How have I never come across this artist before? A friend put up an image of her Inhabited Painting from 1975. The image immediately stuck me, the view over the shoulder of a woman in a mirror. But is it a mirror? The brush in her hand is the point at which the two bodies of the one woman meet, and this is where it gets complicated. Not a mirror image quite, but a painting then? The thick blue line frantically scribbled over the head of the first larger (the ‘real’) woman suggests she painted. And not just painted, but erased. Here the brushmark works to obscure the figure, not reveal it. The one we would normally associated as being the ‘real’ person, the one over whose shoulder we look as we face her reflection in a mirror, is the one that is transitory, whose identity is not only hidden but scratched out. And that title ‘Inhabited Painting’, at first you presume the one who inhabits is Almeida’s reflection. As if the reflection is within the painting. But wait, the reflected woman is the one doing the paining. The blue strokes emanate from her brush, wiping out the figure outside the mirror. So maybe she is the one who is not real then, the one over whose shoulder we look. But then, that would put us inside the mirror. And suddenly, the viewpoint is reversed. We, the viewer of this photograph/reflection/painting are the ones that are reflected. We are the ones that inhabit the painting, not Almeida. And this sudden dizzying revelation, and the winding labyrinth of thought that led me here leaves me thirsting for more.
So I go on a Google hunt. And all I manage to pull up is one flimsy Guardian article which informs me that Helen Almeida is a Portuguese artist from the early 1960s who was inspired by the neo-concrete movement in Brazil under the leadership of Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. She embraces their desire to liberate color into three dimensional space, experiments with breaking the confines of the canvas. Her work was performative, which she recorded in black and white photography. Her use of the colour blue is reminiscent of Yves Klein signature Blue, yet she denies any reference to him. A denial to be taken with a pinch of salt in my opinion, who can reject such a blatant parallel? The author of the article agrees with me: In the work Study for inner improvement (1977) we see a sequence of photographs where she looks like she is eating blue paint. She had, it appears, protested Klein’s use of women as objects. Insert the concept of anthropophagy (cultural cannibalism-consuming other cultures as a way of asserting independence) which was a popular ideology at the time. Chewing up Klein’s blue thus becomes a liberating act for women and artists. So far, so good.
Her performances were often private; her husband architect Artur Rosa photographed her. Can they still be called performances then? Experiments maybe? This raises the whole realm of performance art and the problems of documenting it. But her images are too clearly defined to fall into this category. They might have originated as performance, but they are still Paintings. She names them so herself. Some other pieces included her dressing us in white with white canvas attached to her body and walking through her garden, taking the canvas for a walk. Or attaching single strands of horsehair to a drawn line in the ink to make the line look like it is lifted off the page. She also slashed the canvas (inspired by Italian artist lucio Fontana) and was photographed trying to slip through the slit.
Jessica Lack, the author of the article claims a political motivation these performances were “Not just about physical liberation, but psychological emancipation also”. She grew up in Portugal under rightwing regime of Antonio slazar. The concept of a neo concrete movement appealed to her generation of artist in Portugal.
And after that I quickly hit a brick wall. Most of google’s results are in French and don’t lead anywhere interesting. Similarly is my search in the public library. I get one hit when searching her name in the catalog, it is: Making Callaloo : 25 years of Black literature, 1976-2000 / edited by Charles Henry Rowell. Ok, back to the internet. Aventually I manage to download an essay from an exhibition catalogue by one Filipa Oliveira, it is even in English.
“Over the last forty years, Helena Almeida has developed a body of work, which started with the process of exploring the limits of painting, transforming ideas and experiences into images. She combined the photographic image with the drawn line and the paint mark in compositions that examined space and drew attention to the surface of the work." Filipa Oliveira
The inside of the outside of the inside
The outside and the inside are inseparable.
The world is wholly inside and I am wholly
Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
Oliviera has a little more information for me. She began her career as a painter. Interested in surfaces, she tries to rupture the plane of illusion, challenging the object itself. Her works “exploded” or “expelled” into a new dimension, or else deconstructed the constituent parts of painting. The frame shifts away, the canvas falls, leaving the stretcher visible (revealing the support structure, the inner workings, the organs of the object) deconstructing the separation of inside from outside. This makes me think of Deleuze’s body without organs, in a grotesque inversion. Merlau-ponty called it chiasma. She is both work and object, author and embodied subject. They are inseparable.
Back we go to Inhabited Painting, because this is more than just one work, it is her manifesto, it sums up her aim and method and purpose as an artist. Trying to inhabit painting. To do this, she must deconstruct it first. At this point in her career she abandons painting entirely, for photography. Her subject is the same-rethinking the limits of painting and drawing. And yet her choice to do this through photographs is interesting. Is she suggesting that photography is better at this then? That photography is the tool with which to deconstruct painting? A photograph is even more two dimensional than a painting. It shows its organs less, the process of its makings are left in the darkroom, in the trays of chemical and sheets of negatives. The image aspires even more to a self-constructed reality. But perhaps this is not what she is getting at. She could simply be suggesting that paintings limits are better explored though another medium.
