Daniel Senise

The Territory Of The Senses

Ivo Mesquita


Published in the artist’s book “Daniel Senise: Ela que não está”, Cosac & Naify Edições,  São Paulo, Brazil, in 1998


In the 1980s various outstanding pictorial productions shook the international art scene, were consolidated and attracted the attention of critics, institutions and the market. These productions were developed, initially, with the appropriation of styles and the repertory of the history of art and of cultural industry; images were created based on images taken from a very wide range, everything from a vigorous, at times wild, primitivism, to the most refined conceptual and aesthetic mannerism. This challenging mixing of forms and the multiple manipulations of language revealed a group of painters, among the most interesting in the last twenty years, they include: Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, Ross Bleckner, Anselm Kiefer, Philip Taafe, Julio Galán, Francesco Clemente, David Salle, Susan Rothenberg, Marlene Dumas, Guillermo Kuitca, Julian Schnabel, Beatriz Milhazes and Daniel Senise. It is not an easy task to specify the nature of these productions, since they involve a stylistic and philosophical plurality, which makes it nearly impossible to configure a whole of which they are part, and define a “school” or “movement” capable of grouping or bringing together approaches which are so distinct. Painting is the medium of choice for these artists and the spectrum of questions which constitute its tradition is the object problematicised by their work. However in postmodern times characterized by globalization and multiculturalism, each of these productions operates within a distinct context, proposing signifiers that go beyond the specificity of the territory of art. Moreover, each body of works is elaborated as a series of narratives that point to a personal imagery and a desire to state something that affirms the phenomenology of the act of viewing and painting as possibilities for organizing and expressing ideas, knowledge or criticism.

These artists, despite the plurality of styles, differences in themes and repertories, share in the movement they undertook in that they define the present – personal, artistic and ethical – in terms of a relation with the past, not by the “good desire” to be reconciled with it, but as a way of thinking up possibilities of producing subjectivity and communication. The strategy they adopt does not seek to insert the work into tradition, but rather to manipulate it to construct signifiers. They seek to recuperate a certain visual experiment that was almost excluded by the experimentalism that thrived in the 1960’s and 70’s. They are not concerned with the question of the death or rebirth of painting.(2) This does not present itself as a problem per se. Despite the aesthetic uncertainties that remain in its so much deconstructed history, painting today continues to be a territory where meaning can be created and communicated. Because for this group of artists, “painting is done not by negligence but as a means of constructing an identity and establishing a relation of communication and interaction with the world.”(3)

With this intent, these productions promoted de reappearance of a romantic (4) sensitivity identified with the desire to realize a task, keep a field of references moving, even within an environment of doubt and skepticism. In fact, these artists, in the role as painters, often define themselves as storytellers, like those who in primitive communities who are responsible for maintaining the order and tradition of the group by way of stories transmitted orally from generation to generation. But contrary to these narrators they know that everything has already been done, that there is nothing to be affirmed or positivized and that what they produce is defined by the concept of fiction. The possible practices are always re-readings, rewritings, as Barthes taught. Hybrids of the end of modernism with the opening of postmodernism, they maintain a certain nobility and idealism in their conception of art. They consider painting as cultural data – a painting is a painting and exists within an irrevocable tradition that defines its nature- and they assume their duty as a means of constructing the ethical meaning of a work. Painting is, perhaps, a way to mentally construct an utopia. But there is no desire to be pedagogical or educational. As an aesthetics and an ethos, the neo-romantic sensitivity of these artists is characterized by the principle that privileges the meaning in detriment to reason. However, it is in the encounter with tradition that their work finds its conceptual basis. In so far as they are appropriations, simulacrums, decorative, their works deal with some of the questions which constitute the debate about contemporary painting. Nevertheless they also refer to memory, perception, dreams, and the pleasures of the senses, to all the mental states that reveal a desire for transport to the other states and places.

This peculiar and stimulating romantic vision, filtering the history of modern and contemporary culture, operates by way of a figurative and representative approach, which at times is abstract, at times realistic, but which is always linked to the expressive power of painting and representation. The works are conceived as a deliberate and personal action that goes beyond reality and the ideas presented there. The artists themselves assume the role of agents in dealing with art’s themes – history, iconography, representation, color, decoration – proposing with the experience of their works an evocation, a metaphor, or just a formal structure with a purely visual appeal.

