The geographer, the bad proofreader and the speleologist

Paulo Miyada


“The hardest part is turning the sky inside out and bringing its blueness into a transparent labyrinth.”
Flávio Motta. “É o B-A-BÁ”. In: Carmela Gross. São Paulo: Gabinete de Artes Gráficas, 1977.

0.1. Marking the page, making space
The artist has 2 square meters of wall and a page in an exhibition catalogue at her disposal.[1] The lines she proposes will allow the cut page to expand and encompass the empty space of the wall, thus establishing a territory. Drawing, cut, expansion, established space.

0.2. Very comprehensive maps
The artist conceives of entire cartographies. She defines optimal scales of representation so that each of them may occupy a sheet of paper. Upon each sheet she prints the chosen scale – 1:3.100.000 (31 km per cm), 1:11.000.000 (110 km per cm).[2] She observes pages that are completely blank, except for notations of magnitude. It is counterintuitive, yet the maps are already ready; each sheet represents a different piece of empty space, a latent territory upon which the observer may speculate.

0.3. The Geographer
Even surrounded by thousands of works produced during an interval of more than 700 years, it is a 53 Å~ 46.6 centimeters canvas, finished in 1669, that garners the special attention of visitors to Frankfurt’s Städel Museum. Johannes Vermeer’s The Geographer stands out because of its author’s prestige, because of the detail in its making and, especially, for being a tiny (albeit monumental) allegory of Western modernity.
The scene depicts an accumulation of elements that characterize its subject’s craft: a terrestrial globe atop a closet, a framed nautical chart upon the wall, papers on the floor, work papers on the table, open compass in hand. A herald of the technological and scientific knowledge of his age, the geographer was responsible for committing to paper the growing fields of knowledge of a world in expansion and dispute, creating tools to be used in the next stages of European colonial expansion. In the instant described by the painter, the professional interrupts his work – left arm firmly grasping the table – and looks out the window through which the unmistakable light of Vermeer enters.
Beyond the walls of the room, beyond the field of the painting, through the representation of the map, lies the sea beyond: the spoils and the fuel of European development. This side of the representation illuminates the universe in which the Dutch mercantile brigade, Spinoza’s thinking and the painting of Vermeer himself ascended simultaneously. On the other side of it are the odious costs of primitive accumulation, marks of exploitation that are not explicit in the maps and do not stain the whiteness of the light that falls on them.
Underneath the hand that has interrupted its work in a moment of reverie or epiphany, the drawing upon the sheet of paper does more than witness erudition; it is a drawing and, as such, it is simultaneously record, hypothesis, discovery, will, form, language and weapon. Drawing is a weapon.

1. The drawing
Three centuries after the conclusion of that painting, on the other side of the Atlantic, the young artist Carmela Gross participated for the second time in the Bienal Internacional de São Paulo. The year 1969 was also when she took her degree in arts at the Faculdade Armando Álvares Penteado (FAAP), in accordance with the pedagogical proposition that had been adopted by Professor Flávio Motta in 1956 as an adaptation of the Curso de Formação de Professores de Desenho (Drawing Teacher Education Course) adopted by the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) in 1953.[3]
The ground-breaking course considered drawing a technical subject, an instrument for teaching and a field of thought. Flávio Motta was, first and foremost, an educator deeply committed to reflection on drawing as a tool for social transformation. “Desenho e emancipação” (Drawing and Emancipation), an article he published in the Correio Braziliense in 1967, sums up many of his formative ideas as they existed during Carmela Gross’s undergraduate years. In this article, Motta approaches the etymology of drawing and design[4] and, from that point on, reminds us that to project is to throw oneself forward, moved by a “concern”, the awareness of a common need. The formulation is so acute that it should be reproduced here:

In a certain sense, she already signals an approach at the level of freedom. As long as concern is the result of historical and social dimensions, it transforms the project into a “social project”. Inasmuch as society realizes its humanist living conditions, so drawing manifests its most precise, dynamic meaning. It is worth observing that drawing allows us to identify the social project.[5]

Therefore, drawing is capable of much more than common sense presumes, faithful to the literal meaning of the Anglo-Saxon (verb) to draw, as a simple withdrawal from the world’s appearance, a tactile relationship to the visible. The power of drawing as a desire for the future lies counter to mimetic reproduction, actively opening itself up to design that is stimulated by the present understanding of a common past – a project intelligence that catalyzes needs and imprints intentions amid complex collective constructive procedures.
This is an understanding of drawing that is particularly dear to Brazilian architecture – the most famous and ambitious example associated with this thinking is the pilot plan for Brasília designed by Lúcio Costa in 1957, and the most sensitive possibly the book in which Vilanova Artigas simultaneously designed a new building and a new curricular structure for the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo (FAU-USP).[6] It is also a foundational principle of Carmela Gross’s poetics, and to demonstrate it is one of the aims of this essay.

