LIGHTS, FEATURE, AFFECTION Alberto Tassinari
Notes on the poetics of Sergio Sister
1. In Sergio Sister?s black pictures of the 1980s, we already find the three elements that shape his entire oeuvre: the luminosity, feature, and affection that they express. The black pictures, with their lightly hued areas [page xxx], provided him with an admirable mastery of luminosity. This mastery, however, cannot be understood without reference to the brushstrokes that give the work its feature. Between serial and expressionistic, these convey small differences in light and dark, as well as differences in direction, tenor and dimension. Subtle and detailed attention is paid to the form of the brushstrokes and the overall pattern they engender. Through such differences in luminosity, extremely small differences, shadows insinuate themselves and, with them, an inner light, one that is represented in the paintings, and from which they would appear to result. However, without the ridging of the brushstrokes, without the divergent directions and intensities with which they reflect light coming from outside the picture, the light insinuated by shadows, on its own, would not achieve the luminous dimension that these pictures possess. Places for light, but crafted places, carefully plotted; something akin to a "Fiat lux" occurs to the painting, as if ambient light were to shine, shine again, conceal itself, sink and then reemerge... as if ambient light itself painted the picture, because it acts from outside, from environment to canvas. What leaps from the picture to the environment is, therefore, the greater part of the picture. Little of consequence takes place in a dimension that would exist outside the canvas, suggestive of an optical illusion. It is more from the sides, rather than from the front, that the picture is made up. To some extent, we can even imagine the lateral, largely horizontal brushwork that drags the paint, scraping the canvas.
2. These horizontal lines are present in the monochrome paintings that came after the black paintings, as well as in the drawings from the same period. With greater clarity than in the paintings with a single, dominant color, it is in these drawings, in which some kind of calligraphy operates, that we sense something close to a task that was satisfactorily performed. Satisfaction with the simple, yet enchanting, mission of bringing something to term. Akin to a gift in which advance consideration is given to the person to whom it is to be presented (and that "whom" is the viewer), the drawings, in a manner more manifest, and the monochromatic paintings, in a manner more dense, come to us loaded with affection. And since they are not a literal expression of the artist (although they are that, also), the works possess, because they took the pains to acquire it, the language of affection. Not the artist?s affection, nor the viewer?s, but the work?s, which the viewer receives. And it arrives as if bearing an intersubjective affectivity, of everyone and no one, an affectivity that conveys to us a sense of hope and security that while the world may be written and still interpreted in many ways, in this case we have one that is affectionate, good, and tender. In which there is no mushiness, no minor key. There is greatness in the small and warm things that touch us; that come to us from outside, from the work, from the other, an other even to the artist himself once the work is finished. An other who, touching us softly, speaks of a world in which we are guided by gentle figures of respect.
3. Luminosity. Feature. Affection. Once brought together, it is in the series of 33 x 33 cm pictures that this combination reaches an initial and admirable synthesis. The square is not a typical format for painting; by employing it, furthermore in small dimensions, the affectionate component of creation is already partially guaranteed. In these pictures, a huge variety of ways of applying brush to canvas unfolds into one of the most beautiful series found in Brazilian painting. These are small pictures, small like the poems of Emily Dickinson, or the verses, not so much the entire poems, that we recall from our favorite poets. In these small paintings there is a density of spirit per cm2, if one can put it that way, which is only found in other, very synthetic forms of art: haiku, photographs, not many others.
4. Once found, Sergio Sister does not abandon fortuitous features, like the 33 x 33 cm pictures. He continues to paint them, while always pursuing other synthetic forms. Or, as can also happen, failing. Both in the sense of not achieving the desired effect as in not being afraid to try. Accordingly, in his first shift to paintings with more than one color, he did not achieve, through the use of vertical bands, the same density and aesthetic synthesis found in his previous work. How does one distribute a luminosity that comes not from the different bands and colors but from differences in brushstrokes? How does one expose an affectionate feature when even the colors cannot seem to get along? These are not bad works, for sure; they are good paintings. In those that juxtapose nearby tones, there is a quest for solidarity between colors. In those in which color bands are subjected to nonlinear divisions, in a quest for pictorial separation, there is also a quest for a less impervious contiguity between the parts. But it is the outer light, most of all, that the work does not capture quite so well, that escapes. The values, even when close, are too distant for a single light, a single affection, a single world, as found in the talismans that are the 33 x 33 cm pictures.