These artists, however, are criticized for representing, in a certain way, a kind of “return to order”, following the radical experiences of minimalism and conceptual art. They are called conservative, first, since their work reclaimed a continuity bearing a positivist stamp to the tradition which modernism put and end to, rescuing the great themes of art and restoring national history; secondly, because they fed the system of the aesthetic market goods with an ideologically dysfunctional discourse, reifying only the categories of connoisseurship, fashion and objets d’art . In this way they were to signify a kind of retrocession, to be anachronistic in light of the end of history and of the crisis of representations, of the expressive possibilities of new vehicles of communication and of the urgencies of the contemporary world(5).

However these artists do not propose a moral judgment of their time. They intend only to maintain a possibility of perception and knowledge. The truth they seek does not reside in the literalness of the things or of the events they paint, but rather in the recognition of the ability of the imagination to create, name and believe only in truths of art. As Craig Owens observed, in a text on the urgent revisionist tendencies of the 1980’s, these artists are “engaged not (as is frequently claimed by critics who find mirrored in this art their own frustration with the radical art of the present) only in the recovery and the reinvestment of tradition, but rather in declaring its bankruptcy – specifically, the bankruptcy of the modernist tradition. What we are witnessing, then, is the wholesale liquidation of the entire modernist legacy.”(6) The loving anxiety behind this production is associated with the idea that the artist paints without being able to believe in the painting, without believing that one can reach something by way of it that lies beyond the individual experience. Painting is part of a game where it is itself in check at every instant. To participate in this game one must submit to its logic and believe in it. This is no different than the rest of the things in art and in life.

Brazil, in the ‘80s, experienced a moment of great euphoria on account of a historical episode: in 1984, under strong popular pressure demanding direct democratic elections and the end of military rule, the dictatorship which had restricted the production and circulation of information in the nation since 1964 abdicated. When it came once again to be based on civil rights, Brazilian society stimulated its possibilities of expression in order to identify the artistic and cultural values capable of accounting for the new reality. The growth in the culture industry and the popularization of the arts, particularly the visual arts, by the mass media from then on are, for example, symptoms of the order installed by the regained democracy.

Within this spirit, among so many events realized in that year, was the exhibition Como vai você, Geração 80? (How’s it going, 80’s generation?) put on by the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage, in Rio de Janeiro. It presented more than 120 young artists, almost all of them painters, from different parts of Brazil many of them exhibiting for the first time. They were received with an almost total unanimity on the part of the critics and the public as an expression of the renovating force in Brazilian art, a demonstration of the creative liberty of our artists. Moreover, the return to painting proposed by the works confirmed the natural talent and vocation of Brazilian art for contemporaneity, since the same thing was happening simultaneously with the rest of the world. The revival of painting in those years was immediately interpreted as a return to the sensual and direct way in which the Brazilian relates to the visual-arts languages, a reaction to cerebralism and the excess of metaphors in the art produced by the earlier generations, which, in Brazil, indicated not only the taking up of questions of contemporary visuality but also the constant struggle with the institutional censorship of the military regime. The consecration came the next year, when Rodrigo Andrade, Fernando Barata, Carlito Carvalhosa, Leda Catunda, Fabio Miguez, Nuno Ramos and Daniel Senise were presented in the Grande Tela of the XVIII Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, alongside artists such as Enzo Cucchi, Gunter Damisch, Martin Disler, Stefano Di Stasio, Dukoupil, Koberling, Middendorf, Salomé, Hubert Scheibl and Tadanori Yokoo, some of the stars of the international art scene at that time. However, as is natural, at the end of the ‘90’s, of those 120 or so, only about 20 are still around. Even so, not enough affinities can be perceived in their work to make it possible to speak of a programmatic and generational artistic identity as was seen, though for a short time, in the generation of ‘22.

