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Photos: Everton Ballardin

Carmela Gross’ vast primer to face the world [1]


From September, 2016 to April, 2017, Chácara Lane was taken by a significant collection of works encompassing five decades in the production of Carmela Gross in a kind of retrospective exhibition highlighting distinct periods of the artist’s work. Concurrently, an approach was proposed that would stress the challenging nature of the work, the blurred boundaries between sketch, machine-made and handmade / city, crowd and individual, which could pinpoint her tools for questioning the status quo, her imagistic assaults, and presenting her arms to face the world and art.

The exhibition sought to map the artist’s different confrontation strategies by presenting a sort of a primer for operations and materials in an attempt to build up a panorama which is coherent with the corpus of Carmela Gross’ work.

Furthermore, it was posed the difficult task of exhibiting works, which address particular situations, being adapted to another context taking care to keep their conceptual integrity and cause them to establish a dialog with the new space.

The re-assembling of large-scale installations and interventions, such as I AM DOLORES, and the installation in 1992 at the Capela do Morumbi, now re-assembled at the same space, reveal the ambition that the artist’s work has of being in the city, which is reflected in the exhibition. Her works are based on signs of the city; moving back to it seems to be an unavoidable destination.

The core point of the exhibition was to explore the artist’s creative process by unveiling the way she works and her thoughts. For that reason, the texts that go along the works were actually Carmela Gross’ own, reflections on her works created throughout the years which are now compiled in this catalog.

Also, the artist’s project files were gathered for the first time, showcased in fac-símile version; these files contain the collection of preliminary studies of her works. Turning them public is an act of bravery of Carmela Gross – exposing her creative process, with her issues, cutouts and hits. The curators’ strategy of including them in the exhibition was also meant to overcome the limitation of a spatial cutout and the impossibility of displaying more works, which are as significant as those exhibited.

“poetics of the sign”[2]

In one of the many trivial conversations that I had with Carmela Gross, one among many others about her work and the exhibition, she commented that it took her a long time until she noticed that clouds are white and not blue. This comment seemed extremely interesting to me, as it symbolized exactly what I understood as the beginning and main core of the artist’s work: the world as mediated by images and signs.

These are the elements with which we always lived and which make the world simpler, limit perception and make us live with a number of previous concepts about things without questioning or reflecting upon them. It is not by chance that CLOUDS, dated 1967, is the work that Carmela Gross regards as the starting point of her work. Comprising several wooden, blue-enameled clouds with a simple design like the one we used to draw in our childhood, the work is supported on the floor by a base section, as though it had fallen from the sky. Another section, this time on the body of one of the pieces, shows a meat-red interior, which reinforces the materiality of those clouds, provide them with a body, sets them apart from actual, light and immaterial clouds by condensing in its blue all the weight of the immense sky.

  • In intervention STAIRS, dated 1968, the idea is the same. Here, Carmela Gross sketches a schematic stair, seen in profile, with black spray on a gully. The steps of this drawing-stair coincide with the unevenness of the gully. Drawing, project and idea adhere to the world and gain a body. This is also the case of THE BLACK WOMAN, a gigantic scrabble printed in the city, a ball of errant lines, without a body, yet full of itself. Because it is movable, it could be carried. It was carried through and stayed at Avenida Paulista in 1997.[3]

  • Also dating from 1997, CLOSE THE DOOR[4] materializes the lines of the sketch in space and, through mobility, it causes the sketch to deconstruct and transform itself. Symbols of power, these chairs with a schematic drawing are made of iron covered in wax and graphite and are hung on the walls with hinges. Divided in two, the halves of the chair can move; when handled, the chairs are deconstructed and assemble into a trap pointing its shafts to the person who handed them.

  • Letters are also signs; when articulated, they turn into representation tools. In YOU THINK, YOU FIND, YOU CAN, I LIKE,[5] from 1996, letter-drawings done individually in monotypes on fabric build the four words on the wall. However, the assembling of the work does not follow any sketch stipulated by the artist; the order and position of the four words should be defined by the assembler.[6] The verbs ‘think’, ‘find’ and ‘like’ were extracted from the sonnet “Spinoza” by Brazilian writer Machado de Assis and the verb ‘can’ was added by the artist.

“Moment previous to the sign”[7]

  • A series of works by the artist deconstruct signs to scrutinize and investigate them as action and matter. This applies to STAMPS, performed between 1977 and 1978. The gestures that create art signs – lines, scribbles, brushstrokes and blots – are reproduced in stamps converted into machines. At the same time, these elements do not create anything but kept repeating themselves one after another, filling papers and books with the same element, in a bureaucratic, automatic form.