5. In the works he calls "slats," Sergio Sister finds a solution, using a different genre ? relief, not painting ?, of how to conjugate different colors under the same light, the light of the world itself. Between slats of different colors, usually two, he carefully gives one a grayish tone, or perhaps whitish (the solutions are various), and takes advantage ? and here is the find ? of the shadows that the vertically disposed slats inevitably project. Neither object nor color, while a bit of both, and yet another instance of the visible, these shadows detach from, but also adhere to, the slats, and in this coming and going the light, like a lightning bolt, projects their self-absorbed, almost solitary verticality. We might break free from their appeal to affectivity were they not a luminous counterpoint to the viewer, to any who stand before them and, in the dignified posture of these simple slats, fails to find one that is theirs by right. Here, greatness comes at a single stroke. But since there is nothing stilted about them, being simply painted slats, nothing more, from greatness they descend to the commonplace, reversing the movement between the everyday and the lofty found in the earlier works.
6. If the intention behind the colored band pictures found a better solution in the reliefs and shadows of the slats, in Sergio Sister?s subsequent painting it will be through means of unabashedly shiny sections that the most diverse geometric arrangements will conquer a unique luminosity for the pictures. Not only brushstrokes and format supply the feature of the pictures but also the interface between several geometric elements, many of similar tones, though of different colors. Given the luminous unity, from lightest to darkest, given the feature, by means of a collage of shiny and matte parts, the affectionate aspect of the world acquires here a more expansive, lighter dimension. If a poetics of counterpoint between small and grand somewhat loses itself here, in exchange we are given a metaphor, as well as a happier, looser presence in the world. And this poetics finds beautiful rendition in the related drawings. Not only through the use of the white ground of the paper but, also, through the placement of metallic colors next to matte ones, giving the surface an even greater lightness and, given that it is also more synthetic, a simple serenity, one that makes do with what it has of the strong and fragile.
7. A second series of reliefs by Sister, called "props," projects the serene poetics of the metallic color drawings into space. Arranged as squares measuring approximately 2.5 x 2.5 m, but arranged in a seemingly casual manner, multiplying the parts by placing them side by side, sometimes setting nothing on the ground or, in one of the other four sides, combining several squares, usually leaning against the wall, these are Sister?s most playful works, somewhat reminiscent of a pile of giant sticks, happily willing to simply connect beams, or boards, drawing the attention of children, and of the child within each of us; or, in other sections, acting like a self-absorbed marble that seems to quarrel with the other props, these all carry the reminder that happiness, if it comes to the world, also comes by overcoming the heavy, the serious, the sad.
8. The works described here were made by Sergio Sister between the ages of 40 and 65. Missing, therefore, are 20 years of production. Work largely done under the influence of Pop Art as it manifested itself in Brazil, especially in São Paulo. In addition to painting, Sister also divided his time between journalism and political activism against the military regime. A militancy that had him arrested, with the horrible consequences that this meant for many. After being arrested, Sister was held for 19 months at the Tiradentes prison, where he produced a large number of drawings. The inclusion of these, as well as the diffuse production of his first twenty years as an artist, lies beyond the scope of this text, partly from lack of time, but also due to the not strictly retrospective nature of these notes. It should be stressed, however, that this is interesting work, not least because of what it led to. Sister?s political activism is, no doubt, of greater importance during this period. In a text about his imprisonment, written for a collection of reminiscences, we find what we least expect: no resentment, and a humorous depiction of this moment in his "formation narrative." A formation that he insists on not bringing to a close. At around the age of 40, Sister began to paint, and learn from painters and critics younger than him. Something in which he is no exception; suffice to mention the company of Mondrian. But it is in the qualities of his work, as described above, that the earlier political dimension is best embodied. New forms, after achieving maturity, to express the good ole? convictions of youth.
