Thursday, June 24, 2021

Fabula: Painting is a Permanent Language

New and recent works by Fabiana Salomao, featured in her studio solo exhibition at 468 Queen Street East in Toronto, June 10-30 2021.  (All images: Courtesy of Noah Lalonde)

“A pictorial element has no other meaning than itself, and thus the picture has no other meaning than itself.” – Theo Van Doesberg, 1930.

Freedom from the inherent limits of realistic representation: that’s what concrete art, or concretism, was and still is all about. I’ve always had a deep fondness for the Dutch art movement De Stijl (The Style), founded in 1917 and lasting for about a decade, before morphing into what we now know as the international neo-plasticist style of the Concrete (Konkret). The most famous of these abstract purists was Piet Mondrian, but I’ve always leaned to the slightly more organic images of his compatriot Theo Van Doesberg, especially when one notes the amazing historical trajectory from his own early works all the way forward to some American 1960’s exponents of sheer rigor, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. One thing is held in common by all the aesthetically linked artists who explored the edges of pure abstraction, whether it be geometric or biomorphic in nature and tone: a love of the formal elements of balance, harmony, rhythm, and an affection for those chance constructions which seem to convey the spiritual aspects of our embodied condition, those encouraging transcendence.

Subsequent to its dissolution as a formal group, Van Doesberg in particular was searching for a new and expanded version of his vision, and in 1929 he discussed fresh ideas with the Uruguayan painter Torres-Garcia, emphasizing a distinction between those artists who were completely abstract and free of referentiality. He focused in 1930 on a new group, Art Concret, and began to champion geometrical abstraction in a series of influential manifestoes, in which he declared the basis of concrete painting:

We say:

  1. Art is universal.
  2. A work of art must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution. It shall not receive anything of nature’s or sensuality’s or sentimentality’s formal data. We want to exclude lyricism, drama, symbolism, and so on.
  3. The painting must be entirely built up with purely plastic elements, namely surfaces and colors. A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond “itself”; as a consequence, a painting does not have any meaning other than “itself”.
  4. The construction of a painting, as well as that of its elements, must be simple and visually controllable.
  5. The painting technique must be mechanic, i.e., exact, anti-impressionistic.
  6. An effort toward absolute clarity is mandatory.

After the death of Van Doesberg in 1931, Torres-Garcia carried forward the torch for a mathematically inspired and designerly art to other countries, especially his homeland, where some of his colleagues in Buenos Aires eventually formed Arte Concreto Invencion, as well as releasing a monthly bulletin called Absract-Konkret. These developments were followed in the 1950’s by the foundation of Groupe-Espace, which was created to try and harmonize painting, sculpture and architecture as a single discipline, along the lines of early De Stijl. In 1952, In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo the Groupe Frente and Ruptura respectively pushed this dramatic style in revolutionary leaps that eventually spread around the world.

Far from being a transitory and ethereal set of ideas based on a short-lived group of radicals, however, Concrete Art has actually proven to be surprisingly long-lived and to have transformed itself for over 104 years into a still vibrant and compelling visual language. Thus I’m delighted to report that Art Konkret is alive and well and being explored very effectively by a talented Brazilian-born painter, Fabiana Salomao, whose Toronto-based studio recently welcomed the world to visit in a virtual exhibit as well as a physical installation through the month of June. Her exhibition, poetically entitled Concrete Memories, evokes a century of neo-plastic quantum evolution, while also launching the austere tradition into a fresh new dimension perfectly situated for our digital-drenched 21st century.  A perfect example of this reincarnation of pure energy forms is her splendidly titled Blue Volumetric, with its sculptural poetry of fragmented form and dancing diptych shapes interacting in a sensuous display of just how grounded in nature the ethereal abstract can really be.

Blue Volumetric, 2021, acrylic on wood, 65 x 38 in.

In her elegant installation of thirty splendidly abstract works, described as “an exposition that celebrates the concrete movement in Brazil and Latin America, she asks the deceptively simple rhetorical question, “How modern is contemporary art?”  It’s a question which I believe accurately captures a sentiment that I share, namely that modernism has not ended but merely reconfigured itself, and that contemporary art, that occurring after the advent and supremacy of the modernist ethos, is really just the later and mature phase of modernism itself. Personally I can easily support and share this supposition since one of the key tenets of modernism, to deconstruct the history of all art practice, is equally applicable to the natural urge to deconstruct modernism itself.

Thus the modern never really goes away, so to speak; it merely becomes transformed by an endless set or recursive urges at self-exploration, the most revealing of which is the so-called ‘post-modern’, which rather than tolling the extinction of a style is actually the vital apotheosis of that very style: of The Style. And one of Salomao’s basic intentions here is to find a way to capitalize, creatively speaking, on the period of seclusion we all currently occupy, to delve deeper into the theme and subjects of the modern and concrete via a technology that can efficiently draw us together spiritually while we are seemingly so socially separated. Her Neo Bossa constellation is thus an ideal metaphor for a dispersed tonal community unified in the gestalt spectrum.

Neo Bossa, 2021, acrylic on wood, 30 pieces at 10 x 10 in.

