Colors: Respect and Wildness
If one were to isolate Maria Lynch’s paintings from the body of her work, they would lend themselves to analytic approaches inherited from modern art criticism, just at the moment when the latter is opening itself up to unprecedented experiences. Like so many con- temporary pictorial works, they seem to borrow many characteristics born of the second half of the last century, seeking to subject them to new additions and experiments. Surfaces are covered with ample strokes of paint and thick colors, which define areas very clearly with- out bending to any sort of precise pattern; these are flattened spaces on a canvas full of contours put under a variety of stresses. One of the achievements of the modern era was the liberation of color from the space delimited by the line. This was precisely the academic principle that dominated the 19th century: the discipline of the line, of drawing, in opposition to color’s formless extroversion. Modern painters put an end to the Romantic debate over color versus line, which lingered on decades later in Seurat’s time at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The impressionists had already freed themselves from the line; nevertheless, within the academy, the issue remained. But what does that have to do with a painting style that is taking shape in the third millennium? I believe that many of these new paintings, among them Maria Lynch’s, reconstruct the absent line by establishing very distinct boundaries for the territories of color. They do not mix. They affirm themselves very clearly upon their terrain; they conquer the surface, occupying it. As wild animals mark their territory, colors establish the frontiers of their domain – others would do best to keep their distance. As in nature, as with wild animals, these colors respect one another. This etiology of color deserves more careful study: an investigation into how colors behave in this new style of painting, so different from the discipline of Mondrian, say. An association between colors and animals ought to be no novelty – just recall the academic tradition of the 19th century, which linked painting to the irrational. And the irrational was feminine. Color was femininity, the woman, emotions; the line was associated with drawing, masculinity, the man, and rationality. The line imposes limits, borders. Color is color; it has no limit, unless the line intervenes. This was how Charles Blanc marshaled things in his Grammar of Art and Painting (1867), a treatise which has survived the transformations of Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, and Seurat, as Marisa Flórido reminds us in the epigraph to a piece about Maria Lynch. (1)
In Maria Lynch’s abstraction, we might see a kind of playground for colors. They play amongst themselves because they respect one another. Their territories are clear, and, as they veer away from any sort of geometry, they appear formless in a new sense. They are like primitive beings, their pseudopods swelling to seek out sustenance in their surroundings. The colors of these paintings are single-celled beings. We can make out their limits very clearly. We see each distinctly, without mixing or mingling. This is what shapes their form. Each canvas is a complex organism constituted by the chromatic interactions between these cells of color. But it is not always time for recess, and these chromatic amoebae are not always playful in their shapes and the extension of their cells: they mark their presence in the world in the form of a tonus of colors stripped of emotional extremes, taking on a certain gravity, a weight which the cheerier versions lack because they are not concerned with it. Along the spectrum of abstract works, some canvases are not joyful; they are sober in their own way, that is, in opposition to the effusive chromatic manifestations in other paintings from the same period.
The wildness of colors which respect one another takes on a new degree of discipline when abstraction is set aside. Now colors are not merely in their own territories, but they also suggest a figure. Here, colors have their content determined principally by figure. Take Jardim suspenso (2012, oil and acrylic on canvas, 120 x 200 cm). The painting does not shrink from forming a background – white – upon which everything floats. This might already be considered “postmodern”. It really is completely smooth and flattened, no allusion to volume or “depth”, and therefore absolutely in line with modern strictures, but the female figure poses against the white like a model for a publicity shot or a fashion magazine. I have made this connection deliberately; this work, however, has nothing of the pop techniques of importing the ready-made. Everything is imagined – nothing is ready to be transferred to the surface of the canvas, like a can of soup from the supermarket shelf or the face of a Hollywood star from a photo in a magazine. The light gray skin, the blue of the dress and the black of the hair indicate the territories of mutually respecting colors. But the skin almost seems to fuse with the white. Even the body disguises itself, camouflaged. It wants to mingle with and almost dissolve into the totality of the canvas. The blue of the dress and the black of the hair predominate, serving to define the body. The body in the hair, the accessory in the dress. Just floating there, however, is not enough – the girl cannot hold herself up alone. Forms are necessary to fill the apparent void around her. Those abstract forms already present in isolated canvases now come to nestle alongside the figure. And here the colors do play: there are reds, lilac, greens, emerald, purples, yellows, and orange. Besides the colors, strange forms defy all figuration. This is the new appearance of abstraction: it floats above the white like the anonymous figure of the girl. The figure is abstract, with no identity. The abstraction is the figure, the forms which define the work. In A vida e a Rosa (2012, oil and acrylic on canvas, 120 x 160 cm), the same system is repeated, but with less pleasure: the girl embraces a pink stain. And her hair is broken between black and blue.