9. The "boxes", the third series of reliefs that Sergio Sister executed, is comparable in synthesis to the 33 x 33 cm pictures. Comparable because both series summarize what came earlier. In the boxes, however, much more came earlier. They synthesize a good deal of Sister?s work. A synthesis that does not diminish the quality of any of the previous phases. But there is something about them, akin to an Egg of Columbus, which never ceases to instigate us. If it is correct to say, as was attempted here, that three elements are at the root of Sergio Sister?s poetics ? luminosity, feature and affection ?, the boxes heighted all three. They are copy boxes of fruit boxes. And they are copies for reasons of realization and execution such that the original boxes won?t allow. But the feature of the boxes is, more than at any other moment in Sister?s work, that of something found in the world. Something in which he glimpsed the potential of invention. But since they are boxes and bear the appearance of something that can be handled ? after all, they are also fruit boxes, with alternating strips of wood, of the kind that all of us have seen and carried, made lighter by slats that allow the passage of air, etc. ?, not only is the object?s feature a given, but also the degree of sympathy that it provokes. Hanging on a wall, rather than arranged horizontally, the strips soon resemble bands and, furthermore, being boxes, with front and back, light will hardly cross them. Everything takes place as if the artist had found, ready-made in the world, the three poetic elements with which he works. And, in a way, he did. But it is not the poetics of the "readymade" that interests Sister. Since the original fruit boxes were precarious, they were reproduced with a more uniform and rigid construction, but without changing their measurements, in order to serve the poetics projected upon them. A second step was to change the manner in which the strips alternate in a fruit box. In Sister?s boxes, either on the front or in the back, the number of strips and their placement varies. The resulting number of arrangements is enumerable. And, if you add the color variations, the number becomes even higher. It is enough to look at a single box, however, to sense that it is one of many, because its identification as a fruit box comes simultaneously with the recognition of its modification. The synthesis, then, finds its innumerable paths. The difficulty of putting color band next to color band vanishes because a single light bathes the entire box and, in general, is darker in the back than in the front. The difference between close tones can be seen in bands placed side by side, or in two bands of the same color placed at different depths, one in the back, the other in front. The verticality of the earlier "slats" is still present. As are the manifold assembling games of the "props." Color here achieves even more independence than in the metallic and matte color drawings. There is, literally, air separating the colors, while they remain structured by the box. The three elements of Sister?s poetics, the postulation of an affectivity of the world, which we must try to harvest, aesthetically conquered by the luminous physiognomy of something, are plain to see in the fruit boxes. They are like an artistic proof that the world, carefully scrutinized, can bear a magnificent and simple happiness. One where the fruit of the boxes becomes absent, but not the pleasure of entertaining us with happy games of light, physiognomies, shadows and colors. One in which the components of traditional still-lifes were subtracted, but not the small and also cosmic epiphanies that, through light, shining and incarnating upon them, have touched and marveled us for centuries.
10. Bibliographic afterword: several critics have written about the work of Sergio Sister, as well as the artist himself. The book "Sergio Sister," which I edited in 2002 for Casa da Imagem, contains two earlier texts of mine: the book?s presentation and an exhibition text. The notes above come directly from those texts, and from observing Sister?s work in the ten subsequent years. In the book, there are also texts by Lorenzo Mammì, Rodrigo Naves and Sister. It would not be apt to enumerate them individually, but these texts contain shared areas of interpretation, even if in other respects they disagree. And the same goes for later texts to which I had access: Paulo Venâncio Filho, text in the catalog of Sergio Sister?s 2008 exhibition at Nara Roesler Gallery; Sergio Sister, text in the catalog of his 2011 exhibition at Lemos de Sá Gallery; Elizabeth Whitelegg, text in the catalog for the 2011 exhibition at Nara Roesler Gallery; and Rodrigo Naves, text published in the newspaper "O Estado de S. Paulo" on the occasion of the artist?s exhibition at the Instituto Tomie Ohtake.
Where They are From
Sergio Sister, 2010, translated from portuguese by Oswaldo Costa
These works come from fruit boxes.
A fortuitous encounter, in 1996, when I was experiencing serious problems with my two-dimensional paintings. Part of the story of their development was told in a text from 1998 called ?United in difference,? written for an exhibition at the Centro Cultural São Paulo. But, at the time, I was making my ?Ripas? (Slats), a different series of works also derivedfrom the boxes, so that, in the end, I left them out, without so much as a mention. My cur¬rent artistic practice, with the return of the boxes as subject, requires a reformulation of that text. Which is what I propose to do.
