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Empty House Casa Vazia


Despite its name, Empty House Casa Vazia is anything but vacant: it blooms like a veritable Garden of Neoconcrete Delights, affording the eye plentiful stimuli ranging from sleek to arch. The eighteen Brazilian artists who have hewn these peculiar treasures span generations, yet their works share certain mannerisms and makeup, as well as a common conceptual tongue. The copious objets in this amiable mélange are ruled by a lean aesthetic ethos that is equal parts simplicity, subjectivity, and strangeness. In total, the show is a tour de force, possessing a collective sharpness and authority that emphatically challenges the detachment of concrete art in general (and Donald Judd’s insistence on the “obdurate identity of a material” in particular.)1

In their 1959 manifesto, the vanguard artists who had denominated themselves as Neoconcrete made it quite clear that no principles stood higher on their hit list than rationalism or objectivity:

We do not conceive of a work of art as a “machine” or “object” but as a “quasi-corpus”; that is, a being whose reality is not exhausted by the external relationships of its elements; a being that can be deconstructed into parts for analysis but can only be fully understood through a direct, phenomenological approach. We believe that a work of art surpasses the material mechanism on which it rests, but not because it has an extraterrestrial quality: it surpasses it by transcending such mechanical relationships (which is the aim of Gestalt) and creates, in and of itself, a tacit meaning (Merleau-Ponty) that emerges for the first time.2

Art, in essence, was imagined to have a life of its own, an implicit spirit that, although autonomous, could only be fully activated by human interaction. The many boxes, knots, shadows, cuts, and folds that comprise Empty House Casa Vazia embody this conviction to the utmost, with each piece itching, yearning, or questioning as much as any sentient being might. The sculptures request— and in most cases require— that the viewer walk around and experience them from multiple viewpoints, demanding we engage with them via intimate dialogues, numerous double takes, and more than a modicum of personal investment.

Fernanda Gomes’s Untitled (2015) is a delicate slip of iron, a tentative vertical curve that tilts ever so slightly to the right and away from the wall to which it is fixed by a wide-set grill of narrow teeth. It is a portrait of a line deciding what it wants to be: straight or bent, free or fixed, and there is beauty in the indecision. Across the gallery, Relevo Espacial 6 (1959)— made by Helio Oiticica, one of the movement’s founding members— is entirely sure of itself, providing one of the show’s rare instances of color. Its minimal bulk hangs effortlessly in space like a dense, geometric cloud of Hungarian paprika, and though it is made of painted wood, it could just as easily be steel or paper. Where Gomes’s Untitled might be called a wallflower, Relevo is the bold, mysterious creature in the room that everyone wants to befriend.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the show is how the materials give the distinct impression of being enfranchised, shrugging off their “obdurate identities” to explore their fullest potential. It is as though many of these substances have always wanted to be something else, and thus it became the artists’ role to help them reconfigure themselves accordingly. Paulo Monteiro’s Bananada (2011) is a tiny cut brick of bronze that appears as pliant as wax encaustic; in Untitled (2013), too, one can see the tension and softness between the opposing directions in which Monteiro’s thumbs were pressed. Waltercio Caldas took what might have been a table, sliced its face, and pressed two of the corners together to reveal a fluttering Wood wind (1994) frozen in space. The gorgeous cut-paper leaflets by Raymundo Colares bridge the border between the second and third dimension, and Adriano Costa’s Norwegian Cheese 2 (2014) is more music than rug, the metallic lifting sound made when stepped on only matched by the light crack that comes when the tile’s other end hits the concrete as your foot leaves its surface.

The sense of freedom that pervades Empty House also manifests as a kind of order dismantled, a breakdown that recalls deconstructed origami. The angular planes and pleats of Lygia Clark’s Bicho (1960/84) and Amilcar de Castro’s Estrela (1952) strike a lovely balance between the maelstrom of Futurist sculpture and the calm, resolute slants of a Tony Smith. At the same time, they catch the light, imbuing steel and copper (respectively) with the delicate lambency of a blossom unfurling at dawn. Tunga’s three Albino (1982) cotton felt wall hangings echo the lazy weight of a sloth, their suspended arms and accouterment held up as a sheet of paper caught mid-fold. The forms are organic and timeless, perfectly balanced and fully aware of their own contingency; they look, in a way, undone, but they endure in their condition, and ergo are complete.

The smaller back gallery —and, in fact, the whole show— is won over by the tight arrangement of Amilcar de Castro’s unnamed series of 140 sculptures (1990). Like misfit bookends made of Corten steel, these odd little items are fundamentally circles, squares, and triangles that have been cut, bent, and twisted into freestanding entities. The way they lift or lean and the shadows they cast are curious, drawing as much attention to the space around them as to their individual “quasi-corpus.” Above all, de Castro’s knack for reconfiguration makes these sculptures feel vital, or, in a markedly playful way, turned on. These works may have sprung from the brow of a hearty manifesto, but they live in and among the tangible world, speaking to us of desire and dynamism in a visceral language that not even the staunchest rationalist would dare to deny.


  1. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” 1965.
  2. “GULLAR, Ferreira et al. Manifesto Neoconcreto. Jornal do Brasil, Suplemento Dominical. Rio de Janeiro: 1959.


Margaret Graham


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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