José Bezerra | Sculptures
From the Catimbau Valley, in Buique, in the arid backlands of Pernambuco, the sculptures by José Bezerra travel with me to Madrid, in Spain.
Our story started when I saw a photograph of his farm, a place where he works and lives with his family.
Immediately I felt a need to meet him and also get to know the place. The pictures showed a man with a special gourd vase (cuia) as a hat, a checked jacket with wooden buttons, and some sewn “ropes” as ornaments. From the buttons to the ropes, everything was made by Mr Bezerra himself, as I later found out. He was sitting down in front of a rammed earth house, with encrusted stones that formed pictures. Beside, a large plot of land, a true open-air museum, full of trunks and branches converted into sculptures.
The impact that all this has had on me has been enormous!
I had made up my mind, and even though my Pernambucan friends had warned me about the distance, the difficult access, and also the rainy season that made this location almost inaccessible, I hired a taxi and left.
I shall always remember our first meeting. After this occasion, only 2 years ago, I had been to Catimbau on several other occasions and, on every visit, the diversity and the number of sculptures was impressive.
The photograph I saw was absolutely truthful. A magical place! A unique man! An extraordinary artist!
I was so impressed, so captivated, that showing his work in São Paulo, at Art Madrid and wherever else was possible, became yet another mission for the Institute of the Imagination of the Brazilian People (IIPB).
The entry of Rodrigo Naves, is enthusiasm at Bezerra’s work and the acceptance of his invitation to the curator of the exhibition gave the project the dimension it was lacking.
The result is there for all to see. Simple, direct, valuable, important, just like sculptor José Bezerra.
Make the most of this opportunity!
José Bezerra was born in 1952 in the city of Buíque, in upstate Pernambuco, near the border between the sertão and the more humid agreste. His father was an agricultural worker and, on Saturdays, worked as a barber in the region. José was a farm worker, a jockey at improvised horse races, a manual labourer, a transport worker (carreiro) and so many other activities required in situations of poverty. He killed animals to eat, felled trees for firewood, things that now make him sad and which he tried to put right through his work. Some ten years ago, José had a dream in which he was called to execute the work which he does nowadays. He should become an artist. Since then, he has started to look at the wood around him, which he didn’t do before, and also to intervene in them. José does not sculpt in a traditional manner, acting upon a block of wood to achieve a definite shape. He tries to see figures that are already visible in the wood used – normally umburana, its trunks, branches and roots, and make them surface with the coarse intervention of a large knife, rasps, chisels and saw. José Bezerra’s whole family deals with wood. José censures everyone when it comes to excess work, what he calls “smoothening the wood”, leaving them without any rough points and also well shaped.; The reason for this contrariety is precise: “because then the wood disappears”. Hence, for him this is a case of achieving a figure and at the same time maintain a link with the raw wood from which it was obtained, and also with the instruments and gestures that acted upon it. As the artist said, “it [the wood] has a lesson with us, and we also take a lesson with the wood”. This decision grants the sculptures a rare intensity. José normally works with twisted logs, typical of the local vegetation, as is the case with umbarana. This irregular aspect, together with the few cuts which make it up, produces a notable result. The oscillating definition of the figures comes together with the twistiness of the wood, and this relationship means that we can see shapes that seem to fight to emerge, amid the struggle between plant materials and the coarse and parsimonious sculpture intervention. From there, we have the unique expression of his works, which seem not to derive from the conflict between individual passions and the avarice of the world, as is current, but rather from a reality which, split and disturbed, shows an internal conflict which delays its definition and appearance. His animals, bodies and faces do not have the sweet contours of much of what is termed popular art, full of affection and familiarity with the materials, which arises from the proximity to handicrafts and also the need to extract as much as possible out of the wood, clay or stones, through rudimentary techniques. On the contrary, the act of doing and appearing seem to be reciprocally strange, even though unity may be reached at the end. As they neither can nor want to subject the wood, the gestures of José Bezerra need to transform it while at the same time keeping it constantly on centre stage. This tension helps to understand why the strangeness of the figures has an organic relationship with their artistic procedures, which gives a surprising degree of efficiency. Animals take up a considerable part of the figures which have been sculpted by the artist. These are domestic pets or animals native to the region, all of which very familiar to José: dogs, armadillos, herons, anteaters and sloths. His choices steer clear of large animals or those which are full of symbolism, such as tigers, snakes or eagles. However, these simple issues lead to unexpected solutions, as they practically transfigure the idea we currently have of them. It was with this appearance that José brought them to the world, trying to remedy “the evil acts” which he committed further back. His Heron, a bird that feeds on fish and lives close to rivers, lakes and mangrove areas, has almost only the beak of the bird, that advances threateningly on the observer. Its sharpness does not depend only on its size which is out of proportion. The curve of the trunk used by the sculptor gives the work a new dynamism which turns the bird’s beak into the culmination of a forward and upwards movement, without which a more ironic effect shall be produced, close to that of Giacometti’s Nose. The