Maria Lynch’s painting speaks volumes about the world we live in. The work on the surface, with its irrepressible chromatic moments, in all its joy, also speaks to us of a hidden, deeply hidden sorrow. This world speaks to us in extremes. It is as if these paintings, making use of the digital tricks with which we manipulate digitized images on our computer screens, ought to be appreciated simultaneously in its negative, in its inverted form. Black instead of white, white instead of black, and so on for each color. But notice that even when inverted by computer tricks, they remain strong and very present; the adulteration of the image in its reproduction onscreen does not reduce its chromatic potential. It merely distances me, in this exercise, from the energy bound up in the original work, forever denied to the virtual image, be it electronic, in pixels, or printed on the page of a book in the minuscule dots of a process known as ctp (computer-to-plate). Yes, we must remember that every time we look at a re- production of a work of art, we are beholding a virtual work. This is the realm of the image where artifice and its traces have been wiped away in their corporeality; the more contemporary civilization uses its technological resources to elevate the power of the image, the more the entire tradition of Western art declines, giving way to this “art after art,” in Arthur Danto’s words.
Ours is a moment in which the notion of presence has been lost: we have the impression of having found something when in fact we see its ghost, mirrored by the power of technology and multiplied endlessly by the image culture. This is not even a shadow of the work of art of which Giorgio Agamben reminds us in his The Man Without Content. (2) Today, saturated with images from all sides, we live beyond the shadow of the work. When we do not come into direct contact with a painting, with the pictorial object, we do not even have the right to its shadow. This is what much of Lynch’s work is about. Her painting is a resistance of the pictorial object which in fact puts us very close to it. For Monet, all that happens between the object to be represented and his retina constitute the subject of the painting; Monet paints what goes on in the “void” full of optical events, and it is distance itself which is chromatically present on the surface of his canvases. Van Gogh seems to turn the issue around when he moves to the south of France; this is not a matter of distance but of eliminating it, as if the retina could rest on the yellow of the wheat, the blue of the sky, the shine of a star, in the moonlight itself. And in these paintings, from the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, there is always the presence of autoral manufacturing, of the masterful workmanship that shares center stage with colors, each contributing equally to the visual event. Maria Lynch does not paint distance, nor the illusion of resting one’s eye directly on a color. She paints the presence of colors, their pure appearance in the world. This is not a principle of appearance, as with Rothko. There is no membrane between what comes before and what comes after, as in the magnificent pieces of abstract expressionism. This is not a skin but rather a strong hide, with which the colors present themselves. Firm, without hesitations. This is how the present demands the presence of these works: a hard sweetness, like a piece of candy we suck or chew on.
Colors, in all their rejoicing, are neither sumptuous nor sober. Their beauty resides in a certain carefully unveiled simplicity. It is this care that distinguishes them from the other colors spread across so many contemporary canvases. This care is not in the gesture or the stroke – it has shed all it has learned from seeing and studying paint- ings in museums around the world. Nor is it in the form of an extremely subtle or an extravagant palette. The palette is very far from subtle, I might add, but neither is it extravagant. An ethos of simplicity presents itself here, not in gradations or transitions, but in the positive affirmation of presence. A palette without nuances is the result of firm, intellectual sense and/ or both meanings.” Faced with this demand for care, we come up against a rare commodity in the world today: sincerity, which the same dictionary defines as “expressed without artifice or the intention of deceiving or disguising one’s thoughts or sentiments.” In the confusion we live in today, where everything mixes with everything else, it is good that clear things be highlighted. And this style of painting presents itself with a rare clarity. Clarity, here, is the care taken in the conception and execution of the work, and at the same time it is the sincerity which the work emanates. This is an art which makes itself present in its frankness. Defending these values in today’s world would be no easy task, were it not for the strong empathy with modern life that this work transmits. The proximity that Maria Lynch’s work demands of us may be precisely this absence of a rejection of the contemporary world – so common in any number of important works today – allied with aesthetics and an ethic of care and sincerity.
