screen], in 1985). When Senise received this invitation, he decided to leave his job at the bank and devote himself exclusively to painting. In these early years, Daniel researched and investigated the meaning of his own production in a continuous attempt to understand and refine his interests, his poetics, and his language. Senise arrived at the conclusion that painting was his field of experimentation, andthat his goal was to develop it as a platform into which he could insert the elements that were significant to him in constructing his own universe. Representation is always a game of losses and gains, and in those large-scale almost monochromatic early paintings, Daniel trod a path that would help him escape the banailty of the world – producing heady and mysterious images based on heroic figures, everyday household objects, references to the history of art, and his own relationships with family and friends. In these early years, this resulted in voluminous white figures, fragmented and enigmatic, scupltural and perhaps ghostly, lying across the floor, set against black backgrounds, and filling or even spilling over the compositions.

In 1987, Senise set out to paint in oils. Because oils need more time to dry, he transformed his technique and began to take longer on the canvasses, repeatedly applying and removing paint from the surface of the canvas. Obsessed with perfecting his delivery, and with deveolping something procedurally, stylistically and conceptually unique, Daniel began to paint for many hours on end that he would often end up with a migraine from inhaling the chemicals found in oil paint. At the time, Senise was also obsessed with the freedom of the work of Sigmar Pole and by the poetic relationships between the artist’s image, techniques and materials. It was from Pole that he learned the concept that traditional supports in the arts (including painting) are not neutral, and that everything involved in the composition of a work is the choice of the artist, thus generating distinct physical and vibrational qualities.

So, differently from the previous hegemonic patterns of Brazilian art, Daniel Senise (alongside several other artists from the so-called “80s generation”) did not see his work as an ideal space for explaining power relations in the world, or commenting on or reacting to national politics. His questions were more closely related to painting itself, and to processes of imagination, dreams, memories, and delusion. With the use of oil paint, his paintings took on transparencies, densities, shades and shadows that created increasingly dream-like scenes. Based on his experience as the son of a commercial airline pilot, Daniel began to depict airplane crashes and accidents alongside other almost unidentifiable flying or floating objects, whose unrecognisable structures are reminiscent of skeletons, carapaces and skins. They appear on the canvas as if they are doodles: incomprehensible, suggestive, sketched anotations.

The mystery

There is an essence that remains distant from us in everything we experience in our lives. What we are able to see is simultaneously hidden from us. Every encounter, invention, event, or novelty is a powerful yet flawed revelation, a nuclear fission of unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences. This mystery presents itself to each of us in its own way; it is personal and indefinable. Although problems or difficulties may be solvable and shareable, mystery is not. Subjectivity lives in mystery. Mystery is entwined with existence. As a future, it allows time. As a past, it is the most distant foundation of our being. As a present, what is left when we sacrifice Cartesian rationality at its feet? What do we gain? It is mystery that stirs us poetically. It is mystery that is responsible for every sublime moment we experience. It is mystery that is found in the epiphanies that hold out against the disenchantment of the world. In a society that, in part still believes in finding “clarity” and “clarification”, and that still has principles based on the “Age of Enlightenment”, there is also still the brooding, shadowy, dark side of the moon, for which there is no name, no rules, and that is resistant to all sense or reason. Faced with mystery, all we can do is deny it (as is everything that is strucutred by modern, prosaic, hegemonic epistemology), or embrace it (as in the case of art and spirituality). Mystery is inexorable. And, just as the survival of painting was being questioned (despite the fact that this now seems naive), it was through mystery that Daniel Senise found a fertile path for his work. At that time, he was still making multiple dark painting with black backgrounds and luminous figures (similar in a wat to the videotexts). However, from those beginnings until today, his hesearch has deepened its mystery and has developed countless ways of avoiding totalities, evoking ambiguities and confirming the coexistence of differing perspectives (of which, more below).


