Albuquerque Mendes and Paulo Neves: Artists honoured at the IV International Gaia Art Biennial

In three pavilions of the former Companhia de Fiação de Crestuma, in Lever, the IV International Gaia Art Biennial, known since its birth in 2015 as a biennial of causes, returns in 2021. This edition is bigger and more comprehensive, lasting until July 10. Coordinated by Agostinho Neves, the International Art Biennial Gaia 2021, organised by Artistas de Gaia – Cooperativa Cultural, CRL, with the support of the Gaia City Council, is for the first time endorsed by the Ministry of Culture and the Directorate-General for the Arts. With different artistic expressions – painting, sculpture, drawing, photography and ceramics -, this year’s edition pays tribute to the artist Albuquerque Mendes (1953) with the anthological exhibition Eu, Albuquerque Mendes – Obras na Coleção de Serralves, curated by Paula Pinto and the work of the sculptor Paulo Neves (1959), whose anthological exhibition is curated by Manuela Hobler.

As if in a ritual, we walk through the venue dedicated to the work of Albuquerque Mendes and quickly dive into the artist’s pictorial universe, considering the expressiveness and intensity of the colours, the strength and intimacy of his collages and self-portraits, the sensuality of the bodies and female figures. We see paintings that take us on a journey through the history of Portuguese art and through an artistic journey that began in the 70s of the last century and is still alive today. We enter the world of Albuquerque Mendes, the characters of his imagination – women, soldiers, harlequins and his multiple selves, the themes that seduce him – scenes of domestic intimacy, landscapes, the sacred and the profane -, through an exhibition voyage that, painting after painting, shows us the different phases of an interventive artist, who always reinvented himself.

Although the anthological exhibition Eu, Albuquerque Mendes – Obras na Coleção de Serralves is about the artist’s pictorial work, it is difficult to forget the performative side. Albuquerque Mendes is one of the artists honoured at the IV International Art Biennial Gaia, so we recall the importance of his performances at the Encontros Internacionais de Arte e Alternativas or at the Festival Internacional de Arte Viva, artistic events of cultural decentralization and internationalization, which, in the post-revolutionary period, were the starting point for a disruptive art in Portugal. We remember the performance Ritual at the Encontro Internacional de Arte de Viana do Castelo (1975), where Albuquerque Mendes, dressed as a pagan officiant, performed a silent, symbolic and ritualistic route, in an anticlerical critique. He was “the first Portuguese to have direct contact with a non-cultured public”[1]His performances/rituals establish a connection between artistic practice and urban space“rituals that recall elements of processions and religious or profane manifestations of popular Portuguese culture”Just as Albuquerque Mendes ritualises the public space, with staged liturgies, he also desacralizes the exhibition space with his paintings and collages. Even in the works where he stages a religious discourse, irony, criticism, double meanings seem to be present. It is as if the artist used the iconography of popular religiosity to question the spectator, involving them in his intimate heresies through the subtlety and sense of humour of his art. A field dedicated to experimentation, provocation and staging, Albuquerque Mendes’ painting has a theatrical side – the same as his performances – which extends itself throughout the exhibition space through scenic devices, whose vibrant colours enwrap us, and which we encounter in a surprising discovery of new works, different periods and new dialogues. The constant presence of dada humourthe exploration of grammars and plastic solutions from the history of 20th-century art, such as cubism, futurism, expressionist painting, collages, catch our attention in a Baroque work. Even when his painting becomes more depurated; when the composition, between the figuration and the background, seems more subtle; it maintains – as in his collages and self-portraits – the confessional and autobiographical sense of an artist who has always used the body and the canvas as forms of expression.

