Dias Nunes


With an art career spanning nearly three decades, Valdirlei Dias Nunes is a singular artist among his generation. Born in the interior of the state of Paraná, he earned a degree in pharmacy and in biochemistry before moving to São Paulo in the early 1990s, when he began to participate in exhibitions held at galleries and museums. His first paintings, though decidedly more figurative than his current production, already bore some of the distinct features that would be accentuated in the following years, including delicateness and precision of execution, a palette nearly exclusively restricted to tones of black, white and ocher, and a composition in which the monochromatic background takes up a large part of the canvas.

Invariably executed in small formats and presenting images that privilege a certain mysterious symbolism in lieu of a recognizable narrative, these works seem to dialogue both with the tradition of metaphysical painting inaugurated by De Chirico and his surrealist admirers as well as with the pictorial production of Leonilson, whose career was prematurely interrupted during the time that Nunes was beginning his. Wood, a material that the artist has depicted obsessively throughout his oeuvre and which would later become a raw material for his sculptures, already appears in those small paintings in the form of tree trunks or branches that sprout from mundane and religious objects such as jars and crucifixes, or as furniture, in the case of the wooden crates that resemble benches or bases for sculptures.

In a recent conversation during the preparations for the current exhibition, the artist mentioned that he has never been interested in creating artworks that deal with subjects related to his previous academic training. It is nonetheless reasonable to assume that the rigor and discipline commonly associated to scientific activity have played an important role in the development of his work over the last ten years. Gradually, and particularly from the beginning of the 2000s onward, Nunes began to reproduce the surface of the materials more and more meticulously, even while the figures in his compositions were becoming more simplified and orthogonal, invariably contained in the lower part of the canvas against a large background that isolates the figures, which closely resemble abstract shapes. From that point onward, his dialogue with the history of art began to be focused notably on the constructive tradition of Brazilian art, even though unlike the key players of that artistic lineage, he never abandoned figuration.

Beyond a discussion about specific historical legacies, Nunes’s work seems to be focused mainly on the very nature of representation. As his work has been converging on a certain pictorial simplification that simultaneously develops a more elaborate treatment of the surface of the materials portrayed, the artist has begun to increasingly explore the sculptural possibilities of painting. Two exemplary cases are the series Sem título (Estrutura de madeira) [Untitled (Wooden Structure)], 2008, which consists of wooden crates made out of MDF slats whose surface is carefully painted to resemble wood grain, as well as the series Sem título (Relevos) [Untitled (Reliefs)], 2011, consisting of artworks for the wall in which the painting’s white surface is shot through diagonally by narrow brass bars that project beyond the edges of the canvas. Both series are made from materials initially explored within a pictorial situation, namely that of wood and gold, which later acquire a tangible materiality as sculptural objects. At the same time, the illusionist manner in which the artist reproduces the materials in the painting is repeated in the tridimensional series, with the camouflaging of the texture applied on the MDF and the use of brass instead of the more valuable metal. In its oscillating ambiguity, this game of illusionism that shifts between painting and sculpture, while also revisiting, in a certain way, a modern discussion about the problem of representation and the consequent search for an abstract language, is also concerned with the question of how value is attributed to objects and materials, and, ultimately, to works of art.

In the two main series of artworks featured at this exhibition, Nunes deepens his interest in exploring the nature of painting and the physical qualities and symbolic associations of the materials represented. An initial group consists of small and medium paintings with a white or black background whose surface is crisscrossed by a grid of delicate yellow or golden lines executed with a precision characteristic of the artist’s recent works. The rigorous geometry of these grids, which seem to float above the surface of the canvas like a membrane, demarcates the limit between the inner space of the painting and its surroundings, the place of the spectator. In the black paintings as well as in the white ones, however, the geometric weave is interrupted by trims or by the transversal advance of the monochromatic background over the figure, and we are launched once again into the field of the representation delimited by the canvas.

In a movement running nearly opposite to this, in the group of new wall reliefs presented here, the artist constructs painting-objects that project the gaze into the space that surrounds the borders of the canvas. As in the reliefs shot through by brass bars, this creates a sort of simulacra of painting constructed with lacquered MDF boards that suggest white monochromes. Each of these volumes is partially fringed by a frame made of unfinished wood that seems to have sprouted uncontrollably and extended beyond the painting’s perimeter, suggesting the potential continuity of the infinitely long line and, in a certain way, problematizing the role of the frame as a conventional mechanism for circumscribing the space of representation by transforming the frames into representations of themselves.

At the beginning of this text, I stated that Valdirlei Dias Nunes occupies a singular place among his contemporaries. I say this not only because he is a self-taught artist, but also because when I took a fresh look at the development of his work over the years I noted that he is an artist who works nearly silently and in his own (extended) time, pursuing, with enviable persistence, the problems raised by his practice and by the confrontation with the materials. The resulting artworks possess a precious quality; they are objects of desire almost like small jewels, even when they emulate everyday materials. In this sense, there is a nearly fetishist element that pervades his body of works, a nearly ancestral fetishism in which divinity is confused with the material. But this in itself could provide the subject matter for another entire essay on the artist’s work. I therefore end with a quotation from the essay Surrealism: Fetishism’s Job by Dawn Ades, which can serve to illuminate the artist’s career since his first forays into painting and his flirting with the pictorial language of surrealism up to his current interest in the subversion of values in the fields of art and representation:

“The word fetishism,” from obscure origins and disputed etymology, has worked its way through the rationalizing discourses of European Enlightenment; connoting over-valuation and displacement, its job was to signal error, excess, difference and deviation. Perhaps one of the key phantoms of the dream of reason, it helped to structure and to enforce distinctions between the rational and irrational, civilized and primitive, normal and abnormal, natural and artificial. Thus the adoption of the term successively by Marx, and nineteenth-century psychologists, to refer to forms of irrational valuation within their own society had a satirical edge. In Surrealism, however, there is a change in its fortunes. Having served to affirm the powerlessness of mind and body to act rationally, fetishism was to intervene in the Surrealist subversion of utilitarian and positivist values, or, as Carl Einstein put it, ‘to change the hierarchies of the values of the real.’”