In 1987, Senise was preparing pieces for two collectives he was involved with in Paris, at MAM and Crédac. His themes were becoming increasingly personal and, looking back at Bacon and Polke’s work, he felt his paintings were increasingly material proof of his passage through the world. Some of the painting he wanted to make were too big for the walls of his studio, so he decided to make them on the floor, which, ath the time was covered with the remains of large amounts of paint left over from previous projects. On lifting the canvas vertically, he found that the remains of everything – the dust, dirt, and paint that had built up on the floor over time, had been transferred to the back of the fabric, and followed the shapes of the grooves, cracks, holes and other details of the texture of the floor. This serendipitous experience was almost miraculous and quasi-mystical and was a definitive moment in Daniel’s work. The artist soon repeated this process in other surfaces of the studio, and he went on to repeat it in other locations. Senise invented several techniques that were based on this discovery over the following years. His first technique was to replace canvas with cretonne, and oil with a mixture of pigments and acrylics (which were now of better quality). At one point, he began to play with the relative transparency of the canvasses by writing or painting on the back so that the marks would appear on the front. The resulting pieces using this technique were, for several years used as the background for the artist’s series, and led to an ethereal and dreamlike quality. At some point after this, Senise started to superimpose small objects sewn or glued onto the works, and then also used the oxidation of nails or other metallic elements to mark the fabric. Over another period, he mixed iron oxide with resin to create fragmented shapes on the works. At this point, he finally felt that he had managed to find the tools to create the conceptual relationships between what was being represented, and the technique and materials being used to represent it.

In 1992, Daniel moved to New York. When his son put into his hands his birth, he was surprised by the fact he had been born with his face towards the ground and not facing him, as he had expected. In that single second, he had a powerful sense of how one day, this life that was magically beginning would also come to an end. From that point on, he lost any fear of emptiness and death. Shortly after, while sitting in an airport in NY watching the planes taking off and landing, it occurred to him to rip the canvasses in different places and create new images by reconfiguring the remains. Between 1988 and 2019, he experimented with this technique in over 30 places, in towns and cities in both Brzil and the United States, and built up a huge collection of different tones and textures. This collection has been the basis of most of the artist’s series of work since then. It was also in 1992 that Senise named this project making imprints of the floor under his works as “Sudário-Memória” [Shroud-Memory].

Sudário-Memória 1 (shroud)

In 1987, Senise was asked to create the scenery for a theatrical piece in Rio de Janeiro, and he decided to cast it as a series of mugshots inspired by the Turin Shroud. This choice led to the work being censored by the theatre owner. Two years and a lot of thought later, when the artist was feeling the need to formalise the conceptual thinking underpinning his work, Senise coined the term “Sudário-Memória”.

The word “Sudário” in Portuguese can have different meanings. The first refers to its original etymologgy, which relates to the past functions of cloths being used to dry sweat. However, the most common usage of the word in Portuguese is connected to the “Holy Shroud” or the “Shroud of Turin”; a piece as controversial as it is mysterious, and which is over 4 metres long and holds the marks on the front and back of a man apparently killed by crucifixion. Many Christians believe that this mantle covered the body of Jesus in the period between his burial and ressurection, and that in this process the details of Christ’s body were miraculously marked on the fabric so that it could be used as a tool of faith and devotion. The famous “Shroud” is classed as “Acheiropoieta”: that is, an icon “made without hand” miraculously (like the Veil of Veronica and Our Lady of Guadalupe).

Daniel could have created a title for his work based on the idea of engraving, stamping, printing, or mirroring a cloth with what the ground was wearing, like a skin that could be shed, but he chose “Sudário-Memória”. In practice, the technique of soaking the fabric with a mixture of gum and pigment is fairly close to that used by the Egyptian embalmers. However, this detail will have to be left for discussion at a later date. If this was Senise’s choice, it seems useful to further consider this term.

Daniel’s “sudário” shares a commonality with the Christian icon, that being the result of painting without a brush, creating images that are reminders of the materiality of something absent or distant, and generating a representation via direct contact between the support and the object, etc. All this has already been said in one form or another, and seen from this perspective, the shroud created by Daniel shows the marks of the death (and ressurection) of the body of the world. However, if we consider the influence of Francis Bacon on the young Senise, we can imagine that Daniel’s “sudário” could also be understood as the cloth impregnated by the fluid of his actions, a surface that reveals the marks of his own passage through the world, a “shroud” in his memory.

