Cícero Alves dos Santos [Véio] – Sculptures
Cícero Alves dos Santos (“Véio”) takes up a unique position within the Brazilian art environment, even though this is only his second individual exhibition.
The works that he has been showing reveal dimensions that are significantly different from what we call ‘popular art’. His sculptures combine aspects of the popular tradition (sculptures in wood, use of the figures suggested by tree trunks and branches, and the use of rudimentary tools) with intense colours- much closer to the industrial colours than to the delicate shades of nature. This stridence, of a somewhat pop nature, is intensified by a formidable imagination, which makes us see hybrid figures in his wood works, figures that blend the characteristics of the animals we know with those of the androids and transformers which are present in films and cartoons.
On the other hand, just with one pen-knife, Cícero sculpts forms that are minute in size, but with an enigmatic appearance which brings back the force which has been reduced by scale. Men and women climb and go down mountains for no apparent reason, animals straddle each other, and women carry parts of animals on their heads.
In these small sculptures, there is a more realistic aspect present in the carving of the shapes of people and animals. However, as yet we do not know the real meaning of his behaviour.
Cícero Alves dos Santos lives close to the city of Nossa Senhora da Glória, an important city in the backlands of Sergipe, with some 50 thousand inhabitants and a market which is very important in the State. On Fridays and Saturdays, this market attracts people from far afield to trade chickens, asses, pigs and also electronic equipment of all kinds, but also a lot of imported bric-à-brac from China, or maybe from Paraguay.
Coexistence with so ambiguous and so dynamic an environment has further triggered the talent of this rare sertanejo (resident of the backlands of the Brazilian Northeast), who has made the preservation of the memories of his people into the very reason of his existence. Memory is not nostalgia. For this reason, to affirm the entirety of an art originating from a rural world that is steadily disappearing, Cícero had to become the creator of an artistic category that did not exist. This one.
Rodrigo Naves [Curator]
For the Galeria Estação Art Gallery, nothing could be more representative than commemoration of the gallery’s 10th anniversary with an exhibition and a book by Cícero Alves dos Santos, also known as Véio (Nossa Senhora da Glória, Sergipe, 1948). After all, ever since it first opened the art gallery has worked towards the dilution of the frontier which separated popular artists from the Brazilian contemporary art scene. Véio is an important result of this effort. Curating by Rodrigo Naves and with a total of 45 works, the exhibition Cícero Alves do Santos: Véio will featured on the period of October 29th to December 20th and will brings recent works, that were carried out between 2013 and 2014, both large and small.
Cícero Alves dos Santos: nothing shall be as before
For Teodoro Dias and Germana Monte-Mór
The sculpture works by Cícero Alves dos Santos, better known by the nickname of “Véio”, moves in two main directions:
a) the larger pieces, where trunks, branches and roots have significant presence and where Cícero makes only occasional intervention – whether carving or painting – with the intention of making the shapes and figures that he sees in those natural elements he calls “open woods”1 even more explicit.
Together with the strong vegetable aspect of the materials used in the sculptures (curves and irregularities of tree trunks and roots), another thing that takes one by surprise is the intensity of the colours used in most of the works. They show an artificial and a pop side, in which half-tones rarely find space and which, initially, show wide differences from the subtleties of natural elements, contrary to the decisive and regular appearance of industrial objects. However, I believe that this opposition ends up intensifying the spontaneous side (something not established by a project) of natural phenomena. As colours are not that important in the formal definition of the work projects, they help, first and foremost, to highlight the irregularities of the volumes that they cover, without reneging on their organic and vegetable origin.
b) The second group comprises small carvings made with a pen-knife on small (sometimes very small) pieces of wood (the “closed woods”), totally taken over by the figures into which they are transformed, with the original wood being hardly visible. Even though on some occasions Cícero would cover his works with a coat of paint, in most cases the wood is left bare, without the paint covering the work that has been carried out on the said pieces. Curiously, in Cícero’s sculptures we find an inversion of what we see happening on a daily basis: human work, intervention in nature, leads to a miniaturisation of the objects he engenders, when compared to those items where nature stands out (the sculptures of the first group). In Cícero’s work – he being a sertanejo, or rural dweller, who managed to buy a small forest reserve for exclusively conservationist reasons - the harmful consequences of domination over nature can be seen in the very scale of the objects: the more intense the degree of human intervention, the lower the power and strength of the beings that result therefrom; even though this aspect brings out their aesthetic grandeur.