This is to say, perhaps, the ‘80’s Generation is more of a figure of speech than properly a generation of artists in Brazil that transformed the local art environment or presented a more instigating or contesting production than did the previous generations. On the contrary, when one looks at the great majority of the pictorial production of that period one sees a narcissistic hedonism that moved to produce images and surface that did not go beyond the usual stereotypes and clichés – landscapes, bodies, explosions of colors, energy – nor the infantile vanity of showing off. What was taken up as audacious and reinvigorating rapidly became a convention. Energetic gesturing, thick brushstrokes loaded with paint across the canvas, impasto, dark contours, attitudes “so full of spontaneity” were used as pictorial and expressive elements to no end, until they became and empty an mechanical self-referencing which fed the “naive expectation attached to the liberating potential of the no dialectic and apolitical art practices.”(7)

What critics and researchers (including myself)(8) received and acclaimed as renovating and reinvigorating went no further than one event, or a series of events, in a moment of collective expectations and fantasies. The “80’s Generation” as a group did not have a plan, no defined program, no proposed strategy of production. It proposed painting, period. The rest was one big party, the media and market in a moment of transformation of the nation, but with nothing to do with its real demands. Painting became a fetish, a haloish thing of the cultivated world for consumers. The strategy of the appropriation of the styles and practices of the international mainstream was understood as a contemporary unfolding of the strategies of assimilation proposed by the Manifesto Antropófago (1928). Brazilians lack the deep national roots enjoyed by the Germans and Italians who could think, at that moment, of neo-Expressionism or a pittura colta. Brazil’s status as a kind of fringe country, dependent on books and reproductions to educate its artists, allied to the notion of cultural cannibalism, fed the myth that “Brazilian art” was being done within a local tradition. No one noticed that in the relation with the history of art the pictorial sign is not transparent nor available as a market good, but is a codified structure that cannot be expressive without the meditation of a plan of work commenting on or problematicising the system that creates its necessity.

The superficial and mechanical understanding of appropriation as a process proper to art and based in the Manifesto Antropófago probably corresponds to a necessity of writing history, to be the agent (once again) of one’s own destiny, but the lack of a consistent setting foments an anxious search for symptoms and happenings capable of conferring a linearity to this writing. Intellectual acrobatics are necessary to make these factors appear to be a historical necessity, constructed by an extreme urgency of social, political and cultural factors. In that it is almost always reactive and does not problematicise the international movements and trends, Brazilian artistic production has not yet taken on the consistency that allows for the writing of a history of art in an organic and linear manner, not with one generation succeeding another in time, but rather with the interlinking of the questions that engender the manners and processes of producing visuality. But maybe this is no longer interesting. The important thing is to perceive that we are a lot of fragments (it is impossible to form a single image that would account for the socio-cultural diversity of the nation) and that we are always trying to construct something based on these parts, which fragment again. The “80s Generation” was a delight to the art market and to the media but it did not have what it takes to impose itself as a decisive movement within a possible history of Brazilian art. Almost all of the works of those years are today seen to be “derivatives” of what was being done in the rest of the world, functioning only as image-mirages of personal individuality and liberty.

The paintings of Daniel Senise, from the very beginning, established a direct relation with the history of art, with the universe of images and their methods of construction and perception. Testimonies of the artist’s commitment to painting as a language, the body of paintings as a whole demonstrates an articulated orchestration of signifiers – the expressive medium itself, the flat surface, appropriation, representation, perception, mass culture and his personal imagery – in works which, far from being pure pictorial expression, inaugurate the return to painting as a conceptual and positive difference of the modernity that oriented the previous generations. They are the register of fifteen years of Senise’s struggles in search of the compositions of language, of expressive material, of the constitution of configurations. How can freshness be brought to the saturated gaze at this end of the century? How to keep living off the fragments of the dissecting irony of the postmodern style? How to feed and survive in a territory that is simultaneously Utopian and in a state of collapse? How to produce “something unexpected when there no longer exists any expectation?”(9) These are some of the questions that have fed Senise’s work.