João Batista Vilanova Artigas, original Sketchs Notebook, course scheme and outlines, 1961

1.1. Drawing Lesson
There are several levels at which to discuss the trajectory of Carmela Gross as a foray, in a broad sense, into drawing as an artistic practice and, beyond that, as a social project. The first of these is the pedagogical work, which began as early as 1966, in her second year as an undergraduate.[7]
Along with Marcelo Nitsche, Ana Cristina Rocco and Iza Ribeiro, the artist held weekly drawing workshops for children during a six-year period. On Sundays at Biblioteca Mário de Andrade, on praça Dom José Gaspar,[8] the group prepared paint and paper and welcomed many children. Some attended regularly and others were occasional participants. Thus, in the years immediately preceding and following Institutional Act no Five (AI-5, 1968), Gross and her colleagues experimented with a form of inhabiting public space and proposing a civic experience of drawing’s freedom of expression – a potential grammar for the collective design of shared futures. She established a frontline for resistance that could take place in the light of day, in a public square; yet remain under the radar of the Brazilian military-civil dictatorship’s censorship and repression.
The same reasons that led the police to ignore the subversive risk of a group of twenty-year-old youths using drawing materials and the din of children of different ages under the trees that protected them from the Sunday morning light might lead the reader to see hyperbole where no exaggeration was intended. Here is the rationale: within a context of dictatorship, in which the possibility of construction based on the autonomy of the subjects’ intelligence seemed increasingly remote, it is significant that those youths chose to believe that drawing could become a tool for emancipation, and that they translated this belief into continuous and voluntary engagement for over two hundred Sundays to be near children who would otherwise have little or no opportunity to collectively and freely experience drawing.[9] In art, as in politics, radicalness often lies in insisting on what seems improbable.

1.1.1. Drawing task
The first group of works by Carmela Gross that confronted drawing in a systematic, self-reflexive.[10] manner was the FAMILIAR CARDS series (1975- 76), made up of 21 sheets of paper covered with graphite and color pencil drawing, defined by repetitive hatch work around schematic lines defined by masks. The procedure was so methodical, so bereft of spontaneity, that it became the inverse of that which the artist practiced with the children in the square. Almost the classwork of now outdated pedagogies, mechanical labor led her to draw at a minimum degree.

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As if the artist wanted to unlearn everything, to dramatically reduce the coefficient of creativity in order to then grasp drawing’s basic structures one at a time – that is, the machinery that made this instrument as potent as humanist theory would have it be. Thus, to begin with the emergence of form in empty spaces left between lines, the projective capacity with which she imbues the lack of differentiation of a hatch work background from which the clarity of the paper emerges as form, the sign of orthogonal structures, encounters of coordinates and, later, chairs, tables, houses – signs of atavistic recognition. An attempt to capture the moment in which the automatic filling in of the page, the “white noise” of the graphic world, allows the line to emerge and, with it, a certain intentionality, albeit restricted to extremely familiar images.
Even then, the possibility of the line’s appearance as the vehicle for some intentionality was a working hypothesis, pursuant to which it became a fundamental tool in the overall work of Carmela Gross.

1.1.2. Expediter of gestures
The series that Carmela Gross developed after FAMILIAR CARDS was called STAMPS (1977-78). It multiplied and carefully broke down a proposition from 1967, when the artist participated in an experimental initiative presented by Flávio Motta at the Salão de Brasília.[11] There, the artists proposed making a rubber stamp the size of a sheet of paper so that visitors might stamp a sheet and take home a reproduction of the work. The brand new, raw context evoked the new capital’s constructive ambitions, whereas the assembly of tables and stamps alluded to the bureaucratic machine of the totalitarian state apparatus established in the country.

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IV Salão de Arte Moderna do Distrito Federal, Brasília, 1968

Carmela Gross then proposed a stamp of her own tinted, printed fist – the mark of a punch, a sudden serial gesture to be endlessly reproducible. The procedure was repeated in the 1977-78 series, making up a collection of brushstrokes, scribbles and lines stamped many times on sheets of paper.
Thus, by extrapolating a bureaucratic principle, the artist suffocated the artistic gesture’s principle of authenticity, filtering the uniqueness of the line until it allowed the minimum amount of intended expression to become visible, already much closer to analytic ability than to any sort of sensual drive for manipulating formal materials. There is an arc that extends from spontaneous paintings by children to the serial repetition of gesture. This arc is also a bridge that connects a passionate insistence on drawing to the systematizing of its practice as a tool for conceiving spaces.

