The graphic dimension
Another silent energy
COOPERATION: the act or effect of cooperating. COOPERATE: to operate simultaneously; to work together; collaborate. To work as a team.
This project was born, in September 2008, out the desire for cooperation between the Carlos Vergara Workshop (hereafter referred to simply as the Workshop) and the Mônica and George Kornis Collection. The Workshop’s many activities include keeping, organizing, preserving and disseminating the work and archive of this artist.1 Set up in the mid-1970s, the aims of the Mônica and George Kornis Collection are to build up and disseminate a stock of graphic work, organized around the theme of the development of graphic language.2 Both the Workshop and the Mônica and George Kornis Collection operate in the private sector and their public mission manifests itself in commitment to broadening access to information, with full freedom of expression and high-quality artistic production.
Following this meeting, before the end of 2008, work began on designing a project capable of representing both thought and action seen as an integral whole. We were going against the trend towards individualism and unbridled competition and we were (or, at least, we should have been) fully aware of this. We proceeded to talk a lot. Through this constructive dialogue, we began to map out the direction we could take: by working together, on the basis of wide-ranging and comprehensive research, we should be able to proceed to an exhibition and the publication of a catalogue. The focus of the research would be the Vergara archive housed by the Workshop, although we could also involve other private collections in the project, such as the collections belonging to Cesar Pini, Gilberto Chateaubriand, and Mônica and George Kornis. The research would also involve a documentary basis included in the Workshop’s archive and, finally, each of the parties involved in the project would take responsibility for its successful completion.
The Workshop, therefore, in addition to allowing unrestricted access to its archive, provided guidance for the operation side of the project, while the collectors, Mônica and George Kornis assumed responsibility for the documentary research and the picture image, for the purposes of curating the exhibition.
During the project, the cooperation broadened when, in mid-2009 the teacher and art critic, Glória Ferreira, got involved and took on responsibility fro writing a critical text on the graphic dimension (with an emphasis on photography) in the work of Vergara. This text, which reveals the extent to which this contemporary art critic has mastered her profession, is an important contribution to the catalogue that preserves the memory of this exhibition. This reaffirmed our commitment to developing permanent and closer ties through joint action and reflection.
The scale of cooperation gradually extended to other institutions: the Secretary of Culture of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art and the mining company, Vale. The technical team also grew. We were inspired throughout this period of more than a year’s work (and always will be) by the idea of pooling our efforts, skills, sensibilities, potential, archives and tangible and intangible resources. Thus, in the same way that kindness is returned by kindness, so cooperation led to more cooperation.
CONCEPTION: The act of formulating an idea, thought or concept; forming an opinion, judgment or assessment. THE CONCEPTION OF IDEAS: the process of developing an idea, thought or concept.
The curator of this exhibition was guided from the outset by the strong presence of constitutive elements of graphic language that we found in Vergara’s work, which spans several decades. This artist’s career first took off in the 1960s and he was a prominent figure in the Brazilian art world at this time. He took part in the São Paulo biannuals of 1963 and 1967, in historically-important Brazilian exhibitions (such as Opinion 65; Opinion 66; and New Brazilian Objectivity, in 1967), in various Brazilian Art Salons and international shows, such as the Paris Biannual of 1969. His work had already at this stage caught the attention of Hélio Oiticica, who wrote the following words about him:
“this was the beginning and always is:
As the starting-point and programmatic annotation of a new stage.....”.3
This however should not, by any means, be confused with the simple use of engraving techniques, since, conceptually-speaking, it relates to the field of language.
In the course of his almost fifty-year career as an artist, Vergara has rarely produced engravings. He focused more on woodcuts and screen-prints, techniques that do not involve cutting or engraving a template. He cannot therefore be described as an engraver. Nevertheless, this artist has, in his work from the 1960s until the present day, incorporated a set of elements belonging to graphic language, such as synthesis, direct visual communication, superimposed images, putting together a template and transferring it, by way of printing, onto a new support. His work is thus also graphic, even though this dimension is relatively (or almost completely) overlooked by the various writers who have produced texts about it, which often regard him as (solely) a painter.
The presence of photograph—as Glória Ferreira also observes in her text entitled “Risks and Chances”, included in this catalogue – has been a constant throughout Vergara’s career. According to this author, this has been “a long dialogue beginning in the 1960s”. And this is one indubitable and important sign of the role the graphic dimension plays in the work of this artist. To overlook this graphic dimension—photographic or not—or even to relegate it to secondary status is, at the very least, to present a limited view of the artist’s achievement, which is as diverse as it is extensive. Furthermore, this view, by obscuring the possibility of the cohabitation of different languages within the artist’s oeuvre, clashes head-on with one the fundaments of contemporary art—the loss of the sense and relevance of the individual craft and of traditional artistic categories. Therefore, to consider the presence of more than one dimension in the work of an artist is to reveal the various flows of energy that currently traverse the production of art. In the case of Vergara’s work, knowledge or acknowledgement of the presence of a graphic dimension presents the possibility of understanding how another silent energy, also feeds into the process of production, clearing heightening its potency. This greater potency is what drives a work in constant transformation, what made and continues to make up a kind of visuality that is a clear mark of its author: the rejection of style, of the fixed formula and the skills related to these.
