In an exhibition curated by João Maria Gusmão and Natxo Checa at Galeria Zé dos Bois, Gonçalo Pena reveals to us the state in which his painting stands. That is, the state of his relationship with painting and with what is external to it: history, namely that of the 20th century, of the other arts, of the moving image, of the conditions of modernity. The art of Gonçalo Pena has long stood in a constant becoming. Although the same could be said about other artists, this one is a convulsive, exposed becoming. Exhibition after exhibition, it keeps on losing covering, facing crises, experiencing moments of iconoclasm and iconodulism. It is meta-painting and painting poring over the world.
In Metafísica, the as-yet unseen works represent a particular moment in a pictorial production. For now, large-format paintings filled with characters and scenes, inebriated with oil, referring to the tradition of the tableau, have been cast aside. And both the influence of the universe of Western-tradition figurative painting and the full-bodied virtuosity of oil painting—present in earlier exhibitions, namely in Atol, at Galeria Zé dos Bois, too, in 2012—have decreased. Decreased, not disappeared, it should be stressed.
Although Gonçalo's painting, in its omnivorous voraciousness, devours and expels many images, traditions, and pictorial universes, it still observes the—social, cultural, aesthetic—history of painting.
In other words, it is as though Pena, as he paints, does not cease looking, from a vantage point, at the past. In Metafísica, this past is that of art, or more precisely that of modernity, thus in a sense that transcends artistic mastery. Gonçalo Pena gathers from it not only visual elements but also strategies and worldviews; he comments on it; he summons it into his poiesis.
In this exhibition, the means he employs to do so is painting—a painting that looks like an extension of drawing, nevertheless. The latter, he deprives it of light, musical impetuosity, of swiftness (and, in that sense, analogies with thought are relevant), of the energy underlying its disinterested simplicity. Still, Gonçalo Pena will not or cannot reject a tie to the exterior, with what was or is outside the canvas. Such a tie comes into view in allusions to political and aesthetic movements, always mediated by the poetic, here regarded as a singular, visible, and sensible making and product. In this relationship, Pena opens up a pictorial space and time—which is his—where images from the prehistory of cinema, from Portuguese modernism, from the history of ideas, from seminal 20th-century utopias and political regimes appear.
In the variously sized paintings, one finds references to the praxinoscope, to painting salons, to Suprematism and Cubism, to the Tiller Girls, to speed. Pena's work oozes a visual and conceptual reflection of which humour and the ridiculous are cardinal components. We see a Munchian spectre performing a Roman salute, Suprematist paintings as cartoons, a train coming out of two buttocks, a stupid duck, a chained mountain, a crowd of flabbergasted manikins staring at the painting of a sow (the iron piece!). Pena employs the oblique parody, the elliptic gag, the pun, the phonetic wordplay. Not only does he bring drawing into painting (or vice versa), but he also adds with Duchampian elegance a dissonant element that subtly shifts, everts, twists the meaning of what is depicted or, in view of their presence, causes words and images to clash. The dialectic the latter suggest is no mere play. With their consonants and vowels, the words in Gonçalo Pena's paintings are meant to be said and heard ("Libe" and "Ral"), and acquire a meaning as bewildering as undecipherable via his intervention (“Le çadisme aux sinema”).
Pena visually comments on image production and reception without, however, leading us to a univocal interpretation of his own images. His is a method of a visual and conceptual syncretism that comprises the gag, Cubist collage (within the painting), Surrealism, Conceptual art tactics, and, further behind, a thinking on the tragic, trauma, and the experience of events.
Art and world mutually animate each other; thus, some of the paintings can be seen as questions about the idolatry of art, of the origin of the human, or of 20th-century political history.
And yet, once more, Gonçalo Pena insists on the freedom of ellipsis before escaping into his own painting. Indeed, some works mainly comment on the pictorial, deconstructing it with humour (the paint roller that paints and deforms a doll-like shape), diluting its mimetic nature (the sumo fighters in a shaky, fragile gesturality), or citing genealogies (the samurai portrait, in evocation of an Almada Negreiros drawing). With those movements, the representation of the human figure recedes; it almost disappears. In its place, now, we find manikins, humanoid characters, objects, tools, geometric shapes. Pena's painting seems to expand in the direction of some abstraction, even—one sometimes lyrical and oneiric, and sometimes organic and raw. It obeys a certain desire, experiencing hesitations and advances between painting and non-painting, drawing and painting, virtuosity and an almost automatic line, meta-painting and the visual gag. Gonçalo Pena engages in the drift peculiar to surface-bound matter, but he does so fully aware of the illusions of the pictorial, of its tense relationship with historical and human truth. The last painting in the exhibition exemplifies it: in talking about itself, always at the helm of laughter, it inevitably talks about the human.
José Marmeleira. Master in Comunicação, Cultura e Tecnologias da Informação (ISCTE), he is a grant holder from Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT) and a PhD candidate in Filosofia da Ciência, Tecnologia, Arte e Sociedade at Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, in the context of which he is currently writing a dissertation on Hannah Arendt's thinking on art and culture. He is also an independent journalist and cultural critic for several publications (Público supplement Ípsilon, Contemporânea, and Ler).
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Gonçalo Pena: Metafísica. Exhibition views at ZDB. Photos: Bruno Lopes. Courtesy of the artist and ZDB: Galeria Zé dos Bois.