Jacopo Crivelli Visconti
In a 1993 text that analyzes Carmella Gross’s work, one of Brazil’s most exacting and most direct critics, Aracy Amaral, claims that “the artist stands behind their trajectory”. If this reasoning is generally valid for any artist, it is undoubtedly true for someone like Gross. This should be emphasized all the more today, almost twenty-five years after the emergence of everything (she produced, learned, and created during all those years) into the light of the world.
Although synthetic, the exhibition at Kunsthalle Bratislava allows us to point out the recurring elements of this “trajectory”. It can serve as an introduction to the poetics of the artist for the audience seeing her works for the first time. Although an exhibition consisting of installation and video can not possibly be an adequate representation of a career (which lasts for more than four decades and includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations, and videos, in addition to intensive teaching of artists and researchers), it is interesting to observe how everything in Gross’s work refers to a horizontal, almost rhizomic way, and practically any work can serve as a starting point for solving the issues that are central to her oeuvre.
Drawing has been the heart of the Gross’s work from the very beginning, although it may seem like a very contradictory statement, considering the often-used “urban” scale of her work, her physical presence, the political connotations and firmly conceptual foundations. Overall, it means that she departed from her most common practice in the studio in all spheres of her work and resorted to drawing silently as a lonely artist. However, drawing is the starting point of the vast majority of her work: “It is present, it leads me, it is the beginning of any work I do.” The way drawing translates into the final work can be more or less obvious, as she does not follow a unified or recognizable strategy.
This constant stylistic and procedural transformation is possibly what best describes Carmella Gross’s practice over the years. For example, the key work from the dusk of her career (CARIMBOS, 1978) involved an expression of the subversion of freedom through a primitive artistic gesture, resulting in an almost instinctively created scribbling or stain that she transposed into a stamp and replicated it mechanically: “The artist replaced the sensual and manual gesture by mechanized stamping in a serial stroke.”
Several years later (in 2005), Gross returned to drawing during the project CASCATA, creating a staircase on the banks of the river Guaíba in Porto Alegre (an urban project that is permanent and designed to go unnoticed as artwork). In the project description, she explains her intent: “The edge of the stairs was meant to be made of iron, CORTEN steel or other material, so that it would be overlooked to clearly define the drawing lines.”
In O FOTÓGRAFO, she used the same principle to illustrate the process of drawing. On the one hand, the lamps representing the basic unit of drawing give the whole work an almost childish schematic, elementary character. On the other hand, just like with the stamps, this simple gesture, along with the preservation of its spontaneity, is transformed and subverted by becoming mechanical, even industrial, as it is captured with a lot of cables, transformers, reactors, energy, etc.
Exhibiting cables and other functional elements is especially important in terms of saving work, because it allows us to place O FOTÓGRAFO in a set of Gross’s works that are in a direct or indirect osmotic relationship with the city. Some works, usually those of large dimensions, such as the CASCATA or the illuminated sign HOTEL designed for the 25th Biennial in São Paulo (2002), connect with the city and are often open to the audience, engaging interaction.
According to the artist, for instance the work A NEGRA (1997), though almost intangible due to the method of layering the fabric, is “the object of iron and black nylon tulle, armed with wheels for traveling on the roads, on asphalt. I also see it as an object image that mixes the movement of streets, cars, sounds, building lights, shops and advertising, but it is still an object of desire that contrasts with the ever-changing city and the passersby – by crossing, turning, walking, coming and going, and returning”.
However, the relation to the urban universe is not limited to the scope and location: some of her other works also feature the urban element, namely the Latin American city with permanently exposed guts (cables, pipes, scaffolding, defective passages) as a direct and explicit raw material, even if they are intended for the theoretically aseptic environment of a museum or gallery. This nature of her objects was also highlighted by her works exhibited at the 10th Biennial in São Paulo, namely A CARGO, PRESUNTO, A PEDRA, and BARRIL (all created in 1969). They were made of raw materials commonly found in the city (mattresses, car covers, barrels, straw, plastics) to point out the peripheral poverty and state violence (especially the barrel, which was often used as a torture tool).
But the work that illustrates the poetic and undeniably political union of the inner and outer, the open and closed, the protected spots and dangerous streets is the essence of Carmella Gross. “The artist is their trajectory,” but the trajectory is also created by breaks and deviations: 2 BURACOS (2012), an opening on the facade of the Vermelho Gallery, tautologically based on what the title says: two holes on the facade of the gallery that create visible and almost palpable osmosis with the city. A similar principle defines all of her work. Thus, it would be advisable return to Kunsthalle Bratislava and take another look at the O FOTÓGRAFO from the outside the building, from between the vehicles and possibly during a cold, cloudy night, to feel a light breeze that is the energy of the artist, which she likes to call “the urban sign”.
LUZ DEL FUEGO (2012), the accompanying video to O FOTÓGRAFO, was created on its journey through Bratislava and shows newspaper photos of political conflicts, street collisions, and accidents in various parts of the world. Although video is not a medium commonly used by Gross, this work represents a relatively recurring modus operandi in her creation, which utilizes the juxtaposition of words, names, or other elements. Thus, the idea of mechanical repetition is frequently present in her work from the first time she used stamps, although in this case we encounter rather with the utilization of seriality, the construction of the message from the sum of all the elements, and the minimal differences between them that lead the viewer to understand the work as a whole.
We can see the same principle also in FIGURANTES (2015), where metal planks inspired by the streets feature “former delinquents, crooks, thieves”, and other characters that Marx introduced in his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). As he says at the beginning of his text, these characters are omnipresent in today’s cities and reoccur just like farces. The presence of words in Gross’s work – repeatedly found in her works since 2000 – shows her great knowledge of the world of writing, ranging from its more immediate manifestations (LUZ DEL FUEGO or US CARA FUGIU CORRENDO, 2000) through the most sedentary Marx’s philosophy to the poetry of Machado de Assis (PENSAS, ACHAS, PODE, GOSTO, 1996).
O FOTÓGRAFO was not inspired by literary references, but years after the first installment of this work, Carmela Gross discovered the excerpt from the classic text Os Sertões (1902) by Euclides da Cunha (1902), which describes the work perfectly through the image of the protagonist: “The sunset was long, the shadow of the sun lingered on the ground and the protected soldier rested with his shoulders open towards the heavens. He’s been resting… for three months…” Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s amazing to see that in the world of Carmella Gross, where everything is constantly transformed and reworked, the contemporary works complement and elucidate the other moments of her trajectory, and that the inspiration for her work appears years after its realization.
LAB: 2014-2017. Bratislava: Slovenské centrum vizuálnych umení, Kunsthalle Bratislava, 2017, p. 219-220.