1.2. An architecture, but a different one
Until now it has been our intention to demonstrate that, for Carmela Gross, drawing emerges from utopian desire and countercultural models for action. This might possibly be the reason that her self-reflexive retreat in language did not lead her to a tautological siege but, instead, prepared her for the use of drawing as a way to unleash complex social processes for transforming space.
In her own way, the artist created resources for the elaboration of spatial forms to be realized in a desirable future. In this sense, she developed a language that corresponds to the architectural project with traces of Filippo Brunelleschi,[12] But with another syntax – the purposes, criteria and chains of production, different from those of architectural practice.
A teaching example: decades after she made the FAMILIAR CARDS, the artist once again took up its procedure in order to establish a new spatiality within a pre-existing place. In the former factory that houses the Sesc Pompeia’s main public space, the artist installed countless wooden slats strewn on the floor. These played the part of apparently disorganized hatchwork that – through a relationship of positive and negative – underscore the presence of the sinuous pool designed by Lina Bo Bardi.[13]

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Carmela Gross, SEM TÍTULO / UNTITLED, SESC Pompéia, 1990

Other exemplary cases of how her drawing practice, without becoming a transparent resource, defined real and virtual spaces: the works described in items 0.1. and 0.2., the painting-object EXPANSIVE (1988) and IN VAIN (1999), an installation carried out in the Oficina Cultural Oswald de Andrade.[14] It is extremely important to note that which particularizes the artist’s relationship with architecture. For Carmela Gross, the vector that links sign and construction does not possess a single meaning, as it allegedly does in the architect’s craft. Her work contains a back and forth movement (as well as a simultaneity) between concrete space and drafted line, as well as between representation and design, expression and reproduction.

1.2.1. One and three ladders
In 1965, the North American artist Joseph Kosuth created the work One and Three Chairs, in which he arranges a chair, its photographic representation and the definition of chair in a dictionary side by side. Three years later, Carmela Gross produced her first ladder, an eponymous intervention in which she painted the outline of a staircase on a steep bank that ran parallel to an avenue on the outskirts of São Paulo.[15] Mention of these works here does not imply suggested influence but, rather, an approximation of two attitudes that brought about a short-circuit between concept, fact and representation. As in the title given by Kosuth, the key lies in thinking that they are different things and, simultaneously, a single mental construct. As in Gross’s graffiti, what is disconcerting is the realization that one is before a unique situation that actually contains multiple stages of concreteness and virtuality.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

More committed to experimentation with spaces than to the clashes between idealist philosophy and phenomenology that so interest Joseph Kosuth, Carmela Gross re-encountered stairs as a prism for perception and meaning on other occasions.[16] In particular, EMERGENCY STAIRS (2012), deserves to be singled out for its exponential multiplication of the project aspects being discussed in this text. The work is made up of tripods, metallic structures, many wires, reactors and red and green fluorescent lights. As in other works in which the artist makes use of such lights, the starting point is the paradox of a material manipulated as if it were a line in a drawing, yet is perceived as an expansive radiance that bedazzles the gaze into deviating from its straight line.[17] Furthermore, in this case, positioning of the light tubes draws in space two perspectival representations of stairs where, in fact, there aren’t actually any stairs at all – merely a succession of lines at previously calculated angles and heights.


As the spectator moves around the room, therefore, he oscillates between perceiving the concreteness of the apparatus and visualizing the representations arbitrated by the artist. While his gaze seeks, in vain, to resolve the contrast of complementary luminosities, the displaced points of view emphasize or undo the perspectival verisimilitude of the ladders. It becomes clear that the work is only possible because of the precision and elaboration of a project based on drawing, yet this does not free it from continuing to be a drawing constantly on the threshold of establishing itself.

