The Flight of the Boomerang
Published on the catalogue of the Daniel Senise’s exhibition at the Thomas Cohn Contemporary Art Gallery, São Paulo, in 1999
Daniel Senise interviewed by Glória Ferreira, Rio de Janeiro, 16/10/99
Gloria Ferreira: While the “return to painting” has been considered a reaction against the dematerialization of art, to what extent is contemporary painting such as your own also an offshoot of conceptualism?
Daniel Senise: The problem is that when conceptual art emerged it brought with it the idea that art before or after lacked a concept. The art that came afterwards, however, was no longer conceptual; it had a content, a formulation specific to each medium that I’d define as conceptual. I’d widen what you said to cover modernism in general. No painter working today can be blind to the “achievements” of modernism, to the extent that there’s barely a notable painter whose work doesn’t deal with the critical aspect of painting. In the beginning, I didn’t really know why I chose painting, whereas now I understand it a little more. I like thinking about it. It’s not that I’m defending this form of art, more that the territory which I’m theorizing about is called painting. And with painting, for me, it’s important to talk about what I’m doing, because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t happen through the painting itself. My desire is to have an instantaneous relationship with the object I’m making – I always see it as an object – a communication with no knowledge of what comes before or after. For this reason, I think the idea of the phenomenology of the image or of the gaze, of how the gaze functions in relation to these things, is something of a tangent. And obviously all of this is mediated through painting. I’m seeking something with a broad spectrum.
G: Is it this desire that makes an archeaology of your images so challenging?
D: I don’t think knowing where they come from is quite so fundamental. Or at least, the problem is using well-known images. For example, I’ve never used images from Goya, one of my favourite paintors, because there’s already a huge amount of them. I spend a lot of time looking at books, whether about art or other subjects, in which there’s a relative deheirarchization of the image. But I have to be aware of the origin of the image. Painting has collateral effects and, to a certain extent, has become inoffensive, and less useful. The image was something didactic, used by the church to teach the illiterate. Today, even the most enlightened individuals don’t understand it. What I’m trying to say is that painting mediated the mystery, and now it is the mystery.
G: There are various levels of potential narratives in your painting, discontinuous narratives, but you’d rather they didn’t interfere in your relationship with the painting…
D: If I’m not doing essentially formal work, my belief in painting becomes less rigid, the territory broader. The juxtaposition of images introduces meanings. The use of non-pictorial objects and materials, such as the mark left by a nail, creates other readings, other types of meanings. My desire is that, in the end, the painting tells a single story. Sometimes this happens, and it’s wonderful. Or it tells two, or three stories, but it knows exactly what they are. The boomerang series of paintings, for example, made with nails, has a poetic level that interests me – a narrative, a story unfolding – and also a modern legacy. The surface is there, alive, as a record of the nail rusting; it has a virtual narrative, which is the flight of the boomerang, invisible, but the trajectory of which is present. The daydream operates at a level below this, and is more rigid in terms of a reading. I’d say it’s an extremity of my work, with greater control over the elements and the results in terms of the relationship with the audience than you’d get in another type of figure, such as a girl holding a bone. My desire is that these two things form part of the same work. A painting, for me, is always an open question.
G: How does the idea of the fragment fit in your work?
D: As I’ve been working with fragments for as long as I can remember, painting creates an environment where I can register the space I’m in, starting from the fragment itself, and the material that surrounds it. At a certain point, the iron oxide comes in, via the nail, leaving its trace, the transfer of matter, like a shroud. It’s the body, and its the representation of the body. In any case, the idea of the fragment was initially related to the materials I was using, which were already at the end of their useful lives, such as iron filings. I also often used sawdust. Afterwards, the question of the fragment extended to the images I myself appropriated. There was a time when I felt like a guy walking around and looking for objects in a huge garbage dump, the contemporary world of images and objects. I think this is kind of the territory I’m still in.
G: Your current Polyptychs are also related to the idea of fragments…
D: The Polyptychs are an attempt to extend this process of association and fragments, of a juxtaposition of images or things that, at some point, formed a reading or several readings, sometimes cohesive, sometimes more open. One of the problems with this attitude is thinking about the image, its capacity to signify something, to express itself with different meanings, at a time when it is being so widely used, not only by painting, but by so many other artistic languages, so many other media. Just think of MTV, for example. With that in mind, how can the image of the painting move someone today? I think it’s moving, of course, but there has to be a shift that creates a certain specificity, the discourse organizing itself, at times almost as though by accident. If you think about the process, I think my work has a modern characteristic, which is the process in the studio, of painting being constructed in the act itself.
