by Mario Gioia
Esquinas que me atravessam (Corners that cross me), the new solo show by Rodrigo Sassi at CCBB (Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil), is a clear turning point in his body of works. At the same time, poetic forces previously acting in his creations are also strongly featured. With some new directions, we can attest to his immersion in the printmaking universe and in a lighter sculptural practice. His foundations surpass the wood, concrete and metal – at least in the traditional ways usually explored by the artist in key-pieces from his career.
This new pathway is even echoed in the show’s installation design, which occupies the old safe and its surroundings in an ancient financial institution right in the middle of the city center. The public’s circular flow emphasizes the phenomenological aspect that Sassi suggests when he distributes works in different mediums throughout the space. After visiting the exhibition, spectators will notice some fundamental elements in his production: the relation with the space, the dialogues established with the architecture of confined axes in large cities, the graphic line that he previously saw as design (in drawings) and concretely transformed into a different product in an opaque grey area between mediums (three-dimensionality situated in something hard to pinpoint, between installation, object and sculpture).
“Esquinas que me atravessam” is also an important step to settle his other research projects, after some time in artistic residencies in France and in the United States. “These pieces have light as well as shadow as compositional elements”, he says. Despite this being an evident aspect in the large works, it is important to remember that the basic printmaking process, in general, inverts the chromatic situations – dark areas become white and lighter ones become darker.
If controlling the spectators’ route direction matters in the fruition of the work, the artist’s wanderings become more vibrant in these pieces. In the series “Walk the line”, in particular, Sassi’s strolls through the New York upstate countryside are decisive; he followed train lines and extracted from this roaming the raw material for the series of small pieces currently presented here – which, due to their intimate scale, already indicate a disruption in the processes he used to employ before. The process can evoke the investigations of important names from land and environmental art, such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. Nonetheless, the result of Sassi’s own investigations are more strongly linked to contemporary three-dimensionality.
In series such as “Cestas” (Baskets) and in works like “Qualquer dia da semana é primavera” (It’s spring any day of the week), he deals with the fruitful relation with the residual condition of our society in his quotidian labor in the studio. The aforementioned works become lighter and the physical effort that their construction demands is more contained, less harsh, maybe even more pondered. Thus, Sassi seems to forge an oeuvre that resides in its own incompleteness, outlining new forms, rhythms, and projections beyond the mere recycling of waste, taking everyday-life and vestigial elements as his poetic starting-point: rarely rigid or static, and always renewable.
How did you start in the visual arts field and why? Tell us a bit about your time at Faap, about your colleagues (who are now artists, but were students at the time), and your professors.
It all began while I was in high school, when, together with a friend, I began to do graffiti. The idea wasn’t to develop a work, but I felt I liked that. While I realized that what attracted me most was being out in the streets, I also dedicated myself to refine that which, later, led me to attend the visual arts course.
During my time at Faap, my graffiti work transformed into experiments into the field of urban interventions; I used different materials on the city of São Paulo as a medium. Due to the convenience of acting in the streets, I got together with two other artists from Faap to develop urban intervention pieces. Initially, it was a collaborative thing; we debated ideas and our individual projects. Then, we began elaborating together and putting our individuality aside in favor of the group. We worked as a collective for three years, and then we each followed our own paths. I even continued creating interventions for a while. I see this period as very significant in my trajectory as an artist.
Pinturas Infiltrórias (Infiltration Paintings) was an important series in your trajectory. How did they come along and why were they so relevant? What was the “jump” from these two-dimensional works to the three-dimensional “invasion”?
The Pinturas Infiltrórias (Infiltration Paintings) were the first pieces I created outside the urban intervention context. This series began in 2010, when I was returning from a stay in London. My experience in England was deeply connected to this series, not because it provided me with references, but because it changed the thought process in my work. In 2008, when I left São Paulo, my work was originally conceived for the streets, and I usually foresaw it unfolding into exhibition works. At the same time, I wanted to create a popular work and create something for the specialized art circuit. I wanted feedback from people in the streets as well as from art critics.
When I arrived in London I didn’t see much being done in urban practices. It was always something relating to graffiti, which hadn’t interested me for some time. The contact with different cultures and the access to other artists ended up strongly influencing me, and that molded my relationship with art and with my own work. This became stronger than the streets.
