Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus @ Andrew Kreps Gallery / March 3 to 31, 2018

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Erika Verzutti – Homeopatia, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 40 3/16 x 32 11/16 x 2 3/4 in (102 x 83 x 7 cm) Unique edition of 3. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

When I wrote the very first article for this website in December 2015, about Brazilian artist Erica Verzutti’s show at Alison Jacques London, I felt more inclined to refer to her as a painter than a sculptor. (Click here for the 2015 article) At the time I was struck by Verzutti’s use of bronze to create deceptively simple panels, any one of which could quite possibly have been produced with less effort in less permanent material. Added to the pleasant surprise of discovering that these panels were bronze was the willful irreverence the artist had shown towards that very medium by adding patches of acrylic paint here and there. The cheapening plastic dullness of acrylic served in this case only to strengthen the effect of bronze being used in such an unusual context, as a kind of surrogate for canvas. Verzutti’s confident handling of material, no small measure of humour, plus a gift for distilling complex questions of perception to produce irresistible objects of beauty, combined to deliver what I considered to be one of the best exhibitions of painting I had seen in recent years. And the question of whether Verzutti’s work is more painting than sculpture remains as delightfully infuriating in the artist’s most recent show – Ex Gurus – at Andrew Kreps as it was in her 2015 show in London.

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Erika Verzutti – Oblique Strategies, 2016 Papier-mâché and wax 21 1/16 x 26 x 3 1/2 in (53.5 x 66 x 9 cm) Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

In Ex Gurus we see the same deft associations of material (bronze, paint, papier mâché, wax, clay, and stones) with subject matter – although the artist’s subject matter can often appear to operate in the service of the material. In Ex Gurus, as in Two Eyes Two Mouths – the title of her 2015 London show – I hesitate to refer to Verzutti’s conceptual material as subject matter but rather as a starting point. The concept is often a self-contained conceit on which the artist riffs with enviable ease with her physical material. One of the neatest examples from the 2015 show is a two-part painted bronze entitled The Dress. Two more or less identical bronze casts hang side by side, one gold, one black. The gold cast is streaked with white acrylic paint, the black cast streaked in its corresponding sections with blue. The identically distressed and chiselled surfaces of the bronzes mean that the streaks of paint look like a rubbing is being taken from two rocks. For anyone who remembers the visual paradox which was trending on social media at the time about a dress which appeared to two groups of viewers as alternately white and gold or black and blue, the spark of recognition and humour is immediate.

While the artist tells us that the subject matter of Ex Gurus is more personal – taking ideas from various “…immaterial things: astrology, homeopathy, feng shui, positive thinking.” and that the body of work in the exhibition “…started as a digression on synaesthesia, on the translation between senses.” – she has managed to maintain the same tight control over subjects with such potentially rampant humorous possibilities and created a series of superbly balanced works.

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Erika Verzutti Pilates, 2018 Bronze, oil and acrylic paint 48 x 40 3/16 x 4 3/4 in (122 x 102 x 12 cm) Edition 1 of 3, with 2 APs. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, Photo: Everton Ballardin

There is never too much attempted in any single piece. Where a bronze has been left unpainted, it is because to have added more to the surface would likely have suggested that the sculptural component of the work on its own was not strong enough. Conversely, where paint has been added, as in the neatly arranged depressions on the surface of Homeopatia, it is only because these brightly coloured additions sit in clear distinction to the base on which they rest. In this case the addition of painted elements is governed by the availability of areas on the bronze surface on which paint can rest without losing its essence as just that – paint.

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Installation view of Erika Verzutti – Ex Gurus. Image courtesy of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo: Dawn Blackman

And yet almost every visible aspect of the work speaks of sculpture and rough manipulation of material. Surfaces are pockmarked, slashed, gouged, and essentially duffed up. So, what is it about these panels that identifies them more as paintings than sculptures? And if we want to see them as painting entirely, then is it the evidence of a kind of crudely-worked clay form which has been manipulated just prior to the memorializing bronze casting stage which keeps dragging our thoughts back to sculpture, or is it simply the shock of the bronze itself?

A clue to the oscillating effect between painting and sculpture in Verzutti’s work lies in the relative segregation of all the individual elements of the work and their casual, but never contaminating, interaction. One of Verzutti’s talents is to be able to take otherwise irreconcilable components and distil them down to their essence so as to enable them to operate together. Sculpture here is represented by bronze, just as painting is invoked more than explored through the artist’s spare application of paint. And the third, and no more or less significant component – the conceptual spark – likewise lingers over the work as it develops physically, in the end becoming an intangible participant in the whole.

Ex Gurus at Andrew Kreps, New York

Two Eyes Two Mouths at Alison Jacques, London

Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.

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Paulo Nimer Pjota, exhibition view, ground floor, Maureen Paley, London, 2016.

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

At certain times of the year in London, when the sun is shining at a certain angle, a brightly coloured wall might give off more reflected heat and light than is reasonable for this part of the world, or a taxi might surprise you with the warmth of its wake as it passes. At that moment you are transported by memory to cities where it is gloriously hot more often than not, if not always.