G: Maybe that explains the importance of emptiness, of absence in your painting, leaving a field in which the imagination can act. Does the audience complete the work, as Duchamp said?
D: Always. I also put myself in the place of the audience. As it’s a work of process, I believe I’m also discovering a lot of what emerges. The art I like most is my own discovery, too. I don’t remember ever having planned a work in its entirety, and then executing it. Even the boomerangs weren’t like that. The works in the series Ela que não está (“She who is not”) were planned, but it didn’t work. There’s a flaw in the Giotto fresco, and the rest became my subject, because, in order to look at the Giotto, you have to look at the image in front of you, which also has a story, which for me is as interesting as Giotto. I spent six months working on that every day. In the end, it was the result of an accident: I’d finished the material and I threw water on it, then discovered that the shape missing from the Giotto image had to be blurred. I discovered that area couldn’t be too neat, it had to be in the realm of an abstract painting, and all this happened from an accident here in the studio. Ultimately, I’d like to worry less about the audience. There are a number of superegos, it’s like you’re on trial.
G: What’s your relationship with critics like? Are they part of the trial?
D: My type of work isn’t really part of the sequence of contemporary Brazilian art. The Brazilian painting sought by a certain type of critic has very distinct characteristics, almost as if there was only one main route, with a few paths leading off it. But the world is much bigger than that, you can do what you want. In Brazil, critics are interested in formulating a history of Brazilian art, but maybe there’s no longer any chance of doing so.
G: You’re talking about criticism in a general sense, but what about criticism in relation to your work? It’s both a historical and theoretical question, as from the moment art entered the public sphere, in the 18th century, criticism began to exist as a form of intermediation, and remains so almost 250 years later. The artist seems to need it too. How does criticism work for you from a productive standpoint?
D: In a way, I was really influenced by the eighties, and the critics, especially in Brazil, are somewhat removed from that, maybe because of a commitment to something more formal. It seems to me that criticism has lost some of its classic characteristics, of the critic’s engagement with the work, almost like a partnership. Criticism today, in a way, doesn’t keep up with trends. And not keeping up means that the critic becomes something like an applied observer, a curator. They don’t analyze the work, but argue a thesis, and the work illustrates that thesis. That’s an extreme idea of curation. And where does criticism come from? The works are exhibited in galleries and in museums, and criticism is printed in the publications of these institutions. The most important vehicle, though, is the newspaper, which is no longer used for criticism. So it no longer works, or it works less effectively, as a kind of vehicle to help the public see a work. The curator does this work, which is a different matter. Mário Pedrosa wrote for the newspaper, as did Ferreira Gullar.
G: What are your thoughts on the current painting scene?
D: There aren’t that many painters in Brazil, but even so, some contemporary Brazilian artists are appreciated less here than abroad. Although the daily criticism in the papers is in a fragile state, the best critics, both in Rio and in São Paulo, turn their nose up at good quality work. What I tried to do at Light was to convey this idea of a panorama of Brazilian culture, without valuing one trend or another, as a way of making people communicate more. Whether the Brazilian critics like it or not, we have artists from different movements, different backgrounds. There are three or four painters doing interesting work, but they lack a unity. Today, the movement’s protective umbrella, the signed manifesto, no longer exists. Each artist creates a language, and each is specific. It’s always a reinvention. The formal elements of each language, what does and doesn’t go into making the representative conjuncture of the object, is much more varied.
G: Do you feel like a survivor of painting?
D: For a time I thought about not painting anymore. Sometimes I think it’s pointless to do this kind of work. I recently read a study in one of those magazines like Art News, the theme of which was “Do contemporary artists have to suffer?”. The almost unanimous majority of answers said things like “suffering is a romantic idea that comes from the 18th and 19th century”, and “it doesn’t make any sense to suffer in order to produce a work; suffering isn’t part of the process, it’s to do with other things in life”. Arthur Danto, for example, says in this article that Rubens – who as well as a painter was a diplomat and a great businessman, with a very rich, active life – didn’t have the profile of someone who suffers. How does he know if the guy suffered or not? It’s very painful for me to do my job. What I like most is when the work achieves a strong capacity for poetic expression, based on a structuring of the elements that make up painting as an artistic language. The construction of my personal poetic discourse, I mean. Of my elements. This is where the idea of the fragment comes in, because I sometimes think of poetic discourse as a juxtaposition of two or three elements, two or three words that create a cohesive universe, with a life of its own. These current Polyptychs are an attempt at this, with formal or remote relationships, which are not quite on the surface. But, as you spend time with them, you begin to establish levels of reading. I think poetry is a way to get around this contemporary complexity.