Let us return to the interior of the painting. As for colors, and how they manifest themselves, I have already tried one analysis; but suddenly, here and there, in this and that painting, lines appear: not just any line, but drawings within the painting. They are not there to fulfill the old academic formula and discipline color, imposing limits and establishing boundaries, as Charles Blanc demanded decades after neoclassicism, as if nothing had happened since Ingres, ignoring De- lacroix and all his work on the autonomy of colors. Neither are these lines present in the modern, exuberant sense of Picasso, who did what he liked with lines and colors; or Mondrian, who maps out space with perpendiculars to present us with the ethical logic of an aesthetic. Drawings appear on several canvases as extensions of painting within the painting itself, like small, surprisingly delicate happenings, cutting across the thick and resistant layer of vigorous colors.
Equilíbrio (2012, oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm) is one of many examples where we can examine the presence of drawing sharing the same visual status as painting, with no hierarchy or sense of sub-alternity. Painting and drawing are on precisely the same level. Upon a great white scene, the visual event manifests itself with a precise force, but is far from being spectacular. A female figure supports herself, sitting on a mass of green, which is interrupted from within in the form of the presence of drawing, of small circumferences which pile up on top of each other. From this, shall we say, green support, emerges a drawing in two very close lines, curving from right to left and winding up in another drawing, pointing towards a slender and narrow verti- cal rectangle of a slightly lighter green than the starting-point. The painting is constructed in a circle: whether our point of departure is the green mass or the red circle above it, the circular motion passing through both the figure and the flower separating the figure’s head from the circle, is what gives the work tension and maintains the chromatic – and formal – effort of the painting. It is this tension which is delicately broken, again through the dominating presence of the drawing: the extension of one of the figure’s arms and one leg, which culminates in amorphous triangles of a dirtied reddish color which clearly does not want to be pink. Beyond the triangle, from the leg, a trace of a bow is extended, in a line, to the left edge of the canvas. I haven’t even mentioned the impertinent little drawing rising up between the slen- der green rectangle and the red circle. Why all this formal description of something we can all see in the reproduced image? Simply to show that, without any spectacular ostentation, Maria Lynch’s work brings us subtly into the field of contemporary painting – outside hierarchies and rules – which, without renouncing artifice, creates and fights and, whether it means to or not, leaves the mark of its body and spirit with- in the work. This presence of drawing and painting in the same work is a precious moment of an ongoing process, one that we cannot ignore, because its development has more surprises in store.