1.2.2. The Geographer
To draw purposefully, to design as one who springs forward. Carmela Gross wove a spatial syntax of her own, yet she did not do so exclusively for the pleasure of discovering language. There is a restlessness at the core of her interests in drawing, representation and space. Her earliest examination of the subject took place within the context of her master’s studies in art at the ECA-USP from 1980 to 1981 under the guidance of Walter Zanini. The notion of graduate studies for artists was still quite recent in Brazil, and Carmela Gross created referential work by pursuing artistic investigation, the fundamental core of which is the artistic process.
The work/thesis in question is the PROJECT FOR THE CONSTRUCTION FOR THE SKY (1981), a set of 33 drawing layouts that experiment with and combine a range of models of representation and blueprints for the construction of a celestial dome. In her thesis, Carmela Gross underscores her interest in finding herself between two poles: “Drawing is individualized through gesture; it unfolds in the conception of constructive structures and in specific notations, such as those found in maps.” Indeed, with a mixture of obstinacy and objectivity, she performed the task of representing the clouds in the sky, their atmospheric amplitude, with no interest in exploring Impressionistic effects or pictorial debate; rather, she would remain in the field of graphic and technical representations. She developed a body of work that combines quick, sequential lines in graphite and colored pencil without ever completely obstructing the paper. A lifelike image, albeit one divested of mimicry with virtuosity.
She expanded this gesture across the entire surface of the paper and superimposed upon it a regular orthogonal grid, a system of coordinates that maps the better part of the sheet. It is the assimilation of the geometric logic that is essential to imposing technical rationality upon nature’s volatility: the orthogonal matrix that establishes the painting and architecture of the Renaissance and emerges in the modernist vanguards as a sign of industry, reason and enlightenment.
On the left extremity of each drawing, she included China ink renditions of one of 33 fragments of the Southern Hemisphere’s star chart as a sort of index for locating images that might suggest arbitrary snapshots of the sky. On the right extremity, a stamp sums up the drawing’s properties – title, authorship, date and leaf number – in the manner of architectural and engineering projects. Finally, on the lower edge, an orthogonal grid with a reduced vertical axis organizes a sort of technical-constructive translation of the linings of vaporous clouds rendered in pencil.
Made up of all the pads grouped into eleven columns, the group emphasizes the work’s two driving principles. From afar, we see a panel of sky fragments that effectively engage the spectator’s gaze to wander across a landscape. From up close, the accumulation of codes associated with the most varied applied sciences – astronomy, engineering, architecture, topology, mapmaking – denaturalizes perception and emphasizes the artificiality of those representations. As expressed in the work’s very body, the title she gave to both her research and the work itself unravel this paradox and lead it to another polarity: by designating the drawings as construction projects, Carmela Gross suggests an impossible task in which each sign of technicality is actually an instrument of the absurd.
The emergence of the absurd in the interior of a seemingly constructive will is significant, particularly in a country so enamored of the promise for construction of the future, so dependent upon cycles of collective euphoria; and in which the greatest promise of a progressive utopia – the building of Brasília – had been co-opted by a developmentalist focus, only to be transformed into its ideological reverse.
Indeed, Carmela Gross’s sky cannot be captured by observational drawing or premeditated by technical drawing. It exists as a concrete experience pursued by an artist who is fully cognizant that she is preparing its deliberate failure.
Vermeer’s geographer binds signs of intellectual elevation and power. Bathed by the light of Delft, he contemplates the extent of his weapon’s dominion, the drawing that assists in the expansion of empire. As she works, the geographer Carmela Gross is not bathed in such a soft light.[18] To her, the territory in which conflict, dominion and conquest occur is not to be found on the other side of the ocean, but right next door, on every corner of the city of São Paulo. She employs the conqueror’s tools, but allows them to mislead us, as if camouflaged by fleeting clouds. She understands the (disruptive) potency and the (authoritarian) power that may be claimed by drawing and, because she understands reality as a territory of conflict, she engenders paradoxes that call upon the spectator to distrust the codes and projects according to which they are presented.

2. Hunger
In the lobby of a luxurious São Paulo hotel, the artist enlarged and transposed onto yellow and white tiles the lines of the drawing by Hans Staden that depicts his meeting with the cannibalistic Tupinamb. Indians.[19]

2.1. Hole
During a meeting, the artist had before her a sheet of paper with an orthogonal grid drawn with the help of a ruler, but without excess zeal, thus imbuing it with a certain regularity. The lines and columns are numbered. With a ballpoint pen, she quickly sketched 48 blots with a ballpoint pen. This was her executive project for an installation measuring approximately 325 square meters. Each scribbled stain was blown up and treated as a faithfully reproduced grid for creating a hole in a flagstone 100 times larger than the original line.[20]

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Carmela Gross, BURACOS / HOLES, 1994, project

2.2. Defining what has no definition
Upon conclusion of her PROJECT FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SKY, Carmela Gross temporarily suspended her use of manual drawing. In 1983, she created a series entirely based on (waylaid) processes for the technical reproduction of images. She started with illustrations taken from sales catalogues, various almanacs and encyclopedias.[21] The artist chose a wide range of figures that included rockets, hats, combs, work tools, free weights… The specific meaning of each object was of little consequence; what interested her was the intuition of the shape that might emerge from its contours.
In order to produce such shapes, she enlarged photocopies of each of the figures, more highly contrasted images with diminished sharpness of focus; she discarded certain attempts and photographed the ones chosen for the next stage; she then enlarged the negatives to produced highly blurred effects;[22] thus, she found a shadow of the original image. She selected eleven from which to make offset 1 x 0.7 meter prints on paper.

