Evanescent but active: the space-producing painting

When reflecting about Sfumato – Rui Macedo’s pictorial project for Tabacalera[1], in Madrid – I immediately thought of a certain painter and a well-known series of works: the American Jasper Johns. The series became known as Targets[2] , produced between 1955 and 1961. In both, we identified a common challenge, the objectification of mimetic painting in relation to space. Rui Macedo’s ability to use the real in his painting, where we almost always see autonomous objects in dialogue with their environment, has to do with Jasper Johns’ “target”, which is not confused with a real target, despite its multidimensional similarity with the referent. This happens because its visuality reveals essential aspects of the painting technique, such as the use of the brush, or the surface altered during the process. Besides the diffuse aspect of its illusory image, the observer attests that it is a painting. However, being in front of a painting implies that the observer concentrates to identify what is represented. When what is represented is confused with what is depicted, not with the idea but with the object itself, there is a change in the effect caused by the pictorial mimesis. In particular, the change in human perception of the understanding of reality: not only the understanding of its image, but also the understanding of the material and three-dimensional expression. This is the greatest contribution of the Target series, of which Rui Macedo turns out to be the heir.

We have to acknowledge that if Jasper Johns added the targets to art, it was not just the introduction of a new theme that painting had never known before. Despite the novelty of the theme, this pictorial proposal revealed much more than that. A careful observation confirms even today the conceptual dimension of this gesture in contemporary art. In Johns’ painting, although we do not see a set of real targets, we do not find representations of this referent. After all, his illusory proposal is confused with a real target, especially in the circular planarity framed by the verticality of the rectangle that shapes it and in the objectivity projected by the proportions of the canvas, partially similar to some targets linked to the act of shooting, produced in the 1950s and 1960s in the USA. Therefore, and although the observer quickly concludes that he is not seeing a real target, but a painting, he also senses that the painting of a target has never haunted its concrete object so much. It is a painting, but at the same time it is almost the object represented in the pictorial effect. This great proximity between the painting and its referent makes it magnetic, innovative and unmistakable. In this process of approximation-fusion, there is not only the will to faithfully represent the real, but to confuse with it. Not only because of the quality of the mimetic representation, but also because of the similarity of the measures or the dimension of its specific, concrete objectivity.

Rui Macedo’s painting deliberately participates in this shared fusion. In this case, at Tabacalera, it makes a radical approximation between the real and its pictorial illusion, in an extraordinary game between painting and architectural space, where it is affirmed and dissimulated. The similarity with Johns’ “targets” is also in the assumption that the Portuguese artist makes based on the exact measurements of the walls, tile panels, doors or windows that he pictorially represents. It is always, in its persistent accuracy, the same measurements of the surfaces or formats that shape the painting. In other words, the paintings not only present the illusion of the space of architecture, but they also occupy its place, sometimes hiding it in the millimetric measurements of some parietal apparatuses. And he confirms, in expressing the techniques of the discipline, that painting is the short circuit of his artistic work, Rui Macedo reaffirms it in the relationship of simulacrum that he establishes with the spatial order of its manifestation. It is a game of pertinence and “installation” affirmation, since this painting only exists, at least fully, in the space with which it dialogues. It creates, in site-specific mode, the challenge proposed by the recognition and dissent of the places of painting and architecture, between values and meanings that get mixed and confused based on the order of the visible. But he also does so in the physical experience and the phenomenal expression. It is as if Rui Macedo wanted to propose, with his illusionist but exact painting, the conditions of perceptual reframing of the architectural space – its three-dimensionality. Thus, painting establishes, from its essential method of representation, a new relationship with the space, where the body and the various sensations participate in a specific way, suggesting a three-dimensional reading. This, although perverted in its concentration or autonomous visuality, remains dependent on vision and the effects of trompe l’oeil seduction. This visual seduction, the trap that catches our attention, creates the possibility of identifying a new spatiality, where the real is literally hidden by the surface of the painting, which reproduces the characteristics and hazards of that real. This real, which is pictorialized in the exact metric of a reproduced visuality, is a gradation, a low tone one, almost “sfumato”. We cannot confirm if what is represented, also positioned as a real occultation, is faithful to the real replaced by the pictorial effect in the way it is presented.

