Brazilian artist Ana Elisa Egreja was featured in Through the Looking Glass, an exhibition curated by ARTUNER at Palazzo Capris, Turin during Torino Art Week in November 2017. The exhibition is also viewable online on artuner.com.
Alisei Apollonio: The artworks presented by you in Turin have never been exhibited before, however they are part of an ongoing series entitled Jacarezinho92, where you staged awesome scenes in your grandparents’ home – introducing animals, lighting, fruit, vegetation and water in the domestic environment – photographed them, and then painted from the photograph. I find it extremely fascinating that you picked a house from your childhood to recreate these fantastic scenarios. Do you find memory to be an important component of your work?
Ana Elisa Egreja: Yes, it is one of the most important components. It interests me a lot that, when activating my memories, I can achieve similar memories as other people, as if in a collective unconscious. Some objects within a scene have the power to “travel in time”, and it’s not incidental that I chose to include these kinds of objects within my compositions.
In the case of my grandparents’ house, it’s curious that despite going there a lot as a child, my most potent experience of the place came after my grandparents died, when I occupied a part of the house as my studio 10 years ago. In these latter years, I was able to see, with my own eyes, the deterioration of the house: the cracks and infiltrations on the walls; the invading insects; the transformation of a complete, furnished house into an abandoned one. Additionally, the house was becoming a storage place for things that my relatives didn’t want anymore, which made the decoration almost creepy. The experience of working there had a great influence on my work. Around 2011, I painted countless abandoned houses without even realizing that the perfect subject for such works was right under my nose.
At that time, the composition of my paintings came from collages that I made. My starting point was any picture of an abandoned house, and then I tried to recount, or invent its history through its elements: the decoration or objects within the scene. In Jacarezinho, 92 the concept wasn’t different, but my relationship with the work was totally new due to my familiarity with the house. The act of staging the scene really made me reflect on my memories of the house. It also encouraged me to imagine what life had been like in the house from the time it was built, in the heyday of Brazilian modernism, until today. So, in the process of turning memories into images, some of those memories became mixed together with fantasies and assumptions to create parallel worlds.
I feel a distinct sentiment of awe when looking at your works – in a way that does not happen in adult life very often. There is a feeling of playfulness, coupled with the marvel of seeing the world through a different lens for the first time. It makes me think of a second childhood of sorts. Where do you find inspiration for these scenes?
It’s true… Adult life usually lacks much of the capacity to imagine and to see beyond the concrete which are qualities integral to childhood. I think that for reasons I haven’t discovered yet, these fanciful subjects remained in my adult life. Actually, this feeling of playfulness, as you said, was even more absurd at the beginning of my career, when I depicted anthropomorphic animals in completely invented spaces. At that time nothing was real, I used to research images of houses, animals, furniture, and tiles from different countries and cultures and then I mixed them all together in virtual compositions before painting. Over the years, I’ve become more demanding in terms of both my painterly technique and the props I include. Sometimes I choose an object simply to add a particular colour to the composition, like when I added pharmacy and beauty products in the bathroom, that have been chosen by virtue of their Brazilian colours, blue, yellow and green. But sometimes, I want objects with a symbolic meaning so they can serve a historical or narrative function, like when I incorporated the pyramid which was a classic place of meditation in the 70’s.
I often hear the word nostalgia from people who look at my work, and I think it comes from this mix: my art inspires nostalgia by being kitsch and familiar and nonsense at the same time…
About inspiration, I remember that in the book Post-production, Nicolas Bourriaud said that contemporary art (unlike Modernism, which is founded upon overcoming all that which has come before) regards art history as a toolbox to be reused and reordered. That’s how I feel, so my inspiration comes, first of all, from extensive research into patterns, painting, decoration and architecture. But my work is also the result of a large universe of random references that I find in literature, on the internet, on trips, in the movies, in the city, in high and low culture.
