Precious and private, the drawings and etchings of Brazilian artist Alex Cerveny are like windows into a mind that roams far and wide, from maps to feathered headdresses, from Old Testament monsters to the swaying hips of Carmen Miranda. 

Cerveny credits the development of his diverse, secretive interior world to growing up in São Paulo under Brazil´s repressive military regime in the 1960s and 1970s.  Born in 1963, he describes his hometown, an industrial center and one of the world´s most populous cities, as “agitated and polluted”, a teeming catalyst for his art.

Though Cerveny’s work has been exhibited primarily in Brazil,  Bianca Lanza Gallery has mounted a show this month of his recent works on paper.  Many of the smaller etchings and drawings are crowded with spidery calligraphy in various languages and symbols that recall old maps and fraying books.  Rosettes and arrows become enchanting fragments that have lost their aura of rational confidence, their power to chart a course or describe physical terrain.  They mingle with teetering columns and looping letters to form dense and often inscrutable compositions.

Interpreting dreams

Looking at these works is a bit like trying to interpret someone else’s dreams.  It’s a tantalizing task that can be entertaning and stimulating once you realize that finding “right”  (or perhaps even plausible) answers is not the point.  Sometimes the artist’s reveries simply lead us back into our own musings.  Indeed, in an artist’s statement, Cerveny compares his work to pages from a notebook or diary in which “feelings are described, seen, or remembered, subject to fantasy and errors.”  The resulting images, he adds are “constructed in the form of a dream.”

Occasionally the dreams verge on nightmares, promising disaster.  In one etching a horse on wheels floats on a ground darkened with cross-hatching, managing to look both sweet and ominous.  It carries memories of childhood toys and of Homer’s Trojan horse, of nursery games and deadly adventures.  In another etching, “Leviathan”, the biblical sea monster rears its beastly head among a torrent of waves as tiny figures battle it with spears that look as sturdy as toothpicks.  Cerveny’s minutely detailed etching has the feel of 19th Century book illustrations.

Comic side

A comic side exists to this grim, rather fussy vision, suggesting that the artist is really playing with conventions of storytelling and illustration.  Beneath the Leviathan scene are several rows of inscriptions, placed as if they are meant to offer commentary. These “explanations,” however, look more like curious doodlings that sweep us away from rational discourse.  Even the monster is a target for the artist´s peculiar sense of humor, bearing a circular label on one flank that reads “Nº.7” in elegant script – surely a parody of some long ago system of notation.

In the larger works, Cerveny delineates spare, fragile compositions surrounded by lots of empty space.  In “Carmen Miranda”,  for example, this icon of tropical kitsch looks down-right tailored, lightly balancing on tipsy columns with a banjo and a tambourine dangling nearby.  With tongue in cheek, Cerveny strips all the voluptuous excess from the cliche, revealing something much lighter and more graceful.

There´s a great deal of fancy and whimsy here, perhaps too much.  But the artist also can produce haunting, enigmatic pieces that hover in the mind after the clever images are gone.