Manfredo de Souzanetto: Landscape even if
Text: Guilherme Bueno
Manfredo de Souzanetto – LOCAL COLOR
Manfredo de Souzanetto’s current exhibition on view at the Galeria Bergamin, São Paulo, brings together a selection from the forty-year career of the artist from Minas Gerais who lives in Rio. Photos, paintings and sculptures cover his career, which began in Belo Horizonte, blossomed in Paris in the 1970s, and still continues strong and sturdy today. In it, two characteristic and often intertwined traits come through: a reflection on landscape and an exploration of the open possibilities for painting in the contemporary world.
Since the very beginning, landscape was a decisive factor for the artist: the series of “postcards” and a sticker he created called attention to the total disappearance of mountains at the hands of the mining industry. There was always a critical and nostalgic trace in the face of this brutal transformation of nature, but there was also a simultaneous digression on photography’s strange inherent situation (being a record of a memory and of the loss of something; that landscape only survives as a remnant in the image), a reflection on the work of an artist (as well as on the attitude of the viewer) who creates a space by literally projecting his imagination onto emptiness. And, concerning an “internal” problem of art, there was an attempt at establishing an effective (and emotional) relationship with a certain space whose poetry would not depend on a mere lyrical representation, that is, an interpretation inspired by a scene, such as, for comparison’s sake, was the basis of Romanticism a century and a half ago. Instead, it would depend on a physical incarnation, a (literal) embodiment of a motive permeated with such different interests such as a special light or a memorial-nostalgic feeling. After all, modern art has taught us that all this can fit into a landscape. Previous generations were occupied with trying to reinvent this relationship. In Manfredo’s case, what began with the postcards, whose photos were “retouched” with the line of that space that disappeared and became invisible, is that by using an object created basically as a souvenir, he makes us remember something that perhaps we hadn’t experienced or perceived, but whose existence, however, we never doubt. The presupposed impersonality of an object such as a postcard only reinforces the visual disconnect of wanting to see something that is no longer available and, despite its disappearance, continuing to believe in its existence. But, deep down, hasn’t landscape always alluded to this ever since it was promoted from a secondary genre to the frontline of modern painting? In the end, and we will notice this in Manfredo’s later paintings, what is conveyed is an invitation to viewers to shift and broaden their gaze. This becomes clear when the viewer does not see but glimpses and almost touches a landscape deposited in these paintings.
For Manfredo, painting (he has been a painter for decades) focuses on the possibility of the interchangeable and unlimited exploration of its terms, even when there is only a limited amount of variables. Out of the three generation of artists he has interacted with (from that of the 1970s to the youngest one, including that of the 1980s), he is perhaps the artist who has valued the most a certain craftsmanship in his work. The plasticity takes on a broader meaning when we consider that the conception of the form begins with the designing of the canvas stretcher. Painting goes beyond the digression of whether it flows or deposits itself on the surface (even if this is something that interests him, evident when we contemplate the clay-like consistency of some of his work). Regardless of the composition, it is the surface itself, being the underlying problem and conclusion of the painting, and not the passively accepted conventions, which provides the coordinates from which the solutions must be found. This is because even when the support is the most common rectangle, its inescapable opacity is activated as a space generator. If its shape allows any deviation from its usual format, the realization that painting begins with this material factor, to which other components are added, such as the pigment’s sensual and corporeal thickness.
The craftsmanship, therefore, is not present in the search for a marked and unique gesture, but in this “organic” relationship between the materials, obtaining from them specific results, and also thanks to the their potential strength (that is, they are neither docile nor inert and can take on different forms). Whether by decanting his own pigments when producing paints (the pigments are extracted from mineral soils, it is important to remember) or by designing the canvases’ stretcher bars, Manfredo broadens and rethinks the painting process beyond filling the surface with brushstrokes. He understands it is something whose spatiality, both virtual in the painted form and literal in regards to the object (the support), begins to be conceived in the making of the materials themselves. This becomes clear in the works made starting in the early 1980s where, due to the diverse shapes of the stretchers, his painting gains a progressive sculpture-like volume, where the composition of the canvas’ inner space and format tended to coincide, so as to make the former not be simply the “filling” of the latter. This is complemented by an almost “architectural” sense of color, whose restricted range renders explicit the support’s extension, giving it a particular adjustment to the wall since the painting adjusts to the wall’s continuity with its homogeneous stretching at the same time that it protrudes from it due to the canvas’ recesses and prismatic shape. Paying closer attention to this factor, we see that this emerges from a long-running debate in modern culture about monumentality: the dilemma between the desire for ambitiously scaled paintings and the maintenance of regularity; continuity and the adjustment of the homogeneous volumetry of the wall and the architectural prism. Manfredo’s wide frames point to this pondered adjustment between painting, its surface and the fair continuity of the place where it is hung (that is, the maintenance of the wall’s rhythm and simplicity). However, they explore the duality of this painting not to sublimate it, but to emphasize its historical (and tense) attitude of echoing and duplicating the parallelism between the picture and the wall. When, however, the picture’s surface is slashed open or eviscerated by a protruding edge or a revealing cut in the front of the canvas, the painting must recognize the complex pacts between it and the wall, breaking down any pretension of naturalness supposedly attributed to the wall. This is where the sculpture-like facet of these paintings is revealed.
It is in the wake of these small findings that links between those two already mentioned outstanding traits in Manfredo’s output emerge. Already in his early paintings, he made use of that character inherent to the image’s dynamics. As stated before, an image’s emblematic factor is that it is a residue of something that is no longer visible. In the same way, the artist built in these early works an “incidental painting”; the subtle and indelible layers of color in front of us are actually the paint leaking from the back of the canvas. The painting is a result of the paint’s saturation. On the other hand, the compact color of his subsequent works – which continues even today – reestablishes the connection with landscape. The decanted pigment holds within itself an instigating condition: if it refers to something that perhaps no longer exists (a mountain, to use a forced but not casual example), it is because that same thing has metamorphosed through the pigment’s body-ashes into another entity, that is, the pigment’s body is also the ashes of the landscape. It is and it is not the flesh of a lost landscape. The landscape is within (if it is not) the pigment and color. There is, for example, that famous story about Chopin always carrying with him a silver box containing soil from Poland. It was good to always have something special at hand, literally a piece of memory. In this aspect, Manfredo is no different: the landscape does not need to be figurative because it and all the feelings involved are there, germinated in the pigment. It is, therefore, more than a landscape painting; it is a painting with a landscape, a painting of the landscape, since it is made not only from the earth, but from the feeling of the earth.