California Dreamin’ by João Fonte Santa at Stolen Books

Gotta get some sunshine / California dreamin’ / California dreamin’ / Ohh, let’s go there one day / California dreamin’, ohh / California dreamin’ / Got to get to LA / Friend of mine told me there’s sunshine every day / California dreamin’, ohh.

California Dreamin’ is a well-known phrase that generally comes from the idea of a dream or fantasy associated with the California lifestyle. This is inevitably associated with a sense of nostalgia and a yearning to escape to a place of opportunity, a place that offers a laid-back, sunny lifestyle. I was given a glimpse of such a place when I visited João Fonte Santa’s exhibition at Stolen Books.

The weather outside was, as in the song by The Mamas & the Papas[1] (yes, that is where you recognise the stanzas that open this piece – I suggest you go back to the beginning and read them now in the proper rhythm and tone to get into the spirit), a harsh, grey winter; inside the climate was warm and the sun was shining. There was even a garden where figures huddled together, time to stretch out in the sun and an island that looked like the destination, the place we wanted to reach for a break from the routine.

Seven oil paintings on paper take us to an atmosphere of our own – I do not know if to California, but certainly to a place of relaxation, pleasure and dreams. João Fonte Santa, using photographs he finds on the Internet to produce his works, has made us recognise his questioning attitude towards today’s society and the general state of affairs. His critical perspective is well known, as is his use of images as a vehicle for sociological reflections. Be it in painting, illustration or contemporary comics, the artist embodies a post-modern sensibility allied to a unique aesthetic language.

This exhibition brings, through the visual power of his works, the firm brushstrokes forming landscapes and bodies, something that seems to me to be a proposal for freedom from limitations, an escape from the day-to-day reality that is imposed on us. In these day and age, all we are told are guidelines for rampant economic growth, of an exploitative and oppressive nature, where more labour and longer working hours are presented as the only possible formula for prosperity and a fulfilling life. But not over there. Within that universe, we see carefree figures, aloof even, I would say, to the system in which we live. They appear phlegmatic as they dive from a submarine while it lands, the one which Fernando J. Ribeiro, the exhibition’s curator, tells us is Falcon 9[2].

As I stand in the centre of the room, all the works strike me as having something of an invitation, a kind of catalogue image for an experience in a place that, although we are not sure where – but it really does not matter – has a refuge-like character, capable of providing a feeling of freedom from the burden and automation of our routine. João Fonte Santa opens up gaps, showing us what Jacques Rancière calls thoughtful images. Not photographs, but an appropriation of them, they are “images carrying an unthought thought, a thought that cannot be attributed to those who produce it and that has an effect on those who see it”[3].. As if leaving much of the decision about their critical meaning in the hands of the viewer. Through images-paintings, fragments-of-dreams, it gives us the experience of immersion. It uncovers the things we are promised we can attain. He is the holder of the key to a fantasy, to a secret place, he is the one with the coordinates of a place where we can plunge into a utopia.

The paintings’ titles also imply the idea of an image. Each one could be the name assigned to the file fitting the image for the creation of these works, for example 55841710151026189952129_2038444841_n. João Fonte Santa, interested in investigating social premises in samples of what our society is now and what it may become – where it is heading – is known to attempt to trigger a more or less political, more or less philosophical or social reflection. Perhaps for this reason, and because I know that the American dream – the idea that opportunities are available to everyone, regardless of their ethnic origin, religion, socio-economic status or social class – is false, I walk through the door, heading back into the grey winter, and I can’t help but think that California Dreamin can, on the one hand, embody the aspirations for a life of leisure and relaxation, but, on the other, be a sham. A glimpse of a promised land that is, in fact, compromised.

As we know, someone who spends a considerable amount of time in idleness, without a clear purpose or other activities that provide some sense of fulfilment, often ends up feeling bored, unmotivated, even apathetic. Is that what we are? Apathetic? Or do we just desperately want to be? Experiencing a certain degree of apathy towards the current situation. Can anyone dock their boat in this place? Can anyone long for that house in the woods? Sunbathing on the high seas in a submarine? Whilst these questions and the need to escape the humdrum and melancholy of our routine hang in the air, I can’t think of a better way to finish this article than the way Fernando J. Ribeiro finished the exhibition text: for as long as the notion of reality is limited to universal mechanisation, we will continue to dream. But we must not conform.

California Dreamin can be seen at Stolen Books until March 29 2024.


[1] The Mamas & The Papas were a band formed in California in the 1960s, with one of their best-known songs being California Dreamin.
[2] Indication on the exhibition room text.
[3] Rancière, Jaques. (2022). O Espectador Emancipado. Translation by José Miranda Justo. Orfeu, p. 157.

Maria Inês Augusto, 33, has a degree in Art History. She worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) as a trainee in the Educational Services department and for 9 years at the Palácio do Correio Velho as an appraiser and cataloguer of works of art and collecting. She took part in the Postgraduate Programme in Art Markets at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities of Universidade Nova de Lisboa as a guest lecturer and is currently working on a project to curate exhibitions of emerging artists. She has been producing different types of texts, from catalogues and exhibition texts to room sheets. She also collaborated with BoCA - Biennial of Contemporary Arts 2023.

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