An unreatable event about to happen again
by Catarina Rosendo
paisagens de (man)dar (landscapes to be sent): during a summer holiday in Vila Nova de Milfontes, in 1980, with no camera to hand, Carlos Nogueira bought dozens, if not hundreds, of repeated postcards. He cut them into strips, focusing on skies, seas, cornfields, shrubs, etc., which he used to make collages in the same format as the original postcards, overlapping equal strips in successive layers. Some of these collages were sent to friends as a souvenir of his time spent on the Alentejo coast. They responded with drawings, poems and assemblages which he still has with him today. He also kept photocopies of the backs of the sent postcards, with their respective content and recipients.
Some months later, the artist participated in the collective exhibition “A caixa” (The box), organised by the Cooperativa Diferença, in which he presented two small boxes (of which only the project remains), one open, containing a collage postcard, formed by four horizontal strips of torn, white paper and lined with transparent plastic, bearing the erased inscription “o meu / o seu” (mine / yours); the other, closed, concealing a paisagem de (man)dar, with skies and clouds, lined in the same transparent plastic, with the words “o céu” (the sky), written in pen.
Meanwhile, during the winter of 1980-1981, Carlos Nogueira transformed some of the postcards on which he was less keen. He covered them in a black and white matte, grainy oil pastel, and followed the veins of the horizontal or vertical cuts of the initial collages while leaving them visible. He then paired them, playing with the black-horizontal/white-vertical oppositions. Once again, several of these untitled (manipulated landscapes to be sent) postcards were given as souvenirs and only two pairs were kept by the artist himself.
Later on in 1981, one of the postcards was included in conjunto de mesa e pintura a condizer e outros fragmentos de um discurso sobre o comum e o quotidiano (ou a primeira fruta com as primeiras chuvas) [matching table and painting and other fragments of a discourse on the common and quotidian (or the first fruit with the first rains)], an installation/performance presented in the Centro Nacional de Cultura. This piece staged two distinct events. In one room, a festive atmosphere was brewing around a table laid with cherries and other foods allusive to this Spring fruit being offered to the visitors. In a second adjoining room, an equally laid but expectant table was presented, devoid of food and guests. On a plate, a paisagem de (man)dar, composed of layers of seas, featuring the pressed words “mar / a mar”(1) (sea / to love) and again lined in transparent plastic, displaying the trace of a narrative on the back, a handwritten and erased inscription of which only the words “saí. não volto” (I have left. not coming back) are decipherable.
Finally, in 1983, the paisagens de (man)dar were exhibited in the Sociedade Nacional de Belas-Artes, marking out a horizon along the walls of the room. The backs of the postcards were sequentially numbered by Carlos Nogueira, in the order by which they were exhibited. He identified them as “working proofs”, per run of three, and, as he continued to give these postcards as souvenirs, wrote on them the name of the person to whom they were addressed.
Over the course of time, other pieces were conceived and accomplished while the register of these gifts, as also the organisational logic of the postcards, was lost. Nowadays, the careful annotations of his exhibitor and order and his technical status no longer bear meaning, remaining purely as traces of a precision the coherence of which has become what the paisagens de (man)dar represent today: a set of postcard collages, with no defined location or quantity, weaving an invisible web across an uncertain number of the artist’s friends, his studio in which some are still kept, the (few) exhibitions in which they were displayed, the works in which they were integrated and the pieces that started out as paisagens de (man)dar but went on to become something else.
The landscape, repetition, construction, gesture of giving, performative action, common materials, the writing, drawing, sculpture, accumulation, transformation, appropriation and depuration are some of the aspects and procedures that help to define the work of Carlos Nogueira. His accomplishments over more than forty years possess a fundamental characteristic which are only unveiled by the perspective created by the organisation of an anthological exhibition (such as that presented here): the introduction of diverse elaboration mechanisms which intentionally hinder the comprehension of the physical and temporal limits of his works. Some elements travel from one work to another, are altered so as to better adapt to a new piece, change title to accompany the physical transformations which bestow new attributes upon them, disappear due to their fragility, are discarded in the street or given away without trace, thus compromising their posterior legibility and even their entire reconstitution. There are also other elements (sometimes the same) that resist precise dating, not simply by virtue of never having been dated or because the recurrence of processes and ideas escapes the imposition of a chronology (although approximate), but also since whenever they were, their form, meaning and status have since changed over the passing of years. Therefore, much of the work of Carlos Nogueira lives on in dispersion and disappearance.