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Carmela Gross, QUASARES / QUASARS, 1983, project

This print technology collaborated with the blurriness of the shapes to produce disturbingly vibrant images that make it difficult for the spectator to avert his gaze, even though it is virtually impossible to guess the origins of such images or their meanings. Carmela Gross named them QUASARS (1983), the greatest energy transmitters in the universe, larger than stars and smaller than the galaxies whose definition was still being disputed at that time.[23]
It seems pertinent that this potent and mysterious cosmic fact had lent its name as an introduction to the strange figures laboriously constructed by the artist. However, this success should not stop one from asking a question: What is it that effectively renders these images so magnetic? It cannot be the mere absence of referentiality; after all, although many occasional stains and blots possess no obvious meaning whatsoever, this does not lead them to attract the gaze for more than an instant. One hypothesis is that the centrality of the shadows on paper, their (never out and out) tendency towards symmetry and the high definition of their printing lead the figure, no matter how undefined, to be identified with something constructed, produced with intent: drawn.

2.2.1. The bad proofreader
In A história do cerco de Lisboa (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) (1989), José Saramago narrates the life of a proofreader from Lisbon engaged in proofing the galleys of the books that give the novel its title (fragments of which appear in chapters interpolated with the contemporary narrative). At one point, the proofreader commits the greatest sin of his profession: he inserts one word, a single word (“not”) into a central part of the narrative, thus making way for a completely different history of his city, through an accumulation of deviations and reinventions.
In QUASARS, Carmela Gross acts in the manner of the naughty proofreader and, in this case, consecutively betrays the principle of reproducibility of various technical devices. She fabricates error and designs deviations, thus creating something new that is perceived as construction and yet cannot be read.
This is an aspect of the artist’s poetics that sometimes hides behind the clarity with which she writes and communicates. Her speech is devoid of confusion, yet this does not mean that her procedures avoid creating shadow areas and gaps in meaning.[24]

Indeed, the same “indeterminate” nature (that was) achieved in the QUASARS through successive imagistic displacements would later be intensely pursued by other means. For this hypothesis, the PAINTING/ OBJECT (1988) must be read as a transitional link. It is also a model of images appropriated from a pre-existing figure (in this case, war weapons viewed from above), that the artist deliberately corrodes and reconfigures as drawing on matter. The encounter of this vague drawing and painted wood is translated in the cutting of dozens of pieces that reestablish a form when correctly spaced on the wall.[25]
From 1989 to 1994, by using various materials and processes, Carmela Gross investigated ways of conceiving and achieving indeterminable forms. Among others, these investigations include: FOOLISH OBJECTS (1989), TRAIN (1990, p. 46), 300 LARVAE (1994), HOLES (1994, p. 54) and KNIVES (1994).
It is interesting to note the many resources employed to maintain her ability to dissociate herself from each drawing process, something essential to the results obtained. In FOOLISH OBJECTS and TRAIN, she uses the arbitrariness of the title as protection against the legibility of the work’s silhouettes. In HOLES, mentioned in item 2.1., she abruptly elevates the sketch to the condition of executive project in order to avoid excessive elaboration. In KNIVES, she changes the gesture of handling the clay each time she realizes she has mastered that procedure.

2.3. Articulation
In spite of what has been stressed throughout this essay, one should not suppose that the ethical and aesthetic connection between Carmela Gross’s drawing and a comprehension of the project as the establishment of a powerful intentionality is fully protected from the malicious discovery of materials that only allow themselves to be read with reluctance. Indeed, for this artist, drawing possesses the nature of a hinge between two such poles. Her drawing conjoins construction and indeterminacy.
THE DUDEZ BEAT IT (2000) and HOTEL (2002), for instance, are two works that combine elements of light to produce writing in specific spaces. In both, drawing is essential in conducting the process that leads from enunciation to a specific spelling. In HOTEL, all decisions (scale, the straight line, composition with standard industrial materials) sought to reiterate the clarity of the sign, rendering it more efficient as a sign positioned atop the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo building, visible within the urban area and its surrounding grid of streets. In THE DUDEZ BEAT IT, drawing served as a retardant to legibility, the cutting and elongation of lines contributing to dilution and deviation from the explicit (albeit incorrect) spelling of the sentence translated to neon.

