Daniel Senise

On the Need of Painting

Moacir dos Anjos


Published in the catalog of the artist’s exhibition at the MAMAM (Museu de Arte Moderna Aloisio Magalhaes), Recife, Brazil, in 2005 

When Daniel Senise began his career – at the beginning of the 1980 – painters were expected to justify the medium of painting itself, which was at that time considered to have been a spent force for over twenty years. This conviction was reinforced by relative poverty of visual imagination and sensuality in the mainstream work of the preceding decade – which was based on procedures firmly grounded, for the most part, in concepts and rationality – to which the practice of painting could supposedly be counter posed. The idea that painting was a spent force had originally been brought about by the attempt on the part of modernist artist to make this medium a field for autonomous expression – liberated, therefore, from the responsibility to represent the world – which would have paradoxically made painting redundant. Many painters responded to these conflicting circumstances by returning, uncritically, to the pre-modern tradition in the medium, recovering, through accommodation or nostalgia, inadequate solutions to the challenge of effectively updating it. Others, however, turned their work into a space for reflection on what it meant to be still painting, after the experience of modernism, reinventing the characteristic features of this practice, and prolonging, for an indeterminate time, its relevance as a way of getting to know the world. It is within this shifting territory of adoption and questioning of the legacy of painting that the work of Daniel Senise has moved.

For a number of years, the artist produced work abounding in organic forms and common objects, which he never represented in their entirety, even on larger canvasses, so that they appeared to have been blown up to the point where they no longer wholly fitted into the space provided by the support. These enormous shapes, occupying the whole painted surface with acrylic, were built up using a limited range of colors, thereby accentuating the graphic qualities of the work. This drew attention both to its possible symbolic meanings and the deliberate confounding of figure and plane, thereby testifying to the difficulty of establishing a field of pictorial representation in the contemporary world. The end of the 1980s would mark, however, a significant shift in this creative strategy, although the initial self-reflexive impulse would remain unchanged. Senise’s work stopped focusing primarily on delineating scenes on canvas and went back to questioning the processes by which these are formed. With this move, the paintings came to incorporate techniques that are unusual for the medium and to re-address, in critical fashion, the importance of the act of painting.

Using cretonne – a fabric that is finer and more permeable than those normally used for canvass – as the support for his work, the artist then began to layout broad swathes of this material on floors and to spread a mixture of water, paint and pigment uniformly over the entire surface. This mixture passed through the weft of the fabric, and, when completely dry, glued the fabric to the floors on which it was stretched out. When carefully and forcefully removed from the floor, these cuts of cloth picked up irregular, small fragments of the surfaces to which they had been glued (wood or cement), along with other kinds of dirt, including drops of paint testifying to similar operations that had been carried out in the same place. These stained fabrics, dirty and randomly produced – registering how firmly they were stuck to the ground from which they had been ripped – constituted the backdrop, on which, throughout the 1990s, Daniel Senise created images that are ambiguously situated between the popular mimesis and invention. These images emerged from the relation between the popular and the erudite repertoire of forms dictated by his experience and by the forms suggested to him by the random features caused by his method of making a physical impression of the floor using the technique of frottage developed more than six decades previously, by the German artist Max Ernst (1891-1976). It was, therefore, the paint-staking scrutiny of the surfaces, full of boisterous vestiges of the floor – informed by his memory of images from various quarters (the history of art, advertising, landscapes he has walked through or imagined) – that suggested to Daniel Senise which parts of the support should be covered in paint (not only acrylic, but also oil) and which required no further manipulation. In this way, he was able to mark out figures and backgrounds (or vice versa) and assuage what once described as “the anxiety for non-existent objects”. The double meaning of the word object – simultaneously signifying subject-matter and physical thing – is suggestive of the confluence between created images and the materials on which they are inscribed, both being the result of an indivisible creative process. Mediating between the representation of the world and the contents of the imagination, the technique used by the artist also contaminates the way the work is perceived, forcing the viewer to form links on the painted surfaces the eye surveys between random marks and other intentional ones. Going against the primacy of the image in painting, the artist turns aspects of the signifier into matter of aesthetic appreciation, causing discomfort and doubt, yet imposing themselves as a practical critique of the field of painting.

