Solaris, 4th March - 15th April 2017, Alma Zevi, Venice, Italy
ALMA ZEVI Venice is pleased to present new sculptures by Brazilian-born American artist Juliana Cerqueira Leite. All the works on view were made during her four-week residency in the city. Using the gallery itself as a temporary studio space, she worked alone and intensely, to create sculptures that respond to the volumes and proportions of the exhibition room as well as the unique context of Venice. Using Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel Solaris, famously adapted to film by Andrei Tarkovskij, as a reference, the works in the exhibition play on notions of the returning past, the simulacrum and the formless. The sculptures relate, as does all of Cerqueira Leite’s work, directly to the human body, in particular the female body. This precise identification exists as part of a larger conceptual field, which engages with contemporary feminist theory, as well as the history of feminist art. However, Cerqueira Leite’s work places what might be understood by some as two discreet values – feminism and femininity – into question. She does this by presenting multilayered, polychrome, visceral life-casts of her body, defined by several overlaid and interconnected poses. The poses converse with the conventions of female portrayal in Antiquity – with exaggerated contrapposto and hands resting on a thigh, or covering a breast. Thus, precarious and unnatural poses become a choreography that is fixed in time and space, and we are faced with a visual manifestation of the memory of presence.
These sculptures, by way of being in parts abstract, and in other parts graphically representational, are at once anchored in realism, and indeed Surrealism. The technique of life-casting brings to mind death masks, as well as the mythological Greek story of Pygmalion, the artist whose sculpture – Galatea – came to life after he fell in love with it. As a backdrop to Cerqueira Leite’s sculptures, both death masks and Galatea clearly evoke the idea of sculpture as transcendental. This happens when it goes beyond an imitation or a likeness, becoming something that truly takes on the essence of a particular person.
Cerqueira Leite’s sculpture partakes in a new chapter in the continuation of the nude figure in the history in Western art. While in the contemporary canon, we can look to Louise Bourgeois, Charles Ray, and Ana Mendieta. The aforementioned artists, as well as Cerqueira Leite herself, use (or used) representations of the body, much in the same way as Medieval artists did. Namely: to portray emotional states, social discourse, and as a striking vessel for storytelling. Conversely, references to this narrative of figurative depictions are complicated by a self-aware contemporary cultural framework. Cerqueira Leite’s sculptures are in flux, being strong physical bodies, contorted into poses that reference what men defined as beautiful and feminine over 2000 years ago. But they are also powerful bodies, proud to be not just ‘nudes’, but unashamedly naked bodies.
Using plaster mixed with creamy pink, orange and yellow pigments, likened by one young gallery visitor to marshmallows, the artist carefully subverts the associations of ‘prim and proper’ pastel colours, to represent a vision of woman as human, as hard and soft, as commanding and female. In doing so, the artist both deepens and resists the complex (artificial) structures that exist around identity today.
However, Cerqueira Leite is ever keen to stress that the work is just as much about humankind and the experience of being a physical and present thing in the world, as it is about an intrinsically female iteration of the above. This is evident in the artist’s new shelf-like series of sculptures that are on view in the gallery. These mark a new direction in her work, where we see a fixation on the potential of the hand - its components, and their relationship with everyday objects. Thus, the artist explores the microcosm of her larger sculptures’ theme: the movements of the body, and the multitude of positive and negative spaces around them. Yet at the same time, the shelf pieces, each numbered and titled Reaching, inhabit their own context by engaging explicitly with functional artefacts. The starting point for the shelf pieces was the question: what objects might one find on shelves? The adoption of a shelf of course references Donald Judd’s momentously sleek and bold sculptures that were made from the late 1960s until his death in the 1990s, as well as modes of commercial and domestic display. In turn, Cerqueira Leite’s Reaching series are also domestic both in their size, and in the fact that they were begun by fashioning cardboard forms suggestive of books, tins and containers. Cerqueira Leite then sculpted around them, using plaster, to capture overlaid positions of the hands clasping and unclasping the shapes on the shelf, until the objects themselves disappeared from view. The results are deceptive works, which evoke rocks that have been sculpted by running water (in the tradition of Chinese ‘Scholars’ Stones’), or other natural phenomena.
The repetitive yet changing motions that are at the heart of all of Cerqueira Leite’s new sculptures in this exhibition demonstrate an in-depth investigation into the limitations, and indeed, expectations, of the body. This investigation is influenced bySolaris, the seminal Tarkovskij film that Cerqueira Leite’s exhibition title pays homage to. Weaving within it this reference to Russian film history, the artist’s new work is most beautifully and defiantly presented within a multi-faceted framework of physical, social and existential concerns. Yet at the same time, the sculptures are counter-balanced with a lightness of touch, joyful energy and playful palette that brings them to what they fundamentally are: poetic, intuitive and masterful sculptures that look intelligently at the canon of figurative sculpture, while being nothing short of extraordinary in their creative vision and daring execution.