2.4. Last Painting
The last painting on canvas made by Marcel Duchamp is dated 1918 and called Tu m’. It is an intricate work, composed of the juxtaposition of nearly a dozen systems of representation. It provides a vertiginous experience, particularly because it was designed to hang above a door frame, to be seen from below. Mimesis, collage, abstraction, diagram, a project for a map, transfers of shadows, linear perspective, conical perspective, indexation, described trajectory, abstract composition, iconography and assemblage make up a pictorial charade that many scholars agree to treat as a sort of list of the visual repertory that Duchamp constructed during his first cycle of artistic creation and developed in his subsequent ambitious projects.

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Marcel Duchamp, Tu m’, 1918

Some interpreters take this further and speculate that painting is a radical response – that it goes far beyond the simplified applications of drawing manuals – to the reflections on space presented by mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré in his treatises on perspective:

Space, when considered independently of our measuring instruments, has therefore neither metric nor projective properties; it has only topological properties (…) It is amorphous, that is, it does not differ from any space which one can derive from it by any continuous deformation whatever… How the functioning of our measuring instruments and, in particular, how the role of solid bodies provides the mind with the opportunity to determine and to organize this amorphous space more completely, how it permits projective geometry to plot a network of straight lines and metric geometry to measure the distance between these points…[26]

Duchamp treated space as a more complex phenomenon than that foreseen by Euclidean geometry, having been a pioneer in the emphatic consideration of the roles played by memory, reason and desire in the process of perception (and representation) of a space that, if these devices did not exist, would remain at the mercy of its amorphous nature.

2.4.1. Practical pictorial treatise
With Carmela Gross, it is important not to speak in terms of a latest painting but, rather, of an ultimate painting, that is, a work that synthesizes her relationship to pictorial space. In this sense, one might point to her installation at the twentieth edition of the São Paulo Biennial, in 1989. It is an environment defined by four expo-graphic wood walls. Two opposing walls are covered by large murals that confront the vigor of the expanded graphic gesture and the resistance of the materials: graphite is scribbled intensely upon the wall within boundaries defined by molds cut from Kraft paper and later covered by a fine transparent pink plastic sheet; grease is manually applied on metallic silver paper and then glued to the wall, evoking two of the forms outlined in the other panel.

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Carmela Gross,  XX Bienal Internacional de São Paulo, 1989, setting up

The huge panels embrace the visitor’s body and promote a complex play of resemblances and inversions. Between them, to one side, is an object/painting made up of four pieces of cut tin, lines that almost converge towards a common center in their asymmetrical inclinations. On the other is an object composed of dozens of vaguely rounded mica discs pierced by a horizontal bar, creating a bump in space. Spear and target, respectively.
The entire group is a practical treatise on post-Duchampian pictorial space. Improvisation, resistance, premeditation and phenomenology are jumbled together in an immersive scene. Physicality of formal reason or, on the contrary, an equation of regimes of visuality.

2.5. The speleologist
The generations of Brazilian artists who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the population became concentrated in urban spaces, presented marks of coexistence with ongoing landscape and environmental transformations. Surrounded by the growing imagistic stimuli that increasingly dominate the urban landscape, these artists often manifest some defense mechanism, assimilation or reaction to the unabashed appeal of mass advertising’s pre-fabricated signs and the architecture of the large construction companies.
In this sense, critical interpretation of the New Figuration artists is well established: their work is widely read as a parodic appropriation of the new vernacular image of mega-cities, whether in downtown or outlying areas. Carmela Gross’s earliest works may be nearer to this stance.[27] Elsewhere, generation 80’s formal stance may be interpreted as a reaction to the visuality of neoliberal capitalist cities; in this case, however, what may be noted is an urge to produce images as loud as the ones that surrounded them – a tug of war for the spectator’s hyper-excited attention. In comparison to that attitude, Carmela Gross chooses less histrionic, more chameleon-like paths, as may be perceived in her neon signs turned towards the city.[28]
THE BLACK WOMAN (1997) – the artist’s most radical response to the stimuli of urban space – brings this essay to a close.[29] Made out of black tulle hung on a metal structure on wheels, the work summarizes drawing’s double agency as a tool for constructive planning and a creator of indeterminacy.
With its 3.3-meter height, the piece was conceived as a mobile urban sculpture apt to circulate on the central median of the avenida Paulista. The structure’s geometry conforms a hollow space covered by a great quantity of fabric to configure an indistinct and irreducible silhouette.

