São Paulo, 2011
Gotham City is one of the main characters in the Batman comic books, alongside such charismatic figures as The Joker and Catwoman, and others less so, such as Mr. Freeze and The Scarecrow. Apparently a gloomy and violent version of Manhattan, Gotham city seems to mold itself around the superhero, serving him as a platform, labyrinth, weapon and antagonist, shaped by a psychological, visual and dynamic power-play between the saturnine vigilante and the elements that inhabit the New York isle of today and yesteryear.
In the meantime, on this side of the globe, in the work of Fernando Vilela, no Batman walks the streets. There are flashes of New York, as there are of countless other cities around the world, but what predominates is São Paulo, the modern Latin-American metropolis the artist knows how to portray as a character.
This is what we see so clearly and expressively in the series of woodcuts printed on photographs he presented at the Virgílio Gallery in 2010. Fernando selects elements from the cityscape that cause the most visual attrition and reorganizes them in representations that blend techniques of splicing and collage with the photographic eye. His biggest triumph, however, lies in realizing that it is not even necessary to infuse these city scenes with narrative, because São Paulo itself, with its mix of ambition and negligence, is already stocked with monumental and disproportionate features, like the Costa e Silva overpass – the Minhocão (Big Worm) – and a sagging tangle of electrical wires strung between posts. In its eccentricity, São Paulo is already a character, and both Fernando Vilela’s collages on onionskin paper and his engravings on photographs help us to see it as such, lest we be too distracted by outstanding bills and packed schedules.
With something of the steeliness of a superhero, Fernando is not content to merely underscore this marvelously awkward feat, but aims to interact with this urban character and respond to it on its own scale. In order to take engraving to the urban space, in 2003 Fernando seized an opportunity to use an obsolete, early 20th-century wooden printing press – the type used to make cheap street posters – to multiply an image to the power of n. He traded the iron plate for a plywood board of the same thickness and turbo-charged the printer so it could churn out woodcuts at near-industrial speed. After an hour, he had 1,000 posters which he then plastered all over the city, creating modular, rhythmical images conceived to be seen at the varying speeds with which we hurtle about town – at 5, 30, 60 kilometers per hour...
The work we find in the installation now on show at Funarte in São Paulo hones and revolutionizes this experiment. In Caçada (The Hunt), the city is presented as a character in crisis, reduced to ruin in a brush with F-18 and F-14 fighter planes. The size of the installation also flirts with architectonic scale, but now through an interplay of inverted relations: instead of the skin that transforms the city wall into an object, a covering-over of internal walls turns the exhibition space into a cityscape, one whose sky rains down destruction upon the beams and structural elements that sustain the gallery roof.
Faced with the vibrant red of these walls, we might recall Barnett Newman, who converts large format into a privileged field for creation and tensioning of the exhibition space. Even if the color, form and composition of these canvases can be grasped from afar, Newman asks his public to step closer, let themselves become immersed in the sheer scale, which, when experienced up-close, reveals nuances of sheen and color to keen, hyper-stimulated senses.
By getting that much closer to Fernando Vilela’s prints we can see how they feed off his constant and inventive engagement in engraving and printmaking. While developing installations using large-format woodcuts, Fernando saw that the best material for his templates was plywood veneered with a fine layer of cedar or some other such noble wood. His choice makes the groove-making softer and easier, eliminating the much appreciated resistance of the wood to the gesture of the engraver. Of course it has to be that way, after all, Fernando is working on a whole other scale, making his relationship with the wood one of a hijacker who appropriates textures in order to produce a truly graphic surface.
Caçada combines the gestural ease that marks the surface and the intricate use of more contemporary printing techniques, blending woody texture, paintbrush-drawn forms, vectorial lines, computer-mixed colors and plotter printing, not in order to yield indistinguishable copies, but to conjure a play of glazed revelations that sets us squarely on the frontier between the perception of an image and a glimpse of its very making.
Lastly, the city-hero in conflict with its archenemy, endowed with the scale and density of a landscape, perhaps suggests the emergence of a pictorial representation no longer spellbound by the mutability of natural landscapes. Fernando pores over São Paulo, the metropolis that drove Levi-Strauss to describe American cities as places in which recently-completed buildings seem to convert almost immediately into ruins; cities in which the layers of earth, water, asphalt and concrete accumulate as the caricatural signs of a modernity imposed much like a curse; and which fosters, in its vast and unlimited urban sprawl, the model of a modeless city, one content to reproduce itself. Caçada suggests that the best place to encounter chance and transitoriness is this very city, one troubled not by tsunamis, just US warplanes tangled up in wires, cables and weaves strung out against a red sky.