Like other artists who appeared at the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s and were involved with the trends at the time, Senise, initially, constructed scenes inhabited by forms that were voluminous, downright heroic, which occupied almost the entirety of the canvas, imposing themselves as monumental presences but devoid of any thematic connotation. An economical palette of somber colors employed with precise gestures, hybrid objects, fragments of bodies and architectures, articulations of forms and details appropriated from modernism or other artists – all this served for speculation about the construction of the pictorial space, the meaning of painting and of representation. These first works reveal the commitment of the artist to delimit a territory of work: he revisited and inventoried the diverse styles that compromise modernness, to borrow icons and signifiers from them. Nevertheless at this moment it is not the historical works that the painter is aiming at; he is seeking the expressionism invoked by Baselitz and Kiefer, or cubism as reinterpreted by artists such as Markus Lupertz (Untitled, 1984 ) [ Ver Imagem]. As Wilson Coutinho observed(10), the paintings of the first exhibitions – images of objects that in their strangeness try to escape from the banality of existence by the grandiloquence of their presences – are like a “theatre of mutilated sensations,” being offered as a “scenographic and rethorical device” in an “atmosphere of nocturnal terror and catastrophe.” “A theatre of panting,” they are the “vision that is occupied with the scene, transforming the mundane, the day-to-day and what is negligible into something ‘possessed’ by the inquietude of the things.” These incursions into tradition became a recurring feature of his work. Nevertheless, there would be a change in the relation with the history of art: the passage of the appropriation of elements of styles to a more lateral appropriation of the present, of the images of tradition perceived through the culture industry and which form a certain contemporary collective imagery.

As though accounting for the emptying or equivocation of the “neo: strategies and as if to draw the curtain on what could be called his formative period, Senise then threw himself into a direct struggle with the canvas and the creation of images which, though at times pre-existent and referential, are indissociable from the processes of the act of doing acquired during his formative phase. Beginning with the first oil paintings the work concentrates on the elaboration of the materiality of the surface. The accumulation and the mutilation of the images that dominated the first works gave way to better-defined forms, not limited by each other nor contained by the limits of the canvas. The colours became more intense and varied, and the forms on the canvases became more pictorial than graphic, raising once again the figure-and-background question, absent in the previous production. This series of paintings is characterized by the “absence of depth of background which, despite their matterish treatment, is basically flat”(11) and by the contrast of the background with the isolated forms, as though applied over it. In this way there is introduced another comprehension of the pictorial image in the work of the artist.

With the switch from canvases made of canvas to ones made of cretonne, which is more permeable, and the growth of technical procedures like frottage and marouflage,(12) Senise’s painting gained specificity and densification. These procedures resulted in painting developed in many steps, lending a spatial elasticity to the artist which allows him to make areas of opacity and dizzying depth to coexist simultaneously on the same surface. The images started to overlap more and more with the process of constructing the pictorial plane, they were more and more engendered in the articulation between figure and background. “This articulation is only possible because the material, determined by the way the support is treated, integrates the objects painted to the surface of the canvas. The material over-determines, then, the imaginal character of these paintings”(13) (V.G. [ See the image] and Ex-Voto [ See the image]) It is as if the gaze of the artist had abandoned the outer world to find the life that inhabits the thin thickness that coats the canvas.

The paintings of this moment are what inaugurated the singularity of Senise’s work. Such a project is defined by the construction of imaginary scenes, inhabited by happenings, forms, citations that emerge from the background without being made wholly explicit, sliding across the space, almost figures but still shadows, fragments of something that has forgotten the whole and is searching for another existence. He shows to the observer a world of ambiguities, in refined elaborations of pentimento and chiaroscuro, and one’s gaze should be sharp because what is seen are fragments of life, part of a sentimental and psychic autobiography, knitted together with history and the events of existential myths. He launches questions that suspend and freeze time, that form the images virtually impenetrable to the literalness of the meaning, side-stepping any fixed interpretation of a formalized iconography. Fascinating, these images make incursions into terrains where the visible world sees its limits breaking down little by little to give way to the objects/artifacts produced by a “hunger for objects that do not exist.”(14)