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Carmela Gross, A NEGRA / THE BLACK WOMAN, 1997, project

Amid the skyscrapers, automobiles, pedestrians, signage and billboards of the most celebrated avenue of the largest metropolis in the country, THE BLACK WOMAN does not yearn to be yet another communicating sign begging for attention. It is a void, a movable blind spot in the landscape.
On one level, it may be perceived as an allegory that responds to Tarsila do Amaral’s famous eponymous painting, updating the characterization of Brazilian autochthonous otherness by replacing the exotic body of African origin with the massive volume of invisible bodies, Macabéas[30] of many origins and features.
On another level, it is a premeditated spatial lacuna. To use the artist’s vocabulary, it is an urban quasar.
At a crossroads, I regard THE BLACK WOMAN as an allegory of that part of the city that does not allow itself to be apprehended by statistics, by surveillance devices, by opinion polls, by demographics. It is a cave that accommodates that which the apparatus of power does not care to see, but which could surprise it quite abruptly. There were situations in June of 2013 in which it seemed that The Black Woman was in the streets. That impression soon passed. Identified with the banality of contests between team supporters, other colors came along.
But the black woman may return.
A speleologist is one who studies the formation of dark caves and grottoes.


The artist is invited to perform a permanent intervention at a new cultural venue in São Paulo’s city center – the Sesc 24 de Maio. The project was only made possible by virtue of the convergence of two great arcs of civilizing thought:[31] the socio-technical aspirations of São Paulo architecture as practiced by Paulo Mendes da Rocha and the Sesc network’s humanist project – financially propelled by years of currently interrupted Brazilian economic growth.
In this location, around a monumental water tower to one side of the main street level passageway, Carmela Gross decides to install a sign that spells out “The Grand Hotel” in a sort of melted, pink neon lettering.[32]
It is an invitation. It is an irony. It is a challenge.
Flávio Motta recalled that “through drawing we are able to identify the social project”. Carmela Gross brings his formulation to the present, as if to state that through the social project we shall be able to signify drawing.


