Sage comme une image is Horácio Frutuoso's latest exhibition at the Balcony (Lisbon), the gallery that represents him. Open until 18 November, this exhibition set the theme for a (Zoom) conversation with Horácio that not only approached subjects directly related to it but also comprised considerations on art, the image, the art system, and the figure of the artist; thoughts on life and the contemporary world; concerns surrounding death…
David Revés (DR): I feel we ought to start with the title of this exhibition, Sage comme une image. There's a rather interesting semantic range to this phrase. In French, it's usually used to describe somebody who's well-behaved, generally a quiet, calm child. As such, while it may be synonymous with a sensible, serene attitude, an idea of interruption or lack of movement, and even of a certain conformity, is also implicit in it. I'd ask you if you consider your exhibition to be a well-behaved one—and, if so, in what sense.
Horácio Frutuoso (HF): I first found that phrase in a Belgian artist's catalogue. I hadn't ever heard of it, and I translated it directly into Portuguese: "obediente como uma imagem" [well-behaved as an image]. Later, I realised it could also be translated as "wise" or "sapient as an image." I wrote the phrase down, as I usually do: typically, I come across things that are interesting to me and take notes that are later added to lists of words and sentences I might use in my works in time to come.
When I started closing the circle of what this exhibition could become, I had this phrase as title option, and at the time I did some research to figure out the origin of it. Most of the results alluded to the universe of tidiness and orderliness. That aspect aroused great interest in me, because in this exhibition I wanted to show but paintings with an established premise to each of them.
I was equally interested in the relationship comprised in seeing a work of art, and in that relationship requiring a certain observation period—an interest that proceeded from a need to create something that required that work through the act of seeing.
That need was also a response to the "appeals" targeting us at the moment within the art system, particularly in these pandemic times. Nowadays, everything is very fleeting, tailor-made for the digital. We are increasingly bombarded with information and consume more exhibitions, more culture. However, we do so at high speed. There's a lot to say about it, which is often contradictory in itself; still, I feel that, although people are seeing and travelling more and are able to get more information, they see less. In the sense of seeing thoughtfully and attentively.
DR: Another translation for the phrase "Sage comme une image" could be, as you mentioned, "wise as an image." That purported wisdom of the image quickly transports me to Jacques Rancière's concept of "pensive image." This concept attributes to certain images produced within certain artistic poetics a transient vocation that takes place between a moment of stoppage (in the continuum of the real or even in a flux of images) and, paradoxically, an ability to generate movement. The movement of the thought that we enter (or that enters us), but also the very transformative, or evocative, movement that the image contains and secretes. That happens due to the particular way in which several codes of representation or different regimes of expression coexist in that type of images, says Rancière.
I think this is an exhibition of pensive images, as you employ painting and text (which form the image), but also because of a spectre of cinema or of the moving image that is sensed in all the images. And I don't mean just the performative dimension, which is clearly there. On that matter, there's an installation, almost immersive inclination upon which your exhibition is cumulatively developed.
HF: There's indeed an intention to generate a certain theatricality. Something between the actions or gestures we perform when we're alone (knowing we are not being watched and thus don't need to simulate anything), and the gesturality we develop in the moments when are being watched. To me, the images in this exhibition sort of exist between those two dimensions.
There has also been an installation diligence in creating a sequence, which promptly starts with the first painting you see as you enter the exhibition, where the figure raises an H amongst other letters scattered across the floor, in reference to the title of the previous exhibition at the same gallery (H, 2018). Likewise, there's a path that suggested by the shadows—they all "move" in the same direction. Yet, I don't think there's a narrative, but rather something similar to a storyboard.
Furthermore, the purportedly cinematographic character of the images is eventually, concurrently generated through a meticulous organisation of the representational space and selection of the constituent elements. All the images "take place in," refer to, or represent the same space; they're also technically similar, and almost all of them are of the same size. I also intended to uniform and purify the compositions using the constant nature of their structural elements—a human figure, a canvas, a chair—which are joined by others—dogs, books, etc.
I started working on this exhibition with a question in mind: what is a reader today? It's a question that arose from my need to have more time to read and write, which wasn't happening due to several obligations that prevented me from doing it. Then I started making paintings taking that question as starting point, and I ended up relying on various classical models, on Baroque painting, and particularly on depictions of Saint Jerome.
So, I agree with you once more when you say there's a sort of ambience surrounding all the images that transports us to certain cinematic moments, in which for example the characters try to remember something. There's a sort of fading, nebular quality to the images in the exhibition; in fact, it looks like there's some sort of smoke there, like a filter.