  • The PINK PRINTS, from 2002, are but only gesture and color. A single metal plate was scratched incessantly to the point that it was almost fully closed by the lattice made up the the lines. The plate was painted in different shades of pink to generate the prints, but as one moved on to the other, one shade of pink contaminated the other, generating a plethora of pink shades and causing each print to be unique. These prints were produced as studies for ANTHEM TO THE FLAG,[8] also dated 2002. In this installation, bed sheets in different shades of pink create a pink mass on the floor. So as they do not fly away with the wind, they need to be watered constantly. When wet, their color becomes more intense and ‘turn into flesh and skin’.

  • In LISTEN,[9] the work also relates to skin and surface, but visibility and hiding strategies as well. The work was performed for the first time in 2001 for a television project that unveiled the artist’s studio. Carmela then proposed that, instead of having her workshop exposed, she would rather have a new work being shown, so she fully covered her studio with kraft paper. Nothing else could be seen; however, a new environment was created, bathed in an amber light, with new textures and the typical smell of the paper. The kraft paper skin covering the room eventually turned it into a cave, or a stomach, hided the rigid architecture and blurred the hard lines and definitions of the room.

  • The installation prepared in 1992 for the Morumbi Chapel[10] follows the same principle: a repetitive action producing the final form of the work. Here, there is no space to be covered up nor any defined form, just several fragmented, kneaded materials stacked on top of each other forming 70 unique, identical yet distinct pieces. Suspended in space, these stacks of debris are aligned into a rectangle that reproduces the Chapel’s plan. Arranged side by side in seven lines, they get smaller and smaller as they advance in 10 tiers until they reach the altar.

“The work is a machine”[11]

  • The city, which is always present in Carmela Gross’ work, sometimes lends its elements to the works. The LIGHT EATER, which took place between 1999 and 2000, is an undefined creature with human-like forms, with a body drawn by a structure made of iron and florescent lamps. Fallen over onto the floor on his side, he seems to have swallowed the city and now agonizes as he is choked by it, converted into it.

  • THE DUDEZ BEAT IT, which took place between 2000 and 2001, is a neon light transcribing street graffiti found in the city to the museum.[12] It brings the street script to an indoors space as an apparently more sophisticated material, but which is actually the same ordinary light found in the city. The rushed, moving script-drawing is maintained, but the flow now relies on the pulse of the neon light, not on the city anymore.

  • ART UNDER ARMS, from 2009, after which the exhibition at Chácara Lane is named, is a street poster devised for an intervention at an ATM located in the center of Praça Clementino Procópio, in the city of Campina Grande, in the Brazilian state of Paraíba. The ATM received a project with interventions by different artists.[13] The work created by Carmela warns about the square space being ‘stoled’ by the ATM, while it ‘steals’ space from the ATM to exist. ART UNDER ARMS[14] was the last intervention at the ATM. After the installation of the work, the ATM was removed from the square.

  • The internal space advances towards the city and the city invades the internal space in I AM DOLORES, dated 2002.[15] The iron structure with red tubular lamps invades and takes over the space. The I is left outside, while DOLORES remains inside, divided between the anonymous being that occupies the city like many others, and the private being, an individual in an inner scale, who transits between these two worlds. It carries along its identity to the city and brings the city within when it comes back. I AM DOLORES is also a cry of identity for the city, at the speed and with the intensity of the red lights that outline the traffic.

“Being in transit”[16]

  • The mass that occupies the city is the gear that keeps it working; all have – or at least should have – a function. In EXTRAS, signs like street signs depict the figures listed by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. They include social climbers, vagabonds, brothel owners, pickpockets, among others. Side by side, “this undefined, unstructured mass that is thrown from one side to the other”[17] is stamped on road signs what highlight the anonymous gear – not recognized by society- that keeps the city moving.

  • For the exhibition at Chácara Lane, Carmela built another machine. SCHOOL-STAIRS is a metallic ladder with industrial lines and curves which breaks the barrier that prevents the children from the school near the Chácara from circulating and propose a more beneficial relationship between school and museum in a disruption from the limited usage logic of the spaces. Once again, the artist extrapolates the exhibition space, faces the physical limits of the museum, and focus to the place that provokes her the most, that is, the outdoors, the city.

