JOSÉ BEZERRA: NATURE AND EXPRESSION
José Bezerra was born in 1952 in the city of Buíque, in the interior of the state of Pernambuco, near where the sertão borders on the agreste. His father was an agricultural worker who, on Saturdays, also worked as the barber in the region. José was a farm worker, a jockey at improvised races, a manual labourer, and many other activities as required by poverty. He killed animals to eat, and felled trees to make firewood, both of which are things that cause him distress and which he tried to alleviate through his art.
Some ten years ago, José had a dream in which he was called upon to carry out the same work he does today. He was to become an artist. Since then, he started to look at the wood surrounding him, which he did not do before, and also to implement interventions therein. José does not sculpt in the traditional manner of acting upon a block of wood to achieve a defined shape. He tries to see a figure which is already insinuated in the wood – normally umbarana, with its trunk, branches and roots – and also bring it to the surface with the coarse intervention using a carving knife, chisel and saw.
José Bezerra’s whole family works with wood. José censures everyone for excess work, which he calls “smoothening the wood” , leaving it without rough areas and well delineated The reason for his contrariety is precise: “as there the wood disappears”. So then, for him, this is a case of reaching out to a figure and at the same time keep his association with the raw wood he started out from and with the instruments and gestures that acted upon it. As the artist said, it [wood] has a lesson with us, and we also take a lesson from it” 
This decision grants to his sculptures a rare intensity. José normally works with twisted logs, typical of the local vegetation, as is the case of umburana. This irregular aspect, together with the few stumps that surround it, produces a significant result. The oscillating definition of the figures comes together with the twistedness of the wood, and this relationship means that we can perceive forms that seem to struggle to emerge, amid the tussle between the plant material and the coarse and parsimonious sculpture intervention. From there comes the unique expressivity of his works, which seems not to derive from individual conflicts 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 its appearance.
Its animals, bodies and faces lack the sweetness of much of what is called popular art, made of affection and familiarity with materials, arising from their proximity with handicrafts and also the need to take full advantage of wood, clay or stone, using rudimentary techniques. On the contrary, doing and figuration seem to be mutually aggressive, even though they may form a unit at the end. As they neither can nor want to submit the wood, the gestures of José Bezerra need to transform it while also, at the same time, keeping it in the spotlight all the time. This tension helps us to understand why the strangeness of their figures has an organic relationship with their artistic procedures, which gives it a surprising efficiency.
Animals make up a considerable part of the figures sculpted by the artist. These are domestic animals and also species native to the region, all of which very familiar to José: dogs, armadillos, socós, anteaters and sloths. His choices are detached from species of animals that are either imposing or laden with symbolic significance, including tigers, eagles or serpents.
However, these simple issues lead to unexpected solutions, as they practically transfigure the current idea that we have about them. It was with this appearance that José brought them to the world, trying to cure the “evils” that he did further back.
Mr Socó , a bird that feeds on fish and lives close to rivers, lakes and mangroves, shares practically only the beak with the bird itself, that advances in a threatening manner on the observer. The aggressiveness does not only depend on its excessive size. The curve of the trunk as used by the sculptor gives the work a type of dynamism that makes the beak of the bird the culmination of a movement forwards and upwards, without which a more ironic effect would be produced, close to the Nose of Giacometti. And the light strokes of the carving knife intensifies the invasive spirit, on making the gesture that intervened with the trunk coincide with its natural configuration. An appearance of panic that overwhelms the bird corresponds to the threatening aspect of the bird that takes power of it. And, if I see it well, the hollow eyes are the most explicit sign of his panic, the view of something that blinded him. If the simplicity and conciseness of the José Bezerra sculptures have a Brancusian element, the crispation which crosses through different parts thereof detaches him from the Romanian artist in a permanent manner.