[1] Exhibition Dois Metros e Uma Página. Cooperativa de Artistas Plásticos de São Paulo, 1980.
[2] Work presented at the 2nd edition of Gerox at the Estação Pinacoteca de São Paulo, 1980.
[3] For a brief history of the course, see BRAGA COSTA, Juliana. “Ver não é só ver. Dois estudos a partir de Flávio Motta”. Master’s thesis. São Paulo: Universidade de São Paulo, 2010.
[4] Translator’s Note: In Portuguese, the words “desenho” and “desígnio” both come from the Latin designo, in the sense of “intention”.
[5] Flávio Motta, who taught at the FAU-USP from 1952 to 1983, was also an active participant in its teaching reforms during the 1960s, is among those responsible for the presence of such notions regarding the ideology of São Paulo architects educated during after World War II.
[6] Carmela Gross’s affinity to architecture – in the most powerful and most humanistic sense that the word might have – is reflected in her proximity to architects: from the previously mentioned training with Flávio Motta to her longstanding friendship with Paulo Mendes da Rocha, and her involvement in the project for Brazil’s Pavilion at the Feira Internacional de Osaka (1968-70 as part of a team led by Mendes da Rocha, along with Motta, Ruy Ohtake, Julio Katinsky, Abrahão Sanovicz, Jorge Caron and Marcelo Nitsche) and by the professional trajectory of her sons Lua and Pedro Nitsche, now young architects.
[7] Later, in 1972, Carmela Gross was hired to teach fine arts at the Universidade de São Paulo’s Escola de Comunicação e Artes (School of Communication and Arts) (ECA-USP). Her practice as a college professor was therefore concomitant with an enormous part of her trajectory as an artist. A captivating account of the role played by Carmela Gross may be found in the article “Desenho, desenhos: a título de prólogo”, by Carla Zaccagnini. In: Carmela Gross: Um corpo de ideias. São Paulo: Pinacoteca do Estado, 2010.
[8] The earliest attempts took place in the praça da República, but the workshops were soon transferred to the Dom José Gaspar venue, which became their permanent home.
[9] The teaching of art in schools existed only tentatively until the 1950s and 1960s, when ongoing experiments began to mature – as in the temporary case of the Escolinhas de Arte do Brasil (Little Art Schools of Brazil) and the Escolas Experimentais (Experimental Schools). With the military coup of 1964, experimental groups were closed and the situation regressed. In 1971, with the Law of Directives and Bases nº 5692, the teaching of art in schools first became mandatory. The Dom José Gaspar Square experiment specifically embraces the period in which any advancement of artistic experimentation within the pedagogical structure of schools seemed impossible. See BARBOSA, Ana Mae. “Arte Educação no Brasil: do modernismo ao pós-modernismo”. Revista Digital Art&, Oct. 2003. Available at: <>.
[10] Recognition of these works as self-reflexive investigations may be found in Ana Maria Belluzzo’s reading of the artist’s work in Carmela Gross. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2000. It should also be noted that this is the period during which Carmela Gross was closest to Regina Silveira and Julio Plaza, who were at the forefront of the debate on the specificity of new media and practical-theoretical metalanguage about linguistic devices.
[11] In the 4th edition of the Salão de Arte Moderna do Distrito Federal.
[12] In early sixteenth-century Florence, the project for the dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral became famous not only for the magnificence of the finished building, but also because of Filippo Brunelleschi’s use of perspective as a tool that allowed him to anticipate the countless details of designing a complex structure. This moment is considered by some to be the turning point for the affirmation of architecture as a major art within the context of the Renaissance, given that it rendered the project, cosa mentale (a mental thing), sovereign over the craftsmanship of the construction site.
[13] Untitled installation in the Gente de Fibra show, 1990. This procedure that combines hatching, filling in and form appears several other times in the artist’s work, including as a way to connect writing and space, as in Aurora (2003) and South (2006).
[14] The process that connects design and space in the development of this installation was recorded in the video on Carmela Gross made by Luiz Duva in 2000 for the exhibition Investigações: O Trabalho do Artista, at Itaú Cultural, São Paulo.
[15] Fortuitously, this intervention was chosen as the starting point for the artist’s solo exhibition Art Under Arms, held in 2016 at the Chácara Lane and curated by Douglas de Freitas.
[16] Her most monumental ladders (discussion of which need not take place here) are those of the installations Stairs (2012), shown at the Sesc Belenzinho and Casa França-Brasil, both in 2012.
[17] The Carmela Gross work that concentrates a poetic treatise of sorts regarding the sculptural, spatial and graphic use of light is her Light Eater (1999).
[18] Actually, according to the artist’s account, whenever she removed her pen or pencil from the paper, in all likelihood that interruption was brought about by one of her young children crying during the small hours of some fitful sleep.
[19] Drawings originally published in the book Wahrhaftige Historia (Real History, 1557). Carmela Gross’s 4×17 meter panel of Vidrotil tiles was installed in the Hotel Renaissance in 1997.
[20] Holes (1994), Arte/Cidade I, Antigo Matadouro Municipal, São Paulo.
[21] These make up a repertory of figures that voraciously catalogues the objects and signs of today’s world; indeed, they are precedents of the vast data bank accumulated in the global network of the Internet.
[22] Obviously, this is the analogical photographic process in which an enlarger projects the negative image upon photographic paper. Perfect adjustment of the amplifier’s lens is common practice but nothing prevents anyone from deliberately blurring an enlargement by manipulating the device. Nowadays, all of the artist’s operations with various types of equipment could be repeated in minutes with the aid of digital image processing software – something would be gained and something would be lost.
[23] There is currently a scientific consensus that quasars are supermassive black holes surrounded by discs of accretion.
[24] In ideological terms, there is a temptation to mention here the concept of the formlessness as introduced by Georges Bataille, given that he conceived of it as a refutation of the hierarchical divisions of forms and concepts by Western rationality, and that negativity is one of the meanings attributable to the “indefinable” in the work of Carmela Gross. Aesthetically, however, the artist’s familiarity with drawing and project design renders the approximation an exaggeration: her output possesses form even when it may prove to be indefinable.
[25] Simultaneously, the artist made Arc (1988), which takes the opposite path: stones of random sizes are collected and painted to become a strong form through their quasi-geometric arrangement on the wall. The hinge effect in the drawings of Carmela Gross will be discussed further ahead.
[26] POINCARÉ, Henri. Mathematics and Science: Last Essays, trans. John W. Bolduc. New York: Dover, 1963. Apud. MOLDERINGS, Herbert. “Tu m’. La peinture face. l’espace amorphe”. In: DEBRAY, Cécile (dir.). Marcel Duchamp. La Peinture, même. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2014.
[27] Objects such as the Clouds (1967) and paintings like Mountain (1970).
[28] I am Dolores (2002), Hotel (2002), Aurora (2003), Luzia (2004), Real people / are dangerous (2008) and Illuminations (2010).
[29] Work commissioned by the Diversidade da Escultura Brasileira Contemporânea (Diversity of Contemporary Brazilian Sculpture) project, Itaú Cultural, 1997.
[30] Editor’s Note: Macabéa is the name of the protagonist of Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novel The Hour of the Star – a sort of Northeastern Brazilian everywoman and, as such, forever engaged in the great battle for survival in an unequal society.
[31] At the time of writing, the building’s inauguration appears to be the only significant movement towards the use of the city center’s urban space as public property; these are barbarian times of ostentatious exclusion.
[32] As a drawing, the proposition appears to be a sort of offspring of the encounter between Hotel and The Dudez Beat It, both discussed in 2.3. of this essay.

Published in:
FREITAS, Douglas de (org.). Carmela Gross. Rio de Janeiro : Cobogó, 2017.

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