Daniel Senise

Daniel Senise

Fernando Cocchiarale


Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition at the XX São Paulo Biennial, in 1989 

Departure from the naturalistic canons originating in the Renaissance was the alternative chosen by Modern Art to signify its uniqueness. In the modernist mind-frame this departure not only set the basis for the emergence of a new art form but also drove its development, marked by a sequence of breaks between the many avant-garde movements. Their differences ultimately lay in the variety of approaches to art as a breeding ground of pictorial images totally divorced from the outside world. Whether through the tight screen of constructive rationality, or through the expressionist explosion, modern art and painting in particular, developed often paradoxical projects as alternatives to the identity between imagery and models found in nature, an essential feature of Renaissance naturalism. The painting qualified as modern was ruled, for the best part of the 20th century, by independence gained from a break with mimesis and by a specialization of the avant-garde brought about by intra-movement fragmentation. These characteristics, and now a historical perspective, provide for a reasonably clear contour of the different sets of works, which formed the core of art during that period.

The historical cycle of avant-garde was closed over twenty years ago. And this cycle itself became another tradition to be superseded by newer art works, which raised questions different from those of the modernist movement. The heart of modernist uniqueness vis-à-vis the past and the cause of internal change was its departure from idioms already accepted by the market and the public. But this departure from canons was not enough to provide a way out of the avant-garde crisis. This crisis takes avant-garde back to its roots, stretches out a cycle already exhausted with no prospects of innovation. In response to the crisis in general and in particular to the radicalism of conceptual art – where ideas played a key role in the act of creating – one issue returned to the foreground as the seventies turned into the eighties. A renewed focus on painting, where the hand skill with the brush were the main elements of visual arts. The link with the past rested on synthesis rather than on a departure from questions inherited from the several stages of art history.

This return to painting was marked by an uncertainty as to where it would all lead. Some artists saw it as a revival pure and simple of traditional art imagery and issues, a sort of overlapping of post-modern and pre-modern art. Such is the case of part of the Italian trans-avant-garde, or the reduction of a work of art often to images, hedonistically arising from the mere pleasure of painting. This posture in fact ignores the amount of reflection that goes into any form of poetry – such as the discourse of some of the Brazilian ’80s Generation. Nearly ten years later, we can single out this body of work some that have based their return to painting on a departure from the positive moment, which antedated them historically – Modern Art – but without losing sight of its legacy.

As part of the ’80s Generation, the works of Daniel Senise are one of the finest examples in Brazil of how the issues raised by a return to painting can be confronted. They don’ t surrender easily to a facile return, neither to pre-modern representation nor to the development of allegedly post-modern imagery devoid of the heritage of modernism.

Despite the changes they have undergone since the early eighties, his works have centered on images whose meanings cannot be stated in any traditional pictorial idiom. They do not associate visual representation to conventional inartistic meanings. Free of any thematic context, his pictures do however have a starting point. They grow out of impressions of an object in the artist’s eye, which he stores in his mind and delivers as a poetic composition fully married to the pictorial treatment employed. To a certain extent every artist works like that. But Senise increasingly and specifically keeps an equal distance from the naturalist and modern-constructivist, expressionist and other approaches. He sets himself exactly halfway between the opposite meanings of imagery espoused by each camp depending on the importance they attach to the role of natural visual reality in art. Some emphasize it while others either deny it or see its strength replaced by the expression of the artist’s inner world. In Modern Art, these views are mutually exclusive because the idea of departure is valid only when the uniqueness of each image-building approach is explicitly conveyed. For this reason, ambiguities of this type cannot be accepted. In this connection, the equidistance from the past so prevalent in the artist’s works reveals his full grasp of an intentional tapping of historically paradoxical codes. He chooses the alternatives most consistent with the deadlock generated by the crisis of Modern Art.

