Daniel Senise

The Workshop Floor

Alexandre Mello

Published in the book Daniel Senise. The Piano Factory, Andrea Jakobsson Estúdio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2002

Daniel Senise: The Workshop Floor 
The work of Senise opens up a vast field of experiences and evocations both material and imagistic, allowing him to work through a wide variety of techniques and traditions in a straightforward and creative manner, shaping his own universe from which plastic and poetic values emerge that cannot be reduced to monolithic classifications nor textbook revisitations of trends enshrined in the history of art, either recent or further back in the past. This is why our approach to the work of Daniel Senise is not grounded on classificatory categories in terms of esthetic or doctrinal trends, but rather a selection of theme-specific topics identified through material working processes or the visual effects that they produce. We begin with the subject of landscape, as we feel that many of the works by Daniel Senise challenge us when viewed as landscapes, considering the landscape not only as a representation but also a concrete, incorporated materiality.

What Is A Landscape? 
There is no need to demonstrate here the importance of the role of the landscape, its development and vicissitudes in the course of the entire history of art. But it is curious to note the manner in which the subject of the landscape has continued to appear, even if more discretely as an outsider, within the context of many of the more striking or even more radical trends of the past few decades. It is quite clear that the landscape is still a vital stepping stone for approaching Land Art and works such as those by Richard Long, for instance.

Above all, it is important to underscore the way in which the Return of the Landscape (or the Return to the Landscape) has appeared over the past few years as a key issue in the work of many artists aligned with a wide variety of esthetic guidelines.

We feel that the persistence of the landscape and the diversity of contours with which it is endowed within the context of contemporary art are related to the multi-dimensioned versatility and plasticity of this subject. In fact, the landscape as a subject offers a wide variety of productive and possible aspects and approaches based on an artistic viewpoint. Here we distinguish between three aspects of the landscape. The landscape as an idea that leads us to the idea of Nature. The landscape as an experience that guides us through an entire range of sensations, sentiments and feelings prompted by the experience of the physical confrontation. The landscape as image that leads us into a specific vein in the history of the processes of representing the real. We now analyze how these different aspects of the landscape can reflect their productivity within the modern world of contemporary art. As the representative of the idea of Nature, the landscape is grounded mainly on works whose sociological vocation is predominant. Ecological concerns tend to become fundamental in this type of investigation, appearing in some way or another as a historical update of the more traditional and critical problems of the clash between Nature and Society. But the critical and ecological approach does not exhaust the possibilities of the artistic exploration of the idea of Nature. We may note that even the more nostalgic or contemplative approach is endowed with a pertinent and perceptible efficacy that distances us from the world of media images that surround us.

As an emotional experience, from the standpoint of exploring the motion of the sublime, the appreciation of a landscape is an experience whose intensity cannot be either expropriated or reproduced. Consequently, any plastic attempt to evoke the ecstasy felt while gazing at a landscape is inevitably doomed to failure, because this state cannot by definition be reproduced. This is why it is always necessary to start over again, persisting in this quest for the impossible evocation.

But at the end of the road, because this is all about painting, we must always speak of the landscape as the image. However, we may ask whether or not the painting, with some deliberate anachronism or some mystical innocence might still be able to disturb or surprise us, empowering us to think or recall a landscape, ideally experienced or really idealized.

Consequently, this issue focuses on the link between the landscape as an experience and the landscape as a painted image, which is of interest to us here for an in-depth analysis of the context of the works of Daniel Senise. We note here the hypothesis that Senise strives to move beyond the constraints of evoking the landscape merely as image through the physical incorporation of matter and the symbolic inclusion of signs. This places the viewer within the landscape.

For instance, look at Untitled (Sem Título – 1993), synthetic enamel and iron oxide on canvas, or Landscape with Levitation (Paisagem com Levitação – 1995), acrylic, powdered iron and lacquer on cretonne. The textures enriched by the iron offer a sensual, physical appeal, an appeal to the touch. The figure of the girl, in her silent availability, is offered to viewers as an intermediary able to draw them into the landscape through parallel lines supplementary to the representation of the image of a landscape in the strict sense of the word; Senise attempts to awaken memories within spectators of their own personal experience of the landscape.

So what in fact is a landscape? 
It is very hard to describe a landscape. It is impossible to do so rigorously. In order to answer this question, we must begin by turning back to the memory of our personal experience, whether in real life or dreams.

In my own memory, the notion of landscape cannot be disassociated from the idea of travel. What does a journey or set of journeys consist of? I speak of journeys that are chosen or that are allowed to occur as the aristocratic exercise of wise old ways of living, abandoning the literary rêverie: emotive exaltations and moral formation.