As she expresses it, “The idea is to take advantage of the current planetary mode, and of new technologies, to broaden this visibility of my artwork. Thanks to a virtual exhibit, people from all corners of the world will be able to see my work. The public will even have the opportunity to discuss the exhibit in an interactive manner.” And what better way to also emphasize the truly global nature of an international style, now over a century old, as a form of permanent language, a visual linguistic of form and structure, and colour and contours, one shared by and accessible to diverse human beings who speak so many different tongues? The subject is as direct as Van Doesberg’s own assertion about meaning, not that abstract art doesn’t have a meaning, but rather that its meaning is contained only in itself, it what it looks like rather than what it supposedly says. It’s a classic declaration of the historically modernist ethos itself: form is content and content is form.

While I was thinking about the array of her works – their optical constellation would be more accurate – I also picked up the perfect book to shed light on the wonderful continuity between the emblematic concrete art of 1930 and the resurgence of neo-Concretist echoes of 1980, especially in Latin America. And this is the alternating current that is celebrated so effectively in the totally authentic paintings of Salomao. Josef Albers’s prescient little 1963 book Interaction of Colour, the fiftieth-anniversary edition of which I picked up while pondering the Concrete Memories show, is still the most revealing exploration of the essence of this kind of retinal carousel. Albers had been one of the key members of Germany’s Bauhaus and departed in1933 for America, where he taught for many years at Black Mountain College, influencing several successive generations of colour field painters.

Albers startles the reader, not just by the presentation of his own formally amazing colour field paintings but also by the charming accessibility of analysis of what makes up our appreciation of what would come to later be termed the optical unconscious: “Interaction of Colour is a record of an experimental way of studying colour. In visual perception a colour is almost never seen as it really is, as it physically is. This fact makes colour the most relative medium in art. In order to use colour effectively it is necessary to recognize that colour deceives us continually. Our concern is with their interaction, that is, seeing what happens between colours.” And it is by displaying to us the action between colours that Salomao succeeds in carrying far forward the Concretist tradition. Even if those colours are often kept to an absolute minimum, as in the cases of two early austere abstracts, #272 and #227 respectively, which feel almost like designs for some exotic metaphysical furniture found solely in her dreams.

#272, acrylic on canvas.

#227, acrylic on canvas.

At the very heart of Salomao’s aesthetic enterprise is the notion of the volumetric: recurring sequences of architectural structures which emphasize geometric abstraction. And, in particular, our unique relationship with the ever-receding, or advancing, or shifting, shapes that make up the modernist mentality:

I bring in my art the awareness that today we are not modern, but rather a reconfiguration of the modern. If, on the one hand, modernism was a series of ruptures, contemporary art is conciliatory and appropriates the advances and ideals of modernism to bring new developments and innovations in technology and design. We are the innovating vanguard, but not a vanguard that breaks from its past, as modernism did. My production is contemporary, it adds a new step. Concrete Memories is the result of a continuous desire to create, an unceasing pursuit of growth and new challenges.

Salomao’s reiterative approach is definite evocation of, even a homage to, that historical period following the Second World War, when groups of young artists proposed a radical departure and recapitulation of the role art plays in everyday life, its very role in society. Somewhat informed by Marxist artistic principles, they formulated the notion of the marco recortado, which replaced compositions confined to traditional rectangular formats (illusory windows on the world) with free-form irregular outlines based on pure geometric volumes in space. Some even called into question the ancient distinctions between paintings and sculptures altogether, occupying a hybrid zone of both and neither. Indeed, this artist’s notion of the representation of sheer volumes and amplitudes reminds us that sculptures are best regarded as drawings in space. She makes us wonder whether, if three-dimensional objects cast two dimensional shadows, could this mean that we ourselves are three dimensional shadows being cast by four-dimensional phenomenon?

Their distinctly Latin experimental tone, echoes of a golden age of avant-garde South American thinking, have beautifully informed Salomao’s own elegant ventures into the realm of transcendent colour and liberated space; yet she has also evolved a powerful visual vocabulary all her own, while also contributing to the cultural continuity of her country’s appetite for experimentation. Active as a painter for over two decades, the Brazilian artist has also had a significant career in the field of literature, illustrating over one hundred books, as well as in printing, design, photography, architecture and installation. She brings all aspects of her multi-faceted aesthetic disciplines to bear in her latest exploration of both the history and the future of painting.

Every picture tells a story (fabula), as the old adage goes, and this is still true today, even if, and maybe especially if, that optical narrative is exclusively one of pure colour and pure form:

Concrete Memories also aims to question the conceptual ambiguities about contemporary and modern art. My concern is to bring light to this movement (Concretist Art) which in many ways prepared the ground for all contemporary art and continues to influence its production. Art history has not yet fully acknowledged the importance of Concretism and Neo-Concretism. Concrete Memories tries to fill this void by demonstrating those pictorial elements that are most significant in our own contemporaneity.

Virtual exhibition tours of Concrete Memories are available through the artist’s website:

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020. His latest work in progress is a new book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, due out in early 2022.


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