Two further considerations are worth noting, which are not as detached from the work itself as they may seem at first glance. Firstly, the rhythm of his exhibitions which has brought visibility to his work: with the exception of cases when some performances, sculptures or drawings re-appear in public (almost always in the context of collective shows), it is more common for his works to be presented only once, in an individual exhibition, and then returned to the studio where they are stored or await new interventions. The visibility criterion is not even the most appropriate in terms of familiarity and appreciation of some of his work, as is the case in a number of performative actions played out in anonymous contexts outside the artistic institution, of which only the project-drawing remains, a kind of descriptive memory or prior study which cannot be compared to the final result, due to an absence of documentation, whether in film, photograph or text [such as in se eu pudesse dava-te um piano . ação por correio (if i could, i would give you a piano . mail action), 1980]. Secondly, it is a recurring practice for Carlos Nogueira to create a single piece of work for a specific exhibition. It is generally always split into several parts to include drawings, sculptures and actions (and, to a certain extent, this is also the case with the catalogue, which he has always designed himself), whose titles are mingled with that of the exhibition. All in all, each exhibition functions as a single unit that is strictly dependent on its constituting parts and hosting space. The relevance of the logics by which they are installed, organised and oriented is as extensive as it is unique, for on no other occasion or in any other place have they ever been staged again. It is as if the act of repetition, which is party to much of the work of Carlos Nogueira, were unable to find a parallel in the visibility of his art, since it acquires the quality of an unrepeatable event. Furthermore, within the artistic panorama, the inclusion of his work has been conducted somewhat discreetly (not only in view of the artist’s concern with selecting the spaces for his exhibitions, but also owing to his absence from many of the most important collective shows) and the critical reception of his exhibitions has not always been sufficiently attentive to their content. We are facing a body of work which, besides its permanent state of dispersion and disappearance, has also acquired a considerable dose of institutional invisibility.
All these issues were present in the approach to this show and, step by step, determined the structure of its organisation. This is the first anthological exhibition in the artist’s career, and only significant and more challenging in so far as it encourages, on the one hand, a shift from the practice of displaying a piece of work “once, at a given time”; on the other, the need to protect the physical integrity of past works which, along the same lines, would be irremediably transformed so as to justify themselves in such new exhibitory circumstances; finally, the presence of an outside vision (ours) of his work which, given such media neglect, has been gradually constructed in total freedom, albeit in relative isolation. Indeed, however paradoxical it may seem, although this anthological exhibition has emerged somewhat late in the artist’s career, the work itself suggests a number of motives for why a broad perspective of his work is, to a certain extent, a distortion of its productive conditions. Therefore, while we seek to introduce the “clarity” (legibility) required to make the artist’s trajectory more distinct, we also set out to accompany the desire for “clarity” (transparency) which has always oriented his work – indeed, no reflection on a piece of work can be detached so far as to disfigure it.
In this sense, and in light of an artistic practice that revolves around a cohesive set of procedures and ideas which, through successive developments and transformations, come to merge with the places in which they are displayed and with the body of work that lies behind, the exhibition unfolds in several parts: i) performance, ii) sculpture, iii) estudos de riscado para camisa sem bolsos (stripe studies for a pocketless shirt); iv) paisagens de (man)dar; v) project-drawings; vi) slides and photographs; vii) “drawings” and other objects.