Broadening his inquiry into the specific features of the environment in which he weaves his discourse, during this period, Senise increasingly introduced into his work other techniques for creating images. Depositing iron filings, resin, varnish or bitumen on fabric loaded with information collected from the floor, he would allow the vestiges of these substances to seep into the support, and along with the gradually more restrained use of paint, confer on the work a thick materiality, dense with meaning. In the series Portrait of the Mother of the Artist (1992-1993), various paintings begin with the same image but result, depending on what he allows to stick in the fabric, in distinct symbolic meanings and forms. This provides further confirmation that pictorial representation is made up of ideas and, at the same time, of the procedures according to which it is composed. In the exemplary radical work of this period of investigation – belonging to the series entitled Boomerang (1994) -, he laid out nails on white-painted fabric, replicating the trajectories that throwing such objects would ideally produce. By sprinkling the nails with water, however, he speeded up their oxidation, producing a rusty material, impregnating the clear supports with the reddish hues characteristic of the erosion of this metal. Once the nails had been removed, the lines traced by this process described what were precise facts, executed without the aid of paint, and, at the same time, vestiges of something that was no longer present, like the sweat of some inhuman material. This idea of representation as an indication of a lack is also a striking feature of the work in which the artist create images – with paint or by allowing materials to settle on the kind of fabric mentioned above – which are only silhouettes, either of human beings, animals or objects. Although made up only of contours and devoid of detail, these bring sufficient visual information to be identified by any viewer as clear marks of an absence.

The progressive renunciation of the tradition act of painting – though not the field of painting – led Daniel Senise, from the beginning of the 2000s on, to further explore the pictorial potential of techniques for physically and symbolically copying surfaces. Initially entitled Piano factory – a reference to the original use of the building he was then using as a studio -, an extensive series of work was built up around impressions made, with brown and ochre pigments of floorboards. In this way, however, the artist did not seek to establish relations between his memories of images and those that might be suggested by the stains, thereby diminishing the role of chance in the process, and, from the outset, preestablishing the scenes he wished to reproduce. In fact, in all this paintings, there is nothing more going on than the reproduction of deserted interiors that have previously been inventoried by the artist. These may be the places where the impressions on the supports have been made (thereby associating the paintings with the spaces which gave rise to them), the rooms of the institution or galleries where the impressions where they were to be exhibited (associating the work with the spaces for which they were destined), or, even, spaces that form part of the repertoire of the history of art, whose images the artist appropriates. Another fundamental feature of this set of paintings was the fact that Senise did not affix any material to the fabric, not even paint. Once the images to be produced has been decided, the work was executed using only precise cutting and pasting – on a rigid support made of wood – of swathes of printed cloth, selected according to the tonal contrast appropriate for drawing perspectives and the delineation of doors, windows, columns and beams. These paintings, therefore, always resulted in the ambiguity of being material indices of the copied surfaces and, at the same time, virtual representations of the chosen environments. On a symbolic level, it was uncanny to recognize vestiges of the floor (the horizontal plane and base level of the world) serving to illustrate buildings (the vertical plane in which human beings recognize each other and live), thereby deliberately breaking down hierarchies. Or rather, representing spaces originally made for socializing as spaces emptied of life. The recognizable divergences of scale and texture between the environments copied and the environments represented frequently ended up sabotaging the trueness to life of the perspectives created, thereby emphasizing the tension between the diverse meanings the construction process had itself established.

Between 2004 and 2005, the artist created a new series of work where the procedures, which recently came to maturity are combined with others, which, although abandoned for some years, have always been central to Senise’s inquisitive practice of painting. On the one hand, the artist continues to select, cut, join and glue fabrics which bear only the memory of close contact with a variety of floor spaces, foregoing the additional use of paint on the stained cloths. On the other, however, this process is no longer activated only by strict adherence to models that artist selects prior to beginning the work, but also often uses the marks on the printed fabric itself to elicit associations in the memory that justify their use as the material and support for recreating places or scenes. There is, at the same time, therefore, reduced intervention in the construction of the pictorial field – characteristic of the techniques built up in the paintings from the Piano Factory series – and less anticipation of the results of the composition of images – as in works prior to that series. These traits occur to varying degrees in different paintings.

