O tempo das árvores by Paulo Neves, at Serralves

The relationship between art and nature is paramount and the latter has always been a starting point and one of the major references for artistic invention. The concept of mimesis, dating back to Greek antiquity, concerns the representation of the world and life, whilst art, for centuries, has been understood as a form of imitation. Accordingly, it fostered the aesthetic appreciation and contemplation of the universe of the natural.

Over the last few years, mainly as a response to technological expansion and the environmental crisis, there has been a progressive turn back to nature, particularly through a rapprochement and revaluation of the different natural elements and environments. This aim can be seen in a wide variety of spheres, including the arts.

Art, both past and present, allows for an encounter, or even convergence, between the natural and the artefact, the organic and the inorganic, the raw material and that which is not. Artistic creativity, in short, can be the opportunity for a dialectical relationship between the human and the natural. Paulo Neves’ work, of which different examples are now on display in the park area of the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, is a case in point.

Among the most relevant names in contemporary Portuguese sculpture, Paulo Neves has made hundreds of public works, most of which are distributed from the country’s north to south. His working and creative process is rooted in the tradition of sculpture, distinguished by his way of handling material. His skills are remarkable, both artistic, creative and aesthetic, and he has a rare, intimate relationship with the material, stemming both from his respect for it and his ability to look at it, understand it and interpret it as an aesthetic object.

He first produced his pieces in wood and has since chosen it as his favoured creative material. The current exhibition, featuring countless original works conceived exclusively for the event, is centred on the tree, the motif from and around which the pieces spring. Paulo Neves chose chestnut, oak and poplar trees, three indigenous Portuguese species which, whilst equally robust, sturdy and elegant, are unique enough that, even when carved, sculpted and polished, they preserve their uniqueness and remain identifiable. As century-old trees, and under the title O tempo das árvores, they celebrate the time of Serralves Park, precisely its hundred years.

The artist uses only trees that are at the end of their life cycle, mainly those that have already fallen in the forest. His plastic process is similar to the dismemberment of a body, as all the sections of the same trunk are handled and worked on as pulsating, self-standing organs. To some extent, he tries to bring them back to life, as we can see in a work made up of small fragments of an oak tree which, as if hanging, are not fixed, but rather mobile, alive.

Two other magnificent pieces also stand out, towering inverted roots which, as pointed out by Manuela Hobler Kaempf, the exhibition’s curator, remind us of destroyed brains unable to communicate. Situated in Alameda dos Prados, they dialogue with another work by the artist, which is installed nearby at Jardim Maria Nordman. Similar to the image of a sort of little forest of several long, slender branches, they look like stairways leading up to the sky.

Down below, between Pátio da Nogueira, Celeiro and Lagar, the remaining exhibition is spread out. The numerous sculptures on display reveal the contrast between the dark or black exterior of the trunks, some of them burnt by the artist, and the light interior, which has been preserved in its original state, unspoilt and primeval. The wood’s surface is painstakingly sculpted, its curved shapes accented by traces and lines inferred by the artist, at times delicate and at others deep. This is how the tree is studied and worked on to its very core. Despite being one of nature’s most elemental and familiar elements, it can be contemplated and experienced from new perspectives.

As Paulo Neves explains, for hundreds of years all the trees he has used have provided sustenance and shelter for humans, animals, microbes and fungi, while braving heat and cold, storms, pests and catastrophes, including fires and the consequences of desertification. Consequently, while the three species chosen by the artist are some of the country’s most common, they have become extinct, such that they can only be found in greater numbers in natural parks or protected areas.

As far as the artist’s motivations are concerned, particularly with regard to the body of work that is now on show at Serralves, it should be noted that he acknowledges the urgency and importance of raising awareness of ecological issues, the environmental crisis and the massive destruction of forest areas, the consequences of which are not only felt here and now, i.e., locally and in the short-term, as they affect ecosystems and life on Earth. Paulo Neves’ work appeals to our responsibility towards nature and is relevant, important and, to add to this, unequivocally beautiful.

The exhibition O tempo das árvores by Paulo Neves is open until September 30 at Serralves.

Constança Babo (Porto, 1992) has a degree in Photography from the Escola Superior Artística do Porto [Porto Superior School of Art] and a Master's Degree in Artistic Studies - Theory and Criticism of Art from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto. It already has an important number of critical texts, mostly published in the online magazine ArteCapital, from 2015 to the present, with some texts of exhibition guides related to galleries, as well as the production of press releases. In addition to the writing work, she also dedicates himself to the photographic work of exhibitions and art events.

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