Performance and sculpture mark the poles between which the work of Carlos Nogueira is developed. The initial performance practice stretches up to the early 80s and is particularly marked by the installations/performances, street actions and mailings of the late 70s. His sculptures began to emerge more significantly as of 1992 [with entre duas águas (between two waters), presented in Évora], and have remained present up to the current moment, almost always accompanied by what the artist refers to as “drawings”: small three-dimensional objects, made of iron and wood, which are hung from the wall to be seen at eye level. The drawings from the series estudos de riscado para camisa sem bolsos (initiated in 1979 with no fixed date for completion) and the paisagens de (man)dar collages (1980-1981) are prime examples of the link between two apparently so different ways of working as the performances of the early days and the more recent sculptures. Both display much of the research (on materials, techniques and the conceptual concerns) which, stemming from the performative actions, found motives for their continuation and development in the constructive gestures present in the sculptures and “drawings”.
The group of project-drawings, slides and photographs present a set of mostly unprecedented materials. They have played an auxiliary role in the work processes of Carlos Nogueira, frequently becoming a part of specific works and, in this very quality, a drawing or photograph, here and there, has been reproduced to appear in the catalogues of his individual shows. They exhibit research that goes far beyond a mere annotation of ideas and shapes and, in the case of the drawings, bear the particularity of convening a wide range of resources and intersecting writing and image, while the black and white slides and photographs show how capturing views of the countryside (less than landscapes) is not about finding the correct framework or the perfect light conditions.
Finally, the “drawings” and objects set displays a research line based on small formats (always present in the artist’s studio practice), on a broad range of objects, designed to be hung on walls, and on the various “drawings” which are independent of his sculptural work. It is perhaps in the succession of these works, with its impossible chronology, that one better understands the continuities and deviations with which Carlos Nogueira has come to question notions such as landscape, construction, house or inhabiting. It is also the various declinations of the idea of drawing – expanded in series (more than existing in their own right for their expressive individuality) and based on the most varied forms of support and materials, from the most trivial to the most noble – that best reveal the directions of the work of Carlos Nogueira.
Hence the absence of temporal limits in the works selected for this exhibition, for fear of establishing artificial barriers in a career which, strictly speaking, does not have any. Beyond the moment, in his work, when preference was given to performance and the shift towards sculpture became more specific, drawing always remained constant. Indeed, it is this permanence in the ways of reflecting and questioning artistic practice that explains the intermediary stage when the abandonment of performative actions slowly but surely paved the way, through the mediation of drawing, painting and small objects, for the constructive vocation of his approach to sculpture. Perhaps the fact that this gap, which in general terms corresponds to the 80s, is not random, and the absence of a striking production in his work, such as the preceding and following years, may be explained by a certain dissonance with the most visible aspects of the spirit of the time. In truth, the balance between a fascination for small perceptions and a discipline of analytical detachment, constant throughout the entire works of the artist, diverges from the impulsiveness and ample gestures which characterise most of the expressions geared towards sculpture and painting traditional support materials. By the same token, his interest in the perennial nature of things (of objects and spaces), and even the discreet, vibrant quality detectable in his artistic actions remain somewhat detached from the arsenal of quotations, allegories and derisions of the “novelty of tradition”.
Even so, one of the artist’s most visible moments was, precisely, during this decade, his participation in the Portuguese representation at the Venice Biennale (in 1986, under the commission of José Luís Porfírio), and his work during these years also inflected towards painting, as was the general trend over the period, which led to the abandonment of the most characteristic conceptual and performative practices of the previous decade. In his case, however, his painting retained little of the procedures and iconographies of the period, remaining faithful to a plastic discourse given to intuition and emphasising (often to the extreme) the patient work of an observation which unfolds, on the one hand, in the recovery of abandoned objects and snapshots of relatively indistinct themes (suburbs, constructions in ruins, remaining scraps of human presence); on the other hand, in the exploration of the tiniest variations in the behaviour of the materials he uses (the effect of a fold on a sheet of paper, the marks of degradation on a recovered object); and finally, in the ways of bestowing a visible and imaginative shape upon the perceived.