This inversion acquires a significance that is even more relevant if we consider that the work of the first group largely owes much of its presence to an extremely wise use of an industrial resource: synthetic paints 2.
A more detailed analysis of some works from the two subgroups of sculptures shall help to shed further light on the true significance of Cícero’s production.
O primata, 2009
Tinta acrílica e madeira
127 x 100 x 93 cm
Coleção Eugenia e Francisco Assis Esmeraldo
The green work shown in 2010 (picture 1) is one of the best sculptures, of the first subgroup that Cícero has ever carried out. The figure has an enchanting type of movement. Its body reveals nimbleness and reluctance at the same time. There is a kind of smart humour in his gesture, as the attitudes of attention and prudence are in stark contrast to the strong hues of his body and injected eyes. Nearly everything is careful: from the tip-toe walk through to the dodging movement, of whom shows itself, with discretion and slowly but surely, this being the reason why the artist is able to make one of the arms of the character vanish in a white background.
For the graceful sculpture to keep up its contact with the plant world, Cícero had to arrange a way for his capacity to identify figures in parts of trees and shrubs to be reinforced by a few discreet interventions: the cuts that limit legs and arms, plus the contours of mouth and eyes. If the artist came to achieve such characteristics through sculpture work in the true sense, this would bring a paradox into the work, and could even irretrievably jeopardise the work. After all, if the several ambiguities of the work – oscillations between discretion and ostentation, nimbleness and contention, etc. – are indeed the core factor in its meaning and enchantment, turning it into the simple execution of a project would give the work a priori aunique dimension which goes entirely against its lightness and basic grace, something which only the oscillation of meaning, as provided by ambiguity, could make possible.
The procedure of identification of shapes and figures in natural objects and events (erosion, geological features, stains, cracks, etc.) has a long history: from cave paintings and the meditation stones of Zen tradition, through to the experiences of Miró, with irregularity of walls and other surfaces. Also within the tradition of popular art, this is a current practice.
The capacity of assigning an artistic dimension to such operations largely derives from the talent to turn strictly individual experiences into innovative experiences of social reach. It shall be very difficult to share the faces or mountains that we “see” in clouds or in veins of wood with other people. In the case of perceptive relationships established with a frequency so intense that they could actually become figures of speech (like cara de pau – someone who is cheeky; mão de vaca – a penny-pincher; orelhas de abano – prominent ears) could have a wide meaning but at the cost of suspending their associations with the associated realities and, as a result, with the capacity of renewing the meanings.
One of the resources used to conquer a social dimension for a picture is that of associating it to a widely known object and transforming its representation, to expand its scope of meaning. In the green work, Cícero makes use of this strategy, as also in sculpture where a red man gets up from the ground with the aid of his arms (picture2). This man well reminds people of some mediaeval representations of Jesus. However, this position brings a complete change to the traditional representation of Christ, enabling enriched perceptions and meanings.
In other cases, animals take on this role, such as a variety of snakes that the artist has already executed (picture 3).
In other work, such as that of picture 3, the lack of an animal or something else as the base of the representation leads the artist to face difficulties of greater interest, provided he finds the instruments to face them.
That sculpture, where red and black cover a fragment of a shrub, is enchanting for the ambiguity that it creates between natural forms and colours. The region painted red suggests the head and arms of what could be a small monkey, with a raised tail painted black. The other black segment, touching the floor, does not rule out the completion of the figure, but does make it more ambiguous, as there should be two legs, not one. Thus our perception oscillates between a possible situation and one that expands (or contradicts) its scope.
Tinta acrílica e madeira
51 x 60 x 50 cm
Sem título , 2012
Tinta acrílica e madeira
70 x 134 x 121 cm
And picture 3’s sculpture makes this tussle between figuration and fantasy even more complex. A man seems to fence using a strange sword? However, what can be done with the winding rod painted in red, which falls until it touches the ground? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Whatever these may be, we shall never lose with this result. The sustenance of the unpredictability of the game is what is most important here.