The baroque influence and religiosity that characterise some of Albuquerque Mendes’ paintings, as well as the fascination for staging and interaction with the viewer, are also in the work of sculptor Paulo Neves. The scenographic side of his sculptures and installations, floor and wall pieces, take us through the path of a counter-current artist, whose formal and compositional vocabulary has Nature as its best expression. Skirting the installations as if we were on an obstacle course, we are seduced by the grandeur of the pieces, by the simplicity and rawness of the material, by the undulating, curved forms, by the faces that seem to be sleeping and waiting to be woken up. Intimately connected to his roots, to his origins – Cucujães, Oliveira de Azeméis -, the work of Paulo Neves is a perfect symbiosis between the artist’s imaginary, his technical mastery and the creations of Nature. 

“The artist finds what Nature offers him, in the open air of days, embracing its gift, admiring its raw forms, divining its origin and first essence. He has an endless desire to transform it as if he were an impetuous god, but, at the end, when the work emerges, it seems that nothing has been violated or forged from it, except its matter.” [2]

The connection to the earth and the silence of the forest, where his studio is located, inspire the artistic vocabulary of Paulo Neves, one of the most present contemporary Portuguese sculptors in public and private spaces, both nationally and internationally. By living in and being inspired by rurality, the sculptor gives us back to Nature through works that combine the robustness of the materials that are close to him and the minimalism of contemporary art. Moving in conceptualism, minimalism or even in land art, Paulo Neves’ work has an unusual rigour and sensibility, where the choice of materials is judicious. To the warm universe of wood and the coldness of stone, the sculptor associates materials such as zircon, bronze, iron and sometimes synthetic materials, in works of small scale, human scale and monumental scale. Despite the experimental character of Paulo Neves’ art, the different textures and forms, there is an authorial line that distinguishes him, as if the artist’s output were only one work, one family. The artist’s anthological exhibition at the Gaia Biennial has a large portfolio of contemporary sculpture, where the works in wood are the show’s ex-libris. On the one hand, they reveal to us his artistic and technical mastery of the raw material; on the other hand, the elegance with which it is handled. Pieces worked and metamorphosed by the artist’s hands and imagination, which keep the memory and the robustness of the trees of yesteryear. Some sculptures surprise us with their vibrant colour strokes, close to a pop universe; in others, the placement of gold leaf on the wood reminds us of the universe of neo-Baroque and gilded woodcarving. Anthropomorphic figures, Saints, Angels, embryonic and abstract forms, wheels, rings and hollows in concentric lines, live in the same space. We get to know the sculptor’s poetic realm, which takes on the passage of time as a theme in political, social and environmental work. We end our tour of Paulo Neves’ work with a series of stairs which, delicately set against the wall, arouse the visitors’ interest, given the tortuous and contorted lines of the untamed wood, which underline their apparent fragility. Stairs that are a link to the Sacred, between the world and the transcendent, “they are stairs that underline the length of the journey rather than shorten it; they are objects for the life of existence (subsistence) of the path towards God rather than death (arrival at God); they are stairs of fault and error, built ‘between’ heaven and earth.”[3] Influenced by Paulo Neves’ tall white staircase and Albuquerque Mendes’ paintings and self-portraits, we recall Helena Vieira da Silva’s Self-portrait (1932). With the image of a girl on her back, in the middle of the staircase and looking upwards, about to continue the climb, we continue the Biennial’s tour.


[1] ÁLVARO, Egídio – “A Dimensão Performance de Albuquerque Mendes”. In Albuquerque Mendes, Porto: Galeria Canvas,1999, s/p.

[2] OCHÔA, Elisa – “A natureza artística ou a arte do natural na escultura de Paulo Neves”. In Atos do III Congresso Internacional Criadores Sobre outras Obras – CSO’ 2021. Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon, Centre for Research and Studies in Fine Arts, Lisbon, 2012, p. 223.

[3] PROVIDÊNCIA, Francisco – Paulo Neves, trinta anos de trabalho. Porto: Primavera’11, D.L. 2011, p. 44.

Mafalda Teixeira, Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto. She has an internship and worked in the Temporary Exhibitions department of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. During the master’s degree, she did a curricular internship in production at the Municipal Gallery of Oporto. Currently, she is devoted to research in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art, and publishes scientific articles.

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