Faced with drawings – not those on canvases, but in notepads and books, on loose pages – we generally remain distant from the action that is being reproduced. The standalone drawing – drawings not meant to be preparations for a larger work – has a strong presence in Brazilian art. In the realm of this doubtful, even skeptical exercise, without los- ing the fragility of uncertainty, we have the formidable legacy of Mira Schendel, who brings to the line the same greatness shouldered by color in Rothko’s works. Artists with Rothko and Mira’s courage to expose uncertainty can be counted on the fingers of one hand; perhaps Morandi, but we would have to consider whether tradition does not oblige the Bolognese artist to bend to more precise calculations. As I see it, Mira is for lines what Rothko was for colors, the discovery of how they are born into the world. Morandi, Rothko and Mira are skeptics par excellence who, in the practical exercise of doubt, put the world between parentheses to carry out that rare suspension of certainty. The suspension that Pollock, say, lacked, and didn’t even miss, because he had to dive into the world and remake it. Maria Lynch comes afterwards, much later: her line wants to learn how to walk, these are not the adult lines of constructivism who always know where they are going, nor are they Mira’s newborn lines who still feel out their emergence. This in- fancy of the line is not like the childlike style masterfully incorporated by Miró, for example, or Klee; there is no imitation of a child’s drawing. It’s as if this line were alone, learning on its own. It hesitates, but seeks out a direction – like children taking their first steps – and arrives proudly at its destination, a few meters away. In the end, just like all lines do for artists, her lines trace drawings. They take in colors, which fill in a few areas. These always seemed to me, in parallel to painting, like pre- liminary versions of sculptures, performances, and installations. This is power being held in reserve which will be fully realized one day, in an- other form, in another medium. Among these lines, I saw a mimetic ex- ercise: the drawing of a foot putting on a flip-flop. This rubber footwear is to Brazilian feet as Roberto Carlos’ songs are to our ears; they cut across all social classes. But what I see here is a sort of absolutely con- temporary self-portrait – Self-portrait might be a title for the drawing. Maria Lynch looks at one of her sandaled feet and draws it – she ignores the rest of her body and above all her face, but the foot is there. This is, in terms of conservative mimesis, the antipodes of modern tradition: in place of the face, the foot. A great artist’s drawing: her self-portrait. The fact that the foot is the portrait is not an act of impunity. This is the acknowledgment that modern life has turned us upside-down.
In Passatempo (2011, oil on canvas, 140 x 200 cm) we see a figure mounted on a chain of colored rings; it must be a woman, judging from the size of its buttocks. If you’ve read this far, don’t worry, I won’t go into the formal details. I just want to emphasize an aspect prepared in countless other paintings: three-dimensional works and performances, which are another facet of the work. Because if paint- ings and drawings are so important, after all, how can we ignore the volumes that rise out of paintings, spilling over and occupying entire rooms? This is not a single moment of the work, it is a whole pro- cess. Of course I saw Antonio Dias’ paintings in 1965, aggressive and monumental, invading volumes and spaces. They were grand, those tongues of blood emerging from a painting full of explicit conflicts. But now the things that emerge from the painting are toys, temp- tations which dare us to grab them. Maria Lynch does it differently. Her toys are spontaneous and generous, sans political aggressive- ness. The whole time, an art of play in Johan Huizinga’s (3) sense of the term just as much as Walter Benjamin’s, which we would do well to remember:
But, of course, we would penetrate neither to the reality nor to the conceptual understanding of toys if we tried to explain them in terms of the child’s mind. After all, a child is no Robinson Crusoe; children do not constitute a community cut off from everything else. They belong to the nation and the class they come from. This means that toys cannot bear witness to any autonomous separate existence, but rather are a silent signifying dialogue between them and their nation. (4)
In Ocupação macia (2012, Paço Imperial), the artist inserts us into a fully realized environment of reliefs and soft, multicolored sculptures. She wants to return us (note that I deliberately do not say regress, which would have psychoanalytical repercussions) to a world of childhood; this environment gives evident signs of a recovery of childhood. This artistic gesture is fully adult: bringing to the present a memory opened by the saturation of forms in a childlike situation. And this is done in a very intense way. All its sensuality is subtle. All of childhood sexuality is brought out in an extremely refined way. This is an attempt to reestab- lish, for individuals of all ages, a gratifying moment of childhood, of com-ing into contact with never-before-seen toys and invented forms, soft, pleasant to the touch, rich in colors and volumes. This is a contemporary art absolutely different from that of my time. But, for me, it opens the door to the present.
Paulo Sergio Duarte
(1) Marisa Flórido, The Flesh of Colour, 2011. At: http://www.marialynch.com.br/the-flesh-of-color Accessed: January 8th, 2013.
(2) “It seems... that every time aesthetic judgment attempts to determine what the beautiful is, it holds in its hands not the beautiful but its shadow, as though its true object were not so much what art is but what it is not: not art but non-art.” Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999.
(3) Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: O jogo como elemento da cultura, trans. João Paulo Monteiro. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2010.
(4) Walter Benjamin, “The Cultural History of Toys”, in Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (eds.), Selected Writings, 1927-1930, v. 2, pt. 1, trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.