At Paulo Nimer Pjota’s show at Maureen Paley in London, I felt transported in just this way. If artworks often take on the aesthetic ingredients of their surroundings, whether intentionally or not, then it is hard to imagine these paintings having been done in anything but a hot climate. They breathe hot colour and swarm with casual, effortless marks. In some ways they are hardly straightforward paintings. Pjota himself admits that he is not really concerned with the idea of being labelled specifically a painter at all. And this refreshing nonchalance translates well into the finished artworks he creates.

The show, entitled Synthesis of Contradictory Ideas, and the Plurality of the Object as Image Part 2, consists of unstretched canvas and sheet metal pinned adjacent to each other like constructed paintings on the wall. Close by, on the floor beneath these paintings, are unglazed ceramic vessels and resin casts of bottles, a bust and some garlic. Some of the ceramic receptacles appear in more elaborate painted form, at roughly the same scale, in the paintings.

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South landscape with gold and my memory about Northeast

acrylic, spray paint, brick pigment, pencil and pen on canvas and iron plate, with ceramic objects from Portugal, Bahia and São Paulo, 218 x 288 cm – 85 7/8 x 113 3/8 in, 2016.                                                          

©Paulo Nimer Pjota, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

Pjota speaks of the legacies of colonialism and social and political issues in Brazil being key concerns for him when he approaches making his work. But the final effect is mercifully short on historical critique or explicit social commentary. These elements, in so far as they appear to any recognisable degree, take equal prominence amongst what initially appear to be incidental marks, scratches, doodles, text, fridge magnets and painted imagery. The juxtapositions; a smiley face next to a traditional hand-painted pot, or carved tribal statuary next to Darth Vader’s mask, might seem to suggest the emergence of a fully formed critique. The associations however, are left hovering in the abstracted space of the painted, or marked, surface. Continue reading “Paulo Nimer Pjota @ Maureen Paley, April 28 to May 29, 2016.”

Erika Verzutti @ Alison Jacques

Erika Verzutti at Alison Jacques London from Oct 13 to Dec 17, 2015

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© Erika Verzutti
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London

Erika Verzutti has found a way around some of the difficulties any self-aware painter might find themselves dealing with when they come to question what they do. This is all the more notable given that Verzutti’s work is not strictly painting at all, and the fact that her work which preceded the type we see in her show “Two Eyes Two Mouths” at Alison Jacques, London, is more recognisable as sculpture. The works are relatively shallow, square or rectangular wall-mounted panels made of cast and painted bronze. Yet despite the fact that they reveal themselves to be bronzes, they have lightness and range which defies the homogenising effect of bronze. In a very painterly way these works deal with questions of surface, depth, scale, finish, and colour.
Verzutti speaks of the moment she lifted her sculptural works off the ground and hung them on the wall as resulting in making “…a sculpture of a painting” (1), and they do look very much like paintings at first appearance. In carrying out this apparently casual relocation from floor to wall she might appear to be diminishing the efforts of the kind of painter who agonises over the weave of a canvas, the depth of a stretcher, the mattness of a finish or the hardness of an edge; painters to whom this show is beautifully infuriating.
Of course the decision to relocate the sculptural object within the traditional context of the painted canvas both is and isn’t as simple as it sounds. The inverse action carried out by Pollock in the 1940s in taking painting off the wall has generated so much accumulated theorising over the intervening decades that the work itself can often seem to disappear under the sheer weight of commentators’ discussion about it. Nowadays, when an artist choreographs a shift of context for their work, it will inevitably be seen as having intent, as being a knowing gesture. Verzutti however, speaks about this moment as a discovered one. Of the process of lifting her sculpture off the ground, she says “It felt like I was doing something inappropriate” (2). While this is a credible image; of the artist playing around in the studio and making chance discoveries in the process, it is impossible to believe that she is not scrutinising every subsequent decision she makes with her work. The movement from floor-bound to wall-bound, whether a chance occurrence or not, is a transition in which the artist has spotted vast potential. The inappropriacy that Verzutti felt, as she reinvented her sculpture as painting tells us that she is more than aware of the weight of history in the field of painting. The word inappropriate implies a trauma around the practice of painting, which may be a result of endless theorising on the end of this medium. Could the artist be feeling self conscious about taking the retrograde step of hanging a sculpture on a wall, and by doing so, cutting off so many hard won possibilities? Of course that debate has also run out of steam and artists in general now feel comfortable cherry-picking from a vast archive of movements, styles and forms. Looking at the way Verzutti manipulates the vocabulary of painting, it is far more likely that her feeling of inappropriacy came from a slight sense of guilt at having stumbled upon something that successfully addresses so many issues in painting with such ease.

