A slow motion apocalypse
The exhibition “O suor da noite” (The Night Sweat) brings together several works by Mauro Cerqueira, created over the last three years. The works combine painting, drawing and assemblage, while emphasising the materiality of their various components. They may be viewed as paintings because they were created on blank canvases upon which Cerqueira has spread thick surfaces of tar, which he previously heated and melted. They are also drawings due to the predominance of the colour black, including its nuances or chiaroscuro effects and the line that results from a series of gestural incisions made with sharp objects, which the artists describes as “scars”. Finally, they are assemblages, because they all feature found objects (mobile phones, chains, padlocks, mirrors, watches, cables, books...), many of which are metallic, shiny, glued and distributed over the surface of tar, which simultaneously acts as an adhesive and contrast.
A similar materiality was also evident in the series of works in Cerqueira’s previous exhibition, Desenganar (Undeceive) (2019) presented in the Galeria Nuno Centeno, in which he used a different technique: melted wax impregnated with coloured pigment (primarily black) on mirrors. The process was equally laborious and delivered a similar result, especially in terms of the unique mixture of patience and meditation (in application of the base material; the binding medium), and intuition and spontaneity (in the gestures made on the surface and the choice and placement of objects). In that exhibition there was one work, entitled Desenganar (Undeceive) (Serralves Collection), which to a certain extent could be considered to be the origin of this new series. Desenganar was the darkest and most silent work in this previous exhibition. The mirror was only recognisable via the tiny empty spaces that the artist left free while applying the wax, which resembled small luminous particles scattered on the surface.
As in the case of Desenganar, blackness and obscurity are once again the protagonists of this new series. But the obscurity in question is relative, because the gestures or incisions made by the artist on the surface allow us to glimpse, or intuit, a pristine, almost resplendent, surface beneath the dense layer of tar and found objects. This subtle detail, as in Cerqueira’s previous works, introduces a glimmer of hope and innocence, of optimism and light into works that are otherwise dark, melancholic, or even ominous. This sensation perhaps represents the times in which we live: a slow-motion apocalypse.
As in his other works produced from 2007 onwards, Cerqueira uses his immediate surroundings as his main reference — the popular neighbourhoods of the city of Porto. He takes the reference to tar from these surroundings, as well as objects found on the black market, sold by petty criminals and drug addicts. But he manages to go beyond the local limits through a calculated exercise in abstraction, in this case, through revaluation of form and the theme, which provokes self-constraint in terms of the typical plastic resources of monochromatic painting.
From this perspective, the works of the series “O suor da noite” (The Night Sweat) present a rich panorama of overlapping influences and tributes. Obscurity, as a formal and thematic resource and blackness as the key protagonist of the works has undoubtedly a long path in the history of art. We only need to think of great artists such as Rembrandt and Goya, who achieved an unparalleled degree of expressiveness in their prints and paintings. In fact, they were among the first artists of modernity to reinforce the content of their works through a masterful use of abstraction and its plastic possibilities. Or we can recall more recent artists, such as Malevich or Pollock, to which Cerqueira perhaps discreetly alludes in one of his works that features a mesh of black and white cables.
This relationship with Pollock is also comprehensible when we think about the concept of social abstraction, which has recently been used to describe the work of painters such as Mark Bradford. In the North American context, this concept dates back to the all-over paintings of the 1940s, which also feature many kinds of glued materials and debris; brick dust, glass, iron filings, cigarette butts... In the contemporary context, Cerqueira recalls the impact caused by Steven Parrino’s retrospective exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2007. Other references include artists such as Ellen Gallagher, with her impressive paintings on black enamel (Black Paintings, 1998-2000), or John Miller, who did not use the colour black, but developed an acidic social critique in a series of paintings and sculptures (1988-1992), also monochromatic but in a brown tone, with unmistakable eschatological connotations.
The concept of “social abstraction” (a type of work that seems more or less abstract, but whose production process refers to a specific social context) can also serve as a link to another of the works shown in this exhibition: the film O suor do deserto (Desert sweat) (2022). Cerqueira cites this film as a kind of “visual context” for his paintings. In it we see the artist Babi Badalov wandering through the streets of Porto, Tangier, Larache, Fez and Paris, following in the footsteps of writers Jean Genet (1910-1986) and Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003), who viewed the artist’s social function as a form of solidarity with the lumpenproletariat and with petty criminals; with those who break with social norms out of instinct and the sheer need for survival. In the words of Paul Bowles, “the artist as the enemy of society”. In fact, crime featured in other exhibitions by Cerqueira, such as Cismadores (MARCO de Vigo, 2015) or Gatunar (2014).
Given that this is the main link, O suor do deserto (Desert sweat) offers a broad series of expressive images that develop a narrative discourse that complements the abstraction and opacity of his “paintings”. The film depicted a suffocating environment, in which a mixture of exoticism and rubbish serves as a surreal backdrop to a series of unprecedented situations and characters (a suicidal dance displayed on a mobile phone, donkeys rummaging for food in a rubbish tip, a waterfall of excrement on a beach in Larache...), Badalov travels through Moroccan cities, day and night, reading Genet’s poem Le Condamné a Mort (The Man Condemned to Death) (1942-45), in a poetic search for meaning in the place where, a priori, it is least expected: the world of the periphery and marginality.
Pedro de Llano Neira, September 2022