The second group, that of smaller figures that are effectively sculpted or carved, goes along different paths. The figure that enters the door of what seems to be a house, is, in a certain sense, the metaphor of what the artist himself calls “closed wood”. In this situation, instead of identifying figures on a trunk, branch or root, Cícero needs to “open it”: remove it from senseless opacity through a carving operation which gives wood a meaning that extends well beyond it, as a thing in itself.
11 x 6 x 3 cm
Coleção Monica Stahel
Even these pieces, however, keep certain strangeness, the rejection of any pedestrian realism that assigns some relationship with the works of the first group. After all, what is the sense of what we are seeing? According to Cícero3, the person entering would be a visitor. This work even has a pair (which unfortunately I am not aware of), showing the same person leaving the house that he had visited. A work of art, however, must have its own meaning, even though we know that this meaning (fortunately) has several possible senses, which vary according to the times of year, contexts and also the public. It is there that the door which is ajar allows one to envisage several meanings, in a search for a hideaway to hide from the somewhat pathetic attempt to open space in a surface.
Similarly, but in an even stranger way, the figure that slides down the mountain may have several meanings too. For Cícero, this would be a consequence of the actions suggested by the item where several people try to climb a mountain, and only one was successful. This means that, for the artist, the two works address an attempt to go up in life and also its possible consequences.
However, there is one bewilderment that surpasses all other enigmatic aspects of the work, even more so as they are a condition thereof: these Lilliputian beings are only so in relation to our Gulliverian size. After all, there is no scale without resorting to comparison. Facing the carved works by Cícero, we become disorientated giants, observing the efforts of these small creatures. Metaphorically, we are the lords of their destiny. We made them, and so we can destroy them too.
As I mentioned at the end of the first part, the works of this second group show that human action can deplete the power of beings. The artistic strength of these small sculptures arises, in part, from their frailness. It therefore comes as no surprise that many of these smaller items are hybrid in nature, ambiguous forms that could be the uncontrolled merger of different animals, or a malformation which prevented them from developing fully.
Madeira 6 x 5,5 x 3 cm
Coleção Suiá Ferlauto e Paulo Monteiro
Em busca do poder, 2009
Madeira 15 x 9 x 13 cm
Rasga mortalha, 2013
7,5 x 4,5 x 3 cm
Picture 7’s bird, for example, has some characteristics of an owl, and ears of another animal. The sculpture solution found by the artist transformed it into a mystical totem, a kind of being with magical powers... the size of a finger. There is no way one can adore an image of this size. Could it be an amulet? Or could it be an object which could bring luck to its owner?
O coelho, 2014
4 x 4 x 2 cm
The other bird (picture 08) seems not to have achieved the rate of growth that makes animals different from one another, and thus maintains polymorphic features that would lead to a diversity of definitions. A bird could indeed blossom there, if there were not also the insinuation of a slug, in the curvaceousness of the wood, or the number 2 on top of a birthday cake.
So, after all, what brings together work projects that are so diverse, with the only common element being their creator? In larger works, where open wood is normally used, there is a decisive participation of the imagination for choosing parts of trees, where later cutttings, some digging work and the use of colour could lead to the production of highly unique figures. In these, plant and animal figures (human or otherwise) come closer and move away on a permanent basis, in a process which seeks intentional ambiguity, where the vitality of the plant elements (which also remains in branches or cut roots, as its irregularity shows powerful dynamics that are in no way limited to purposes as established by humans) strengthens the other beings, intensifying their presence.
In the items where closed wood is used, the shapes are obtained through an action fully planned by the artist. Their reduced size in comparison to us immediately brings a questioning of the nature of actions for the reduction in the size of these animals and other sculpted items. More: even though the narratives created by Cícero could give meaning to some items or collection of items (which is a “blow below the belt”, as they need to “speak” alone, having a meaning of their own), in many cases the works show bewilderment related to the uncompleted status of their contours and configuration.