G: As a result of the globalized world, and travel, your generation has been able to see art in a way many Brazilian artists couldn’t.
D: Which also explodes the idea of a pure Brazilian art, doesn’t it? A good example is Mexico, which has very strong pictorial roots. It’s amazing what has emerged from non-painter artists in Mexico City in just a few decades. Interestingly, they use the same themes that painting uses, but with lots of hair, lots of mirrors… there’s a contamination of the global context. People are circling everywhere, all the time. There’s certainly no lack of new definitions, or independent curators visiting your studio….
G: Let’s go back to your influences and training. Besides Guinard and Goya who are your favorite artists among the moderns?
D: There are many. To an enormous extent my initial training was through books. I really like the printed image. Sometimes I’m even disappointed by a painting I like when I see it in the flesh, or there are paintings of mine that I like better when they’re reproduced in the wrong color… Anyway, the book is hugely important, but when I travel I’ll go and see everything I can. Man Ray, for example, I really like. There’s Max Ernst, and Picabia, who is one of the paradigms of the contemporary artist, in my opinion. There are so many. Yves Klein, for example. I think it’s beautiful to think that Klein, Rauschenberg, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, who are all contemporary, were doing such different things. This idea of being sealed-off, which no longer exists, sometimes deprives us of profound experiences. Today it’s a salad, a mish-mash. The poet Leonard Cohen calls this situation a “panic of loss”: the fear of being left out of a trend creates a stampede amongst the global herd, with everyone running in the same direction.
G: What about the market? A peculiarity of your generation is its close relationship with the market. In previous decades, many artists were more recalcitrant…
D: I find this interpretation a little strange, as they were recalcitrant towards a market that barely existed, or existed in a negative sense. I don’t know, I don’t have the slightest problem with it, I think all these artists produced objects, even Beuys. What I do find most interesting in terms of the market these days is the circulation of the image, with publication taking place so quickly. You see a book published in 1999 with images of works produced in the same year.
G: And your relationship with nature, with landscape? There are several paintings that hint at this.
D: Nature, today, is confused with culture. Nature mediated by language becomes consumable, like in the story of the child who sees a chicken and relates it to Knorr stock cubes. I think the world will change a lot in the years to come. I think art is a bit ahead of the curve, in a way, through the exhaustion of the idea of evolution. When I talk about landscape, it’s almost like a territory where people’s daily concerns are found.
G: Today there is enormous interest in the issue of landscape, at various levels. The landscape, as a mediation with the world, has the ambiguity of referring both to the real and its representation. It seems to me that the references in your work relate more to the history of art…
D: When I talk about landscape, I think mainly of English painters. Although it’s a representation, they bring nature into the home, in a way; it’s painting without saints, kings or nobles. It’s the air. It’s one of the signs of culture looking for a function for itself. I love to think of Turner making the landscape a blur, a stain, painting it as less defined, almost abstract. Today, the landscape is not where real cows and grass are found, but versions mediated by artistic languages or media. So it gets more complicated. Or sometimes the landscape is already blanketed in culture. Cities, in other words…
G: Would that describe your landscapes, in terms of a quote from the history of art? A landscape blanketed in culture?
D: Yes. Because there are layers and layers of readings and representations. The original is a long way off… You go to various places, and you know exactly what many other locations are like through visual information. We even know what the lunar landscape looks like. So, thinking about landscape in this way differs from how it used to be. Things like ascesis remain, but the goal is no longer to bring greenery to the living room.
G: Did your work on landscape lead to this study of perspective, of the illusion of pictorial space?
D: The confrontation between the almost obvious statement on the surface and its use in a virtual form occurs a lot in my work. When I apply it virtually, in some cases, I even use examples of how to draw perspective, taken from textbooks. It’s not something I’ve invented. But what makes the painting work is its ability to express itself poetically, not the fact that it uses these two forms, virtual and physical. Which, incidentally, you can see in several contemporary painters. Kiefer, for example.
G: Fernando Cocchiarale refers to your use of the figure-ground relationship; denying it, but also working with it…
D: I try to work with leftovers. I take an image that hierarchically has the characteristics of the background, and put it in the place of a figure. In a work from 1988 (Untitled, 1988) [170-88], for example, this relationship lets the viewer’s gaze move back and forth. The image is a piece of wood that Venosa, with whom I shared a studio at the time, threw away. Venosa’s garbage became my subject. It’s game of back and forth. It’s the figure itself, but it’s also the background, which takes the place of the figure. I think the painting works because it has a secondary story: the first is the dehierarchization of figure and background; the second is the background that emerges, and also becomes a figure, something from a cartoon, a comic book. It’s breaking through all this rigid and technical thinking to show there is life behind it all. Despite all these choices, despite all these relationships with painting, with the history of painting, I have a desire to produce a painting for now, which expresses life in a personal manner. My life, and my story.