We admit that very special moments occur, which are associated with rivers, mountains, trees, woods, skies, seas, snows, darkness, light, leaves, streams, ice, water, earth. In terms of profound experience, all this – and the corresponding moments – are associated with feelings of powerlessness that range from dazzling to depressing, due to the impossibility of dominating and retaining the structure and way of being of something that is clearly completely beyond us, while mobilizing us completely within ourselves. This explanation is offered for journeys, but it could also apply to almost all the circumstances in a life. Whenever this life is lived from the standpoint of awareness of emotions or sensitive scruples.

These are moments when time is suspended. They are even more virulent when they are “landscape-moments” because we remain more irremediably outside them. And it is this embittered feeling of exclusion, the denial of this status as an outsider that builds up a memory, a selective autobiography. An autobiography where we can store forever these moments: that we can never fully absorb. We are talking about a single circumstance – the “landscape moments” – at two points in their existence: when they occur and their memory. It is now important to analyze how these moments can become painting circumstances.

The painting cannot record for eternity what occurred or what was seen in one of these perfect “landscape moments”, because the most decisive aspect of them has gone, or could not be recorded, meaning that it could be slotted into a code such as that of painting. Painting cannot express the subjective experience or indelible memory of a moment because they are immaterial, due to either subjectivity or the memory that prizes them. What painting can do, or rather what paintings could be, is to create groupings that may possibly function in a manner similar to the functioning of the set of elements triggering these “landscape moments”, through the means available. These consist of paints in many different colors, woods and other materials with contrasting textures and levels of corrosion, brush-strokes, scrapes, ways of producing color and light effects, tactile sensitivity. It is never possible to paint a landscape, nor even a moment, but at times it is possible to paint a painting. This is a humble but pretentious craft. Producing something that cannot be conceived, but in material terms. The humility consists of turning this into a task. If this task is undertaken from the standpoint of emotional attention or sensitive scruples, moments when time is suspended will occur, “painting moments”. The extent to which they are shared by the painter and the viewer is a matter to be discussed later. And the “painting moments” become part of a selective autobiography, together with everything that has been lived in a more rigorous manner.

We look at the Kiss of the Missing Link (O Beijo do Elo Perdido – 1991). In a cold and arid landscape, two forms meet and intertwine as though they were living beings, bodies, and faces. Warm beings, with a vocation for heat and being swept away. On the surface of the painting we surprise these shapes that for us outline one of these flawless moments were time is suspended. This is a “painting moment” that may perhaps trigger the echo of another moment in our memory, where an event took place within a landscape that until then had become neutral, becoming unique. One of those moments when we do not know what happened, but we are confident that something quite incomparable took place.

The Workshop Floor 
When I was a child, my father would take me to visit the huge automobile assembly plant where he worked, and my first feeling was fright, due to the brutal noise of hundreds of machines, sawing, hammering and welding all at the same time, set against the clanging background music of endless sheets of iron. Once the initial effects of this fear had worn off, one of the things that fascinated me most was the wide variety of textures on the floor and the work-benches in each of the rooms. One room had a cement floor that was as cold as lead, looking like a black cake dusted with rusty red and white powders like a protective talc. I had to wait until no one was looking before I could draw on that voluptuously tempting floor, and then slip my hand surreptitiously into my pocket, trying to rub off the marks and smells that were to remain on my fingers until the next day.

Another room had tables covered with wood offcuts in the most Baroque shapes, spiraling and sticking out in all directions, cascading onto the floor, which was covered by a tangled mat of multi-colored threads soaked in a sticky black oil, almost dry. This wad of faded threads that all the men carried around, hanging from the pockets of their overalls, was called “cotton-waste”, a marvelous word for a marvelous concept: “cotton-waste” was what used to receive, absorb and clean up all dirt. It was possible to play with the cleaner wood offcuts and build little houses. But it was hard to avoid some sharper splinter running through the thin skin on my fingers, with bloody consequences. Otherwise, some forgotten blob of oil would leave an indelible stain that would then have to be scrubbed with pungent turpentine, but the marks would stay on my skin for several days. The next room was used for painting. It was hard to resist this immense treasure-trove of open cans of paints, available and filled with liquid puddings in the most tempting shades. Abundant, these paints ran down the benches on which they were blended and mixed. Paints that dripped to the floor and, once dry or nearly dry, could be peeled off and shaped into little plasticine mouths.

Paints that spattered the clothes, hands and face, leaving the marks of life everywhere. The marks of a living world of the huge factory where my father worked. It is always good to imagine that painters worked at places like this. Even when we refer to painters who produce paintings that are works of art, rather than mere factory hands painting automobiles, for instance. And this is how I imagine the studio of Daniel Senise. “The canvas or the thin cotton fabric are prepared and covered with pigment, and are then stretched out while still wet on the studio floor. When peeled off the floor, the surfaces retain the print of the marks, like a shroud, a literal metaphorical reference that is found frequently in the works of Senise. When lifted, the canvas or fabric has absorbed not only the dust, chips and stains of the floor, but also empty zones of blank surfaces and the remains of earlier works subjected to the same procedure. The canvas is then affixed to the wall and in certain cases reworked in the same way.” (Dawn Ades, in “Daniel Senise: Vestígios”, in the booked entitled Daniel Senise – Ela que Não Está, Cosac & Naify, São Paulo, 1998).