Sudário-Memória 2 (memory)

It was the year 2000, and Daniel had spent the previous few years using the impressions taken from the different floors as backgrounds for his paintings. At that time, the artist had already begun cutting the fabric into strips and rearranging them to create representations of architectural spaces. When the curator Paulo Herkenhoff went to this studio in New York, the walls held some of the pieces from his series of museums and galleries. According to Senise, when he was asked about the potential of the series, Herkenhoff’s response was that he thought the artist should use the marked fabrics to represent only the places where they had been produced.

Reflecting on the fact that to this day Senise continues doing what he was at the time and that he actually went took a conscious decision not to follow Paulo’s advice, one can find something that is very worthy of analysis. What do the works gain from mixing of these fabrics? What comes from the inability to be able to accurately define the origin of the pieces of fabric?

Memory consists of learning, reading and retaining information. It is a mutant ordering of fragments retained by our perceptions and fictionalised by our affective systems. The work of memory is by definition a work of compilation, an act of formalisation, of organising heterogeneous elements, and is a creation of folds, continuities and short-circuits through the continuity of time. Memory fills the gaps that appear in our encounters with the world. It is composed of images based on reality (although something is always lost), images that are more or less precise, that consolidate erratically, resulting in plasma-like, moving representations that are impossible to completely understand or represent. However, at the same time, it is also memory that makes us who we are. Even in the realms of perception, it is only what interests us that actually touches us, and when experiences do manage to reach us, they lead straight back to the past, and give us a sense of direction through time. Memory is the partly uncontrolled process of updating in readiness for the present. Memory is inaccurante and marked; it is stratified, repressed, unveiled, tangled, doubtful and anachronistic; and above all, every fragment of it is in constant flux and is changed through new experiences. However, just as it is a process of learning, reading and maintaning, it is also a process of ignoring, obfuscating and forgetting. Perhaps it is his concept of his own work as being a space in a universe of dreams and memories that led Senise to persist in his mission to “de-territorialise” fragments despite Herkenhoff’s suggestion. In a sense, what Paulo said at that moment was precisely what Daniel needed to hear.

Nevertheless, the fact of mixing up the different canvasses does not in any way mean they are diminished. Each fragment – revitalised powder, an egg from a piece of the world, carries in itself the physical and symbolic link to a specific place. These are not only the marks of events, but they are also a kind of energetic memory of anything that happened in a place. Being an artist of mystery, it would not have been a convincing strategy to treat these pieces of fabric tautologically.

These fabrics are impregnated with the history of the events of other spaces (perhaps in a similar way to some of Jorge Guinle’s works being impregnated by his semen). There is much in these canvasses that we do not, and cannot see (as is perhaps exemplified by the sheer scale of the piece “2.892”). It takes faith, courage and belief to be able to reach maximum contact with the power of these works.

By using the impressions of so many spaces in each piece, Senise’s works can potentially contain fragments of all the places he has ever been in the world. Memories intertwine, contaminate each other, and fluidly fill the gaps in each other (thus, a Chinese vase may appear in the middle of a funeral). This demonstrates that Senise is not only interested in creating equivalent representations of physical spaces, but also in producing fictional spaces, symbolic bodies that create and yet are created by Daniel’s own memory. This is a beautiful parable for representation: the powder/dust of the pigment knows the shapes of the ground intimately, on the fabric it tries to describe it accurately, but the closest it can get is to invent its inversion.

And so from dust to dust

At the moment Senise un-sticks and removes the canvas from the floor, the layer of dust, dirt and debris of all kinds that had been on the ground previously is transferred to the fabric. We can find the details of the floor, the marks of crises, and the remains of events; we can see time flexing its muscles over matter; and we can find hard times and disintegration. The fabric revelas a delicate mirror image of the floor, between “being” and representation, formed by the dust from which we come and to which we will become again.

What is that allows complex bodies to hold their parts together: What is it that holds the body together before its final dismemberment, disintegration, disappearance? What is it that keep things standing? This is something for holy-men, engineers or artists to ponder.

In Senise’s work, there is a tension between decomposition and composition, between the concepts of finite and creative life. If the substance of the world, the remnants of bodies and actions, shows itself – spilling over the horizon of representation, we are forced to ask: What is there after the end? We are only able to glimpse these things from the limitations of the ground. On the ground we were born and, while we are still on it, there is much we can do.When our bodies are in the ground, we are no longer: we can only live on through our work and our children (who, as most know, are the most effective remedy against the fear of being forgotten).