DR: And what about the text? There's simultaneously a continuity and a discontinuity in your use of it, comparing with the type of work you have presented in other contexts. It moves from the wall or the translucent surfaces you usually apply it on to be exclusively within the image. Still, this exhibition doesn't abound in it, although I think there's text in all the canvases, even if it's not apparent; that is, there's something of a narrative nature, or ultimately a latency or appeal to the word and to language, as a possible way for the image to realise itself (something which might occur exactly by means of that cinematographic aspect, I'd say). I'd like you to talk a bit about that representational function of text, about how it is convocational or projective but never descriptive.
HF: The need to pay attention to the act of seeing, which I've mentioned earlier—it was already part of me back when I was creating exclusively textual works: graphic or visual poetry. In those works, I often felt that, even if it comprised a composition work that suggested movement, a dialogue, or a relationship with space, there was a lack of comprehension or actual reading of what was written on them, to the detriment of its formal dimension. Even if they sometimes were more aggressive or jocose things. That led me to reconsider the works themselves and how I could maintain the approach but introduce the absence of text, albeit preserving a literary presence.
In this case, the intention would be that the text transpired as a sort of list—without one being able to tell if it's an object, a phantom, or a shadow. There was an intention of representing text as something between the material and the immaterial. Text, thus, emerges in the formation of a non-prescriptive presence, as it's not a description, nor the work's title, nor some interpretation solution. Another layer.
DR: You mentioned the depictions of Saint Jerome and the issue of reading. They both move us closer to another notion, namely that of translation, which is explicitly mentioned in this exhibition's promotional materials: Saint Jerome, who was an eminent, famous translator; and the activity of reading, which from a certain point of view can be seen as a form of translation as interpretative phenomenon. Considering what we were talking about regarding the process of constitution of the image through various expressive regimes, and regarding how different iconic, indexical, or metaphorical references coexist in your canvases, I think an idea of translation is indeed clearly present. I'd ask you if the idea of translation emerges, or if you regard it, within those senses, but also as a process of re-actualisation of memory in life.
HF: I regard translation work—that of somebody who translates a text into another language—as a somewhat creative work (somebody has to place their knowledge and experience at the service of the translation). This demand for transformation—I find it in the creative and transformative process that is artistic work as well. When an artist decides to transform something into an artwork (whatever the shape or format), in addition to the creative act, a transference of their experiences, their reality, the things he consumes takes place. That is obviously an exercise of memory and intellectualisation, or rationalisation, of their assumptions.
What I developed in this set of paintings was an exercise of working on and turning raw or unfinished poems into actual images. Taking into consideration the question that drives this exhibition, I tried to think about how the books we read influence our daily life, how that might be present in what we do, and especially how that presence can be represented. In a non-descriptive way, of course. Still, these images are not memories of anything at all, but rather accumulations of visual archives, etc. Because sometimes things get mixed up.
Likewise, recollections and memories eventually get distorted. We can remember moments from our childhood, but we'll always be distorting them. Things gradually transform.
DR:That is implicit in the translation process, indeed. Saint Jerome is a great example of it, of distorting, transforming, and editing the "text" in its idiomatic and linguistic transition. This takes me to another problematic, now: translation as a process of survival. In fact, Fernão Cruz, in his text for the exhibition brochure, writes about painting as a form of survival. I'd ask you to comment on it: do you think this exhibition in particular, or painting in general, is a process of survival (of images)?
HF: As a transformative process of images or materials, the practice of painting, due to its historical trajectory, holds that power to make static images last, since they can always tell us something more. There's a possibility to fit multiple, different dimensions in a fixed image, and the dialogue developed with the gazer can be a continuous one, despite all temporal (historical) and contextual breaks.
So, that phrase is rather analogous to work itself, as a process of addition, transformation, and change. Even if at first I'd had some sort of plan to execute them, these images, or the rest of my works, eventually suffered setbacks. Changes or confrontations inevitably come about, leading to an image being remade, or halted, put aside… In this exhibition, some images were even destroyed, and others remade or repeated. This confrontation is always present—a confrontation even the technique and the material themselves require. I think all artistic activity requires it—and requires time, too. Sometimes we think we're going to finish a work in two days, and actually take two months or two years to finish it.
What motivated me to make these paintings, which were at the root of the exhibition, was basically my quest for that transformation, forcing me to change my pace and stance so as to respond to a succession of unexpected challenges; putting me to the test, and thus responding to life itself.
So, when a painting is finally able to be perceived and become part of an exhibition, it has already gone through a test of survival. That image has come alive, and is already autonomous enough to emancipate itself. And so we return to the title, and to why I found it to be a pertinent one.
