One of the most striking things about Brazilian artist Solange Pessoa’s exhibition ‘In the Sun and the Shade’ at Mendes Wood DM is how effectively it intersects with both the natural world and its local setting. The former was to be expected: Pessoa’s paintings and sculptures often feature natural materials – including leaves, roots, eggs, seeds and minerals – found at the artist’s family farm in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The latter, however, is more surprising. Yet, the heavily wood-panelled interior of the space embraces Pessoa’s rustic materials and the gallery’s location, opposite the Roman Catholic Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon, provides a link to the Christian traditions that the artist considers important to her practice.
While these religious associations are never explicitly revealed, the works’ raw materials allude to them: Untitled (2019), for instance, comprises three, rock-like, flattened oval bronzes between which purple grapes are set to shrivel over the course of the exhibition. The obvious link is to the sacraments of the Holy Communion – bread and wine – but the artist’s direct use of organic matter is just one of the show’s numerous vanitas symbols, which remind us that death is the condition towards which all life travels.
As in many of Pessoa’s works, nature has been invited to take over. Elsewhere, gridded groups of canvases feature icon-like representations of vegetable forms (‘Untitled’ 2013–17). Suggestive of leaves, stems, fruit and flowers, not only do the works’ subjects reference nature, but their colour also derives from the organic world: Pessoa painted them using the dull brown juice of the genipap plant. Their contained darkness contrasts with Primavera Bêbada (Drunk Spring, 2019), which depicts similar forms but is painted in oil using reversed colours. While the smaller genipap works appear sketch-like, the larger white-on-black oil painting has a monumental presence.
Nested on the walls, a series of 16 dark clay ceramic vessels (‘Untitled’, 2019) contains natural materials – dried grass, donkey hair, chicken feathers, fur – that appear to flow out of their supposed containers. Installed next to a window, assembled in corners and placed in niches, the sculptures recall archaeological remains overgrown by vegetation sprouting from the walls, foregrounding nature as the primary force.
Best known for her sculptures, Pessoa’s most recent work on display here is the video Lonjuras (Distances), which she worked on from 2012 to 2019. The seven-minute compilation shows rock formations, lichen, fungi, wispy grasses and clouds of web. Its soundtrack doesn’t directly match what we see but is compiled from the same Brazilian landscapes: wind, water, birdsong, bees – evoking time as geological, cyclical and slowed. This connects to the rhythms and antimonies of life and death, of natural forms and human ritual, evoked by the other works and by the show’s title, inspired by the writing of Brazilian poet Paulo Mendes Campos.
Overall, ‘In the Sun and the Shade’ is enjoyable, cohesive and makes the most of its setting. Other artists – including Ana Mendieta, David Nash and herman de vries – have used nature comparably, yet more directly, to inform reflections on humanity. Nonetheless, Pessoa’s world of quiet empathy can be read assertively, as set against what isn’t here: modernity, instantaneity, the desecration of wild Brazil. Rather, Pessoa seems to propose, these are the gentle harmonies and unhurried cycles of the world as it has been – and needs to be again.
Solange Pessoa ‘In the Sun and the Shade’ is on view at Mendes Wood DM, Brussels from 22 January until 11 April 2020.
Main Image: Solange Pessoa, Primavera Bêbada, 2019, oil on canvas,190 × 152 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo/Brussels/New York; photograph: Bruno Leão
First published in Issue 210