Without denying the assumptions of the architectural space, Rui Macedo deals with the challenge imposed by the Tabacalera galleries, the constraints of its structure, chromaticism, forms, meaning and memory, related to the industrial past of a tobacco company. This inclusion of spatial meanings becomes evident when we realize that the artist has not created autonomous and indifferent objects to space. Instead, he responded with paintings that mask but attest to a visual reality that is physical and presential, visible in the space of the pictorial presentation or its installation. That is why, in this project, it is important to have a mimesis millimetrically obedient to space, to its suggestions and limits. The artist does not regard them as limitations, but rather a challenge. If, as I stated at the beginning, Rui Macedo’s pictorial work refers to an aptitude for reality, by making a painting that mimics it so that it can be confused or reinterpreted, its purpose could never be as profound as it is now, with results that imply a transformation of perceptions and phenomena never before identified. A New Perspective on Alexander M. Collection (2018), at the Loures Municipal Gallery; (In)dispensável. A Pintura que Inquieta a Coleção do Museu (2019), at the Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, in Lisbon; or, years before, Mnemosyne, at the Palácio do Catete, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2013; Un cuerpo extraño, at Madrid’s National Museum of Decorative Arts, also in 2013; as well as Caleidoscópio, an intervention project made at the Museu Nacional Grão Vasco, in Viseu, still in 2013; among many other works made in the last decade – all this allowed us to conclude the productive effects of the dialogue with the collections or the hypercoded space of the museum or art gallery, especially its legitimizing identity, more or less hierarchical and defining the artistic field. In this case, an old industrial space – transformed into a contemporary exhibition space, which has undergone few changes in relation to its original state – welcomes these paintings, which were made to face and frame the location where the artistic intervention takes place. Rui Macedo uses a realistic, or partially naturalist, a painting that simulates, reconstructs and reinvents the details of the physical wear and tear of that space, using the “sfumato” technique. Or, rather, an individual interpretation of this verist simulation technique which, in this case, “adds”, with a soft tonal gradation, a pictorial patina to the images produced as a temporary installation for that space. The communicative objective of this pictorial project shows the need to be conjoined with the architecture. This not only welcomes it but also determines it. All these paintings, originally made to reflect the space, interfering with the exhibition site, are objects of integration and reflection, inventing small or subtle disturbances in the level or sense of their recognition. They translate a reading of this space, which paradoxically needs the pictorial experience to assert itself as a three-dimensional or architectural area. For example, in the empty spaces caused by the wear and tear of the walls, the consequence of broken glass or tiles, removed doors, slabs or destroyed floor, the artist adds pictorial elements that simulate the materials, the damaged, forgotten, removed or disappeared objects. In this process of creative reconstitution, where the imaginary also takes place, Rui Macedo makes variations in space by introducing “doors” (pictorial, but obeying the exact measure of a concrete door), where before there were blind walls. Or, using tilting windows (i.e. their pictorial simulation), to reimagine a space that will benefit from these simulations, helped by the effect provoked by the pictorial-objective gesture, which this trompe l’oeil painting develops effectively, especially in a mimesis that builds new spatial illusions and, consequently, the mathematics of a true “simulacral” experience. A similar vision but without confirmed reality, a ghost. For this, we also take into account the opinion of John Berger, who states that, throughout history, since the fifteenth century, “oil painting has been a medium developed in particular to illustrate on canvas the physical texture and tangibility of things”[3],

In the context of French post-structuralist thought in 1970 and 1980, Jean Baudrillard detailed the transverse effects of the simulacrum on contemporary perception and how this is increasingly confused with the persistence of a pre-existing real which, before being lived, was already experienced as representation. In a society where image technologies go beyond the rhythm of the real, increasing its level of production and reproduction, the simulacrum, according to Baudrillard, is an extraordinary power to preset what, even when associated to the original real, is the expression of another category imposed on the subject. A real composed of shadows, spectra and appearances, without any possibility of being an effective[4] real. If the conflict between the real and its simulation is a philosophical problem that Plato had already addressed, and the interpretation of the famous “allegory of the cave”, today, with the countless technological processes of digital reproduction, there is a new, invasive and omnipresent universe.