Daniel’s work has a very strong relationship with Fernando Pessoa’s “O Marinheiro”. Faced with a body that is a reminder that the end is near, Senise chooses to fill time with dreams and imaginings, using creation as a form of life. Some elements have particular importance in the structuring of these images.


Daniel’s relationship with the floor/ground is significant. This is both as a part of the process of creating the canvasses (the impressions of which lead to their physicality), and as an element that guides the composition of the images. While we have already looked at the former method, it is still important to underline that the floor/ground is a primary element in Daniel’s imagination.

As previously mentioned, what is under the ground is death – unattainable and impossible to experience, (there is no “I” in true death, there is no encounter between it and me. All we can do is to watch or imagine the death of others). We are born looking for death, but while on the ground, we can only crawl, walk, run, love, vibrate, make choices, and create marks on it. Higher up, high above the ground, are images, dreams, imagination – everything that – in its own universe – can ignore the laws of nature: whether gravity or finiteness. Everything that has tired of modernity is now eternally above us. Since the 1980s, there has been a resurgence of elements like airplanes, balloons, floating objects, boomerangs, levitating women, birds, angels, columns that rise up towards the infinite, structures that erect houses in the heights, a wide range of ways of avoiding or leaving the ground. Above all, there is a recurrent focus on the space between things that is to be filled with images and actions.

The miracle of visuality

In 1992, Senise wrote about a significant dream in one of his notebooks. On the first page is written, “The plane began to performe landing manoeuvres over a sea full of small cabined boats“. The drawing that accompanies the note shows the perspective of that of the pilot or from the aircraft itself. He goes on: “(…) The plane was going to make an emergency landing in the water. It was no longer a plane but a boomerang like pair of long wings“. This was followed by a set of drawings with sequences of lines that spiral and return to the same point. Between ’94 and ’95, Senise produced a series of painting entitled “Boomerang” based on these annotations. The images are formed by using the rust from nails on the surface. When looking at some of these works, such as “3 Caminos”, we can see the relationship between the drawings and the silhouette of a young girl and, thus we can imagine that these two-dimensional drawings may perhaps represent the tracks of the adventures of looking through space. These works by Daniel are derivations inspired by a drawing in the book “Tesouros de Juventude”, a kind of encyclopaedia for childrean and young people, which had been an important part of his mother’s childhood. In these paintings (as in many other from this period), the images were created using rust taken from a large number of iron nails. This series shows a direct relationship between bodies that decompose and the crystallisation of images, and it is this that makes it, a good example of Daniel’s fascination with the relationship between the visible and the invisible.

Senise refers on numerous occasions to the formation of images in his work as if he looking for a miracle. His work has numerous allusions to “appearance” and to movement between the known and the unknown. Whether it is images of floors imprinted on shrouds; rusty sketches left behind from nails, an insistent word painted on the back of a cloth; images hidden behind a piece of voile; a single eye watching us from the depths of a work; a maquette that expands and becomes real; a mark left by the light of the sun; a colour protected by the shade; an angel that shows itself; or a boomerang trail that becomes visible, – there are so many moments when it seems we are faced with a revelation – a mysterious and rare image that is a privilege and miracle to see. This is how he captivates us, and – for a while at least – how he holds us captive to his enchantments.


Since the start of the 2000s, of Daniel’s works is the result of exercises of perspective with the cut-out pieces of fabric from the shrouds. In the hegemonic narrative of the history of art, the advent of perspective goes back to Giotto (1267-1337) and Brunelleschi (1377-1446). The graphic system of perspective allows it to create the illusion of depth on a flat plane. Senise’s paintings since the turn of this century offer two perspectives: they remind us of the dust of the world on flat surfaces, and they offer us the experience of interpreting light as images in depth.

