Lauand is a celebrated Brazilian Neo-Concrete Artist, one of the early members of the Grupo Ruptura, and the only one who was a woman. This extramural enclave of Concretists was formed after exposure to the work of – amongst others – Max Bill, who in 1950 had visited South America (another notable influence was the Argentine artist and teacher Tomás Maldonado). Although this is a contentious area of who did what and when, it is apparent that exposure to geometric abstract art and design completely transformed the artistic landscape of Brazil and pre-figured the now well-known future generations of Neo-Concretism there.
Early twentieth century Europe had been a fertile ground for such revolutionary ambitions: after a throwing out of the old order during which artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian had squinted at the first light of the new century, practices became codified and ordered, with subsections and splinter groups all trying to make sense of their newly earned freedoms in Art. To see a movement such as this transposed to South America is at first a curious thing. Brazil is a giant of a country and during this “Second Republic” phase, was in a period of great social and political instability; though within a decade they had Niemeyer’s Brasilia. Artists of its avant-garde were beginning by the end of the 1940s to look outward and the exactitudes and certainties of Concretism clearly spoke directly to their painters and poets. Max Bill lit a touch paper.
It wasn’t until 1954 that Lauand, who responded more to Bill’s work than the more stringent look of Van Doesburg, was exposed to concrete art. This is a rare opportunity to see this artist’s work as it is her first European Solo show and as it is from this formative period of her career it has added poignancy. “I [Lauand] base myself on elements inherent to painting itself: form, space, colour and movement. I seek to objectify the plastic problem as much as I can. I love synthesis, precision, exact thinking.”
Featuring two dozen works from the 1950s, the exhibition is relatively modest, yet engaging, with some fascinating works. There are works on paper, board or canvas: drawings, gouaches, collages and a few oil paintings.
A visual logic derived from apparent mathematical sources abounds through line, pattern, repetition and sequence. All the works here are uniquely numbered – seemingly part of a systematic cataloguing that throws light upon her driving aesthetic almost as much as the similarities between the works.
The lines tend towards clean arcs when curved, or form interlocking shapes. Patterns move in directions according to predetermined superstructures. Lines describe geometries and surprising angular relationships with neat little shifts of space and almost retina-disturbing configurations. However, in spite of several forward glances to Op Art, we never quite get to it – thankfully. They have none of the flashiness that characterised that movement; these works are quiet and unassuming. More a case of “look at what I’ve found” rather than “look at what I’m doing.”
Much of the work features centrally placed geometric designs – either of shapes and/or lines. In some works there are lines and shapes that are clearly sections of larger traceable wholes – an obvious structuring device which can be a touch hit or miss. In one work – Concreto 221, Acervo 204, gouache on paper – the colour is quite similar to a Miro: red, blue, black and golden yellow ‘corner’ quadrants play a dizzy rhythm off a neutral grey. The floating larger shapes that are described by these corner pieces touch the sides at their points and scatter incident throughout the work. Yet in another vortex-like painting in blue and black – Untitled 1955, oil on board – the structure is too heavy handed and more space-canceling in effect – the space careering headlong into a central vanishing point in an almost cartoon silhouetted configuration.
Untitled, oil on canvas, 1956 features a series of coloured bars – a soft red, sky blue and cream at various angles on a black background. It is the most open ended work on show. There is no feeling of a larger structure present and although the work feels contained it raises more possibilities for colour than any other here. Look at what a painter like Bill Perehudoff went on to do with similar means. (I would be curious to see this work alongside a small linear Panting sculpture also.) Lauand said that her use colour is not functional, and that it is the design that matters. Quite, though I am not sure one can be successfully separated from the other. Much of the work is inherently tonal and the paintings tend to be cautious affairs. Several works employed lines which are subtlety coloured though, which often added a pleasing deftness and delicacy. There are other tantalising glimpses of colour and I left wanting to see more of her use of colour in emphatic ways. Her full maturity as an artist was perhaps reached in the early 60s, so these works feel explorative and at times tentative.
There are many surprises to the designs and their construction. Often a singular form is made up of component sections, that aim to set up a spatial dialogue that moves through these sections to the open space surrounding the overall form. The resultant picture space that is created remains essentially internal – often forcing the eye to look in and ‘read’ the space rather than feel it as a palpable entity. An isometric sideways movement in one work felt bizarrely like a Japanese print. One thing that comes across is an artist really trying to work things out. This adds a feeling of a show based upon “introduction” rather than one based upon a “presentation.” Alongside this there is a rigour at work and that is something to enjoy.
The exhibition is very well set out. Pairs of opposing walls are fully hung or single works face each other. A tall rectangular work featuring yellow linear triangles on a dark charcoal grey looked strong on its own wall. The whole show hangs together well and the overall ‘float’ of works is good. We can see a clear sense of purpose felt through Concretist pragmatism. Lauand: “A picture is not explained. A picture is seen. The words are no substitute for a direct view of the formal structure of relations of colours, spaces, the plasticity and the organisation of similar elements.”
If an artwork has a tension it usually grabs our attention. There are moments in these works when the lines and spatial flips play out and draw you in to their subtle dramas, not in any heady way, but with a focus and a dead-eyed singularity. I left pondering how much mileage this approach to art through shape and design has today? Does it become tiring upon repeated viewing? I also mused upon concrete art’s opposition to figuration, yet ironically it replaced the certainties of figuration with those of geometry, regularity, pattern and the such – other ‘knowns’. Is the notion of a truth through apparent exactitude ultimately a misguided one? Matisse famously once said “exactitude is not truth.” However Lauand certainly is not a prisoner to style and is clearly a sensitive artist who deserves attention. I think her phrase “formal structure” is key. Visual structure must serve a greater purpose. It can reveal the known through the unknown. This phase of work was perhaps more a case of the unknown revealed through the known.
Judith Lauand: The 1950s is on at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until the 9th March