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Bikini, 2015
Bronze and acrylic
61 x 40 x 9 cm
24 1/8 x 15 3/4 x 3 1/2 ins

© Erika Verzutti
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
Informed audiences have become used to multiplicity, cross-referencing, re-readings, reinterpretations, to such an extent that a certain amount of complexity is presupposed in the work of many artists. This complexity need not necessarily be immediately apparent in the work itself; a fact which allows for the artist to have quite a lot of fun making it. So much great work being produced today looks relaxed and effortless and very much like it was enjoyable to make. Verzutti’s works are playful, almost comical looking at times. The artist refers to the way some of the pieces began to look like crude makeup sets, with variously shaped indentations filled with colour. One of them resembled a Flintstones’ makeup set, according to Verzutti. Another looked like an abstract painting. So far, so whimsical. The decision to cast the work in bronze however, means that all the casual experiments of the studio, the meandering references to whatever comes to mind, the unsophisticated rendering, and the playful irreverence to the ghost of painting past, have been reconciled as equal in a medium which was intended to remain above the chaos of shifting tastes and interpretations. If bronze is a memorialising medium, then it can be no accident that the apparently spontaneous decision to raise sculpture off the ground and into the traditional space of painting has been delivered to the viewer in this most permanent of materials.
With regard to painting, the work in this show operates simultaneously from two fertile positions. It involves on the one hand an acknowledgement of the threshold of what defines a painting; even today when so much critical analysis would suggest that this discussion is outdated. On the other hand it shows disregard for any of those definitions that one might care to mention, of what a painting should be . As paintings we could speak about their generally rectangular shape, the relatively shallow box mimicking the stretched canvas, the exaggerated impasto effect created by the impressions of the artists’ fingers, which have been captured in the final bronze, and the fact that dull acrylic paint has been added in places to imply a horizon here or to create a highlight there. But why press the issue of what these works are, of whether they are painting or sculpture? Well as we have heard, Verzutti herself has commented on the significance of the moment when she re-situated her work from the floor to the wall. Of her earlier work she has spoken of having “…a favourite angle for every sculpture”. It would seem that her view of sculpture was already leaning towards the two dimensional, if not exactly the pictorial. With this in mind, it would seem to be a logical next step to transfer the work to the wall. Primed to accept the works as painting, they now look somewhat like they have been carefully excavated from a larger plaster frieze in some alien Pompeii. They look like fragments of something pictorial. But at what stage then did they become painting? Was there any significant adjustment made in order to make a sculpture a painting besides hanging it on the wall? Not likely. It is more credible to see these pieces as having developed into paintings well before they were hung.
If we try to forget what we know about the artist’s development of these works from sculpture, our impulse to see them as a series of pictorial reliefs is both encouraged and disrupted as we approach each piece individually. There are occasional pictorial suggestions; ‘Van Gogh with Eggs’ is an appropriately berserk rendering of blue sky and yellow cornfield, both of which meet unceremoniously to create a horizon in the middle of the cast bronze. Another piece, entitled ‘Bikini’, is a confidently executed anthropomorphic abstraction. We can imagine the artist pausing momentarily as she works the dumb clay and spotting the opportunity for a beautiful one-liner by creating the eponymous motif with no more than four marks. To call something a one-liner could in the context of a lot of other artists’ work be considered a criticism. The consistency of the work with regard to its scale, treatment and choice of medium act as homogenising factors on the series. The disruption of the pictorial impulse as we walk around the show however makes us continually question whether we are looking at painting or sculpture. Within the squares and rectangles on display our eyes constantly adjust to accommodate what we imagine is beyond the edges of the work. Some of the pieces have a horizon and contain all the ‘pictorial’ information we need, others have one single motif, as in the piece entitled ‘Black Sun’, and some appear to be details of figures or landscapes, which we find ourselves standing back from in order to take in the space around the panel. If we were to approach this work as painting in the first instance, we would find ourselves coming around to sculpture again and again.
The playfulness of this work is intoxicating. A diptych entitled ‘The Dress’ uses the surprisingly golden tone of the bronze to riff off a recent puzzle in popular media about perception of colours as we believe we can see them. It’s a story that will be forgotten quickly, but nonetheless, it was one of the rare instances of genuine curiosity about perception infiltrating popular culture. As such, the question of whether the dress is blue or whether it is black will continue to have wider implications for as long as we continue to make objects to look at.

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Van Gogh with Eggs, 2015
Bronze and acrylic
52 x 46 x 9 cm
20 1/2 x 18 1/8 x 3 1/2 ins

© Erika Verzutti
Courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London
If Verzutti were not so adept at using the vocabulary of both painting and sculpture, the question of which category these works fall into might not be as persistent as it is. The pictorial is suggested but it never materialises fully. It remains as a sort of shorthand. Marks imply things which the titles reinforce. The artist is playing with our desire to pictorialize and perhaps hers too. Thankfully they never deliver on this and the images that we sense are about to emerge end up being withheld. It may be their debt to the sculptural which gives these works their licence to play so fast and loose with the pictorial. If these works were paint on canvas, we might not spend so long with them. Their rudimentary forms and rough textures and edges might not be nearly as rewarding had Verzutti not chosen to cast them in bronze. This decision, and the restraint with which she has painted them, work to consolidate all the wit and playfulness the artist has brought to the work.

(1) Taken from a video interview with Erika Verzutti on Guggenheim UBS Map. Artist Profile: Bronze, Clay and Paint.
(2) Ibid.