The conceptual design of this exhibition, in addition to making explicit what we understand to be the graphic dimension, also meets other challenges. These include the need to undertake research into images produced over an extensive period of time, without giving in to the temptation of producing a retrospective: our focus has been more on the present than on the past. Our intention was always to preserve the diversity and intensity of Vergara’s work. The strategy was to select works that, although considerably diverse, could be brought together into units for observation and in series which juxtapose completely new pieces with some that have already been published in the artist’s bibliography. The other aspect of this strategy was that of highlighting, through the accumulation of works, the intensity of the artist’s production. We have brought together here hundreds of pieces produced by Vergara from the 1960s through to the present day, with the express purpose of revealing the importance of graphic language in the complete work of an artist driven by a plurality of energies.
Revealing this through our strategy of accumulation obliges the viewer to concentrate on the less visible graphic dimension, which nevertheless bears an intense flow of creative energy. The revelation of this relatively disregarded dimension of Vergara’s work became the guiding thread of the whole research process that resulted in this exhibition. Herein also lies the origin of the subtitle “another silent energy”: taken from the 1993 exhibition, Silent Energy: The New Art from China, curated by David Elliott at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, in the UK, which revealed to Western eyes the flow of creative energy that was driving Chinese contemporary art at the time. This show also teaches us that (rare) silent energies deserve (or cry out) to be revealed. For, although they are potent, they are not evident. Revelation thus poses a considerable challenge: but can art be created without taking risks?
VIEWING: a faculty of the eye; exercising or applying the sense of sight; attempting to see; gaze, contemplating, turning ones attention towards, paying attention or noticing; researching, observing, examining, studying, pondering; caring for, protecting. COLLECTING: making a collection of; bringing together, assembling, joining. THE COLLECTOR’S VIEW: selectively putting together large quantities of images, researching, observing, studying and seeking to establish relations, guiding the attention, caring and protecting.
We started out from the assumption that the Carlos Vergara Workshop archive should be considered to be a collection. A specific collection, as it brings together a large group of pieces produced by the artist in the course of five decades of work. It has been guided by the eye of a collector working as a curator. The idea that pervaded our work was that of looking at the archives from the point of view of a collector: researching, selecting, accumulating and building up relations between the various pieces to be put on display. Over time, the Carlos Pini, Gilberto Chateaubriand, Mônica and George Kornis, and other collections were added. The first stage was, with the assistance of the Workshop’s technical staff, to draw up an inventory of the work in the archive, so that we could then proceed to examine, do background research and select the pieces to be put on display. This work enabled us to create units of observation comprising series, sequences and other ways of grouping together individual pieces of this artist’s work. The observation units based on binary pairs frequently found in the artist’s work were as follows: individuals and collectives; space and time; color and form; and, finally, experiments with materials and processes.
The relation of pieces to one another become more evident when they are grouped together in observation units, that is, when attention has been drawn to the diversity and intensity of Vergara’s output. The twin desires of revealing and preserving the fundamental characteristics of this work led, however, to a new challenge: how to deal visually with the different scales and sizes of the pieces, without implying some order of importance or hierarchy alien to the way the artist’s own thinking has developed over time? How to juxtapose the small-scale pieces that predominated in the 1960s in such a way that they are compatible with the larger-scale pieces of the 1980s and after? This challenge was overcome in two different ways: the first conceptual solution focused on the experimental character of the work, which is reflected in the differences in scale and size; the second solution was the way the exhibition space was organized, as will be discussed in the last section of this text.
In conceptual terms, it should be made clear that the smaller-scale work is naturally more intimate, more spontaneous and more akin to experimental note-taking. A small drawing, snapshot, or even an engraving can operate as a laboratory in which experiments are designed to deal with problems in the visual arts and open the way towards creations on a grander scale. These pieces thus constitute important units of observation. Through them the gaze builds up a web of relations that guides one’s attention, research, observation, and the capacity to group things together, and, above all, sharpens one’s vision of future possibilities.
