Daniel Senise

Grey ashes

Paulo Miyada

Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition All Saints, Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo, in 2019

  1. Principles

Let’s get straight to the point: Daniel Senise’s work activates the viewer’s cognitive capacity to perceive two or more types of sign simultaneously. In his ambivalent images, symbolic, indicial and iconic aspects are shuffled, suggesting perspectives, describing spatialities and, on the same level, leaving impressions of contacts and traces of actions. Thus, for each composition there are at least two concurrent interpretations: one representational, the other arising from processes involving contagion and impregnation of the materials.

These imagetic levels of Senise’s production not only vie for the viewer’s attention but also create ambivalent signs. One example is the coloring and texture that the artist adds to fabrics he prints with sap, dust and dirt straight from wooden floors: they will be perceived as both vestige from a time past and tonal nuance meant to enhance or feign the sense of depth in pieces he makes from hundreds of stained fabric cutouts.

Moreover, in numerous works the visual complexity is concatenated with an allusive meaning wafted by titles that resonate Senise’s memories or references from art and its history. While slowing down perception activated by cognitive attrition, the artist turns his works into frameworks for reminiscences and associations that, strictly  speaking, are not inscribed in their explicit denotation.

The photographs with objects and/or collages that Senise has been producing since 2005 operate as corollary of his poetics, from which they extrapolate. In a way, they spell out the processes summarized here, in as far as they combine two distinct means of image representation: photographic and objectual. For each piece, a space has been visited, framed and photographed to yield a perspectival planar image of indicial (photographic) nature, then to be printed as support for one or more material elements, most of them collected from the same spaces Senise visited.

In variations added over the years and filtered by the cutout shown in this exhibition, there is much to be learned about the possibilities opened up by joining disparate and complementary attitudes here.

  1. Indifference

Two images under the title W.L. 140 III – estacionamento [W.L. 140 III – parking] [2008] are shown side-by-side at the exhibition, both printed from the same photograph of a space comprising just wall, baseboard and floor bereft of any objects than dirt and debris. A layer of dust swept up from the photographed area was then added on each photograph. The discreet character of dust is made even more indistinguishable by the visual rhyme evoked between dust on the photograph and dust picked out by his lens. Collage here is the metonymy, redundancy and pleonasm that make the photographs different (on legal-analytical criteria) but similar (visual-procedural criteria).

  1. Alternative

Five images titled W.L. 140 II [2008] are, once again, prints from a same photograph that served as substrat on which Senise built five images. In each of them, a water stained corner becomes an unlikely exhibition space for cutouts referring to his works. Actually, they are fragments of fabric dyed/stained for the monotype prints of the floor area shown in the photograph. Their constrasting scales and indiscernible figures create a certain pictorial atmosphere in each cutout, which is reiterated by the way they are positioned in the scene’s perspective. Hence a short circuit of visual ambiguities multiplied by the exercise of alternatives shaped by juxtaposing all five pieces.

  1. Opaque window

Sorocabana V [2017] is a 1,50 x 2,70 m panel the photographic print of which is partially eclipsed by four riveted pieces of wood, possibly chair backs. Arranged linearly at regular intervals, their domed rectangles recall cabin windows in an aircraft – but their opaqueness blocks off, rather than enlarges, perspective. Even while leaping a few inches off the image, these volumetric elements flatten the composition. In this case, therefore, ambivalence becomes ambiguity, or even contradiction between terms. The piece cannot be quickly or uniformly perceived: it disrupts any uniform perception.

  1. Mise en abyme

Sorocabana I [2017], in turn, produces an (analog) effect of augmented reality. A partly ruined roof is dramatized by a framing almost entirely taken over by curves of the beehive structure. This structure was made apparent by the partially fallen arched ceiling covering a train station. Metal guttering on the roof also appears to be severely damaged, partly broken and hanging in erratic fragments. Senise gathered some from the ground and positioned them to visually rhyme with the composition, overstating the precariousness shown. The overlapping collage element and photographic scene generate a kind of rapport, in film jargon – a true narrative and perceptual continuum, despite being artificial.

  1. Extrapolations

In 1871 James Whistler’s painting of his mother’s profile for Arrangement in Grey and Black brought out the image’s compositional, tonal, and formal aspects. It was an unprecedented title arbitrarily named by a painter to totally shift focus away from the narrative meaning of his work. For this very reason, the painting’s reception has largely focused on its subtitle: Portrait of the artist’s mother. Over time, through metonymy, the painting came to be known as Whistler’s Mother.

This enunciative variation is more than a dispute between an artist’s intentions and the public’s appreciation, given the involvement of a number of polarities. An affective and emotional channel is emphasized by the naming of the piece for the person portrayed as the artist’s mother. However, this aspect of the work will always remain opaque to viewers, since nobody can really assess the nature of the relationship between James Whistler and his mother Anna. Moreover, if the emphasis in the ‘arrangement’ of greys and blacks present in all painted elements appears to be a whim of the artist – proudly underscoring a plastic concern that society of the time was not prepared to discuss directly -, this emphasis is also a reiteration of what the viewer actually has before him: an organized cluster of black and grey paints.

This naming and renaming remind us that art is an entanglement of intentions, expectations, memories, projections, forgetfulness, associations, reminiscences, understanding, parapraxis, and blind spots. Neither artist nor public can undo the knots created with each new image and new work.

Perhaps this explains the story’s special place in Senise’s repertoire. A 1992 painting of his was taken over by an orange blotch from rusting nails left on the canvas for some time – the outline of this blotch resembled Whistler’s mother and the title’s parenthesis mentioned mother and nails: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother – Whistler (Mãe de pregos). Another acrylic painting done the following year also had a dark background and white areas defining the work’s pledge: Retrato da mãe do artista II [Portrait of the Artist’s Mother II]. Then, in 1992, Senise painted another two: Sem título [Untitled] and Sem título [Untitled]. In so doing, Senise appropriated the popular nickname for the U.S. artist’s painting and multiplying silhouettes of the figure that the mainstream interpretation of the painting tends to favor. Thus, the artist eventually emphasized the problems of the pictorial facture of his works – a false paradox. It was no coincidence that the latter would eventually characterize his production as a whole (overlaps and ambivalneces between different types of sign).

Significantly, therefore, Senise finished his latest piece while the exhibition was being set up and called it Arranjo em cinza e prata [Arrangement in grey and silver] [2019]. The 3.66 m x 5.00 m panel consists of juxtaposed aluminum plaques mostly covered by remains of charred carpet salvaged from debris at the site of the Villa Lobos Theater in Copacabana, which burned down in 2015. In this case, however, there is no photographic base. On first sight, viewers may see it as a formal arrangement, which is reiterated by its title. However, there is a story behind this title, as we have just seen: a cautionary tale reminding us that things can always get more complicated. The material chosen bears its own vestiges of the accident (fire), as one of the many recurring episodes in Brazil’s history. (Just how many cultural institutions, collections and heritage can go up in smoke in one and the same young country?) It evokes many ideas and feelings that extrapolate the rhythm of greys and black arranged throughout the composition.

I like to think that viewers will realize they are looking at deris from Brazil – an ever youthful country but one that is never entirely well, as Lévi Strauss put it – at the very same instant as they are being dazzled by ambient light reflected from the aluminum surface gleaming though the ash collage’s fissures