Some historical context then: Almeida is working at a time when painting was declared dead and ideas and concepts declared the successor, Sol le Witts paragraphs on conceptual art had been written in 1967. Bu the 1970s performance art was at its height. Cindy Sherman’s film stills were made in 1977. Photography is seen a valid form of documentation of art that is about ideas, about subverting aesthetic tropes, and challenging art historical paradigms. Almeida is exploring how to continue painting without doing it literally, the era of the document and the statement and the performance.
Then we come to her use of series: Spatial concept, uncovered interiority and depth to painting, or demonstrating the opposite-the inexistence of something beyond the surface of the canvas? A new condition for the medium: liberating it from the syndrome of the frame and allowing painting to escape its ontological contingency: that of painted surface (that of surface) -new way of thinking about the medium. So says Oliviera. But this argument seems better suited to Allan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock and his yard full of tires than it does to Almeida’s psychologically charged self-portraits.
But are they self-portraits? Despite the obscuring dashes of blue paint, Almeida doesn’t seem to be trying to hide or obscure her identity. Nor is she playing a role, as Cindy Sherman is. And yet, would these images be so powerful if the subject were, say, her husband? After all, shouldn’t the artist be the one taking the photographs, rather than appearing in them? Oliviera declares that this is because Almeida is not interested in themes or techniques, but in the elements, the paint mark and the line. And this requires the physical presence of the artist in the image. “It is through her body that object/actor, photography, and painting/drawing intertwine.” Photography then is the means not the end. Like the documentation of performance art. Her photos leave in the irregularities in grain and texture and are not the polished finished products of high art. Does this make it just documentation? Part of process, another step in the whole work then, from enactment to paper? Or the final work? Oliviera reads in the influence of cinema. Enacting plots. Still from films. Each image is temporal, depicting a suspension of action that comes to life in spectator’s imagination. She is compared to jean luc Godard. This argument sags in the middle. It doesn’t hold up. After all, who can say film stills in the late 1970’s and not talk about Sherman? And Almeida’s images do not contain a plot. Certainly not Godard. But if you had to draw the comparison to cinema, then some of the eerie doubling does perhaps recall that infamous female double in Bergman’s Persona, the psychological intensity. Not just the split self, but in other works, such as the Study for Inner Improvement she tries to eat the paint. To take it into her, to ingest her own process, her own art, and to become whole with it. Or is she? Like with Inhabited Painting, the opposite could also be true. She could be attempting to vomit it up. When the act of painting is no longer enough, the body must discharge it. As the series progresses, the blue covers her body completely. But we are not finished. A hand appears, to push this self-effluence aside. The artist is not conquered or overtaken by her own creation. The body re-emerges.
This is where I begin to agree with Oliviera: It is not about self-portraiture but authorship. She is able to be herself, another and neither. Uses herself as an object, and empty vessel, as she uses the horsehair, the blue ink, or stool from her studio. Materials manipulated to purse her formal and conceptual interrogation of the image. Not autobiographical because she is not herself in the images. “Her images usurp a tautological desire for meaning that the immediate and pseudo-transparent nature of photography seems to allow. She takes on a mask –without ever recurring to disguises or makeup – in order to be photographable.” If not intimacy with the woman then, it is intimacy of a different kind. A bodily intimacy. That of organs, and bodies, of discharge, and hair and blood and paint. One exhibition is titled “Inside Me”. Almeida swallows paint, weeps it, teases the line, is crossed by it. She literally and poetically inhabits it. And yet for all this bodily physicality, we are never wholly confronted by the mess of it. The photograph stands always between us and her actual body. As does the paint, as does the lines of horsehair. In the photograph, her body is transformed into light, chemicals and paper. Clean and crisp, the least bodily representation of reality of all. Even the mess of chemicals it takes to produce a photograph are long out of sight. Through turning herself into a photo- she is the exact opposite of body art, of embodying the painting, she flattens herself out, intertwines herself with the flatness of the work; by turning herself into exposed light on a page, she is denying her body. Even though at first she seems to being the tradition of feminist body artists Hannah Wilke or Francesca woodman or Eva Mendez, she is actually the opposite, even when she abandons the horsehair and the blue paint-her body is the mass molded by the artist. The photograph pretends to document an action: be that the traversing of a canvas, promenading through a garden or eating pigment. Yet she refutes an association between her work and performance, preferring the concept of theatricality. She prepares with drawings, not rehearsals. Drawings create a cartography of the work; attest to the artificiality of each gesture. There is no “action” no before or after. The gesture is formulated, it doesn’t occur in reality (the falsity of photographs, suggesting or promising factual evidence that doesn’t exist) no improvisation or randomness. No particular audience, just the camera and the photographer.
All of this brings me a little closer to the questions then that Almeida poses. I feel I know a little bit more about what she is not. But despite all my wrestling with Oliviera’s interrogation of her work, and the scant biographical details provided by Lack, I still don’t feel satisfied. I haven’t gotten to the heart of this artist yet, or even to have begun to chip the surface of her stunning body of work. My search is frustrated for today. Until I have access to some decent university libraries (and this elicits my old thoughts about universities as modern day churches, the institutions that guard the knowledge for a very high price) or until I learn French, I will have to make do with just looking at the images, and trying to unravel the knots of questions on my own.
Helena ALMEIDA: Inside Me, Kettle’s Yard, 2009
Artist of the week 59: Helena Almeida guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 7 October 2009 13.05 EDT