The Dog would, on principle, have an opposite configuration. Sculpted into a more regular and stable trunk. almost contained within the limits of the wood, it would reveal, in its own insertion in the material, some expression of the loyalty of dogs, and also their loyal adherence to the wishes of others. However, the artist takes this process of subordination to such an extent, and so completely leads the dog to follow strict limits, like an inverse pressure, from within, would cause a latent uprising of the animal. Its trunk was carved with wider cuts, and spacious surfaces configure them. In turn, the head, so much more connected to the natural imperfections of wood, shows a crudeness which is in opposition to the will to control. This path culminates in the mouth of the animal, even less regular. The process of domestication leads to its opposite, and then we are only millimetres away from a mad dog.
The deformations and the anguish-causing expressiveness of the sculptures by José Bezerra often border on the comic, an aspect which is always present in his work. The figure with the raised leg, for example. In this figure, the body has a somewhat schematic representation, common to many of his works; an emphatic head, a neck which is also a trunk, the two legs that lengthen out of proportion, the lack of arms and details. Here, however, the shape of the branches that the artist has split led to a dynamic construction – a dance step, a ritual, a leap – which is rarely present in his work. The left leg, which is raised and also much smaller than the right one, counterbalances the marked verticality which goes from the end of the other leg up to the head. The movement adds lightness to the figure, and frees it from the gravity enforced by strong ascent. (It is a pity that José Bezerra never managed to solve its layout, which led to the use of a base outside the sculpture itself). And, in addition, its curvaceous contours incorporate the leg into the melody which makes it dance in true Matissean style. All this reduces the raw presence of plant matter, detaches it from the earth, and also makes it milder. The carefully crafted beak in the figure betrays the pleasure that goes for it. However, let’s not get things wrong: the human being that enjoys music to the point of moving shall fall… So much smaller is the left leg, that it shall not know how to support it. Its freedom is also its weak point. Curiously, it does not seem to me that the sculpture only makes you laugh, just like that. Something in this clumsy figure arouses empathy, To smile, yes, perhaps. However, it is so similar to our daily lack of space that we would not know how to keep sufficient distance to just smile.
When I speak of his art – and José Bezerra also prepares music – the artist strengthens the role of imagination in what he does. Thus, the importance that he assigns to the act of seeing images in trunks and branches that he finds around his farm sees in the imagination an element which detaches his pieces from singular realism, from which he transposes to the clouds in the sky all the wanderings that go through his head. For José Bezerra – and the example analysed make this quite clear – seeing shall mean opening the natural matter, wood, to new possibilities that detach them from a lazy identity towards itself, as also from a merely instrumental use. Rearticulate it. The nature that can be envisaged through his work has intense life, as also a stormy and inexhaustible energy.
The summary action upon the wood – which quite often is divided into facets which reminds one of the brush strokes of Cézanne -, the constant memory of its plant origins and the intensity of its figures give the work the appearance of an incomplete and unfinished movement, as if they sought a continuity which would lead them well beyond their contours. This is not simply a case of a desire to return to Earth and resume ties with a life that was lost. José Bezerra distributes his sculptures in the land area surrounding his house, all aimed at the ranch where he works and sings. That set of voluntarily fragmented objects, through the diversity of the work, produces an entirety that creates, for the artist, a second nature, transfigured by his look and by his conceptions .
Once again, Brancusi comes to mind. William Tucker has noted with precision that “Brancusi evidently considered his studio to be the ideal environment for his work as a whole. The base plays the role of the studio as a means in the relationship with the individual works. Where the sculpture is polished, the base is crude; where the sculpture is compact and ordered, the base is expansive” . Knowing that his works would separate, Brancusi has found in these bases a way of upholding the dialogue between them. José Bezerra has not yet sufficiently established the way of showing his Works. At the moment, he either supports them atop the ground or buries them.
In the same manner, however, the set that he creates in his land strengthens the dynamics that passes through individual work, and also helps to understand the concept of nature, whether intuitive or not, that the author wishes to show. Laid out in dialogue with each other, the sculptures by José Bezerra remind one of the descriptions that Euclides da Cunha made of the Canudos region, in the first part of his major work Os sertões, “The land”: “(...) trees without leaves, of twisted and dry branches, tautly pointing in space or spreading out flexuously on the ground, reminiscent of an immense embrace of torture, agonising plant life...”. Indeed, the vision that Euclides da Cunha presents in his book delineates a troubled nature that seems to anticipate the armed conflict of Canudos. In a revealing passage, Augusto Meyer writes: “The fact is that he dramatises everything (...). Even in the major geological panels of the beginning, he presents the landscape as incomplete and finished (…) but as a product with gigantic convulsions” .