For several years I had been having trouble connecting adjoining areas of color, in such a way as to not corrupt the potency of each, by arranging them merely as stripes. This encouraged me to paint monochromes and develop everything within the confines of a single color. In 1996, I tried to work my away around the problem by bringing together dissimilar colors using vibrant, lightweight pigments and very similar tonal values. In other words: different colors coexisted harmoniously when pacified by the use of very similar tones.
Over time, however, I began to modify these relationships, looking to increase space, air and separation. Initially I tried making pictures organized by stripes of different colors. The first breakthrough resulted from a chance encounter in the garage of my building, when I saw, next to the garbage, piles of fruit boxes previously used to package tiles.
I took them to my studio and, right away, painted the slats nailed to the bases, making them function like the bands of color previously painted on canvas. I could soon foresee the potential this held for placing colors in direct contact with space and air, presenting new lights and shadows. In addition, the possibility of developing this idea into new works soon became clear, works I named ?Ripas? (the fruit boxes, simple and rustic, were put away for later use). In place of the small slats of the boxes, bands of color were arranged as thin, long vertical stripes. I clustered them next to each other, joined at the top by a small wooden link (like a two-by-four). In other instances, the Ripas were nailed to the wall, in pairs, with nothing between them, separated by just a few inches.
Sometimes, instead of clustering stripes, I used cut-outs from a single sheet of wood, opening intervals of varying width between the colored surfaces. In all three cases, my objective was to allow space and air to operate with, and in, the relationship between the colors. To improve the flow between the concrete space of the wall and the Ripas I resorted to an artifice: I nearly always used a color that had some kinship with the shadow projected by the slats (grays) and, also, with the white wall itself (whites). In this manner, the eye could run more fluidly between the painted volumes and the rest, extracting a game of collaboration between the colors, as well as between them and the shared space. It is clear that I also effected, here, a pacifying maneuver between the work, the wall and its shadows. Something I see as quite personal, in this case, because it reinforces a ten¬dency to seek out convivial solidarity marked by differentiation and complexity.
In 2003, an invitation to show at Galeria 10.2 x 3.6 in São Paulo resulted in a new experi¬ence. Young artists were invited to occupy a window-space in the studio of Wagner Malta Tavares and Ana Paula Oliveira.
I painted on taller boards, also with bodies of color and, in the same manner, with similar tonal values. The result was similar to the ?Ripas.? But with some significant differences: first the scale, much larger, established a more active relationship with space; then, the use of boards that were not exactly straight led to accepting small warps as a source of movement. I believe that I found, there, a certain kinship with architecture - something that would gather strength two years later.
In fact, a new development of this body of work started in 2005. For several months, I was forced to endure noisy construction next to my house. The reward for my discomfort (including, here, my metaphorical discomfort with respect to painting) was an attraction to the staffs holding up the molds for the concrete slabs. I thought of transforming them, like the slats, into bodies of color in space.
With time, having painted dozens of these tall, long and narrow columns, I grouped them, like 10? pencils in a box, leaning simply against the wall, or disposed next to each other, irregularly; finally, I arranged them like portals or goalposts, upright or inverted, like a U. I then began to notice that there was something of weight - real weight, concrete - to be added to color, light and space.
For two years, until I finished preparing an exhibition at Instituto Tomie Ohtake, I leaned the poles against the wall, working with a painter?s mentality. Maintaining large empty spaces, supported, limited and/or amplified by color interconnections between these ob¬jects.
One day, in 2008, the little color boxes began to reclaim my imagination. But, this time, on different grounds. Instead of merely painting a found box with strips already nailed to the chassis, I had a carpenter build the structure and make the strips separately. Only after coloring several different strips did I assemble them, using both the front and back of the box, with multiple variations, multiple dislocations, in favor of tonal interrelations, movements, lights, shadows, intersections, interactions, separations, in which that little object?s eyes never silenced.
Behind everything, the same constant search for solidarity marked by differentiation and complexity. Which I believe is what we need.
P.S. - soon after I revisited the boxes, perhaps by coincidence, most likely not, I saw a wonderful Josef Albers exhibition at the same Instituto Tomie Ohtake where I had shown my poles.