ALCINO LEITE NETO INTERVIEWS EDUARDO BERLINER
ALN You have been drawing for many years, and you have also made objects and even staged a performance, but only recently you decided to dedicate yourself mostly to painting. What made you concentrate on that activity? In your opinion, where is painting situated in today's art and what does it mean for our time?
EB I try to deal with one problem through different ways, and that's a practice that I have used since the last two years in the graphic design school, when I started to utilize specific graphic design tools to develop my personal projects. The final project at school was a book, for which I created a narrative interconnecting texts and drawings, one affecting the other. One of the ramifications of that project was the development of a series of objects. I took off the plush of twenty stuffed rabbits and I redesigned their boxes. The work was presented as a performance, in which the rabbits were all scattered around the exhibition site. Skinning the rabbits was an attempt to deal with questions that were analogous to the ones I was addressing in the book. Around that time, together with the graphic design school, I started to study art and drawing under Professor Charles Watson. Then I started to attend weekly workshops at his studio, where we would discuss works in progress. I was drawing and developing objects. The colors slowly got into the drawings, when I used oil pastel. I used oil on canvas for the first time during an exercise proposed to the students in that group. Up until that moment, I hadn't considered the possibility of using that support, maybe because of the weight of its tradition. After that first exercise, the fear disappeared. I continued to paint on my own. Little by little I realized I was concentrating my efforts in that direction. I think painting has the same importance as any other form of artistic expression in art today. Such leveling stimulated many different ways to approach painting. It was contaminated by other forms of expression and other areas of knowledge. That's why it's not uncommon in our time to see figurative or abstract paintings or those affected by installation, sculpture, or performance practices. I would also say that painting demands a different temporality from the fleeting rhythm of the images disseminated by the media. The painting process demands a different sense of time both from the painter and from the observer. In my case, painting helps me establish a primordial relationship with the physicality of the world. When, for some reason, I need to spend a few days without painting or drawing, I feel as if I were walking with sponges under my feet. I have a lesser sensation of friction with the world around me, as if I weren't able to really touch (and see) things, something that painting allows me to do. For me, painting is a kind of friction.
ALN Before painting, you work with a number of resources and languages—photographs, sculptures, installations, collages, objects, debris, etc. That is, the painting is the synthetic result of a series of previous interventions of other languages on things, on the "referents." It is born out of a set of challenges that you take on even before you start to elaborate the canvas. Why not make a direct appropriation of the objects and beings on the painting?
EB After working on a series of starting points that I find interesting, I usually don't know what to paint. Sometimes my interest is guided by something that happened in more recent paintings, other times it might change dramatically, guided by some perception of things around me—things of the world or events related to human relationships. While I think about what to do, I naturally end up handling things. Manipulating things with my hands is a form of thinking that's complementary to the process of drawing and photographing (I always have my drawing pad and my camera with me). Many times I disassemble or break things while I handle them. On those occasions, I have the opportunity to see something that I hadn't noticed before. I don't see it as destruction, but as something new. From the collapse of the materials and the attempts to continue the work, I get something I could not have anticipated. In the process, other ideas begin to surface, other challenges. Every day I am affected by small events. For instance, a sick pigeon hidden on a hole on the sidewalk. It's not only the pigeon that interests me. The whole context is important: the appearance of the animal, the light, the colors, and my state of mind at that particular moment... Just the other day, I saw a wheelchair behind a plant vase in a bank agency. I asked the bank manager if I could photograph it, and he said I could not, for security reasons. Then I decided to recreate the bank agency interior in my studio. I bought a grey carpet imitating the granite floor of the agency, a plant vase, a wheelchair, and a chrome bin. While I was setting it, I realized the feeling that led me to recreate it was no longer the same, so I went on working until something else affected me again. I also realized I could do other things that would not be allowed in the bank, like perform CPR on a test dummy used by medicine students. I added other elements to the set, including such dummy, probably because I had just seen a man carrying one of them at night. When the set was ready, I thought that I had created something independent, that had its own strength, that would allow me to both photograph and manipulate the bank environment and create another space, a hybrid one (neither bank, nor hospital), a rather weird one, but not something imaginary, because it was based on observations and, more than that, on the recreation of the space itself, with the elements that belong to it. But I'm still not sure as how to progress. I think there is a huge power in trying to deal with gaps left by pieces of information I cannot relate entirely.
ALN Even if you mask, deform, metamorphose, and even erase "characters" and other elements of your paintings, they remain in the realm of figurative painting. In addition to that, you seem to have great confidence in the pictorial representation of environments, scenes, or situations where the weight of figuration is crucial, even if they lead to disturbing images, where you mix familiar and strange, natural and absurd, violence and lyricism. Why is figuration important in your work? How are your "themes" born and how do you develop them? What do you intend with those images?
EB The importance of figuration is related to the development of narratives based on the observation of the world and of my personal universe. However, such narratives don't hold a precise message. They don't have a beginning or an end. They can emerge from mental images or from the strangeness caused by something I saw. Even when I begin with a mental image, however, I look for some- thing in the world that helps me visualize it. In this attempt to create a model in the world for something I have imagined, I manipulate objects, I draw, I make collages, and take photographs. For me, painting starts way before I touch the surface of the canvas. The materialization process of the mental images itself is already part of the narrative of the painting, expressing my dialogue with matter. Sometimes, the painting process of a painting can be extremely slow, confused, stagnant, and full of changes of direction. In other moments, the work can be developed in a precise, fast, and vigorous manner. The rhythm of the work can change a lot inside the same painting. Doubts, exhaustion, impatience, precision, brutality, and delicacy— all this is accumulated on the surface of the canvas. In the painting Enterro [Burial], for instance, some of the objects painted were the result of putting together fragments, things or pieces of things I collected and reorganized for months, guided by the sensibility of the eyes and the hands, by the origin of the objects and their materials: a foot-drop splint previously used by my mother, a model for the knee bones, a skull mask, and a plant. For me, they are all symbols of finitude: the gradual process of aging made evident by the loss of physical strength and resistance of the limbs, my own finitude realized through my parents' aging... I kept those objects organized on a corner of my studio. I thought about them as some sort of still life. Guided by another interest, the strange- ness I feel behind walls covered with photographs of landscapes inside architectural spaces, I began to imagine wild animals hunting in those places, and that led me to develop a wolf mask, made of xaxim.1 Later on, I saw the opportunity to put this mask together with the other objects, in a situation staged in an alley near my studio. What caught my attention in there was a pile of sand with a shovel buried in it, which would be used to make cement. The whole atmosphere interested me: the colors, the light, and the possibility to use the pile of sand in a scene about a burial. While I was photographing it, the unexpected, like a boy who decided to take a close look at the "wolf," brought reality and familiarity to a situation that was staged and absurd in the beginning. The photographs I took on that day were used as a staring point for the painting. What do I intend with this work? I don't know for sure, but I believe that, during the painting process, my very personal starting points, apparently absurd or fantastic, might turn into images that have an embracing power of evocation, where the other might find a little of his own self.
1 [A kind of plant fiber.] Text originally published on the CNI-SESI Marcantônio Vilaça Award catalogue, 2009