Sometimes, as in Work (2005), the cloth impressed with the marks of the floor servers little more than as a way of bringing about the shades of color needed to represent a freely imagined space. Dark pieces of dyed cloth are cut into slender strips and glued together with lighter pieces. While the former express a dense and complex structure reminiscent of seaside or riverside stilt houses, the latter serve to confer greater depth on the construction and help it to be understood. In some other paintings of this kind, Daniel Senise lets himself be seduced by the way the marks of the wood impressed on the cloth are reminiscent of the textures found in engravings he is familiar with, most obviously – although non only – those that use woodblocks as a template. The work Boat (2005), for example, reminds one of an engraving by the French artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883) – in which the structure of a sailing vessel imposes itself in the foreground of a desolate landscape. Likewise, the painting Water (2004) reminds one of the Biblical image of the flood engraved by the German artist Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), which is dominated by a large ship floating on the sea. Already in House (2005), it was the roughly symmetrical stain that crosses the whole horizontal extent of a canvas that led Senise to select, as the image reproduced on it, a photograph, found by chance, of a wooden house reflected in the waters of a lake. On the mirror-image accidentally created on the cloth, the artist deliberately superimposes – by cutting and pasting other dyed clothes – that of another identical one, turning the stain on the cloth into a representation of the sky and its reflection in the liquid surface. In two other works, the importance of the pictorial information picked up by the fabric from the floor is still more decisive for the building up of images. In Sea (2005), the precise joining together of two selected pieces of cloth, glued on a wooden support, is enough to create the illusion of an horizon dividing the illuminated sky and the surging ocean, in a possible allusion to the paintings of the German artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) or the English artist William Turner (1775-1851). In Rain (2005), Senise likewise combines different pieces of cloth, restricting himself to delayed associations with the impressions of the floor and the cutting of a single segment, which, in accordance with the memory of images it bears, provides more of a suggestion of a landscape. This procedure, however, involves no particular inventive skill, but only the extreme use of one of the methods that guides his craft.

Apart from differences in terms of construction, these works clearly indicate a change in the repertoire in relation to the series that preceded them, moving away from the mimetic interiors and seeking in landscapes – be they real or invented – his closest references. This change has at least two immediate and diametrically opposed consequences in terms of enjoyment of the work. Firstly, the fact that the landscapes are reproduced using impressions made in interiors suggest an incongruence that disorients the eye, causing the focus of interest to oscillate between the images presented and the origin of the impressions of which they are composed. Secondly, the fact that the copies of the wooden floors reproduce – with the exception of the natural elements – things – things constructed of an identical material (stilt houses, a boat, a wooden house) brings about, conversely, a strong sense of identity between the painting and the object it represents. There is in almost all the images of this series, moreover, a reference to the element of water, bringing associations of movement and flux, although, sometimes (as in Work and Boat) this allusion is only suggested. It is no accident that the work that comprises an extensive swathe of cloth tied horizontally directly onto the wall – on which the artist has affixed impressions mounted on wooden supports – is called River [2005]. This refers metaphorically to the course of any river and the objects that float in it. It is perhaps for this reason that many of these paintings appear to announce something that once was a whole. A boat being made or being broken up, houses being constructed or demolished, a sea in which indistinct objects float or sink, are all the marks of a symbolic place that is still unconcluded or is progressively being taken apart. Between the physical and close reproduction of the floor on the fabric and the vast breadth of images that this forms, hover the many meanings conjured up by the landscapes that Daniel Senise creates. Without pretending to reach a synthesis, these pieces are, on the contrary, further evidence of the complexity of this work, continually reflecting critically (on) the continuing need for painting.

1 Among others, we cannot neglect to mention the Russians, Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Kasemir Malevich (1878-1935), and the Dutch painte, Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), whose works, by turning radically to the specific features of the medium per se, ended up suggesting its historical finitude.
2 On the change in constructive procedures used in this period by Daniel Senise, see Cocchiarale, Fernando, “Sem título”, in Daniel Senise, XX Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, São Paulo, Subdistrito Comercial de Arte, 1989.
3 Mesquita, Ivo, “Território dos Sentidos”, in Ivo Mesquita, Dawn Ades e Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Daniel Senise: ela que não está. São Paulo, Cosac&Naify, 1998.
4 A theoretical discussion of this question has been conducted by Bois, Yves Alain, “Painting as Model”, in Painting as Model. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1993.
5 The use of silhouettes by Daniel Senise is discussed by Ades, Dawn, “Daniel Senise: Vestígios”, in Ivo Mesquita, Dawn Ades & Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, op. cit.
6 Farias, Agnaldo, “piano factory 01” and “piano factory 02”, in daniel senise. the piano factory. Rio de Janeiro, Andrea Jackobsson, 2002.