DR: When you exhibit something, do you feel it somehow no longer belongs to you?
HF: It still belongs to me, but a secret is revealed. I think there's a lot of that in painting, actually: a sort of secret that changes or comes alive in some other way as it's shown.
DR: It emancipates itself, but won't completely let go of you…
HF: Yes. It's still mine, but the relationship I develop with that image is no longer the same.
DR: If we've talked about translation and survival, we should also talk about death. It really is something that spans the whole exhibition space, both via an actual enunciation and via a certain spectral omnipresence. Fernão mentions the question of death, too: "Even without a death wish, desire must be mourned, by transforming it."
HF: Even though I think it relates to the creative act in itself, in my case those topics have to do with an approach. The latter is constructed in a process of consummation, of intention, of desire, and of annihilation, too: either of the whole or of some constituent aspect of that desire. Likewise, that idea of death results from the very act of choosing and making decisions. In my poetics, that is a constant fight, and my work also relies on that, mostly: organising and making exclusions.
At the same time, in a more literal way, the idea of death is present in my work because I am constantly very much aware of the horizon of finitude and that time really does not stop. Yet, sometimes I can't entirely rationalise this interest. I wonder how we might cope, knowing there are obligations along the way that increasingly occupy that time. It's an ever-present negotiation: in other words, a game of choices.
I believe art is an excellent means or human exercise, not for one to challenge, which would be impossible, but rather to be able to cope with that idea of death and finitude.
DR: Let us consider the ghost that appears in one of the paintings, then: the only figure that faces us and presents no shadow. I'd also like to mention another painting where this ghost reveals itself, asserting its presence through its omission: the one with the empty chair. However, beyond these more expressive manifestations, there's a phantasmagorical presence in all the canvases. I'd ask you if this exhibition is an attempt to find or capture in a more tangible image that which is your ghost. This takes us to the use of the self-portrait, which, with the amount of productions presented, is one of the most particular features of this exhibition.
HF: I can't really explain the reason for that ghost. But I know why it has no shadow. Not having a shadow prevents it from acknowledging itself and becoming a real object or figure (a bit like Peter Pan, who tries to catch his shadow and sew it back on), even though this ghost is wearing trainers and a watch, as a way to mark the time it is stuck within.
Regarding the question of the self-portrait, there's always a poetic subject in my poems as well: a first person who, despite existing indeed, is not necessarily me, or does not necessarily allude to an autobiographical dimension. Likewise, for the representations in these images, instead of using other people, I used my own body. Still, I don't consider them to be self-portraits.
DR: You use your body out of convenience and familiarity, but we can almost locate the generic figure of the artist within this representational aspect. So, should we not look at it in an autobiographical way, then we could consider the sort of double that is the construction of the artist in relation to the physical person. Would this ghost be the ghost which is that double?
HF: Indeed, it can be my figure or the figure of the artist that is construed based on the work. That is, whoever sees this exhibition or is familiar with my work in general will obviously form an image that is beyond me, one over which I have no power whatsoever. In that case, this ghost could be that ghost, yes. It is a ghost because it's still under construction, or because it is under constant transformation. At the same time, it haunts me because it exerts pressure to follow some type of continuity. This exhibition eventually became a response to that burden of continuity or expectation (for example, a continuity of the text work). Maybe this ghost is that one. Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the pressure to follow a logical line or a constant language in our work invariably lurks behind us artists. The pressure (or ghost) of having to follow those models eventually exhausts some artists' careers.
Perhaps that's why the second figure in the canvas with the ghost turns its back on it and reveals the skeleton (frame) of a painting it's carrying under the arm. Or the case of one of the final canvases in the exhibition, where the figure greets (or reconciles itself with) its actual double, dressed in white.
DR: I'm currently reading Henri Michaux's Escritos sobre Pintura (1939). I found in it a very curious comment which I think is pertinent to this conversation. He says, "Since we lead an excessively facial life, we are constantly in a fever of faces."
Your exhibition immediately sprang to mind—in particular the work Cenário eterno, the only one with no face in it, despite there being a human figure. Given that we were just now talking about the question of the self-portrait, I'd like us to be able to fit it into a certain condition of the contemporary image, or even into an expressive condition of the contemporary world, where hyper-exhibition, hyper-visibility, hyper-representation, or hyper-faciality (to contextualise within Michaux's statement) characterise the mediating phenomena of its experience. I must consider this painting to be rather evocative, as well as, in some way, a critical comment on that condition: it simultaneously denies individuality to the face and presents the body (or that which covers the flesh) as scenery.