Strictly speaking, we cannot reduce the role of images in his paintings to representation (naturalism) or presentation (modernism) simply because modernity seeps in through the gaps formed between those two movements. Nor we can tie it to dramatic expression despite the “atmosphere of catastrophe” of his early works so accurately detected by the critic Wilson Coutinho. He called Senise’s painting a “theater of mutilated feelings” (in his review for the artist’s catalog for the 18th São Paulo Biennial in 1985). The images in his works – though often pre-shaped as a reference – cannot be dissociated from the picture-building process. This means that the artist’s imagery is ruled by the chain of decisions he must make as he paints, which means that he incorporates new elements to the images as he builds them.

From 1985 on, some profound changes took place in the artist’s output. His cluttered and mutilated imagery of the early eighties had served to prevent easy identification and to avoid any iconographical reading. These had been central to the interpretation of critics, and in the eyes of many artists who understood that the “figure” was the key feature in a return to true painting. Now clutter and mutilation disappear entirely as Senise prepares to move toward his present style. In a clearly non-thematic vein in the traditional sense of representation his images cannot be perceived sharply. They no longer abut the edges of the canvas nor – in most cases – do they even touch each other. As shapes stand apart, the distinction between figure and background, absent from his early works again takes hold. This contrast, however, is sustained by the tension between the voluminous nature of images – now more pictorial than graphic, unlike his previous phase – and by a reduction in background depth. In spite of a textured treatment, the background is essentially flat in contrast to the foreground shapes. Color becomes stronger but less dramatic than before, underscoring the backgrounds where blues, yellows, reds, etc. predominate. The paintings finished between 1985 and 1987 introduce both a new meaning to pictorial imagery in the artist’s body of work as well as media he had never used before, i. e. he replaces acrylic paints with oils.

Daniel Senise`s latest paintings are in part a synthesis of his preceding phases. The changing essence of his imagery is closely tied to the different working processes he has been using for a little over one year. The fabric employed – he now uses cretonne, which is more permeable than canvas, and a new working technique, emphasizing the importance of the image-building process. Cretonne is stretched on the studio floor and then covered by a coat of pigmented glue and allowed to dry. It is then lifted and together with the canvas, comes all his pictorial substance – paint spots from other paintings, fibers, leaves, etc. – which had been on the floor. The often dirty-looking and scaly appearance of the entire canvas surface is caused by part of the medium which sticks to the floor forming some gaps on the backing, and lends each painting its own unique meaning. The treatment applied to the canvas is in itself of pictorial significance. But this is only the first step. Next, he either goes through the same process again, or begins to actually paint. The canvas is reworked in sections of the surface depending on the artist’s inspiration; objects star to emerge – individualized or otherwise – to weave a web of meanings that enmesh background and form into images. This entwining is possible only because the material chosen according to his treatment of the background integrates each painted object to the canvas surface. The medium thus overrides the pictorial character of Senise`s latest works. They convey a meta-historical grandeur which points to the silent timeframe of his works where images establish a dialectic both clear and mysterious, that sustains the tensions felt in his paintings. This relationship with history is sometimes reinforced by references made in a few of his works to Etruscan imagery such as dolphins, and by the vast size of his paintings which approach the mural format. History is not tapped as a mere return to the past but as the foundation for renewal of the present, in the artist’s post-modern approach to the question. This is why the aged appearance of his paintings is not intended to simulate an age in years they do not have. Quite the opposite, their strong material nature is an image of things unstable, old and dirty. In comparison to his previous works, chromatic changes have been introduced, increasing the significance of color in his painting – especially in the background – although chiaroscuro still plays a key role as far as volume is concerned. Several images are suggested by areas of flat color, by transparencies or even voids formed by apparently abstract shapes. But some of the basic features have not been discarded – a sharp skill in using large formats; the unbroken tie between image and medium. Daniel Senise`s art is still undergoing changes which have considerably altered the challenges which the artist confronts and takes on as his own working philosophy and technique. The risks taken in this venture are handled with the help of experience. They may explain the quality of a body of works not guided by any prewritten script but surely the source of novel alternatives for a new Brazilian painting.