These more narrative works, where images proliferate together with signs associated with the presence of a repertory of icons borrowed from architecture, from religious or popular motifs, or from the history of art, have served for a certain critical approach to Senise’s production and that of other Lartin American artists: Guillermo Kuitca, Julio Galán, Juan Davila, Arturo Duclos, Adriana Varejão, Nahum B. Zenil… These productions are understood as part of a long tradition in the continental visuality of hybrid and syncretic artists, who took world history as a base for their creation and who are commited to keeping the field going. Although they are correct in pointing out the similarities between artists, these critics do not perceive that that which they identify as regional in these works is not sufficient to give rise to interpretations and bestow a pertinence to them. The categories of gender, race and ethnicity proposed by postmodern socio-anthropology have not been shown to be critical-enough instruments to apprehend the extension of the visual-arts phenomenon. Strategies that are based on the hybridization of styles and iconography, in the practice of appropriation or of citationism – a natural result of the peripheral and colonized status of these countries, as some justify – are not the privilege of Latin Americans but rather a symptom indicative of a current instance of the Baroque, as stated by Severo Sarduy. These instances of the baroque – a cultural outgrowth of the historic Baroque which particularly in Latin America was revealed to be pregnant with paradigmatic realizations in the construction of local visuality – desire to go beyond the literalness of iconography, of the vernacular culture and themes such as eroticism and mortification. They desire to refer, rather, to the processes of semantic diffusion, to the production of ambiguities, to the uncontrolled proliferation of signifiers, to the taste of artificialism, to the possibility of ever-multiplying commentaries and to the “envolvimiento sucesivo de una escritura por otra.”(15) In this way, one can perceive instances of the baroque in the films of Peter Greeneway or Matthew Barney, in the novels of Italo Calvino, in the paintings of Philip Taafe, in the photographs of Evergon or in the the design of Delacroix.

“…el barroco atual, el neobarroco, refleja estructuralmente la inarmonia, la ruptura de la homogeneidad, del logos en tanto que absoluto, la carencia que constituye nuestro fundamento epistémico. Neobarroco del desequilibrio, reflejo estructural de un deseo que non puede alcanzar su objeto, deseo para el cual el logos no ha organizado más que una pantalla que esconde una carencia… Neobarroco: reflejo necesariamente pulverizado de un saber que sabe que ya non está “apaciblemente” cerrado sobre sí mismo. Arte del destrona miento y la discusión.”(16)

Senise’s work suggests the search for a redefinition of space of the painting in contemporaneity. In Untitled [ See the image], the scene that is announced from behind a red curtain is interrupted by a dark outline, a profound and upsetting one, which opens like a space between the surface and the representation. That space “between” is the precise location of the territory wherein the practice of painting takes place. In a reference to, who knows, Les Demoisellles d’Avignon (1906-1907), which unveiled the modernist project in painting, the opening unveiled by Senise brings to the artist the only possibility of walking in a labyrinth inhabited by ghosts, tired of the task of signifying. Thus the painting is proposed as an intertext – citations, reminiscences and intrinsic filigrees to the imaginal production – and the surface of the canvas is offered as a space for a constant operation of rereading of the signs, icons and procedures, forming other constellations of meanings which in turn are on the verge of yielding to new readings. What this representation represents is precisely the fact of its not being more than a representation, an artifice and an artistic amusement that arises from the commitment that is put into the picture. Here, it and its tradition are codes used as a common place, both are emptied of their functionality and stylized as an ever-reiterated model of artifice, which supports painting as a practice of fiction. To paint is to tell stories.

Senise’s work retains the lessons of history, while not refraining from criticizing the idealist dimension of tradition. Its legacy is made up of timeworn images, bandages and rust, surfaces on which every kind of operation and discourse have already infringed. Like in a scorched landscape, what one sees is vestiges of things. Senise’s practice comments on the history of art as something “that is not”; that what it has that can be made use of is old hardware that he welds to pots and pans gathered from a newspaper ad to compose a Last Supper [ See the image], led by a parody of Christ borrowed from Michelangelo’s Final Judgment. Other times, in appropriating an image, Senise condenses these signifiers to their minimal structure, rejecting any earlier meaning that they could have had, to construct an “optical illusion”(17) within hazes and miasmas. Like figures in silhouette, shadows out of old daguerreotypes, these paintings speak of the banality in the construction of the visual game, declaring their dependence, like that of the other forms of human commitment, of the material and historical world. Senise borrows an object from the past, or what is left of it, an image, not a style. His paintings do not aspire to any nobility of universal eternity. They are presented in their deliberate precariousness, adding up to an overflowing production of visual signs from a saturated environment. Optical games, diagrams of visibility, tautologies, double and incompatible points of view, pure fantasies, tragic melancholy unfold from the wandering gaze of the artist and are reproduced as collages and fragments, appropriations and references derived from their relation with the visible world: day-to-day objects, newspaper ads, details from photographs chosen at random, lying outside the cultural industry, easy access to the illusion of history. However, even as appropriated and manipulated elements, they maintain their identity, refusing the illusion of being part of a whole. Or, in another way, with the work they affirm the impossibility of constructing/perceiving a whole.