However, I think that the ambition of José Bezerra is, at the same time, more modest and more historical than that of Euclides da Cunha. The anguish-causing expressivity of their works – reinforced by the joint layout – does not intend to create a troubled cosmology that makes the sertão and its natural reality become the matrix of realities in the world. The conflict that moves it forward comes from the understanding that the very environment that has made a significant contribution towards the appearance of his work — this region where the operative contact with nature keeps an association with the city that does not go as far as threatening it – is about to be demolished by the speedy changes that have taken place involving the country’s economic relations. In addition, I am firmly convinced that the sculptor has, like very few people, an intuition of the extent of the tragedy that haunts the whole planet, and the threats that nature has faced on a world scale.
José Bezerra lives in a particularly attractive area of Pernambuco, known as the Catimbau Valley – with a topography a bit like a small canyon with more abundant vegetation. Therefore, the artist does not address a close or immediate reality. It seems to me that what really worries him is the perception of a process that could destroy a medium in which he lives with difficulty and which, however, is his place, from where he extracts his identity and his artistic production. Hence, no matter how much his work has an intrinsic relationship with the media, it is, to a certain extent, in opposition to it. The touching expressivity of his work does not talk about bucolic nature or its attractions: it talks about nature’s imminent destruction.
So, after all, what does José Bezerra see when he pays attention to the vegetation that involves him? The issue of pre-existence of figures in crude matter has a long historical trail in art, from Michelangelo to Brancusi. For Michelangelo, led by divine furore, tried to clear matter of its weight and crudeness, leading it to spirituality of form. Brancusi, much less a Christian, only tried to take advantage of the material that was divided, as happened in some versions of the Turtle, the Cockerel, the Witch and the Young Person’s Torso, which contributed towards the formal economy that was a characteristic of his work. In relation to this issue, José seems to trail his own path. This is not a case of establishing a simple analogy between a root and an animal. His look seems to be constantly accompanied by an apocalyptic feeling which he transports to the Works that he sculpts, which helps to understand the emphasis that he gives to imagination in his work process.
José Bezerra belongs to the poorer segments of our population, and Works with techniques that bring himself closer to primitive art, and with issues close to those of rural life. All these aspects conspire to get him included in the group of popular artists, a notion which is both doubtful and limiting, even after modern art has instated, for marginalised art forms, a kind of statute that they never had before. This is not the place for proceeding with this discussion. As I see it, José Bezerra is just a Brazilian artist with a lot of strength and modernity, and this is a result of the relevance of the issues that motivate him and also the impressive way in which he makes them visible. Confining his work to the ghetto of the “popular” group is just a way of pacifying it and reducing it. José Bezerra cannot even read. However, there is more wisdom and clairvoyance in his work than there is in the others – so many of them – that confuse art with erudition.
 Statement made by José Bezerra in a conversation held on 12 December 2008, on his farm. The extracts between brackets without mentioning any other source refer to this dialogue.
 This statement made by the artist appears in the documentary José Bezerra — a small class with wood, by Malu Viana Batista.
 José Bezerra only gives names to some of his sculptures. The names in italics are the names he has given.
 The importance of the joint layout of the sculptures of José Bezerra in his land was shown to me by architects Cátia Avellar and Roberto Montezuma. Cátia was, together with Vilma Eid, one of the first people to give the due value to the works of this artist.
 Tucker, William. The language of sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974, p. 57.
 Cunha, Euclides da. Os sertões. Edition, preface, chronology, notes and indexes by Leopoldo M. Bernucci. São Paulo: Ateliê Editorial and São Paulo State Official Press, 2002, page 116.