Ajax et Plures

Part of the Serralves Collection Itinerant Exhibition Programme, and following the joining of the Catholic University of Portugal as a founding member of the Serralves Foundation, the exhibition Ajax et Plures by Joana Valsassina – curator of the National Itinerant Exhibition Programme at the Serralves Foundation – and Nuno Crespo – curator and director of the School of Arts at the Catholic University – shows the multidisciplinary nature of João Paulo Feliciano’s work (1963) on display at the campus of the Catholic University of Porto. The show, which includes a previously unseen piece by the artist, presents works from the 1990s and 2000s from the Serralves Collection that represent different moments in the artist’s career, showing both continuity and ruptures in his artistic practice over the last thirty years[1].

The uniqueness of João Paulo Feliciano’s art, the improvisation, manipulation and experimentation with materials and techniques are visible in the heterogeneous works that brought forward crucial changes from the early 1990s in Portuguese art. Besides the playful and ironic side, typical features of João Paulo Feliciano’s work, various media are explored in the exhibited works – sound, video, light, sculpture – and artistic languages – plastic and graphic arts, music and rock culture, design, architecture and multimedia. All in performative works that challenge the spectator. In the early years he developed works of painting and drawing. From 1988, a period when he was living in Belgium, he explored new paths, inventing objects from non-artistic everyday materials. Self-taught and rejecting disciplinary limitations, João Paulo Feliciano moved away from Portugal’s prevailing artistic practices. He used a minimalist vocabulary, with greater formal and conceptual restraint to communicate each work. On the use of everyday objects, as well as industrial and utilitarian materials in the works, which critique the art conventions, we highlight Back Home, from 1990, on display on floor 0 of Edifício das Artes. Using construction materials, and reduced to the muteness of its materiality, the two-part installation is intriguing.  As we approach the three-dimensional composition, the viewer’s imperviousness to it is reinforced by four fire extinguishers positioned on the floor, one at each corner of the outer metal structure that protects the work’s central volume. This emphasises the delimitation of the occupied space, reinforced by the self-adhesive vinyl on the floor. João Paulo Feliciano’s ironic and critical attitude reaches its zenith not through the materials used in Back Home, but through their arrangement in space and dialectical tension. Not to mention the titles the artist attributes to each part of the installation, creating a play on words – another characteristic of his art. The viewer has a reflective experience. Entitled Gimme Some Protection, the metallic structure that illuminates the installation’s second part, highlighting it in the centre of the action and enveloping it as if it were a protective shield, proposes to the spectator an ambiguous relationship between interior and exterior[2]. Felling Fine Here, the core of the work, looks like a stage or altar, around which we walk and see the various layers of meaning. We read them in an exercise of interaction with the work, through observation and movement. With materials composed of insulating properties – foam, plywood, ceramic tiles, insulating mesh and glass – Feliciano recalls the primordial function of shelter and establishes a dialectical tension between the banality of the installation’s materials and the solemnity of the composition that seems to stand between the dwelling and the temple, in a celebration of the most essential and precarious of contemporary reality.[3]

The urban reality, Feliciano’s emphasis on materials and the problematisation of supports are all visible in a work also influenced by his relationship with music and rock. We see works that herald a more discursive phase of the artist, within the scope of social and cultural reality. We highlight Stage Real Fake, 1990, on show in the lobby of Edifício de Restauro. Here the artist suggests a reflection on the universe of representation on stage – musical or theatrical – and the relationship between the real and the represented. The philosophical density of true and false, as well as the idea of simulacrum in Stage Real Fake, is explored by Feliciano not only in his work as an artist, but also in his musical activity. We are reminded of his band Tina and the Top Ten, who called themselves the very first all Portuguese fake American rock’n’roll band. The theme’s complexity and the pairing reality/representation is skilfully introduced and developed by the artist in the simple and ironic title he attributes to the work, in a game between Real and Fake. Dualities are visible in the installation’s simplicity: a stage that presents a small black parallelepiped, illuminated by a projector. The stage as a place of representation and feigning, reminiscent of the performing arts. But also, a place where catharsis and things happen; the simple geometric shape of the parallelepiped, as representative of the minimalist object, but with a metaphorical meaning. It can be a black box or a simulacrum, a metaphor that we can associate with the metaphor of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey.[4] About the installation’s dual and paradigmatic direction, we highlight Feliciano’s genius in using false ceiling plates on the sides of the stage – they look like wood but are made of plastic. This emphasises the duplicity of the process of dissimulation, simulacrum and pretence that fascinate the artist and reveal a conceptual attitude.

The exploration and mixing of several artistic languages, and aspects of urban pop culture, define Feliciano’s art. This is proven by the works on display, despite the time differences between them. The interest in light and colour as a support for his works, through which he explores new possibilities of composition, representation and different perceptual phenomena, is in Newtron, 2004 and Ajax, 2022. Bringing together lighting, electronics and video, Feliciano explores in Newtron new kinds of luminosity and chromatic variations. Like a painting in movement, Newtron is a modular led unit of a giant screen, which reveals the video fragment of a football match only identifiable in some excerpts. Seduced by the abstract visibility of the luminous points of the pixels, Newtron is an animated pictorial surface, comparing the digital image to painting, and the pixel to the pointillism brush stroke[5]. Based on the principle of “optical blending”, the origin of Impressionist painting, and describing the human eye’s ability to combine several dots to create one colour, Newtron’s low resolution video panel shows the physics of the leds as individual light sources, dismantling the “optical blending” [6]. This shows us the artist’s critique of digital technologies.

We end our journey with Ajax, a new work for the campus of the Catholic University. Light and colour, which arise from filters installed on the windows, change the chromatic nature of the room they illuminate. The artist’s intervention on the windows of the corridor of the School of Arts provides the visitor with an immersive experience, through which we witness the crossing of boundaries. It is a game of changing forms and colours that expands the space of the work, where it becomes autonomous as an event, both inside and outside its support.

Through the works that make up Ajax et Plures, we see João Paulo Feliciano’s multidisciplinarity, the talent with which he combines sculpture and sound, space and light, painting and video. Territories of the students of the School of Arts, in a dialogue with the school as an exhibition venue.

Ajax et Plures, is on display at the School of Arts of the Catholic University of Porto until November 1, 2022.




[1] VALSASSINA, Joana – João Paulo Feliciano: Ajax et Plures, obras da Coleção Serralves. Brochura exp. Porto: Fundação de Serralves, 2022, p. 6

[2] Idem, p.7.

[3] Idem, p.6.

[4] VISCONTI, Jacopo Crivelli – “Conversa à distância do e-mail”, in The Possibility of Everything: João Paulo Feliciano, Selected Works 1989-1994. Cat. Exp., Lisboa: Culturgest, 2006, p.73.

[5]VALSASSINA, Joana – João Paulo Feliciano: Ajax et Plures, obras da Coleção Serralves. Brochure exp. Porto: Serralves Foundation, 2022, p.8.

[6] João Paulo Feliciano. Cat. Exp., Porto: Serralves Foundation, 2004, p.10.

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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