When I came back to Brazil, I processed that experience of living in London, but not abandoning my previous trajectory. That’s when I began doing the infiltration paintings. The idea behind these pieces was to achieve this degraded, abandoned aesthetic from mold and infiltration, but with colors that evoked abstract paintings.
The structure behind the work reproduced a wall with water pipes. I would put colored paint in them so that the stains would surface composing random shapes and forms. Since I used very watered-down paints, the results were similar to watercolors, which was so distant from the weight and rawness of the medium – a concrete piece. I noticed the contrasts – between the concrete and wood medium and the organic and light aspect of the surface – as something that I could continue to explore under a constructive perspective. I started to research and understand a little more about reinforced concrete structures and its applications in civil construction and, consequently, in architecture, which led me to build concrete shapes that were interconnected, creating structures that were self-supporting. Later on, the three-dimensional ones, still experiments, gained references and concepts, becoming what I am creating today.
Can we talk about important artists in your career? Who were they, who are they now, how did these influences evolve?
In the beginning I was looking at things that could become references and at artists who worked with concepts that were aligned with what I was searching for. Gordon Matta-Clark [1943-1978] was a character who embodied everything I wanted as an artist. His works pointed towards the problems of that time in relation to space and, through cutting the building structures, he deconstructed and reconstructed spaces simultaneously. His works were kind of underground but also had a surgical precision and that was incredible to me.
My list also included Richard Deacon, Martin Puryear and Theaster Gates, for reasons specific to their production. Among Brazilian artists: José Resende, Angelo Venosa, Ernesto Neto and Henrique Oliveira are some of the names.
My relationship with Henrique goes beyond admiration. In addition to him being a great friend, I had the opportunity to work as his assistant in some of his projects, which was very important in my trajectory. I consider this time we worked together as an extension of my education, I learned a lot from him.
Today my references aren’t directly in the artistic realm. I research architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid [1950-2016], Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava, among others. Among artists, I have been interested in Véio, from the state of Sergipe, and the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui also comes to mind. His works are almost tapestries. I would also mention Andy Goldsworthy, from the land art and environmental art movements. They all have in common found matter as the raw material for the works, which are re-signified and carry their discourses. I don’t believe that my previous references have been forgotten. I think that depending on what interests me in other artists, my repertoire grows – which awakens new interests in my artistic process.
On the experiences in foreign residency programs, I believe some impacted your work more clearly than others – the last one, in the USA; and the one before, in France. Can you tell us about the processes and the different results?
These experiences are always positive for any artist. In general, it is an opportunity to experiment, often without the need for “getting it right”. Sometimes, we are run over by these demands that don’t allow us to stop and try something new, and we tend to repeat ourselves. The work becomes stagnant, and it also stops challenging the artists, it becomes boring. Faap awarded me with a fellowship to reside at the Cité dês Arts in Paris, in 2014, and it was an amazing research opportunity. I visited gothic cathedrals and what interested me the most in the buildings were the stained glasses and the architectural and spatial relation with light. That seemed to me as lighting in itself, as if they created the light, not the exterior environment. The colors were also extremely important in their intensities. In my opinion that is what created the entire atmosphere. Reflecting on these issues led me to create self-lighting works, which had light and shadow as compositional elements. As a consequence, I incorporated building illumination systems into my works. This emerged in the installation I developed for the Red Bull Station in 2015, titled Tudo aquilo que eu lhe disse antes mas nem eu sabia (All that I had said before but didn’t even know it), and in a sculpture presented at the Centro Cultural São Paulo, in 2017: Mesmo com dias maiores que o normal (Even with longer days than usual).
In the United States, the experience at the Sculpture Space residency, in 2016, was very different, much more dynamic and intuitive. This program is dedicated to sculptors and it offers a large structure in the American way, with all the top line machines and materials, a dream studio. The residency is located in the upstate region of New York, connected to New York City as well as other places around it through a railroad network that crosses the town. The landscape was beautiful and I liked walking along the railway. I started collecting stakes and other metals that were scattered along the tracks and bringing them back to the studio. It was almost performatic – the moment I couldn’t handle the weight anymore, I started leaving some of the pieces behind. Sometimes I would exchange one for another, and it was all part of a process, not knowing what I would do with all that. In the studio, I learned how to weld and spent most of the time experimenting, which led to the series Walk the line, presented for the first time in the CCBB exhibition. These works didn’t just mean discovering new possibilities in working with metal, but they also changed my relation with their scale. In the beginning I had to move around the sculptures to see them entirely and work on them. In this series, however, I solved everything on a table.