In your paintings, it often looks like nature has finally reclaimed spaces and buildings built by men. There aren’t any humans visible in your works, however the footprint of their passage is everywhere: we know they have existed, but it appears they have now vanished into thin air. Are considerations about the environment an integral part of your work, or are they just coincidental?
I do care about the environment, but in my work I am more interested in the general idea of invasion. Sometimes it’s water and plants which invade my houses, sometimes animals. I’m interested in creating images that translate my estrangement into things. This comes from my personal history but also from my experience of living in Sao Paulo, a city that is almost a collage of mixed cultures, with pixos* anywhere you look, where the new overlaps with the old, without any care or concern for the past. I like and am inspired by this visual pollution. Perhaps, the very idea of apocalypse behind almost everything I paint is due to this. Sometimes this is quite potent and literal, like when I created a puddle inside the house I was painting. Sometimes it’s more subtle, as in my image of a mirror which reflects no viewer or camera. The truth is, no matter how apparently inoffensive a scene is, there is always some strangeness to be found.
Also, I usually work by appropriating images to create new meanings, so the footprints that you mentioned, such as personal objects left after someone’s moved house, the stickers on windows or the marks of a painting that was hung on the same wall for years: they are just the clues which allow me to tell the history of these old houses.
*Pixo is the name given to graffiti in the Southeastern metropolises of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. It consists of tagging done in a distinctive, cryptic style, mainly on walls and vacant buildings. Many pichadores (pichação painters) compete to paint in high and inaccessible places, using such techniques as free climbing and abseiling to reach the locations. Pichação is mostly condemned both by society and the government, as it is in fact a crime. However, there is a difference between pichação and graffiti in Brazil, as graffiti is considered a form of art (as long as the property’s owner agrees with having the wall graffitied), and pichação is not, often including rude and sexual themes. See for instance my painting “Closet”.
As it has already been pointed out, the process through which you created these works is more akin to that of a film director: you actually staged the scenes portrayed in your paintings, then photographed them and worked from the documentation. The settings are so extraordinary that one would assume you painted them from your imagination, no one would think those scenes actually existed in real life at one point. This dedication to recreating an atmosphere makes me think of Italian film director Luchino Visconti, who, when shooting The Leopard, insisted that all the chests and cupboards be filled fresh linen and objects, at they would be in real life, even if such objects were not going to be seen in the movie. Why did you feel it was important to actually create these environments in reality?
Thank you for the comparison! I really like that movie, and Death in Venice, because Visconti is a very plastic director. I identify with his care for tiny details.
As I said, for almost 10 years I’ve been painting complex compositions filled with elements which are emphasized by the effects of light, reflection and my careful reproduction of materials and textures. But everything changed in 2016, when I did a series of still-lifes through ‘fantasy glasses’ – glasses that distort an image so that it appears hammered and corrugated. That was actually the first time I photographed the whole scene that I would paint. But, of course, the assemblages were more modest in terms of scale and sizes of the objects (small-scale compositions of products, fruits, and diverse objects which resulted in paintings that never exceeded 50 x 60 cm). Whereas now, working with an architectural scale (producing different scenarios taking over the whole house, they have reached much bigger dimensions – the biggest painting I’ve ever done is 2,5 x 4 m).
So, in Jacarezinho, 92, I staged these temporary installations, producing scenes with all the furniture, coverings, objects, plants and animals that I wanted to have in the painting, like a film director would. First I made sketches to develop the story and to attempt to access the memories of that house – my grandparents’ house – as I mentioned above. The question was: can I replicate, in the real world, the fantastic worlds that I’ve painted before? Then I asked for a film producer to help me to turn all these ramblings into reality. We started to flood the dining room to create a 4 x 5 meter mirror of water beneath the old curtains. Then, we filled the pool with aquatic plants and ground plants; we rented the animals that would be let loose in the house; we searched for props; we chose the precise time of the day at which to shoot, just like art directors do in cinema. Finally, I started to paint. I’ve been painting this series for over a year, spending almost 3 months per painting and working on even 2 or 3 canvases simultaneously. The process was very challenging because the painting has its own logic; it challenges all the rules. I worked almost obsessively to reproduce the immense amount of texture and movement in the scenes. That’s what really motivates me, so I already have plans to do it all again!
