Once Upon a Time by Rui Castanho

Although the title reminds us of a past era, Once Upon a Time by Rui Castanho invites us to a present time where everything is possible.
At Balcony Contemporary Art Gallery, the artist presents thirteen large paintings that seem to ask two things: what painting can be and what the current possibilities of painting are?
With several visual traps, Rui Castanho drags us to another period – the child and the adolescent endowed with imagination -, but Once Upon a Time does not fall entirely into the trap of time. On the contrary, it is an extremely current case.

In the classic painting site – the canvas -, we find materials that do not seem to follow the rules; a declaration of love for painting in the margins of notebooks, which blends times and mediums, the intensity of a child who believes in the magic and the power of the shapes that are born in front of him, every time he plays with A4 sheets of paper and with his favourite markers.

Although the thirteen works in the exhibition share the same format, underlining the importance of a discourse on canvas, the differences between them are striking. In this exhibition, we see marginal painting, taking into account the artists technique and themes. For each of the paintings, the artist has created a narrative, with a distinct space, time and body; a difference that exists in the way Rui Castanho has worked the paintings and placed the materials in them – for each canvas there is a fiction, a story; materials used in the paintings that in Once Upon a Time display freedom of movement and daring.

In these works, we find the efficacy of gesture, a gesture that refers to the body – the whole body. That gesture is eye-catching, but also appealing to the other limbs. The activation of the whole body, which is visible in the size of the canvases and the work implicit in each one – dynamics of movement, such as going up, down, stretching, the arm, the hand, the eye -, is one of the exhibitions most important. This is sensitive from the artists point of view, asking visitors to make a movement that embraces the entirety of the eye and body. With this, each person could fictionalize the composition of the works – guess the order of the oil layers, oil bar, dry pastel, enamel, acrylic, graphite or colored pencil on the canvas -, as if it were a game of the senses.

Materials condense and expand in these paintings, with the same courage of a child who fearlessly risks, scratches, paints and draws. The exercises in Once Upon a Time are not limited to questions about painting: they reach another area worked on by Rui Castanho – drawing.

The risk, and I single out the work Sunscape (2020), Green aplle jelly head wants to know more (2021), but also Show me the world (2021), Beyond anatomy (2021), or Love affair (2021), is a consequence of inscriptions – marks. We have to underline the efficacy of gesture and movement implicit in a duration – the origin of childrens audacity and a teenagers melancholy. At this point, we could think about the differences between scratching a sheet of paper and scratching a canvas. This is one of the paths of Rui Castanhos work. He makes us think about painting as if we were drawing, with the lightness of a childish scratch or an inconsequential doodle. In Once Upon a Time, this has gone from the sheet – or the screen – to the canvas. In these works we find the technical prowess at the moment of scratching out with oil what seems to have been scratched out with a ballpoint pen; or with a biro found by chance in a random pocket, as when the careless Alice fell down the rabbit hole (to add depth to the narrative).

A traditional movement, opposed to the history of painting, acquires here a strong contemporary character. The illusionist nature that for centuries was part of painting seems here to yield to the time when it was just the scratch. But there is nothing inconsequential in these paintings and these scratches. All the effects have a naive side, they are part of a meticulous and thorough work, the only way to guarantee the result of each one of these painting. The big picture (2021) simulates a graffiti painting, with means far from the spray cans used for such purpose. Without being an experimental or intuitive exercise, the paintings hide behind these tricks. We see the magic of an apparent naivety, to which the themes presented contribute.

In First love (2021), we see a heart coming out of a can of spray paint in a reference to graffiti. An obsessive painting or a punch in the stomach, where the heart dotted with several colours comes out of a punctured paint can, dripping a heartbreak – the first love – but covered with glitter (the temporal distance to today allows it).

The painting Hocus Pocus (2021), with magic in a characters trick, is a dustbin with a magic wand that tells us that magic can be anywhere. A trick is performed on a background made up of a brick wall, where we see a figure that magically appears. Before our eyes, Rui Castanho plays with our perception, after all this is one of the hypotheses for painting: a place of forgery, which challenges the eye enraptured by its deceptions.

Bricks appear in several works (Party zone world, 2021), intersecting the before and the now – a contemporary Once upon a time -, where Eden is not an idyllic landscape. Eden (2022) is a garden in an urban background, which could be an abandoned graffiti, with shapes and colours, reminding us of the effectiveness of gesture and body. Strokes that use the strength of the finger more than the strength of the hand. The finger is part of our actuality and these paintings seem to show what it is possible for us when touching screens with our fingers, even if often invisibly.

The screen and the sheet compete in the planning of Rui Castanhos exhibition, particularly Eden, a large format composition. This is a triptych that appears immediately at the gallery entrance. The drawings carried out on a screen are copied onto the canvas, in a reference to the confrontation between the classical and the present – drawings that are paintings that are then drawings. In Eden, we see on the canvas the legacy of the pixel and paint, scrawled by luminous oil bars. But this time the glow is not based on artificial luminosity fuelled by tablet and mobile phone batteries. Rather, it is a glow fuelled by the infatuation of sight with enamel, or, again, the agelessness of paint.

Once Upon a Time is at Balcony Contemporary Art Gallery until 12 March.

Rita Anuar (Vila Franca de Xira, 1994), is an interdisciplinary researcher, graduated in Communication Sciences, Postgraduate in Philosophy (Aesthetics) and Master in History of Contemporary Art, from the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences of Universidade Nova de Lisboa. She has been part of the research group in Literature, Philosophy and Arts (FCSH / IELT), since 2020. She is interested in the intersections between visual arts, philosophy and literature, indiscipline and wind. Apart from her activity as a researcher, she writes poetry.

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