Today, Senise’s work is a painting of problems intercut by the gaze and by History… His paintings diagrams a sense of perplexity in the face of a crisis of the discussion about excess, the end and the eschatological tyranny of History. In this time of doubt, disbeilif, and uncertainty, a remark of the artist’s would appear to be the key to the meanings negotiated with the gaze: “I prefer to state the problem rather than the solution.”(18)

The interests aroused by Daniel Senise’s work might lie in the fact that his pictorial universe is constructed on the awareness of the uselessness of the gesture, in an irremediably fragmented world, separated from nature, where a painting is an object in and of itself, despite being a conductor of signs, of ineffectual heat lightning in a chain of effects without a cause, in the writing and concretion of nothing. Spaces of uncertainties, ineluctable recognition of the tragedy of the human condition. these paintings offer themselves to a seduced observer, like windows, territories of the senses, of disorder, proposing the possibility of individual subversion of the law of death that rules life.

1 – This text is a revised version with additions of the text published in the catalog Daniel Senise: The Enlightening Gaze, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterey, Mexico, 1994, pp.15-9
2 – We must always bear in mind, when it comes to painting, that its first obituary was written with the appearance of photography in the middle of the 19th century. Since then painting has been practiced, for better or for worse, with highs and lows, but always in a way independent of the predictions and assertions of critics, institutions, the market and the public. Painting continues as a question be it, for example, in the form of photography, photoshop or paint on canvas.
3 – Daniel Senise, stated to the author in November 1997.
4 – Concerning the concept of neo-Romanticism, see the essay by Howard N. Fox, “A New Romanticism in Italian Art”, in the catalogue A New Romanticism, Washington DC, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden/Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985, pp.6-17.
5 – Concerning this theme, see the article by Benjamin H.D. Buchloch, “Figures of Authority, Ciohers of Regression”, in the book by Brian Wallis (editor) Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York/Boston, New Museum of Contemporary Art/David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. 1984, pp. 107-35; and by Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting”, in his book On the Museum’s Ruins, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1993, pp.84-106.
6 – Craig Owens, “Honor, Power and the Love of Women”, published in the magazine Art in America, n.71, January 1983, p.9.
7 – Benjamin H. D. Buchloch, op. cit., p. 120.
8 – I am not here to renege on my enthusiasm and support to those young artists, my generational companions. It was a time of much productive conversation, learning, and partying. It was great and there remains some strong friendships. But time has shown me how much there was there of brashness and inexperience of youth. That is normal.
9 – Daniel Senise, stated to the author in November 1997.
10 – Wilson Coutinho, untitled text in the catalog Daniel Senise, XVIII Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, Subdistrito Comercial de Arte, 1985.
11 – Fernando Cocchiarale, untitled text in the catalog Daniel Senise, XX Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, Subdistrito Comercial de Arte, 1989
12 – For a description of the “ technique” used by Senise starting in 1988, see the texts by Fernando Cocchiarale mentioned above as well as that of Bruce Guenther, “Daniel Senise: Surface Dialogue” in Daniel Senise (Options 42 series), Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1991.
13 – Fernando Cocchiarale, ibid.
14 – Daniel Senise, stated to the author in June 1993.
15 – Severo Sarduy, “El Barroco y el Neo-Barroco.” In Cesar Fernández Moreno (editor), America Latina en su Literatura. Paris/Mexico, UNESCO/SIglo XXI, 1972, pp.167-85.
16 – Ibid., p.183
17 – Daniel Senise, stated to the author in November 1997
18 – Paulo Herkenhoff, Daniel Senise, New York, Charles Cowles Gallery, 1995, p.11