These were the years that prolonged previously explored procedures, such as a development in parts or series (almost always two or more elements per work, as was the case in estudos de riscado...), the passage of time [previously drafted in the nightfalls over the sea or river in para um levantamento da paisagem (for a mapping of landscape), 1975] or the confrontation of opposites [the afore-mentioned untitled, 1980-1981, or mar e terra (sea and land), 1970-1975]. In addition to these permanencies, Carlos Nogueira imprints a depuration on his research leading to the gradual abandonment of enunciation devices which are more directly attached to para-narrative or figural structures [as nuvens são como as nuvens / do céu (clouds are like the clouds / from the sky) 1983-1984] and increasingly and more intensely adopts the lengthy practice of transforming initial perceptions into ideas and concepts which, in the end, are retained in his work solely by means of the technical conditions of their execution [desenho de céu (drawing of sky), undated; desenho de vento (drawing of wind), 1990]. Over these years, his chromatic palette settled into cold shades (blues, greys, blacks and whites), the impasto emerging as a specific need to give body to something [like the clouds in o céu (I-VI) [the sky (I-VI)], 1983] and his painting becoming decidedly objectual [paisagem(landscape), 1983; mar (fragmento) (sea (fragment), 1985]. The relish for handling materials which led Carlos Nogueira to explore and invent painting techniques, was always tempered by the fact that, for him, neither is the image resolved on the picture plane nor a painting a question of representation. It is, rather, the creation of places: places across which the wind passes, places beaten by the sea or swept by the clouds and where the artist gradually introduces forms of legibility that bestow a human presence upon them. Complementary but autonomous notions such as inside/outside, vertical/horizontal, near/far, bottom/surface, visible/invisible, dark/bright, heavy/light, permanence/ephemeral or day/night, emerge as measurement values of an inhabited space that his sculpture will come to materialize in later years, also revealing how the latter is not reduced to the mere shaping of forms but, indeed, implies the act of making anthropological and tectonic relations visible.
Let us consider more closely some regular characteristics of the artist’s work which certify the constancy of his plastic and conceptual universe, regardless of the various forms (physical or immaterial) it has adopted over time. For instance, the gesture of giving, inseparable from a performative action which was explored by the artist in the early years, and frequently accompanied by the active presence of his own body and a direct link with the public [os dias cinzentos / /lápis de pintar os dias cinzentos (grey days / pencil to paint grey days), 1979; a Camões e a ti (to Camões and you), 1980], sometimes preparing forms of interaction between his work and the spectators/participants [99 pombas de brincar para outros tantos usadores (99 wooden toy pigeons for an equal number of users), 1973; conjunto de mesa e pintura...], and sometimes excusing the spectator and the expository context, by anonymously posting and distributing objects he had created himself to unknown recipients [se eu pudesse dava-te um piano, 1980; gosto muito de ti . ação de rua (i like you so much . street action), 1980] in public spaces.
There is a common intention behind all these performances and actions whereby the making (labelling coloured pencils, making paper flowers, intervening plastically in traditional toys, laying the table, constructing bamboo flutes and walking around the city, respectively) culminates in a gift which triggers the circulation of small objects and food, symbols of a deliberate physical and authorial expropriation of the notion of work of art. Proof of such is the unknown whereabouts of the vast majority of objects given, sent or abandoned, the fact that many of the recipients are unknown to Carlos Nogueira and the absence, in the case of street and post actions, of any indication, in the received or found materials, as to the artistic context of its production. The materials themselves that bear witness to these performances are of current use and production, often a part of traditional Portuguese culture: school colouring pencils, flowers made from café napkins, wooden toys bought at fairs, china, etc. The objects are selected from those that are part of daily life, reinforcing a dilution of their authorship and reification, paving the way so that they may be employed experimentally through handling, consumption and entertainment purposes as an activation of an event which, far from belonging to the sphere of the exceptional, is directly involved with the gestures and actions of each individual’s daily life. The drawings and paintings around elements of nature, more characteristic of the 80s, or the sculptures he began to make in the early 90s are only understandable in view of the call for this type of perception which involves the activation of the common as an event. In the midst of his initial performances, drawings, paintings and sculptural constructions, Carlos Nogueira gradually introduced a depuration of the resources, images and narratives of his work, establishing a more subtle work-spectator relationship and, also, depending largely on the surrounding space in a more sensitive way.