The exhibition Through the Looking Glass reflects on the theme of Magical Realism, taking the 20th century artistic movement as a cue for exploring certain tendencies in contemporary art. Have you read any of the canonical works of Magical Realism such as One Hundred Years of Solitude? (if yes) What do you think about them?
It’s curious that magic realism has a lot of influence in many Latin American countries, but not Brazil. I believe this is due to our colonization. The Spanish have “Don Quixote”, which influences Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as well as Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Gabriel is a Colombian, Borges and Cortázar are Argentines, and there are many other fantastic authors that I love in Peru, Uruguay etc. But Brazil is quite an isolated country in South America and, although we have many points in common with the rest of the continent (including the post-dictatorship colonization – and some critics argue that magical realism is precisely a form of reaction to dictatorship), there are many cultural differences.
Anyway, I have read it and I really liked it! The book is a maze: you get lost in family history. But what struck me, as an extremely visual person, are the moments at which metaphors become very strong imagery. Like the 4-year rain in Macondo, the city in which the story takes place. Marquez writes: “The atmosphere was so wet that the fish could enter through the doors and out the windows, sailing in the air of the rooms”. I share this interest in showing the unreal or strange as something ordinary; this perception of time as cyclical rather than linear; and, of course, this fantastical aesthetic. In my case, I create a descriptive narrative from realistic painting.
Your large-scale canvases portray domestic scenes that are almost life-like in size. Paired with your hyperrealist style, the viewer really feels transported into the works. Moreover, with having actually created the scenes you depict, you have blurred the boundaries between ‘fantasy’ and ‘reality’ even further. Is it important for you that the world of your paintings merges with the room where the beholder stands?
Yes, I used the scale precisely to cause this sensation of entering into the painting. And, obviously, another important factor for this sensation is the fact that painting is realistic. But I was thinking about the term, and I decided that my paintings are not Hyperrealist because they are not flat. Instead, to paint a carpet, say, I usually apply a lot of paint to reproduce its texture. I don’t want to be more real them than photo is, like Chuck Close for example. I worry about the fidelity of the image, of course, but only within the limits of oil paint’s materiality. My painting is full of reliefs to highlight details – a technique I learned by observing Rembrandt.
The painting which developed in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century has always been my greatest reference point, both technically (ie. the very virtuous way of painting) and thematically (ie. the emphasis of domestic scenes). Genre painting (the interior still-life) has permeated my work since college. But my content is always changing. Today I find myself researching not only old master’s, but contemporary photographers who reflect my thoughts, such as Jeff Wall, Louise Lower, Thomas Ruff, Philip Lorca diCorsia, etc.
The series I produced for ‘Through the Looking Glass’ in Turin raised two central conceptual questions. The first concerns the staging within painting, which made me think of the term ‘post-truth’. Staging compositions and allegories is part of the history of painting, of course. But the fact that I have built these whole scenarios and then painted them realistically, blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction and leaves the viewer to determine the ‘truth’ of the image. I think this is a fairly common situation in the contemporary world: can we really rely on advertising, social networks, the images of models in magazines? On these forums, almost nothing is true; and I don’t know how much we care about it.
Another issue is space-time. When I worked with virtual collages (placing Cuban tiles in a house with classical European architecture, for example, or a Frank Lloyd stained glass window with a landscape of Fuji Mount), I was trying to find a utopian place. It was a matter of establishing a space “without geography” by compiling fantastical content. Today the house has an address – 92, Jacarezinho Street. But the work of building light, and the mixture of some symbolic objects and archetypes from specific decades in which this house has existed (50s to the present), have turned me to the issue of time. I am now interested in how these paintings, which are full of nostalgic memories and other such banalities, confuse the notion of time. They may suspend or flatten it, which is, for me, the most magical characteristic of magic realism.