HF: That painting contains the unfinished painted phrase "cenário eterno" [Eternal scenery]. It was painted over another that looks blurry but is still legible, which reads "final fantasy." It's as though that desire for eternity, or that desire for constructing an eternity, were interrupted, or left halfway through. Just like the faceless figure, with its silhouette against the background, emerges as though it were a sketch or preliminary drawing, given the figures in the other paintings—which, despite having a face, never look outward, to who looks at them.
These questions arose mostly because I increasingly feel a certain absence of the figure of the artist or of the author from contemporary artistic practices. It seems like people/artists currently don't want to put themselves at stake. Perhaps due to the particularity of the times we are living in—times of greater scrutiny, analysis, and filtering. And all of this in a much more political sense: a scrutiny synonymous with judgment. Which turns out to have the opposite effect. Instead of analysing the image, its potentialities, and what can enrich them, bring something new, something of a communicating or dialoguing character, people scrutinise in a different way: with judgment and quasi-destruction.
I wonder why nowadays we go to galleries or museums, where everybody is permanently taking pictures or uploading stories, phone-in-hand, but those actions are not that present in contemporary artistic practices. In very few cases does a phone, or a representation of us using a phone, appear. It's like in cinema. We watch a film that takes place in the present day, and seldom do we see people texting, etc. Obviously, it's like that because things would get dated otherwise, but at the same time it's somewhat of a reflection of our society. In 20 years’ time, our notion of decades or years, that is, of that way of defining periods and tendencies, will have disappeared. Or at least I think so.
I'm aware that in 20 years' time the paintings in this exhibition will look too dated and allude to a specific period or time, but maybe that's important. Today, when we go to an ancient art museum, or even a more general museum, we are fascinated with the way people dressed or with the tools they used.
DR: The striped shirt is rather characteristic of most of your work. In these paintings, it appears once again—in force. When we were talking at your studio some weeks ago, you told me that this element referred to a condition of marginality, of something that is excluded from or is outside some territory (a mental or material one). With this in mind, and once again making a connection with the figure of Saint Jerome and with him being a hermit himself, I'd ask you if those references intra-justify each another in this exhibition. And, by the way, if you think the practice of painting, or artistic work in general, would benefit from such a seclusion, or such an eremitism—such a self-marginalising stance (in the good sense, of course).
HF: Yes. Not in the marginal sense.
The question of the stripes has also been present in my production. However, they took on a particular presence or relevance last year, when I developed the Serralves exhibition. Without delay, I found a possible title for it: "Clube de Poesia" [Poetry Club]. At the time, as I was preparing the exhibition with Ricardo Nicolau (curator), we talked a lot about what poetry can be today and about that idea of club. The fact that people get together to recite poetry often constitutes an experience that is very different from the writer's.
I wanted to have a venue inside Serralves that presented itself as a poetry club but was actually an exhibition. I think the idea of something that is private or closed to most actually agrees with what it's like to be an artist, or with what artistic practice has turned out to be in the contemporary world.
So I took that exhibition to a much more intimate universe—I wouldn't say secret, but rather private—which eventually mirrors the art system, as a closed system with particular codes, languages, and ways of being.
At the same time, I believe artistic practice really needs that time and space of privacy or exclusion. Especially within the current art system, in which too many things happen—people need to be constantly moving and travelling.
The stripes, then, emerge as a response of mine to that need to be part of those systems and, at the same time, to define the place where I want to be and how I want to do it. I also had in mind a text by Michel Pastoureau, The Devil's Cloth: A History of Stripes, in which the author presents a study on stripes throughout history. Stripes have always been associated with the marginal, from prison uniforms to police vehicles, from gangster suits to medieval prostitutes. That is, a connection with what's correct or incorrect, with what's outside society, with what sets the limits is always present in my work.
DR: I'd also say that in this exhibition such is present not only in the use of stripes but also in the trajectory suggested, where we watch the human figure sliding across the images and representing various actions. An attempt to render hyper-visible the figure of the artist, wandering across the canvases and revealing (or asserting) himself, though at the end of it we're given but a
HF: Or maybe he's just taking a break to pose for another image…
David Revés (Lisboa, 1992). Independent researcher and curator. Master in Art Studies, Theory and Criticism of Art, Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Porto (2018). He has explored the area of new media and social networks, being interested in his intersections with art, museology, exhibition systems and issues related to the figure of the spectator. Develops a critical and essayistic practice with which he regularly contributes to some publications, artistic or academic projects.
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Horácio Frutuoso: Sage comme une image. Exhibition views at Balcony Gallery. Photos: Bruno Lopes. Courtesy of the artist and Balcony Gallery.