light carves o the knife have intensified the invasive aspect, on making the gesture of intervention in the trunk coincide with its natural configuration. The threatening appearance of the bird corresponds to an appearance of panic which takes it over, The hollow eyes, if I see it well, are the most explicit expression of horror, the view of something that blinded it. If the simplicity and the conciseness of many sculptures by José Bezerra have a Brancusian element, the crisping that crosses it between different parts detaches them from the Romanian artist in a decisive manner. The Dog, on principle, would have an opposite configuration. Sculpted on a more regular and more stable trunk, almost contained within the limits of the wood, would reveal in its very own insertion in the materials something from the loyalty of dogs, and their loyalty to outside wishes. However, the artist takes this process of subordination so far, and so comprehensively takes the animal to strict limits, that an inverse pressure from within causes latent dissatisfaction of the animal. Its trunk was carved with wider strokes of the knife, and spacious surfaces configure it. In the case of the head, so much more connected to the natural irregularities of wood, shows a coarseness which is in opposition to the wish to control. This path culminates in the mouth of the animal, even less regular. The domestication process leads to its opposite, and then we are very close to a mad dog. The deformities and the agonising expressivity of the sculptures by José Bezerra sometimes border on the comical, an aspect always present in his work. The figure with the leg raised, for example. In this figure, the body has a somewhat schematic representation, which is common in much of his work: an emphatic head, a neck which doubles as a trunk, the two legs that lengthen out of proportion, the lack of arms and additional details. Here, however, the shape of the branches that the artist split led to a dynamic construction – a dance step, a ritual, a leap – which is rare in his work. The left leg, raised and so much shorter than the right one, counterbalances the verticality as marked, which runs from the tip of the other leg up to the head. His movement adds lightness to the figure, by freeing it from the gravity enforced by strong ascensionality. (It is a pity that José Bezerra has not managed to solve his willingness, which led to the use of a base which is external to the sculpture itself). Its curvaceous drawing incorporates the leg into the melody that makes it dance in Matissian fashion. All this considerably reduces the presence of plant material, detaching it from the soil and making it softer. The carefully produced beak of the figure betrays the pleasure that comes through it. However, let’s not get things wrong: the human being that enjoys music to the point of moving shall fall… So much smaller, the left foot shall not know how to support it. Its freedom is also its weak point, Curiously, it does not seem that the sculpture shall only make one laugh, just like that. Some things in this clumsy figure awakens a feeling of empathy. Smiling, yes, perhaps. However, it is so similar to our daily hugs that we would not know how to distance ourselves enough to just smile. When he talks about his art – and José Bezerra also composes music – the author emphasises the role of imagination in what he does. Thus, the importance that he assigns to the importance of seeing images in trunks sand branches that he finds around his farm finds in the imagination an element which moves his pieces away from singular realism, from which he transposes to the clouds in the sky whatever thoughts pass through his mind. For José Bezerra – and the examples previously analysed make this clear – means the opening of the natural material, wood, for possibilities that move away from a lazy identity with itself, as also from merely instrumental use. Rearticulate it. The nature which one can conclude from his work has an intense life, an inexhaustible and tormented energy. The summary action upon wood – which often is divided into facets that remind one of the brush strokes of Cézanne – the constant reminder of its plant origin and the intensity of its figures imparts on the said work the appearance of an incomplete and unfinished movement, as if aspiring to a continuity that would take them beyond their borders. This is just not a desire to return to earth, of reestablishment of a relationship with life that had been interrupted. José Bezerra distributes his sculptures in the land area surrounding his house, all directed to the ranch where he works and sings. That set of objects, voluntarily fragmented, through the diversity of the work, produces an entirety that creates a second nature for the artist, transfigured by its look and conceptions. Once again, Brancusi comes to mind. William Tucker notes, with precision, that “Brancusi evidently considered his studio as the ideal location for his work as a whole. The base plays the role of the studio as a means in the relation with the individual work. Where the sculpture is polished, the base is raw; then the sculpture is compact and orderly, the base is free and loose; where the sculpture is concentrated, the base is expansive”. Knowing that his works would be separated, Brancusi found in the bases a way to uphold the dialogue between them. José Bezerra has not yet sufficiently equated the way of showing their works. For the time being, he supports them on the soil or buries them. In the same way, however, the set that he establishes in his territory strengthens the dynamics that surpasses individual work projects, and also helps to better understand the concept of nature, whether intuitive in nature or not, which the artist wants to make see. Laid out in dialogue with each other, the sculptures of José Bezerra also remind one of the descriptions which Euclides da Cunha makes of the Canudos region, in the first part of his masterpiece Os Sertões, by the name of “The soil”: (…) trees without leaves, with crooked and dry branches, agitated and intercrossed, strictly pointing into space or being laid out in flexible fashion on the soil, reminiscent of an immense embrace, of torture and