Maybe with open wood the imagination operates more on the artist’s side, while in the case of closed woods there seems to be a balance between the fantasy of the observer and that of the artist, both of which are fertile and also multiple. However, here we must better explain the meaning of “imagination” or “fantasy” in this context. In the cultural tradition that has always been part of Cícero’s life, there were common references to wise and astute figures, that used imagination and intelligence to avoid punishment, abuse or injustice. Pedro Malasartes, know-all foxes, the monkey Simon, and smart jays followed him throughout his childhood and youth4.
These traditional tales have almost no connection with an imagination understood as a subjective process of meditation, independently of the obstacles of reality. Within Cícero’s context, fantasy does not fly high. It lacks wings that could relieve the weight of the destiny to which these people, normally rural workers with few assets, have been condemned. In the long interview with the artist, that accompanies this book, two real stories in which Cícero participates directly call attention, stories that involve the whole practical dimension of this astuteness plus a notable valuation of work.
The first refers to an ironsmith whose life had got out of control: his cow got bogged down and died, his daughter died in labour, and the house where he lived had lost its roof and he lost everything (bellows, tools, and even his clients, as he had not worked for six months). “I have no more happiness for anything at all!”, Dominico said to Cícero (who the metalsmith considered to be a miracle-maker or a witch doctor). The artist feels obliged to help the man. He invents a false simpatia (superstition ritual) to meet the ironsmith’s expectations, and promises to come back the following Sunday with a solution. In fact, in this period of time Cícero manages to buy a new bellows, arrange for new tools and then, on returning and finding a throng of people surprised by the expectations informed by Dominico, puts everyone to work until the ironsmith’s shop came back to what it was. Then comes the climax of the study: both decide to bang on the anvil like crazy, so that the sound could inform that the ironsmith was back at work, which is very successful, as soon the neighbourhood starts bringing scythes, shovels, pick-axes and the like, for Dominico to work upon them.
In another situation, a drunkard whose wife had left him also comes over, and once again Cícero imagines a series of short cuts to make him stop drinking and get back to work, until the woman gets convinced of the transformation and accepts him back again. These situations are not only “updates” of the acts of a person like Pedro Malasartes, for example. I see in them a kind of hybridism which is typical of a region like that of Cícero Alves dos Santos, where the separation between city and countryside is not that significant5 and where practices also have a strong element of syncretism. If the countryside is the place of hard work, dependence on natural factors, the technique – this element that stands out in large cities – here seems to acquire a role of transformer of technology.
It comes as no surprise that many of Cícero’s sculptures also remember the quaint characters of children’s programmes, from the oldest (the technological monsters of former Japanese series National Kid) to the transformers and other high technology monsters of our days. The artist has said that he hardly ever watches television or goes to see a film. However, these characters are so intensely present in our daily lives (the famous market of Nossa Senhora da Glória, for example) that it would be illusory to imagine someone who would completely ignore them.
Cícero Alves dos Santos is not just one of the great living Brazilian artists, with a rich and diversified production, whose disclosure and richer consideration would, without any doubt, expand the true potential of its meaning. We may be looking at an artist who, through his amplitude of vision (fully revealed during his interview), living in a region where the strict limits between city and countryside have become blended, and which also, with the placing of ambitious projects (in the positive sense of the term), both in relation to his art and also his community and the nature of the region, finally broke away from the more or less fixed divide between popular art and art itself.
In Brazil, for complex reasons which lie outside the scope of this essay, the relationships between popular and cultured art have always been ambiguous and rich. Our music is the best example. Other times, such as during the Modern Art Week of 1922, I feel that the result of this approximation showed ups and downs; highly productive for Mário de Andrade, more of a problem for Tarsila do Amaral. I am firmly convinced that Cícero Alves dos Santos has changed the nature of these ties. And this is by no means the smallest of his conquests6.
1. “Closed woods” are those used in smaller sculptures, nearly all carved with the use of a pen-knife. About these issues, please see the text by Paulo Monteiro, “At the mouth of the woods”. Catalogue of the Art Exhibition “Véio – Esculturas” (Véio – Sculptures). Estação Art Gallery, São Paulo, 2010. Available on the Internet at: http://www.galeriaestacao.com.br/pop_artista_txt.asp?a=7&iframe=true&width=80%&height=80%.
