Daniel Senise: Canvases 1988 – 1994
Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition La mirada iluminante at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey, México, in 1994
Overlapping layers of an elusive time, continually becoming; monuments raised by a pictographic memory, windows that open out onto a mind in the process of evoking an urgent series of recovered forms, the engendered brood of an encephalic eclipse, hieratic diagrams drawing a remote state of appearances, ghost effigies insinuating a system of signs devised behind the closed doors of some generic future or behind those of an encoded present.
The work of Daniel Senise, gathered here in more than thirty large-scale canvases, aims to inspire a sense of awe that oscillates between apotheosis, enigma and the immutable. The world of Senise is a hermetic one that nonetheless transpires through a surface that manages to combine an abstracted symbolism (rendered in multiple layers of chance textures) with an impulse to elevate certain forms to their condensed original essence. His is an art whose technique is inseparable from the overall meaning of the compositions. What sustains this remarkable work is the resulting equilibrium, one might even say a weightlessness, between the material concern of its making and the reverent breath of its saying.
Pigment as the vehicle for painterly ideas, process as an equally crucial aspect of the content [itself], surface as both artifice and event, “the arena in which to act, not the space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, whether real or imaginary,” to quote a key phrase of Harold Rosenberg; with a visible impulse to inscribe himself in a vanguard informed by its recent history, like many of those who began to produce painting in the eighties, Daniel Senise had to first grapple with questions related to the problem of representation in contemporary art. Faced with vestiges of the conceptual praxis defined during the sixties and seventies (for example, the increased dissolution of genres, the continual displacement of the artefact, the irreversible transparency of the art-world apparatus) and confronted by the pluralism of styles that has arisen with a return to painting (neoexpression ism, transvanguard), Senise has had to consider how to create coherent works on the fringes of an anemic modernity works that might comment on the oblique history of the collapse of certain representational forms and yet, at the same time, introduce a possible convalescence.
Shortly after completing his firts paintings, Senise’s method underwent an important transition. By comparing an early canvas with a more recent one, I intend to explore the evolution of the artist’s work: In Coração (1985) an enormous heart is seen floating discreetly, painted in thick brushwork using a milky white pigment with faint strokes of brown to give the form its swollen quality. Below it, there is a double staircase in the form of an X, in black and chalky blue, attenuated by a white that not only forms the steps to the stairs, but which also serves to represent the light apparently emanating from the heart. The staircase also appears to be suspended in an entirely black abyss; peering out from the lower triangle of the X formed by the staircase is the grimacing face of a homuncular figure. Silhouetting the figure are short “comic-strip” rays, as if to suggest some sort of movement or surprise. The tone and treatment as a whole unwittingly recall the late works of Philip Guston as might have been painted by Jim Dine.
Willfully caustic, both the intention and execution of the work whisper what in later works Senise would state more eloquently: that no matter how decoded the surface may seem of what constitutes symbolic space – both in daily life (speech, dreams) and its visual representation – we are still bound to be at odds with a language which, under meticulous inspection, remains unattainable in the end; a matter of faith.
The artist eventually begins to subject his canvases to a special preparatory treatment. In an article on some of the new figures in Latin American art, Senise explains the procedure from which his artworks emerge: “I prepare my canvas, covering it completely with pigment. [The artist generally utilizes common white sheets.] I then place it on the floor where I let it dry, with the painted side face down. In this way I let the floor act in conjunction with the surface. Later, I peel the canvas from the floor and hang it on the wall. [A large number of Senise’s works measure over two square meters.] I then work with fragmented images. Sometimes I have to repeat the process on the floor so that the images are napped between two Layers of a random texture.”
Later, as the pigment dries, and in a refiguration of certain procedures employed by Yves Klein, Senise places objects such as iron nails over the surface so that they eventually leave a rusted imprint on the canvas. All this gradually forms a texture like enlarged details of a painting or a surface weathered by the effects of time. (Senise confesses that he sought this “aged’ texture after having seen the work of Giotto in Italy.) Other times, after abandoning a canvas half completed (the artist admits that he discards nearly seventy per cent of his work), Senise may reverse the sheet to show, suffused against the light and pigment, the remains (either inverted or upside down) of a previous unfinished work.
Over such surfaces Senise paints a variety of images: a sort of funerary shroud hung on a wall; a cloth that appears to be a waterfall or white rock formations; a hammer and scattered nails; the white silhouette (sometimes inverted) of a swan; a series of somber polychrome spheres or a kind of concrete cone. Many of these images are over random patinas of plaster and situated in the thick of sun bursts, vegetal volutes or animal bones that lie under scattered drips of pigment.
