Shirley Paes Leme
|Marie Alice Milliet:
Shirley Paes Leme
DRAWING AND DRIVE
Izabel Murat Burbridge
|Maturity has arrived for Shirley Paes Leme. Anyone who comes into touch with the artist for the first time will find her girlish appearance to be quite disconcerting. One has a hard time picturing her fragile figure as author of such large number of sculptures and (at times) monumental installations.
Today, after three decades of hard work, her career is indisputably coherent. The self-assured way in which she travels between craftwork and technology, occasionally combining them into a same installation, does not keep the singularity of her poetics - one that is constantly and paradoxically committed to the new and the atavistic - from being evinced again and again. Europeans, particularly Germans, take considerable interest in this nearly anthropological character of her production, and for this reason have invited her regularly to show in solo or group exhibitions since 1992. Recently, Paes Leme's attendance in a series of important group exhibitions ñ 2nd Mercosur Biennial; Brazil+500 Rediscovery Exhibition; shows of Brazilian art held at FundaÁo Calouste Gulbenkian, in Lisbon, and Musée d'Art Contemporain, in Bordeaux (France); 7th Havana Biennial, and São Paulo Biennial: 50 Years - revealed the use of new media such as video and cellular telephone in her installations.
If I were to describe in two words the basic structure of Shirley Paes Leme's diversified art production, I would say it is organized around the binary combination of line and light. The starting point of her creative work is drawing taken in its broadest sense, understood as idea, conception, and intent, that is to say, as thought underlying the work and propelling its rendition. Indeed, drawing boasts a will of becoming.
Viewing the artist's oeuvre in retrospect, I come upon an audiovisual piece she did in 1975, when she was a second-year student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais's School of Fine Arts. The work is a mix slide reproductions of photos of an ancient painting found in a cave at Lascaux showing a wounded bison next to a man. From this hunt scene Paes Leme cut out certain details - the raised hairs on the animalís back, the slit gut and the exposed entrails - that, once enlarged, lost their mimetic referencing. What we have is fidgety lines, the records of the high tension of that dramatic event. The artist concentrated on the graphic annotation, on the lines that cross the light field, although the choice of subject is also extremely significant.
Within this archaic imagery, violent death appears is all its complexity as theme. The presence of a spear and a scepter topped with a bird figure connote the relationship between man and beast, bringing together nature and culture, reality and magic. It is not by mere chance that this primeval realm attracts the artist, whose personal history began in central Brazil, in the state of Goiás. In that barren brushwood country, witnessing instances of birth and death were part of a child's everyday life. She saw dead cattle in pastures and cows bearing their young; and she heard plenty of conversation by the fire. The artist's past resurfaces in her work, never as a nostalgic recurrence, but as a memory transfigured by the inexorable power of the present. Such tense and reflective articulation reveals at each new gesture the dread and the enchantment of every beginning. Over time, the interaction between real and imaginary or between concrete and virtual generates an artistic event that is continually developed into multiple manifestations, given that - as we know - the lack of a stable situation rules out any synthesis.
A review of Shirley Paes Leme's work will have it as an ongoing exercise of structural and structuring design of the existential, translated into an imagery evermore related to the phenomenological experience of space. Once the academic practice of copy and observation drawing is overcome, her graphic notations become independent. The line leaps from paper to tapestry or is launched from plane into space as precarious and, often, large-scale constructions. The sculptures and installations she created in the 1990s are for their most part made with dry tree branches. Her systematic use of linear structures constantly make reference to drawing; if for no other reason, because the branches are featured as bundles that create rhythms, forming converging or expanding bulks, or yet outlining the void with light frameworks boasting forms of an inaccurate geometry. Ultimately, the bundled brushwood exposes the pieceís framework, enhancing the concreteness of several lines that make it up. At the same time, the irregular gathering of tree branches leads to the appearance of a virtual line, be it a crack though which light filters, be it a shadow between limbs.
When addressing light, Paes Leme bears in mind fire, a foundational element of cultural life that was a marked presence in her childhood. To the artist as well as to a large part of the Brazilian people, fire and vegetation are permanently associated, be it in the devastating burning of forests, be it in youth-day bonfires. Each time she gathers dead limbs that fall off trees, she repeats the ancestral gesture of gathering firewood, a practice still found throughout the Brazilian hinterland. As a child, she was enthralled with figures drawn by firewood smoke, which grew and became rarefied before finally vanishing in the air. Many years later, she thought of transferring smoke onto paper. It was like capturing an exhaled blow, so volatile was the material with which she drew. Her experiment made way for a series of drawings. In the early works, residues form dynamic hubs; in others, she gives a direction to the sooty track.
This handling the ethereal and capturing the evanescent turn drawing practice into a game of determination and chance. The emotion of seeing an emerging image ñ an image that is sought and at the same time surprising ñ leads Paes Leme on to another experiment, one in which she uses fire as a developer of an invisible drawing. From recollections of a childhood game that consisted of using lemon juice to draw pictures on paper, and then making them visible by bringing the paper sheet near a candle flame, the artist took the inspiration to create a medium she named pyrophytography. She begins by taking a colorless liquid to sketch a practically blind drawing on a paper sheet. Then, when the paper is exposed to the heat of a flame, the sketched lines gradually begin to appear. This delicate operation always brings a certain degree of anxiety generated by the difficulty to discover the lines; the surprise before the newly-revealed image, and the fear of setting the paper on fire by bringing it too close to the flame.
Enthrallment follows the tense anticipation, as a past record is revealed in the present through a chemical reaction triggered by the artistís intervention. But, why her intervention, and not someone elseís? As answer to this question, Paes Leme has designed the Correr o Risco (Run the Risk) program, which consists of sending off dozens of blank paper sheets to her friends, along with the suggestion for them to develop the hidden image. Here, the word "risco" (which in Portuguese means not only danger, but also sketch, scratch or score) is used in wordplay to denote fire hazard and line. Here, once again, we have light and line.
In parallel, the artist shows a video titled A Tensão (Tension): in the footage, a camera traveling at high speed abruptly approaches a tree trunk, thus provoking on the spectator the sensation of an impending and possibly fatal collision. Cut. Leafless tree branches appear against the blue sky. The sounds of yelling and crying children are heard as voiceover. Just like traumatic recurrences, the footage is repeated continually. After the crash, what we see is a field of light hatched by an entanglement of black lines.
Today, Shirley Paes Lemeís greatest desire is to visit Lascaux. Not the replica, but the original cave, the admission to which is authorized by special permit only. She knows that visitors are handed only a small flashlight at the entrance, with which they discover on their own the painting masterpieces of our ancestors.
Maria Alice Milliet