2. Several works, such as the series of clowns, combine characteristics from the two sets as previously described: they are both sculpted and painted. I feel that in these works one characteristic that stands out is the notable fantasy shown by Cícero which, as we shall see, is a decisive element in the meaning of his work, taken as a whole.
3. This information, as also all the other information mentioned in this essay, was supplied by the artist in a telephone conversation on 2 July 2014.
4. This information was also supplied to me by the artist by telephone on 2 July 2014.
5. Nossa Senhora da Glória, with a population of about 50 thousand, is a highly dynamic pole of the sertão (rural backlands) of the State of Sergipe.
6. I am also most grateful to Alberto Tassinari, Nilza Micheletto and Vilma Arêas for their reading of the text and for the suggestions they have made. The generosity of friends is free from possible divisions by the author.
For the Galeria Estação , nothing could be more representative than commemoration of the gallery’s 10th anniversary with an exhibition and a book by Cícero Alves dos Santos, also known as Véio (Nossa Senhora da Glória, Sergipe, 1948). After all, ever since it first opened the art gallery has worked towards the dilution of the frontier which separated popular artists from the Brazilian contemporary art scene. Véio is an important result of this effort.
Nowadays, art critics such as Rodrigo Naves, who signs the texts of the exhibition and the book – issued by the Martins Fontes publishing house -, Lorenzo Mammì, Paulo Sérgio Duarte, and many others, have shown more and more interest in this production, as has the international circuit. Véio has just returned from Paris, where he participated in the exhibition to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Cartier Foundation, together with other Brazilians such as Adriana Varejão and Beatriz Milhazes. The Sergipe-born artist was not the only artist on the Galeria Estação portfolio to have been selected, as this exhibition also had the presence of Zé Bezerra and Nino; this trio had already participated in another exhibition at the French venue back in 2012.
With a total of 45 works represented, the exhibition Cícero Alves do Santos: Véio brings recent works, that were carried out between 2013 and 2014, both large and small. In the larger exhibits, tree trunks, branches and roots have an important presence and Véio intervenes only occasionally, sculpting or painting, to make more explicit the figures and the shapes that he envisages in those natural elements which he calls ‘open woods.’
As Naves points out, with the plant aspect of the material strongly highlighted, the use of intense colour surprises, on showing an artificial and pop feature, while also reinforcing the natural phenomena in the trunk, the root or the branch. “As the colours do not have that much importance in the formal definition of the works, these help, first and foremost, to stress the irregularity of the volumes that they cover, without hiding their organic and plant origin.”
As Naves also stresses, in the case of small works, through carvings made with pen-knives on small or very small pieces of wood, which are known as ‘closed woods’, the artist makes the figure take up the whole wood unit, through the shapes into which the pieces of wood are transformed, in a way that hardly allows any view of the original wood. “In the works of Cícero – a rural person, or sertanejo, who managed to buy a small forest reserve exclusively because of his preservationist concerns -, the harmful consequences of humanity’s domination of nature are made visible in the very scale of the objects: the higher the degree of human intervention, the less shall be the strength and the power of the beings resulting from it; this, even though this aspect could bring out their aesthetic grandeur”, the critic adds.
Like many people from the same region, this sculptor was given his name in honour of local religious personality Padre Cícero, while his nickname came about because he liked to eavesdrop on the conversations of older people. A self-learner, Véio admired popular culture ever since he was a child, when he started to craft his first works using beeswax. The intense relationship with his environment made the artist create, beside his studio in the backlands of the Brazilian state of Sergipe, a “Backlands Museum”. Many of the objects that have been brought together in this museum bear witness to the battle between the rural people and nature. These include leather hats, domestic appliances, rudimentary machines, clothes and accessories that are part of the lives of the sertanejos.
Exhibition: Cícero Alves dos Santos: Véio
Opening: 29 October at 7 p.m.
Runs until 20 December 2014
Opening hours: Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. – Admittance free.
Galeria Estação Art Gallery
Rua Ferreira de Araújo, 625 – Pinheiros, São Paulo SP
Book: Cícero Alves dos Santos: Véio
Publishing House: Martins Fontes
Price: R$ 89.00
Number of pages: 200
Press InformationPool de Comunicação – Marcy Junqueira
Service: Martim Pelisson and Luana Ferrari
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