I came back to Brazil and the first thing I did was buy a welding machine. In the two months I spent there I discovered a new direction for my work, a hybrid association that brings together wood and concrete (which were already feature in my production) and metal, in the same composition. Today I still find myself immersed in this research, which has given me repertoire for other pieces I have been working on. The sculpture Todo dia da semana é primavera (It’s spring everyday of the week), presented in this show, is the result of this process.
Weightlessness seems essential in this exhibition. Can you expand on the series Cestas (Baskets)? At the same time, there is a physical vigor and an ambitious scale in the Corpo acomodado (Accommodated body) piece, central in the show. How do you approximate such different works?
Weight in opposition to lightness has always been an implicit issue in my works. Usually, they both appear in a single work in which there are contrasts in the composition (which seem to be weightless) and in the difficulties the materials create (their physical load). In the works presented in this show, this point is addressed in isolated pieces, as well as in the relation between the works, which are displayed side by side. Corpo acomodado (Accommodated body) is the work the best reflects my production and my investigations. There is an effort to match the exhibition space almost without leaving any breathing room for the spectator, who can explore different angles and points of view. It is kind of a brute work, in wood and concrete, using architectural techniques employed in fabricating reinforced concrete. Iron rods typically used in appliances are employed to internally bind the molds that compose the work. This gives the piece body and structure. The metals “escape” our gaze, they are inside the object.
Exploring other references and pulling the work closer to something more artisanal, Cestas is an unfolding of this constructive stage in my work, externalizing these rods and working them independently. The pieces in this series are created without welding or any technology that involves machinery or electric tools, unlike my previous works. They are created only by manually tying metal beams to each other. The more connection points, the better the structure of the work, which becomes more rigid and molded. In developing Cestas, I looked at craftworks in straw and native pieces. I let myself be taken by an aesthetic that wasn’t my own, but I adapted it to my materials and my poetic. The result is interesting, because the rusty metal evokes the straw lines that remind me of those artisanal references.
Esquinas que me atravessam certainly has turning points within your body of works. One is the printmaking. Could you comment on how you began engraving?
The prints are a kind of unfolding of my three-dimensional pieces in wood and concrete. These sculptures are made of leftover wood that I reclaim from civil construction sites. They are collected and transformed into reinterpretations of the structures present in those sites. In the same way that the sculptures give new life to these materials, the prints reuse the materials that are not used in the sculptures. The leftovers from the sculptural pieces are reorganized on a plate and then printed on paper. The prints, thus, are directly connected to the sculptures, as well as to their original sites. The prints reveal traces and marks from the material’s journey and “past lives”.
Finally, I would like to quote what Eduardo Paolozzi [1924-2005], an important British sculptor, said about his three-dimensional work in an essay called The Metamorphosis of Ordinary Things, 1959. According to him: “I believe that an artist who works with objets trouvés must avoid being dominated by his materials”.2 This metamorphosis employed by an artist, in a persistent and daily studio work, is a point I can emphasize in your artistic practice. Seeing that the exhibition is filled with experiments and works that somehow deviate from what you usually show, what lines and ideas do you believe you will develop in the future?
I agree with Paolozzi. In sculpture, it’s important to be alert to the infinite possibilities the materials offer and, in a way, to develop works that depend on found materials; I believe this is an interesting solution for when chance brings new paths for artists and their works. Esquinas que me atravessam reflects this procedure, even though the new works were born outside the São Paulo context. They were improved and took their own course. Since all of this is still new to me, it is hard to say where I’m going with these detours. The idea is to keep working with an open mind, open to changes. It is hard to change something that is doing well or that is already consolidated. But, the way I see it, it is harder for artists to depend on assertive formulas, to stop creating challenges and stimuli for their works.
- Interview conducted by the author with the artist during a studio visit at Vila Romana, in São Paulo, and email exchanges during the first semester of 2018.
- CHIPP, H.B. Theories of Modern Art. Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1968, p. 616.