Even in this context, and always based on the pictorial similarities of reality, and in the exercise of its micro or singular critical differences, Rui Macedo has long been betting on painting as a tangible approximation between sight, brain and touch. Thus, in an unexpected but active way, he recovers the place, the importance of mimesis in contemporary artistic practice. In this regard, it is important to remember Gilles Deleuze in Difference and Repetition, who refers to the complex identity of appearance in reality, as “the instance that establishes the difference between the original and the derivative” or “the distinction between the same and the identical”[5]. The painting at Tabacalera allows us to understand the value and polyvalence of this ambiguity of meaning in the image of thought. It uses the pictoriality of space as a circumstance or differentiating contribution in this game of similarities, whose perception also reflects an atmosphere with diffuse equivalences, equivalent to the expression of our time, the actuality translated or occupied by technological shadows. Rui Macedo’s work seems to affirm the difference and its manifestation, between the “sfumato” and the real object, resorting to the obsessive nature of the comparative repetition of the verist exercise. However, as Deleuze states, “repetition is a necessary and founded behaviour only in relation to what can be replaced. As behaviour and as a point of view, repetition refers to a non-interchangeable, irreplaceable singularity. Reflections, echoes, doubles, souls do not belong to the domain of similarity or equivalence; and just as there is no possible substitution between true twins, so there is no possibility of exchanging the soul. If an exchange is the criterion of generality, theft and gift are the criteria of repetition”[6]. As such, repetition will always be an “illegal” duplication, as it is appropriate to the original, but it embodies a kind of “copy”, which is another “original”, in an exercise of a new operative differentiation, as we observe in the Portuguese artist’s painting work. This new substance is translated by the artist as applied mimesis, a kind of painting for space, and which is affirmed in space, prepared for an absolute real, from which the image was absent, by the effect of long time. It is there that the simulacrum of this painting is born, but also of all the paintings stored in the pinacothecas of this world. After all, the past of painting represents another form of filling these voids, which humanity has found along the way. Defining, from the new images, the differences that in their plurality confirm a line of similarity, sharing and community among all generations of all ages. In fact, Deleuze reminds us that “the past is the repetition by disability and prepares this other repetition constituted by the metamorphosis of the present. The historian tries to find empirical correspondences between the present and the past; but, however rich it may be, this network of historical correspondences only forms repetition by similitude or analogy. In fact, it is the past, as well as the present, that is repetition in itself, in two different ways that repeat each other. There are no repetition facts in history, but repetition is the historical condition under which something new is produced”[7]. In line with this inspiration anticipated or activated by the timeline, Deleuze also concludes the following about the specific way in which the present repeats the past: “It is not to the reflection of the historian that a similarity between Luther and Saint Paul, between the Revolution of 1789 and the Roman Republic, etc., can be seen, but it is through them that revolutionaries are determined to live as resurrected Romans before they become capable of acting, repeating a past of their own: they therefore identify with a figure from the historical past. Repetition is a condition of action before it is a concept of reflection. We only produce something new as long as we repeat once how the past is constituted, and once in the present the metamorphosis. And what is produced, the absolutely new, is only repetition, the third repetition, this time by excess, the repetition of the future as eternal return”[8]. Therefore, as when identifying a temporal link between Jasper Johns and Rui Macedo, underlining a parallelism in the conceptual principles of their pictorial practices, we can recognize how the past always returns in the repetition produced by the (micro) difference that any evocation, while analogy, performs when affirmed in the present time. On the other hand, by making the aesthetic and spatial reconciliation between his painting and the Tabacalera galleries, in particular their forgotten past, the images or the colours of the materials lost in time, using some of the oldest techniques of verist painting, Rui Macedo has also recovered his own history of art and its recognition in the context of contemporary art installation. Once again, past and present are in an active dialogue, as a consequence of the subtle mechanisms created between differences and repetitions, responsible for new ideas, images, objects and meanings.