From this perspective, visual problems and suggestions regarding solutions present themselves in a series of pieces produced on distinct non-linear scales in terms of both time and space. It is no different in the work of Carlos Vergara: a small graphic note may give rise to the formulation of a visual question to be confronted, although not in an entirely predictable fashion, in another piece produced on another scale in terms of time and space. The (re)construction of these creative processes and their revelation, thus, became important challenges for this exhibition.
The organization of the exhibition space
The way the exhibition space is occupied should, in principle, express the concepts and the methods employed by its curators. The whole process of organizing the exhibition space should, therefore, be guided by a way of thinking that is consistent with the other ideas and actions that makes the undertaking organic and leads to the production of complex work of visual art.
The organization of this exhibition sought to base itself on fairly clear criteria: in grouping together two hundred or so pieces in a large space, it opted for an intensive accumulation of work using the whole available physical space. Moreover, the choice of a collector to curate the exhibition was bound to lead to the creation of a kind of space where art-works are accumulated, relationships drawn between the various pieces and multiple discoveries made. It is not thus a matter of displaying pieces on antiseptic walls, but of building spaces that are conducive to perception, thought, and reflection, and the systematization of these by way of debate. The range of pieces exhibited include pioneering drawings and photographs and screen-prints of the Rio de Janeiro carnival; the series of masks, which includes the piece produced for the 1980 Venice biennale; the series of envelopes; various woodcuts; and the artist’s only metal engraving, produced for the Iberê Camargo Foundation, in addition to more recent monotypes, including “Morumbi Chapel”. The group also includes architectural projects, and book- and record-covers produced by the artist.
Based on a process of research into images and documentary resources, the exhibition space is organized according to two basic principles. First, the adoption of observation units, although useful for organizing thoughts regarding the selection of the pieces to be exhibited, should not lead to segmentation of the exhibition space, which should, in principle, express the way the various work permeate and form relations between one another. Secondly, by grouping pieces together, the aim was not to produce monotony, but the possibility of moving along the exhibition walls, or even over the exhibition floor, at a variety of paces.
We aimed to take advantage of the architecture, treating it as an affective space, whose divergences from the ideal of the white cube appeared not as defects but to present a greater intimacy and variety of uses. Walls of different heights, dimensions and materials and even different kinds of illumination were thus welcomed, as this reflected the great diversity of art-works and documents on display.
Full use was therefore made of the exhibition space, although this was done in such a way as to allow the pieces to read at different rhythms, and also to confer a certain visual fluidity of a non-segmented space. It is not a simple project, as it seeks to bring about a convergence of thought and action. It is, however, as intensive and diverse as any work of art.
Reflection and Debate
We chose to establish a link between the sense of sight and the thinking that structures a selection of an artist’s works through a visual language. This in itself puts reflection and debate in central place. This exhibition seeks to find and to develop in each of us an eye that is capable of though, as proposed by Klee in his book The Thinking Eye. The show thus goes beyond the mere contemplation of images. Its success as a cognitive experiment of an artistic nature moves onto other territory beyond that delineated by the exhibition space.
For this reason, it is essential that educational activities that do not patronize the general public but draw them into a kind of thinking based on visual language be carried out. The publication of a catalogue with texts and images of the art-works expresses a commitment to the perennial nature of processes and not the transience of events that is unfortunately so in vogue nowadays.
Conferences and round-tables to stimulate debate, the showing of films and other activities are likewise indispensable. These form an integral part of the challenges involved in avoiding an exhibition focusing on a single artist turning into a simple exercise ego-massaging of little cultural or artistic interest. Is this too ambitious? Maybe. It is, however, necessary.
We are going against the flow and will continue to do so. Our focus is on the process that has its origins in thinking and uses the construction artistic works to encourage debate and ideas and finally achieves concrete form in the production of knowledge. We believe in the perennial nature of art and this is the main reason that we think beyond the exhibition space.
George Kornis – curator
1 For more on the Carlos Vergara Workshop, see VERGARA, João. Sobre a formação e o acesso a acervos de arte contemporânea: o caso do Ateliê Carlos Vergara. [On the creation of and access to contemporary art archives: the case of the Carlos Vergara Workshop] Dissertation (Professional Masters in Cultural Heritage and Social Projects) – Post-Graduate Program in History, Politics and Cultural Heritage, CPDOC/ Getulio Vargas Foundation, 2008.
2 For more on the Mônica and George Kornis Collection, see A gravura brasileira na Coleção Mônica e George Kornis. [Brazilian engravings in the Mônica and George Kornis Collection] Catalogue of exhibitions held between October 2007 and September 2008 in five exhibition spaces run by the Caixa Bank Cultural Foundation.
3 In: Carlos Vergara. Rio de Janeiro: Funarte, 1978. Contemporary Brazilian Art Series. p. 7.