Essay for the book
Gonçalo Ivo: Oratório
Contra Cappa Livraria LTDA, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Gonçalo Ivo: Monumental Acts of Devotion
It is through fortuitous circumstance that I came to know the work of Gonçalo Ivo – deeply vibrant paintings with subtle saturated color and chunky oil surfaces – work that is charged with cultural resonances and inclusive in scope. From my studio in the hills of Pennsylvania, I saw images of his remarkable Teresopolis studio – an expansive magical space, loaded with the traditional tools and seductive textures of the trade – an obvious site of intense immersion and dedicated action. On the walls, numerous large canvases animated the space with dynamic geometric configurations that brought to mind a natural marriage of Andean textiles and Paul Klee.
Meeting Gonçalo for the first time in New York City, we spent days looking at art and talking about painting, family and the world. A year later, it was my great privilege to spend three weeks at his Teresopolis compound, working side by side in his studios, and being treated to the utmost grace and generosity. The opulence of Gonçalo’s Brazilian environment, shared freely with a steady stream of visiting friends and colleagues, is the embodiment of a boundless sensuality that permeates all aspects of his life and working process. It is an opulence that might at first suggest idle wealth, but has in fact been built slowly over a lifetime of total dedication and very hard work. He arrives at his studio before dawn and works until after dark every day, in a sustained zone of focused productivity that must be witnessed to be believed. He has stated, “I am a studio animal”, and I can attest to the absolute truth of that pronouncement.
I have been constantly impressed by the magnanimity of Gonçalo’s intellect and sensibility, the acuity of his observations, and his broad awareness and embrace of contemporary theory, in contrast with the sense of tradition and poeticism with which he approaches his own practice. It is a paradox that has evolved as a great strength and distinguishing characteristic through his thirty year career in which he has built a rich and diverse body of work that is both participating in the international painting dialogue, and deflecting that conversation to include primal impulses that seem almost lost to the contemporary discourse.
Gonçalo’s life experience is certainly distinctive -- as the son of poet Ledo Ivo he grew up in Brazil surrounded by poets and painters, as well as his father’s art collection that included the work of Alfredo Volpi, which inspired him at an early age. Within this environment, this heritage of intellectual and aesthetic richness, Gonçalo developed his working process as a daily ritual of observation and transformation, inseparable from and integrally woven with his culture and surroundings. Unlike much of the theory driven abstract painting in the international contemporary art scene, Gonçalo's work is steeped in an ancestral tradition of poetic production. It positions itself within a non-linear time space where creative endeavor is not a strategy, but an ancient human necessity.
Yet, his work by its very nature directly addresses the prevailing theoretical context. About twelve years ago, Gonçalo relocated to Paris, while continuing to maintain his Teresopolis studio, shuttling back and forth between France and Brazil, essentially living in Paris but executing his major large-scale works at Teresopolis. In a most interesting and revealing statement, he has said that he felt he needed to move to Paris to be more Brazilian. It is important to note that his relocation has not changed the fundamental approach and appearance of his paintings, but what has changed is the context within which the most distinguishing aspects of his paintings are considered. Just as Duchamp ultimately defined and expanded his relationship to his own milieu through contextual contrasts, Gonçalo’s ability to amplify the distinctive sources of his impulses has given prominence to the rich and complex dialogue that exists in his work between ancient and contemporary, primal and theoretical, elemental and ethnic.
A magnificent incarnation of these dichotomies was presented in the artist’s most recent exhibition, titled “Campo Santo”, at Galeria Anita Schwartz, the only commercial gallery space in Rio de Janeiro that rivals the expanse and grandeur of New York’s Chelsea "art temples". This show was a culmination of, or maybe a first glimpse at a shift in Gonçalo's work that has been developing over the past few years. The first and most obvious new development was in the scale of the paintings.
In the gallery's ground floor space, a cavernous white cube that makes a 2 meter painting look like a small spot on the wall, the artist installed three massive works, each about 2.5 x 7.5 meters, that radically altered the space of the gallery, activating its expanse with color and surface resonances that held the viewer's primary and peripheral vision in a constantly shifting scenario. Along with the dramatic scale of these paintings, the surface of each piece was built of many layers of oil, color over color, to create a thick amalgamated physicality. On the center wall was a "white" painting, the huge field made of gravel-like grit impregnated with gooey pigment that formed pools of sludge creating gorgeous subtle color nuances. To the right, the artist presented an elaboration of an ongoing motif related to rivers -- long horizontal color arrays. The muted earth colors of this painting, inspired by a visit to a medieval chapel in Spain, evoked a sense of embedded history. The surface was made of thousands of small brush strokes, piled layer upon layer, embodying a long meditative process of accumulation that reveals a history of its own. On the left hand wall was another tour de force painting. The deep undulating blues of its central field were created in many thick and thin layers, contrasting cobalt and black blues loosely overpainted with a luminous ultramarine. The thick accumulation of fat oil brushstrokes recalled the late paintings of Milton Resnick, but with a distinctive chromatic assertiveness. The blues of this painting, set off by the purples and greens of its upper and lower color bands, created a physical and psychological space of their own -- pulling us into the field, engulfing our vision and our senses.
On the two short walls of the space were paintings in the shape of crosses -- weathered wood objects with sensuous surfaces made of tempera with gold and silver leaf. These objects, and others in the upstairs space, created a complex and charged juxtaposition with the large paintings -- connecting assertions of the sensuousness and vitality of contemporary abstract painting with ancient cultural impulses and iconography. The crosses expanded and clarified the context of the work, exploring painting's historic existential connection with human sensibility.
In a small alcove, a group of watercolors, exquisite in their delicacy, presented a stark contrast to the sheer physicality of the big paintings. The watercolors revealed the genesis of Gonçalo's process, rooted in the intuitive poetics of color.
The complexity of the exhibition developed further in the upstairs gallery, a sort of penthouse space with a sliding glass wall leading to a terrace overlooking the granite peaks of Rio's shoreline. On the facing long walls, the artist presented two large (200 x 400 cm) powerful black paintings -- one a metallic green black, the other a deep purple black -- with thick chunky oil surfaces. Their presence was imposing and ominous, yet the subtlety of their color resonances eventually invited us up close. Placed around the concrete floor of the interior space was a group of small marble slabs that each had embedded in its upper surface a cross and a stone. Outside on the wooden deck of the terrace, was a group of larger concrete slabs with embedded wooden crosses and stones. The glass doors formed a real and metaphoric transparent barrier between the smooth formality of the marbles inside, and the rugged "poorness" of the concrete objects outside. With this installation, Gonçalo created a deeply poetic environment that was charged with emotion and layered cultural implications. It's meaning was not explicit, but its presence was unequivocal.
It is surely impossible to really look at this work and not sense that it was born of deep and intense experience – that it embodies in its dynamism and presence a human spirit of ancient origin. What we see in the paintings is the endless bountiful flow of great rivers, the constant flux of human perception, the undulating beauty of nature’s randomness. What we sense in Gonçalo’s visual poetry is the grace and dignity of human labor, a genealogy of human sentience and intuition, an embrace of paradox.
The scale and scope of Gonçalo’s most recent exhibition in Rio really deserved a museum setting, even though the installation was specific to the particular gallery space. The implications of the work transcended any local setting, not to mention any notions of commerce. The works were a potent testament to the unique ability of abstract painting to embody and evoke profound feeling -- to stand as proof of the potential richness of existence.
It is evident with each new exhibition, each new body of work, that Gonçalo Ivo has created more than just a group of new paintings -- he has made another monumental act of devotion, at once heroic and humble, ambiguous and true.
Steven Alexander 2011