However, in a time of simulations produced by the virtual, Rui Macedo reinforces the importance of the use of objectualization of the image (particularly that of painting). In other words, its embodiment from this concrete materiality, which allows a relationship with the image, and not only as a journey of the senses and the mind. It also does so with our body, its sensorial and organic materiality, based on the spatial re-elaboration that painting conducts, as it enters the perception and experience of architecture itself. For his process of communication and survival, Rui Macedo’s work demands a materiality, a surface translated into a pictorial image as a hermeneutic that takes into consideration the legacy of art history and proposes a constant resignification of space and its images (pictorial, parietal or hybrid). In other words, this installation does not only contain images for the frame or wall of the exhibition that the verist painting normally uses. On the contrary, it materializes in the alteration of space, in the fragmented interplay of its new awareness, as if these small interferences, united to the physical and objective interior of the experience of architecture, simultaneously reorganized the task of painting, conjoined with the power of the surrounding three-dimensionality of total space.

[1] Sfumato is the title of the solo exhibition that Rui Macedo presented, curated by Begoña Torrez González, at Tabacalera, Sala Estudios, Madrid, between September 20 and November 10, 2019.

[2] Targets (1955-1961) – a long pictorial series produced by Jasper Johns in the second half of the 1950s and featuring significant aesthetic and object variants, from the most intriguing pieces, symptomatically entitled Target with four faces (1955) to Green Target (1955) – Jasper Johns’ first work with that motif – White Target (1958), Gray Target (1958) and Black Target (1959), all made in encaustic. There is also a “Target” made of a malleable metal clay called Sculp-metal, as well as numerous prints and drawings, not to mention several small scale paintings.

[3] Cf. John Berger and Mike Dibb, Ways of Seeing, (episode 4), documentary film, BBC, 1972.

[4] Cf. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacros e Simulação (1981), (Portuguese translation by Maria João Pereira), Lisbon, Relógio D’Água, 1991. And also Jean Baudrillard, Para Uma Crítica da Economia Política do Signo (1972), (Portuguese translation by Aníbal Alves). Lisbon, Editions 70, 1975.

[5] Gilles Deleuze, Diferença e Repetição (1968), (Brazilian translation by Luiz Orlandi and Roberto Machado – revised for Portugal by Manuel Dias). Foreword by José Gil, Lisbon, Relógio D’Água, 2000, pp. 35 and 36.

[6] Op. cit., pp. 41 and 42.

[7] Ditto, p. 170

[8] Ditto. Ibid.

He is an art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art. He has a PhD in Contemporary Art from the College of Arts, University of Coimbra. He is currently Scientific Director of the Museum of Neo-Realism and Director of Culture in the Municipality of Vila Franca de Xira. Between March 2020 and April 2022 he was Curator of the State Collection of Contemporary Art. He was Subdirector General of Cultural Heritage from 2016 to 2020. Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art - Museu do Chiado, from 2013 to 2015. Director of the Museum of Neo-Realism, from 2007 to 2013. He was general curator of BF16 (Vila Franca de Xira Photography Biennial, 2016) and of the cycle "The Return of the Real" (MNR), between 2007 and 2012. He was also curator, among others, of the solo exhibitions of Nuno Cera, Sara & André and Daniel Blaufuks, held in 2014, at MNAC-MC. He published "Marcel Duchamp and the readymade - Une Sorte de Rendez-vous" (Assírio & Alvim, 2007), "The Reinvention of the Real - Curatorship and Contemporary Art in the Museum of Neo-Realism" (Documenta, 2014), and "The Imperfect Word - Writings on contemporary artists" (Documenta, 2018). He was an art critic for the weekly newspapers "Já" (1996), "O Independente" (1997-2000), and the magazines "Arte Ibérica" (1997-2000), "" (2006-2007), "Arqa - Revista de Arquitectura e Arte" (2000-2013) and "" (2016).

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