Carmela Gross – Heads and Mouth of Hell

Robert Rauschenberg, Express, Oil, serigraphy and collage on canvas, 184,2 x 305,2 cm, 1963


Comment on two installations by the artist

“An anonymous crowd terrorizes one of the walls of the Vermelho gallery, in São Paulo. In the 226 (actually, there are 256) collages by Carmela Gross, irregular and rough cuts form eyes and mouths in dark spots, which become almost charred faces, in permanent agony”.

Carmela Gross, CABEÇAS, Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, 2021.

This is the paragraph that opens the article by Carolina Moraes, on the first page of Ilustrada – Folha de São Paulo, September 17, 2021. It is rare for a newspaper article to achieve a masterful synthesis of a work of art in two sentences. We know that the world we live in – Brazil, in particular – leads artists to allow themselves to be dominated by politics. This is where the major artists are distinguished from the minor ones. When the poetic element is subjected to the political, art regresses, it is lowered and this has happened frequently, not only here, but in the world.

With art dominated, the pamphlet and the vulgate take over the territory of the work with anemic results that will be confused with what they intend to oppose: the advertising message vulgarized by late capitalism and accelerated on the small portable screens of cell phones and tablets that juggle in a finely programmed way the visual consumption of young people from the most diverse social classes. In works of art, it is necessary to demand poetic reflection against the immediate communication typical of advertising: these works have to be thought poetically to increase the strength of their programs. If this is not the case, what remains is pamphleteer garbage to be thrown away after demonstrations, or, at most, become terrorist chic – current versions of radical chic from the 1970s – on the walls of galleries and art institutes that practice the precarious aestheticization of violence.

Greater artists – like Carmela Gross – achieve the opposite, art resists, not because of the theme with which it interacts, but because the invented language elevates to the highest power what differentiates it from the banalized images that saturate everyday life in this bipartite world between the real and the virtual.

Carmela Gross, CABEÇAS, Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, 2021.

Heads there are 256 “portraits”, varying around 40 x 30 cm each, forming the crowd of 300 x 1700 cm. Each face was made with Japanese paper painted black, torn by hand, and pasted on a white background. It is a crowd where each face is individualized, as unique, all black, none alike, each expressing horror. It is an expressionism reactivated in contemporary times, very difficult to find even in the best museums. Portrait by portrait, the sadness in Goeldi's prints is metamorphosed into horror. Carmela managed to multiply 256 times The Scream (1893), by Munch, in response to the tragedy of our day.

Carmela Gross, FONTE LUMINOSA, Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo, 2021.

In the same gallery, there was another work by the artist: light source, 420 x 350 cm. It is a work in neon and black painted steel – formidable for the strength with which it contrasts the black geometric structure that sustains the neons and the informal freedom of the luminous red wires. The support is the protagonist – as much as the neon lights. This is not an easy fight, it is part of art history and our art history. The informal and the constructive were fighting throughout the 1950s, not only in Brazil. Just look at France. Carmela achieves an important solution by imposing the informal light of red neons on the constructivist geometric element, constructing the historical paradox before our eyes in a poetic way. More than that: it transforms into dialectical interaction – aesthetically productive and solidary – the two opposing historical vectors transported to contemporary language.

Carmela Gross, MOUTH OF HELL, 34th São Paulo Biennial, 2021.

Boca do Inferno was presented at the 34th São Paulo Biennial. Soon it was startling for its monumentality: 6 meters high by 30 meters wide; in centimeters (according to museological measurement rules) 600 x 3.000 cm. There are 160 monotypes ranging from 60 x 46 cm to 121 x 81 cm. These monotypes were made in 2019, at the Ateliê de Gravura of the Iberê Camargo Foundation, in Porto Alegre. They evoke volcanic eruptions, presented in negative: flames and lavas are shown in black.

Carmela Gross, MOUTH OF HELL, 34th São Paulo Biennial, 2021.

But this is not what the viewer is faced with. This is information I got from the artist. The huge wall features black spots of various shapes. The title Boca do Inferno suggests the origin of the images; it only suggests, it does not define. Some of the spots are distributed in up to four supports. In an era dominated by sadness, black spots evoke mourning rather than volcanic eruptions, responsible for geological transformations.

Carmela Gross, BARRIL, A CARGO and HAM, 34th Bienal de São Paulo, 2021. © Levi Fanan / Fundação Bienal de São Paulo.

Still in that same edition of the Bienal de São Paulo, we can see Ham, from 1969, made of canvas filled, today, with styrofoam (in its first presentation, it was wooden straw covered with canvas), 50 x 300 x 180 cm. The work is 51 years old, but couldn't it have been done yesterday? The strength of its contemporaneity is evident. There lies an aspect of Carmela Gross's work that we can observe in another important contemporary artist: José Resende.

Ultimately, it is about not being able to detect phases, which will be replaced by others throughout the development of the work. We appreciate moments with an identity marked by investigations of the dialogue between language and the materials he is dealing with. This has important consequences for the formation of our artistic knowledge. We can appreciate contemporaneity as a historical moment – ​​phenomenon / perception / elevation – that rare artists are capable of presenting within their own work. It doesn't matter if they were done fifty years ago or yesterday – they all belong to today-present.

* Paulo Sergio Duarte is a critic, curator and professor of art history at Candido Mendes University. Author, among other books, of The plot trail and other texts on art (Funarte).


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