Even before he had started to cut the canvasses and create collages with these illusions of perspectives, Daniel had completed the series “Ela que não está lá” [She who is not there]. Senise based this group of works on one of Giotto’s frescoes “The death of St Francis”, in the Bardi chapel in Florence, and it shows the saint’s body surrounded by mourning monks, the physician Girolamo checking his stigmata, and St Francis’ ascension, lifted up to heaven by angels. Some years later – after the Italian master completed the painting, the chapel underwent a series of reforms that covered the paintings over with whitewash and constructed a series of tombs along these same walls. Recently, the tombs and whitewash were removed, and the painting revealed – although not without scars from both the construction and demolition of the tombs. As it is today, the fresco shows the tension between heaven and earth; between the dead and the living; between the saint’s faith that touched the angels in heaven, and the disbelief of the doctor who touched the dead body on earth; and between the body of Francis in the painting and the body that was entombed in the chapel; between the understanding of painting as an image (that leads to eternity) and the understanding of the painting as a body (destined for dust); and between Giotto’s illusion of perspective and the memory of the flat surface left by the mark of the pieces. One can focus on the cut-outs or on the scene itself in the fresco. For the series “Ela que não está”, Daniel reproduced the shapes of the mark left by the tomb, and  “replaced” Giotto’s painting with backdrops of shrouds. Strangely, the lacuna of the tomb in the painting has a shape reminiscent of a house, and it is this that is perhaps one of the works in which the issue of death and remains is most evident.

This reference to Giotto was not alone. Senise’s first 15 years of production were peppered with more or less opaque references to the works of other artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Devis, Fra Angelico, Goya, Hobbema, Hopper, Rafael and Whistler. In this way, Daniel became absorbed into a painting tradition that showed close-ups and distances, apparitions and erasures. Daniel’s work (particularly in the first 20 years) is also highly autobiographical, and the references to art history are often related to scenes from the studio, to the ground on which he stepped, the museums he visited, the death of his mother, his father’s life, his relationships with friends and his experiences.

If we believe that the advent of perspective in the history of art was a symptom of a moment in European culture that began to prioritise individual subjectivity over God’s vision and society, one can find a coherence, a continuity, and a direct relationship between Senise’s exercises in perspective and his autobiographical practice.

Life and time

As Heidegger said, “Death provides a cornerstone”: it is the presence of the possibility of the impossibility of any possibility. And life then…? What is life? As death is certain and indeterminate, its presence is what leads us to the future, to future life, and illuminates all our chances for creation, action ,invention, and achievement. If there is indeed interest in the theme of finiteness in Daniel’s work, there is also a subtle valuation of life seen as a positive game of functions – with the ability to generate change and to imprint and shake up environments. His seminal piece “Sansão” [Samson] (black and white paint on orange plastic, 1984), with the protagonist trying to knock down the columns supporting the roof over his head, managed in part to represent this tension between creative effort and the certainty of the ending. “Silvio Romero 34 / dez 09” (which is a photograph from 2009 left on the floor of the studio as is marked by daily creative activity), is also of this same ilk. There are of course the shrouds (which provide unique rites of passage between the flow of what is called life and the formalisation of what is called art), and similarly there is the series in which Daniel superimposes objects, fragments or shrouds collected from these places on photographs showing decaying spaces (as in the group of work “Museu do Recôncavo” [Recôncavo Museum]). In all these cases, Time is depicted as going hand in hand with the fictional phantom of finiteness. However, we also suckle at its breast and use it to fill ourselves with strength and desires.

The vestige and the aura

Walter Benjamin once wrote: “The vestige is the emergence of a proximity, irrespective of how far away it is from what left it. The aura is the emergence of a distance, irrespective of how close it is to what brought it into being. Through vestiges, we can possess the thing; whereas auras take power over us”. Daniel Senise’s body of work, going back to the late 1980s, is made up of vestiges and also endowed with a dimensional aura. The concept of the missing link (the “elo-perdido” of the title of one of Daniel’s seminal works), reminds one that vestiges can underscore the impossibility of knowing the past completely, due to the fact that most of the past is actually lost. Vestiges, like transitional fossils, are merely lost likenesses. At the same time though, the missing link (with its returns, ressurgences, echoes, rebuffs and lacunae) is a survivor of the past, based on which we can create images, narratives, reflections, and ways of seeing the world and ourselves. The combination of vestiges in Daniel’s production brings together a huge variety and number of unknown pasts. This results is hugely mysterious presences that hold sway over us, and make us feel small in the face of the huge generating power of curiosity, reverie, delirium, and imagination. In front of his works, one remembers that every irredeemable loss has given us our present – and this is the only territory available to life.

As said, life is order, life only, without mystification.