Helena Almeida (1934-2018), a Portuguese artist whose work is revisited in a large anthology at the Moreira Salles Institute, over the course of more than 50 years has carried out an investigation that is at the same time diverse and relentless, which has her own image as the central axis and photography as the main means of expression. Surprisingly faithful to a restricted range of procedures, themes and questions, it surgically touches on some of the issues that most mobilized art from the end of the 1960s onwards, such as self-representation and the discussion about the expansion of limits and possibilities of the various artistic languages.
Starting almost always from her own image, in a fragmented or integral way, alone or interacting with provocative elements such as threads, brushstrokes or a male leg to which hers is tied, Helena places herself as a concrete body, an unavoidable presence that sustains and at the same time causes a short circuit of the codes of the image. The relationship between Helena Almeida's work and dominant movements in the 1960s, such as minimalism and conceptual art, is evident. What she offers us, summarizes curator Isabel Carlos, is the “repeated presence of herself”. “The image of my body is not my image, I'm not putting on a show”, said Helena herself.
The act of posing has always been familiar to her, since since she was a little girl she served as a model for her father, also an artist, the sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida. Perhaps this waiting time, the extended immobility in time and space of the studio, explain some peculiarities of his production, so close and at the same time averse to the theatrical character of the happenings and performances that so marked the artistic scene in the early years of his career. . The artist clearly verbalized that what interested her was not the action itself, the confrontation between the creator and the public, but the record, the capture of that precise moment that seems to condense the strength of the gesture, just like a movie still. Or a succession of photograms, which refer to the logic of comics, creating a timeline, explored in some of the series on display, such as inhabited screenOf 1976.
His work is subtle and provocative, combining a nostalgic elegance with a permanent desire to subvert relationships and hierarchies, often making use of fine irony. The artist erases boundaries between genres, questions the tenuous limits between plane and volume, between the real and the represented. And she uses photography not for its technical excellence or mimetic accuracy. It is no coincidence that her husband, the architect Artur Rosa, is responsible for most of these records. “I want a crude, expressive photograph, as a record of an experience, of an action”, she explained in an interview given to the curator and recalled in the exhibition catalogue.
pink canvas to wear, a work from 1969, which serves as the opening chapter of the IMS exhibition, is a kind of synthesis of the work that will be developed in the following decades. By literally dressing a painting, Helena approaches what other artists interested in erasing the distance between body and work have been doing. In addition, she plays with this idea of the superiority of painting and focuses on the gesture of painting and one of its main attributes, color, provocatively present only in the title, since the image is in black and white. In Helena's hands, color takes on a curious and fundamental aspect, as it magnetically punctuates her visual constructions. She appears intensely, acting alongside the artist, whether in the blue stain that is devoured, exhaled or kept in her pocket, in the red stain that stains her foot making the surrounding gray scale vibrate, or even in the intense black with which she appears. merge into outer black.
Drawing, the other constitutive element of pictorial construction, is also masterfully explored by Helena, who presents us with a series of investigations in which the line becomes a real, physical nexus. Whether in the form of a nuisance, as in sit me down, or element that you want to be free, as in black exit, a blank book from which the words, remade in the form of a line, seem to escape. Once again, there is a repeated desire to seek autonomy: from risk, from gesture, from the body.
Another aspect echoes with intensity in the work of the Portuguese artist: her starting point, as a woman working in a country subjected for decades to the Salazarist dictatorship and separated from the center of contemporary production – which she intensely experienced during a long stay in Paris in the early 1970s. XNUMX. The verb to inhabit is recurrent throughout her trajectory, is present in the titles of her works and is reiterated in the name chosen for the exhibition by Isabel Carlos. The house / studio is the space where her art develops, always. Protected space, sometimes claustrophobic, sometimes amplified through mirrors, openings. The architectural references incorporated in the images are few, but very concrete, to the point that the curator suggests that, for her, “the baseboard is the meeting point between painting, architecture and photography”. In the aforementioned interview, Helena hints at this confluence of elements, which allows the passage from individual experience to the universal character that every powerful work seems to pursue: “What interests me is always the same: the space, the house, the ceiling , the corner, the floor; then, the physical space of the screen, but what I want is to deal with emotions”.
This relationship between conceptual, poetic and experiential experimentation guarantees Helena Almeida's work a touching familiarity with other artists who trod the same field in the same period. There are many echoes between her production and a series of Brazilian and Latin American artists who, like her, dedicated themselves to investigating the relationship between image and body, photography and identity. We can mention, for example, Lygia Pape, Lenora de Barros, Liliana Potter and even Iole de Freitas, who have a cut of their work from the 1970s – more cutting and experimental – currently being exhibited at the same IMS.
Were it not European, it would be perfectly integrated into proposals for reviewing Latin American feminist art, such as the research radical women, shown in 2018 at Pinacoteca do Estado. This harmony makes it even more surprising the fact that it took so long (her only prominent participation in an exhibition in the country was at the 28th Bienal de São Paulo) for a Portuguese artist renowned in her country, with a vast production and an intense affinity with a type of art often developed in Brazil, to have her first solo exhibition in the country. ✱