This leads us to another aspect: the presence of the landscape as an exemplary environment of a reality measured by the body, clarified through a haptic dimension, and most interesting in terms of its movement and constant flow. The wind, clouds and sea are clear in their vocation towards a permanent transience and change which preserves their essential nature, as is the case in works such as para um levantamento da paisagem: os dias cinzentos (for a mapping of landscape: grey days) (1977), paisagem com vento (windswept landscape) (1983) or o céu (I-VI) (1983). Elements, such as the afore-mentioned, and also osiers, trees, skies and horizons are part of the natural images explored in the work of Carlos Nogueira. Even today, twenty years after the abandonment of the (more or less) figurative references of these elements and their replacement by sculpture with no immediate referent, they are still present, whether mediated by the choice of materials that include them by reflection [a parar a luz (stopping the light), 2002], whether by their presence in a condition exterior to the work itself, when placed in garden environments [o mar, a pedra e outros labirintos (sea, stone and other labyrinths), 1996, Brasília], or even in the close attention to the previous conditions of where they are installed (beyond the very edge of the earth, 1999, Economist Plaza, London).
Taken together, repetition and overlapping form another procedure dear to the artist’s production. The paisagens de (man)dar, as we have seen, are proof of this, but also, for example, para um levantamento da paisagem: os dias cinzentos (1977), the set of drawings that accompany the homonomous installation/performance, with its pencilled and inked parallel lines on grey-blue backgrounds, or estudos de riscado para camisa sem bolsos (1979-). More recently, the repetition of materials and their methodical accumulation have also marked his sculptures. In the case of the afore-mentioned drawings, Carlos Nogueira wields the small scale with whatever is to hand. In sculpture, it is by working with the human scale and drawing on specialised knowledge to accomplish such work. In both situations, it is a gesture that is repeated hundreds (thousands) of times in the successive layers that will shape a whole. In sculpture, the materials used are from industrial production (iron, stone, glass) and the resulting constructive dimension is not random: it enables
a perception of the duration of making, it exposes, without the slightest illusion, the process and resources used, and resorts to nothing less than the required technical conditions to guarantee that the walls of his sculptures do not shift half a centimetre from that which was planned, nor besmirch over the period of the installation in situ. It is as if the constructive appearance of the artist’s sculptures only acquires the right to exist as a result of the accuracy in their making.
The drawings of os dias cinzentos and estudos de riscado share another characteristic with the sculptures, also stemming from repetition and overlapping. In the former, they point to small variations which, in os dias cinzentos, are obtained by the different shades used in the background of the drawings and by disordered streak accumulations, whereby such similarities with the writing erasures evoke the idea of an undecipherable text. In the latter, the various combinations of graphite, colour pencil and pens used in the successive erasures, not only introduce (almost imperceptible) differences in the drawings, but also establish them as persistent experiments which highlight the “study” component of the title. As for the sculptures, during the construction process (and even after its completion), it is the artist himself who introduces small variations to the industrially produced mosaics he uses, clipping them here and there with dry chisel blows. So, the repetition gives rise to tenuous, but visible differences, and these small details are what interest the artist. As if to remind one that, although industrial materials are used, his works are accomplished manually and his gestures are intimately implied therein.