agonising plant life…” Really, the view that Euclides da Cunha establishes in his book shows a troubled nature which seems to foresee the armed conflict in Canudos. In a particularly revealing passage, Augusto Meyer writes: “The fact is that he dramatises everything (…) Even in the major geological panels of the start shows the landscape as yet incomplete and finished (…), but rather as a product of gigantic convulsions”. However, I feel that the ambition of José Bezerra is, at the same time, more modest and more historical than that of Euclides da Cunha. The angular expression of his work – exacerbated by the joint layout – does not intend to create a troubled cosmology which makes the sertão and its natural reality become the model of reality of the world. The conflict that moves it arises from the understanding that the environment that made a decisive contribution to the advent of the work – this region in which productive contact with nature establishes a link with the city that does not get to threaten it – it is about to be pushed down by the quick changes in the country’s economic relations. In addition, I am convinced that the sculpture has an intuition, like a few people, of the extent of the tragedy that engulfs the whole planet, and the threats that nature is now facing on a world scale. José Bezerra lives in a particular picturesque area of the State of Pernambuco, which is the Catimbau Valley – an ecological reserve – with a topography that reminds one of a small canyon, with wild yet abundant vegetation. Therefore, it is not immediate reality or close to what the artist mentions. It seems to me that what worries is the perception of a process where they can destroy a means in which they live with difficulty and which, however, is his place, from where he takes his identity and also his art. And therefore, however significant the relationship between his work and the medium pay be, it is also, to a certain extent, an opposition to it. The touching expression of his works does not mention a bucolic nature and its delicacies, but rather talks about imminent destruction. So, after all, what does José Bezerra see when he pays attention to the vegetation around him? The issue of pre-existence of figures in a coarse material has a long history in art, from Michelangelo to Brancusi. For Michelangelo, led by divine furore, it was a case of releasing the matter from its weight and coarseness, leading it to spirituality of form. Brancusi, much less a Christian, only sought to take advantage of the materials from which he started, as happens in some of the versions of the Turtle, the Cockerel, the Witch and the Youth’s Torso, which contributed towards the formal economy which is a characteristic of his work. In relation to this issue, José seems to trail his own path. It is not a case of finding a simple analogy between a root and an animal. His look seems to be constantly matched with an apocalyptic feeling which he transports for the work he sculpts, which helps to understand the emphasis that he gives to the imagination in his work process. José Bezerra belongs to the poorer sections of our population, and works with techniques that bring him closer to primitive art and with themes close to rural life. All these aspects conspire to make him be considered a popular artist, a dubious and limited notion, even after modern art reimbursed to the marginalised arts a statute that they never had. This is not the place to take this discussion further. In my opinion, José Bezerra is simply a very strong and current Brazilian artist, and this as a result of the relevance of the issues that move his work and the notable way in which he makes such issues visible. Confining his work to the “popular” ghetto would only mean its pacification and reduction. José Bezerra does not even know how to read. However, there is more sharpness of wit and clairvoyance in his work than among those – so many of them – who get art mixed up with erudition.
When José Bezerra looks at a piece of wood, he always envisages the picture that is insinuated. His art is therefore that of sculpting the trunk so that the drawing may appear, but leaving a window open for imagination. With the intervention of a carving knife, chisel and saw in fallen leaves, pieces of trunks and roots, he represents a wide range of figures, including people’s heads, ox-carts, animals, everything that is part of his personal universe.” His summary action upon wood – often with facets that remember the works of Cézanne -, the constant memory of its plant origins and also the intensity of the figures there drawn have given the work the appearance of an incomplete and unfinished work, as if they sought a continuity which would make them extend beyond their contours”, explains Rodrigo Naves. The critic is the curator of the exhibition, a fact which in itself already shows how the root work may be inserted into the erudite thinking of contemporary artistic activities. José (1952, Buíque, PE) lives in the Catimbau Valley, in the arid sertão region of Pernambuco, a region which, according to archaeologists and researchers, is the second largest archaeological site in Brazil, both because of the quantity of paintings and inscriptions and the attached historical value. It is breathing in such an environment that the artist produces his sculptures, showing them off around his house, a settlement of wooden people who enchant all the visitors who drop by, including Zé Celso Martinez. The artist makes a point of stressing the role of imagination in his art. “This way, the importance that he has assigned to the act of seeing images in trunks and branches finds in imagination an element which detaches his pieces from a simple realism, transposing to the clouds all the things that pass through his head”, writes Naves. This exhibition, organised by the Institute of the Imagination of the Brazilian People and held at the Estação Art Gallery, is the first exhibition of the works of José Bezerra in São Paulo, with some 70 works on show. This artist, who has never left the sertão, inaugurates his work in the effervescent art circuit, with the text by the famous art critic, Rodrigo Naves.
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