Senise appropriates his visual vocabulary from various sources. From art history he utilizes iconography related to the Crucifixion (hammer, nails, shroud, crown of thoms); or in a revision of the classic theme, he employs the image of a kiss; except that in this case it is portrayed by the intertwined skulls of two birds of a fictitious species whose beaks are preserved even after death and decay (O beijo do elo perdido, 1991). In other works he incorporates a sihouette of the central figure in Whistler’s famous work The Artist’s Mother: Composition in Grey and Black, No. 1. From mythology, poetry and the sciences, the Brazilian artist extracts the swan, the “four elements,” the celestial spheres, the human brain in the form of two trees, and (according to the drawings and notes of the Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher) the mountain whose seven peaks render the constellation of the Ursa Major.
ln an untitled painting (1992) an enormous diagonal fissure that bisects the pictorial space is formed by a white vortex seen punctured along its edges by ten nails, five to each side. This image seems to literally separate the darkness which surrounds it. As in other works by Senise, this canvas establishes a tension between the severity of the background and the singular, luminous quality of the shape it articulates. ln fact, it is difficult to determine whether the work is about the principle image or the environment in which it hovers.
Viewed this way, it is possible to read the work of Daniel Senise as a postmodern version of those exalted atmospheres painted by J.M.W. Turner where a figure is involved in the struggle with that other self, the sublime and ultimate reality of nature as in his painting Light and Colaur (Goethe’s Theory) — The Morning After the Deluge — Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, 1843. Senise, however, translates nature — that indispensable model for romanticism and the subject of modernism — as culture, so as to represent the boundary between reason’s desire for totality and imagination’s impossibility of rendering it as such. John Constable, that other English romantic, wrote: “The art of seeing nature is an acquired thing like the art of reading Egyptian hieroglyphs.” In his paintings, Daniel Senise hesitates to inscribe his own runic characters which, even undeciphered, might leave an imprint against the crisis of representation. Lt is no small task to uphold a faith in the relevance of the symbolic, a faith reticent to the notion that all signs are destined to invariably flot over a staircase leading nowhere…
Tower Of Song
It happens to all of us: that moment in which – staring at our morning coffee or waiting of the subway — we lose awareness of our train of thought; that instant in which the erratic parcels of language and the shards of shattered images suddenly diffuse into a familiar music. If paintings, in one sense, establish a “spatial synopsis” of accidents in time (Rudolph Arnheim), then those of Senise are stills that render the existence of things beyond the physical world (or which elude, at least, the chronography of the mind and its indomitable procedures).
- A nostalgia for the hieratic – that tower erected by modernity — against the televised or cybernetic world of today’s visual imagery. There is a canvas from a series with the indicative titleTower of Song, whose central image is a brickwork menhir or dolmen in the form of a bird’s upper body, as if Senise were underlining the monolithic attributes of a past when it becomes a fossil in time. Wallace Stevens wrote: “The pictures in a museum of modern art often seem to become in time a mystical aesthetic, a prodigious search of appearance, as if to find a way of saying and establishing that all things, whether above or below appearance, are one, and that it is only through reality that they are reflected, or it may be joined together, that we can reach them; under such stress, reality changes from substance to subtlety … “
- The interest in Athanasius Kircher, the seventeenth-century German erudite, is hardly a casual one. In Kircher’s work, Senise discovers a kindred ambition: the hopeless desire to register a glossary a concentric encyclopedia containing “a universal knowledge”. What for Kircher proved to be a messianic scripture becomes, for Senise, an archeology whose paradigmatic forms animate a mnemonic theater: aleatory landscapes that long for an ennobling intelligence — a deliberate, albeit illusory longing — against the oppressive abuse inherent in other kinds of knowing.
- An elemental tenet of the aesthetic experience: estrange the familiar, domesticate the invisible. InLast Supper(cat. 35), certain objects of daily use (pots, pans and percolators) are depicted as if the canvas were a photogram; in an untitled painting (cat. 29) the profiled silhouette of a girl faces an enormous organic cone as it emerges over the horizon; in another work teeth and branches form a map scribbled on the walls of some future Altamira or among the pages of a massive millenarian codex.
- If the artists in theavante-guard sought methods to critique every discipline initself – to attain what was often called the “autonomy” of the work — Senise renders his compositions with elements so blatantly aestheticized they seem to speak of a deficit, as if “ornamentation and representation [were] signifiers that obscure pure form, which is, in effect, the transcendental signified.” Elsewhere, and in the dialectic of José Lezama Lima, the question might be restated as: Are these possible absences as opposed to impossible presences?
- Senise explores these hauntingly mismatched worlds on a pilgrimage of “decreation.” The surface of things, the twice-removed image: both mask and cosmetic. It is an awful vision, as if Senise, like all iconolaters, were saying that there is nothing left behind these shapes but the uncertain conviction that images will illuminate what language invariably obscures.