It is not only here that we verify the presence of repetition. Accompanied by overlapping or succession, it extends over the entire work of Carlos Nogueira, from the paper flowers in a Camões e a ti, to the “river” in entre duas águas (1992) and even to the most recent construção (construction) (2008). One of the most subtle presences of this layered repetition may be encountered in the several “drawings” that accompany the sculptures and are constructed, in their own means, around formal and conceptual aspects that are implicit in them, making them vary and diverge from the same gestures connected to repetition and accumulation. The artist deposits successive layers of acrylic paint on an earlier prepared rectangular structure in iron and wood, waiting for the previous one to dry before applying a new one. The work is slow and, in addition to the paint, other materials are introduced such as small pieces of torn paper, grains, graphite powder, mixtures of oils and varnishes, colours which lay submerged below other colours, etc. It is easy to create a mental picture of the various strata that compose each of these “drawings”, since there is always a roughness that the last layers do not flatten, a light tinge that the final applications of a different colour paint do not completely cover, and the edges which, with close attention, reveal many of the stages through which each piece of work has passed. It is this type of process that is implicit in the changes common to paisagens de (man)dar and estudos de riscado para camisas sem bolsos, where successive plastic interventions and the mounting of paper on structures like those of the «drawings», accomplished over a prolonged period of time, led to their transformation into the wall objects that Carlos Nogueira calls “drawings”.
A final aspect worth mentioning, without exhausting all those suggested by his work, is the importance of the word and the function possessed by writing in the double power of the signified and signifier. Scattered throughout most of his work accomplished on paper, several textual enunciations serve a number of purposes: they describe, to varying degrees, performances, street and post actions, some of which are known today only through their projects (it is worth noting how gosto muito de ti is linked to a particular, real event, of the annual season cycle, the Spring equinox); they are present along with drawings and cuttings through broken and erased sentences to explore illegibility as an irreducible fact of the images that accompany them [o corpo (the body), from the late 70s]; they also emerge on the project-drawing sheets, representing a search for the directions and properties (of places, objects or gestures) the artist wishes to further in a given work; and, at the extreme, they are transformed into poems that are part of works such as a noite e branco (in night and white) (2000) and a ver (to see) (2002).
Beyond these writing functions, inherent to the artist’s work process, a plastic is implicit in the use of the word and textual enunciation: they sometimes appear in manuscript (in his own, or another’s handwriting), are sometimes typed and integrated in the most varied materials, such as old postcards, photocopies of pages from books and reading sheets, stuck or stapled to the sheet of paper and subject to erasures, cuttings or corrections which obliterate or hide the words, or duplicated through photocopy and then subject to small changes. All these elements and processes are distributed on the sheet of paper in close graphic dependency on themselves and the accompanying images. The language itself is a mouldable material, since it gives rise to invented terms (the “users” of the 99 pombas de brincar...(2)), the opening of the words to other meanings [“com a luz que ainda havia fez-lhe chão” (with the remaining light, a floor was made), construção para lugar nenhum (construction for nowhere) 2001-2003], the overlapping of various opposites in a single expression [a noite e branco (in night and white), 2000], or the deregulation of the syntactic agreement of words [longe e brilha (far and shines), 2002]. By corrupting the grammar and creating new uses and forms of wording and naming things and perceptions, the artist, once again, is trying to rescue the common from the trivial and indifferent setting into which it is constantly dragged by every day usage.
The short sentences, the small texts and poems that emerge in the collages, in the project-drawings of the actions and performances and in the rough sketches of ideas for the sculptures are, on the one hand, indicative of the power of the word in the plastic universe of Carlos Nogueira, while on the other, they point to a narrative dimension which has always participated in the constitution of his work and which, over time, became rarefied or omitted to occupy a peripheral space, such as the afore-mentioned sketches of his sculptures. The scope of the artist’s intervention is not and never has been one of pure visuality, even though the plight with which he seeks out the right shape for his works and their relationship with places may lead one to assume the contrary. The multiple meanings of the words frequently interfere and play a role in his work, and represent another channel through which one may understand how the growing abstraction of his works signifies an increasingly more profound anchorage to the ways of deciphering reality.
(1) The artist plays with the repetition of the words mar (the sea) and a mar [deliberate change of the definite article from masculine to femine (“o” to “a”), and added on to the noun so as to form the verb “amar”, “to love”]. This effect is lost in the English translation.
(2) Once again the artist plays with the verb usar (to use), inventing the noun usador (user), which only exists in the form of utilizador, stemming from the verb utilizar (to use).Translation by Sean Linney
Translated by Tania Gregg