This is still a work of constructing the landscape. Urban, factory landscapes. Concrete, physical landscapes produced by hand by the hands of men. We would almost like to call them proletarian landscapes, if we wished to use a word that is almost never used, and has almost lost its meaning.

In landscapes such as these, it is the material nature of the textures that brings back memories, feelings and enchantments, together with all the other things that are more or less poetic and that we would like to associate with things made by hand, like caresses. In his more recent works, produced over the past two years, Daniel Senise has taken images of the floor in different places as his starting point. These floor images are recorded in monotype and then used through collages and juxtapositions to compose pictures that in turn constitute representations of different inner areas, and more specifically images of the exhibition areas in which the works are presented. In other cases, the indoor areas portrayed relate back to old paintings from which the characters have been removed. Let us look at some examples. Images of the wooden floor of a factory in Connecticut accompany the representation of the space in a painting by De Hooch for instance.

Images of the floor in an art school in New York reconstitute the spaces of various museum rooms. Images of the floor of the artist’s studio in New York represent this same studio. This method is followed in the canvas intended for exhibition in the Parque Lage stables in Rio de Janeiro, where images of the floor as it was before this building was restored are used to represent the rooms where the canvases are displayed. In all these cases, this involves strengthening the effects of bringing the spectator into the represented space, taking the play of illusions, slips and correspondences to the final consequences in real space, represented space and remembered or imagined space.

The Sweat Of Time 
Who is the owner of the face that has long been recorded and clearly seen on the famous Shroud of Turin? Some people say that these marks portray the face of Jesus Christ. This is not very informative, as we then have to ask who is Christ? And this is a question that cannot lead to a reply, but merely an infinite sequence of observations and speculations that, although fascinating, are not a matter with which we can be concerned here. It is important to recall that we are facing questions that can have no definitive reply, but nevertheless do not cease to be objective interest or even passion. With regard to matters such as this, it may be said that they are infinite by nature. And this is also the nature of works of art. The questions about them are also infinite, as well as the replies that may (not) be given about them. This results in the infinite variety of discourses on art. But would this not be absurd? What is the point of something about which all that can be said but nothing can be stated definitively? Something about which nothing can be said is close to what was once called the truth, in olden times.

We are talking about things that had a meaning when they were made. They later develop other meanings, every time they are seen or recalled. They even take on fresh meanings, even if nobody knows how or when they were made. And this continues interminably, through times when they have no meaning as no one remembers to even think about what they might be. So why do these endless conversations not end, together with the things that nurture them? Why these soiled cloths were laid aside, no one knows… Because they are the depositaries and the witnesses of time. Time is the dream of God and it is all that we shelterless humans have to live.

Let us look at the series of 94’ works entitled Ela que não está (She who isnt here), based on the shapes created by removing interventions overlaid on the Giotto fresco portraying the death of St. Francis in the Bardi Chapel at the Santa Croce church in Florence, Italy. What is cited is not the image, but rather what it lacks. Perhaps because this is what it lacks, what it lost, that which best recounts the irreversible passage of time. If we restrict ourselves to a more superficial analysis of this set of works, we can affirm that Daniel Senise was dedicated to revisiting the history of painting, based on his historiographic information that is erudite to some extent. The link between a logic of citation/appropriation and a strategy of subversion/inversion of values – what is retained is not the image but rather the gap indicating what has been lost – leads to the identification of a critical stance and a work of deconstruction of representation and the traditional, enshrined imagetics. All this is present in the works of the painter, and this hypothetical reading is obviously plausible. However, we feel it is crucial to extend the horizons of an analysis of these problems, as the painter himself extends his own field of reference and experimentation in a broad-ranging and generous manner.

For instance, if we were to look at the set of works based on the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother by Whistler, we note that the more important than the content of the citation as such is the play of the composition that it allows. A play of symmetries that expands in different directions and gives rise to multiple dreamlike playful exercises: oppositions between front and back; a double silhouette that is also a glass; the reversibility of functions between shape and background, an image that at one moment seems to emerge to suggest a figure to us and then vanishes, extending a landscape before us. An aura of sweat on an ancient cloth is perhaps the most that we can aspire to as the symbol of an idea and a history for humankind that helps us to deal with the human frailty of our times; which is simultaneously this historical time in which we all live and the time of life of each of us. Painting is one of the many ways of recording the marks of the sweat of time. This is why it is called an aura.