SCHOOL-STAIRS was realized to overcome limits and create traffic between the spaces of the school and the museum. Traffic will be maintained; neither the school nor the museum wishes to have any passage blocked. The flow from one space to the other, though previously prevented, is now ensured. The primary goal of the intervention was then achieved.
Carmela Gross’ work exists as a result of the ongoing exercise of defying the established logics of things; its purpose is to point things out, to discuss them. If a work of art is a machine, then it is certainly a weapon. It is achieved by challenging itself, others, art and the city. ART UNDER ARMS.

Douglas de Freitas

[1] “The artist’s vast primer in the modern world” was an expression coined by Flávio Motta (1923-2016) in the first text on the work of Carmela Gross, which was prepared to accompany the exhibition at the Gabinete de Artes Gráficas, São Paulo. Written in 1977, the text seemed to predict how the artist’s work would develop in the next 40 years. Flávio was so clever and sensible in his text that it was virtually impossible not to pay a tribute to him here. The idea of primer oriented the construction of this text. It is worth mentioning that the first definition of a primer is book for teaching others to read. MOTTA, Flávio. “It is the basics”. In: Carmela Gross. São Paulo: Gabinete de Artes Gráficas, 1977.
[2] ZANINI, Walter. Vetor B: painting and drawing. In: Artistas do Brasil na XVI Bienal. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 1981, pp. 32-33.
[3] Presenting THE BLACK WOMAN as a sculpture would seem a paradox according to the curatorial proposal. The sculpture would be there, but the dimension of an intervention in the city’s landscape and interaction with the public would not be possible for museological reasons. It was then decided to exhibit the photographs and preliminary sketches of the work at Chácara Lane.
[4] CLOSE THE DOOR was planned as an installation of eighteen pieces for an individual exhibition of Carmela Gross in 1997 at the Tarsila do Amaral room of Centro Cultural São Paulo. At Chácara Lane, it was decided to exhibit two pieces in a symmetrical room, one facing the other.
[5] The work YOU THINK, YOU FIND, YOU MAY, I LIKE belongs to the Coleção de Arte da Cidade de São Paulo (Art Collection of the City of São Paulo) and became part of it through a donation made by the artist in 2001.
[6] For the exhibition at Chácara Lane, two distinct setups were planned to stress the work’s intrinsic mobility. From time to time the work was re-assembled with a different configuration.
[7] BELLUZZO, Ana Maria. Carmela Gross. In: Artistas brasileiros na 20ª Bienal Internacional de São Paulo. São Paulo: Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 1989, p. 59.
[8] The work was devised for the exhibition “Matéria-prima”, which took place in 2002 at the Museu Oscar Niemeyer in Curitiba, Paraná.
[9] ESCUTA gained a new version for Chácara Lane; the room that had been planned as a warehouse and would remain closed to public visitation was opened and incorporated to the exhibition, however fully covered in kraft paper. The location changed, but the visibility/hiding strategy was maintained.
[10] The installation performed in 1992 for the Morumbi Chapel belongs to the collection of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo.
[11] MAMMÌ, Lorenzo. “Instantes e movimentos: Carmela Gross e Iole de Freitas” (“Moments and moves: Carmela Gross e Iole de Freitas). In: Revista Estudos Avançados. São Paulo: IEB/USP, vol. 16, no. 44, 2006.
[12] THE DUDEZ BEAT IT was conceived for the Projeto Parede of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo. As an assumption of the project, the work relates to the space the museum’s corridor. At Chácara Lane, the work relates to the architecture designed by Marta Bogéa and bends to fit in the room.
[13] The ATM intervention project at Praça Clementino Procópio was called “Galeria Cilindro” and was created by the artist Júlio Leite. It ran between 2004 and 2009 and hosted interventions by artists such as Guto Lacaz, Gil Vicente, Regina Silveira, Vânia Mignone, Paulo Bruscky, Nuno Ramos, Rodrigo Braga, André Komatsu, and others.[14]Whereas ART UNDER ARMS was an intervention that ‘robbed’ the ATM at Campina Grande, at Chácara Lane the work was meant as an arm to rob the world. A street poster version had 4000 units of it printed and left at the exhibition for the public to take home and use.
[15] I AM DOLORES was created for the project “Arte/Cidade – Zona Leste”, in 2002, and was re-done for the exhibition at Chácara Lane.
[16] DUARTE, Paulo Sergio. Três passagens em torno de uma instalação. (“Three passages around an installation”) In: Carmela Gross. São Paulo: Gabinete de Arte Raquel Arnaud, 2003.
[17] MARX, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011, p. 91.

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