G: Is Wilson Coutinho’s famous description of your work as a “theater of mutilated sensations” still valid?
D: Mutilated sensations are loaded fragments. I like mutilated sensations, mine, or those of the viewer…in a way, he is saying this work is born of desire. I’m faced with a problem: I appropriate images, so what is my method of appropriating these images? Because it isn’t random, it’s almost an objet trouvé. Someone else would make another choice. Sigmar Polke, for example, is different: while he creates a poetic narrative, the origins don’t matter much, it’s almost a disembodied inventory of the image. In my case, maybe it’s more baroque, Latin, Brazilian, I don’t know. I’m more concerned with the original meaning and the possibilities of meanings in the new context of my painting. I’m concerned with how this image will circulate in the painting, although I don’t want to control every reading, but rather have a sense of the territory where it will circulate. That’s why I think Sigmar Polke is a modern artist, and maybe one of the last. Today I still don’t have a specific way of choosing images. They can come from very different situations, but the overriding factor is a desire to coexist with them.
G: In the treatment of color in your work, there’s a shift from more expressive colors to something more based on values, on black and white… the palette shuts down. There’s a shift from the contradiction between color and form, which was present in the history of painting for centuries, to an opposition between form and image…
D: Actually, expressionist painting came later, and there was practically no color. It was also because of the materials used. Something that comes together with the idea of the fragment, of the object that surrounds it. The materials I use, like the idea of the shroud, are related to where I find myself. In Brazil there’s a limited supply of materials, and the materials that are used are often of poor quality. I imagine that, if I lived next to a store like Pearl Paint, for example, I’d have a wealth of materials, such a large supply that it would influence my painting, in other words, the context. Like when I was using iron, which came from the iron from the nail, and later from the iron filings that I sifted, to the pre-industrialized material, Instant Iron. Color is more linked to the physicality of the canvas, of the material, than to virtuality. Most of the silver canvases I’m making at the moment are made with industrial gate paint, metal. I also make them silver so that there’s a remote memory of the sensation of the photographic image. Not that color doesn’t matter to me, but I don’t work with color as a formal element, independent of what’s being represented. It’s not a main element in the work. This silver series poses a question – not a challenge, but a question I ask myself. Could I make these Polyptychs with color? Is colour not attractive to me because of the difficulty it poses, or because it doesn’t really belong? So I’m working with the images, and one of the questions that’s bouncing around right now is how interesting it would be to see color seeping in. I still don’t know exactly how.
G: What is the relationship with the idea of the shroud? Are the symbolic elements of the shroud part of it, or is the trace or the mark left behind more important?
D: The notion of the shroud, the word shroud, resonates mainly with the idea of a fusion, let’s say, of modernism and the period before modernism, in nature, in history, because at the same time as it is the body, it is the representation of the body. I mean the shroud, the idea of the nail leaving its mark. The nail, the very material that it’s made of, is there, revealing the shape of the nail. As for symbolism as the idea of a parameter, it’s more of an underlying reading. There are others. The nail is what unites the physical object by leaving its residue on the canvas, with the original idea, or in other words, the shroud. When we speak of the shroud, we are referring to the shroud of Christ. But the widespread image that exists of it is an X-ray, nothing can be seen on the shroud itself. By the way, this reminds me of a challenging period I went through in New York in 1993. I was troubled, and wanted to establish more defined parameters for my work, I wanted a way where I had more control of the process. I then came to the conclusion that the main subject of the work was the “term” shroud/memory. A binomial, let’s say, that would create a certain environment. I reviewed what I had done so far and saw how this notion had a strong relationship with the work. However, as the shroud/memory idea is so comprehensive, I later tried to define it further. I asked myself what the quality of this memory would be, where it would lead. Then I saw how this couldn’t be my way of working, that elborating the moment of execution of the work was a fundamental part of my process. However, around this time, I planned a work I’d never exhibit: two huge canvases facing each other, with two different types of white, one side with hospital sheets and the other with motel sheets. Indicating where the sheets had come from gave a quality to how one looked at the work. I gave the sheets to the hospital – I took off the logo – and they gave them back to me; it was the same with the motel. Thousands of people came into contact with each surface, leaving almost invisible marks, but it was this presence that created something about the quality of the whiteness. Now I’m thinking about exhibiting this work in a different way, as if they were engravings. So although this moment would later become important, I abandoned the desire to plan things a priori.
Translator: James YoungBack