The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues
JUNE 2014 Issue


On View
Lehmann Maupin, Chelsea
April 24 – June 21, 2014
New York

Long recognized for her grotesque representations of colonialism, her ability to evoke a constancy between past and present, and her anthropologically inspired explorations of race, Adriana Varejão’s latest exhibition, Polvo, feels contemplative, even hopeful—especially for an artist who has spent much of her career lamenting historical atrocities, tragedies, and disparities. Interestingly and seemingly unintentionally, Polvo also transcends the specificity of Brazilian socio-political and cultural motifs—which constitute the majority of Varejão’s oeuvre—to provoke larger questions regarding the burgeoning market for Brazilian art, and the myriad implications of this growth for the work itself. While earnest in her attempt to encourage self-reflection and to question the construct of race, somewhere in the process  Varejão seems to have recalibrated her output to accommodate a global audience, compromising its impact along the way.

Adriana Varejao,
Adriana Varejao, "Polvo oil Colors," 2013 Mixed media, Edition of 200. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.

In the center of the gallery sit two vitrines that display tubes of paint Varejão created based on self-descriptions of skin tones offered by Brazilians in a 1976 census. The marked tubes range from Branquinha (Snow White), to Azul Marinho (Blue Black), to Sapecada (Flirting with Freckles). Of the 136 unique descriptions of tones that were noted in the census, Varejão selected 33, then extrapolated a corresponding color. Some, like Branquinha, seem obvious, while others—Sapecada, for instance—require substantive imaginative license. For all, Varejão had only the written descriptions from which to create the actual paint color, therefore removing the final product from the referential skin tone by several layers.

Lining the walls is a series of 12 portraits of Varejão, depicting the artist in a spectrum of skin tones, culled from her census-inspired palette and painted by a portraitist who worked for hire in Varejão’s studio. Set against a pale blue background as if floating in space, the portraits, stilted and restrained, reflect the hesitant expression on Varejão’s face. Each painting includes a color grid or a wheel, or occasionally a group of isolated analog pixels reminiscent of azulejos,the traditional Portuguese tiles, that Varejão often employs. The majority of the color blocks are formed by differing configurations of the 33 skin tones, though a few in magenta and turquoise—which did not evolve out of the census—stand out, adding a vibrancy to the works and an absurdist angle to the arbitrariness of skin tone itself.

The tubes of paint colors, and the corresponding translations of their names from Portuguese into English, form the most interesting tension of the show. Unfortunately, Varejão offers no explanation as to why these Brazilian idioms were translated into English in the first place, leaving a lacuna where an important and timely conversation was possible. Failing to discuss the significance of the act of translation itself reads as a numbness to the power dynamics of the art market and the parallel dynamics of the greater global economy.  

The works do present a light (almost playful) look at the complexities of race relations in Brazil, and everywhere else for that matter. It is not news that skin tone determines much of how one is perceived in the world—or the nutrition, education, healthcare, and overall quality of life he or she will endure—but that does not negate the imperative of the conversation. In this regard, Polvo is valid, but it suffers from its silence in the face of the larger socio-political context within which Brazil is rapidly gaining ground. Is Varejão asking Brazilians to take stock of their racism? Is she asking Americans, through the translation of these words into English, to do so? If, as she says, she is interested in color as language, why is it that language is the dominant focus of the works?

Varejão has spent much of her life thinking about colonialism. That she has made this work easily digestible for—or even specific to—an English-speaking audience seems to be one more indication that the ravenous global market for Brazilian art has shaped the very art-making itself. At best, Varejão is looking beyond Brazil and will, in time, bring the rigor, thoughtfulness, and acuity of her practice, without sacrificing, to an international audience.


Sara Roffino

SARA ROFFINO is the managing editor of the Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2014

All Issues