Smoked ham is the first solo exhibition by the Brazilian painter Rafa Silvares at Peres Projects, Berlin. With extreme precision and craftsmanship, Silvares’ works evade narrative or thematic approaches and instead concentrate on the sensory and synaesthetic properties of painting. Nonetheless, the new group of medium and large format works that can be seen at Peres Projects form a coherent pictorial repertoire that depicts images of industrialized objects, household appliances, and machines that produce an organic by-product. Although the human figure is completely absent in these paintings, it is addressed both by the choice of objects that those who act as an extension of the body (a telephone receiver, a straw or a slide to take away) and the range of senses they convey (Sound, taste, smell, touch, certainly in addition to seeing). In addition, all of these objects seem to function without human intervention and are thus themselves anthropomorphized or even sentient.
The title of the exhibition not only reflects the central importance of the body in these works, but also Silvares’ interest in exploring the diverse associations between verbal and visual language in painting, in a complex semiotic game in which word and image are constantly involved different references are connected (the thing itself) to generate open meanings. The “smoked ham” in the title stands for a very special type of meat; not the bloody slaughter of Soutine or the pulsing entrails of Adriana Varejão, but something whose pleasant pink appearance is almost synthetic and whose texture is soft and dense at the same time, smoked. In other words, a texture that reflects the effect Silvares was striving for in the carefully worked surfaces of his paintings. The artist speaks of his desire to make things visible “as if through a filter”, whereby objects in compositions that are structured as smooth fields of color gradients, vibrations and contrasts acquire a cosmetic quality.
In this sense, figuration is used more as a pretext or stepping stone to work on problems in the field of painting, rather than a means of fulfilling a narrative function. That is not to say that the characters that make up a composition are groundless or random. Rafa Silvares’ work draws on a multitude of references from art history, literature, design, pop culture and many more; all of which play a role in the construction of his visual vocabulary. On the one hand, his working method consists of collecting images that appeal to him, images of very banal objects that can be found in every typical middle-class household around the world and that lack any special symbolism. At the same time, the artist creates lists of everything that can flow into the pictures: texts, ideas, visual, cultural references and so on.
This method of selective permeability creates a personal repertoire of different references, which are brought together by what he calls “magnetic attraction”. The next step involves a series of color and composition studies using analog drawings and digital software to test the various combinations of figure and background, color contrast, or general shape of each work. Like artists like the German-Brazilian Eleonore Koch and her distant relative Josef Albers, Rafa Silvares devotes a great deal of energy to the careful planning of his pictures and puts the phenomenological aspect above any specific narrative content that the work can convey. Obviously, the point is not to claim a return to the modern belief in the autonomy of art (or painting). On the contrary, as a ‘post-neo’ artist (as in neo-geo, neo-expressionism or painting after the ‘death of painting’ in general), Silvares’ work is not only about everyday things, but also from the multitude of artistic ones Styles and ideas that preceded him and from which he often freely selects and mixes in his works.
The paintings Ham parade (2021), for example, has its title from Picabia’s Love Parade (1917); originated at a time when the artist was fascinated by the idea of the machine as a source of images and created a series of mechanomorphic works in which industrial objects are endowed with human qualities. The central figure in Silvares’ painting consists of a mixture of different types of metal parts of machines and utensils, joined together in the form of a train that cuts through the composition to divide the picture plane horizontally. In contrast to the large mass of black and white gradients, the artist adds a solid ultramarine blue background at the top of the composition and a bright fluo yellow at the bottom. This is complemented by a lively, sensual and extremely soft red-white gradient that appears as smoke from the draft chimney that extends to the right side of the canvas. In Silvares’ unsuitable landscape, however, the smoke has a fleshy (ham-like) Quality; it’s a kind of strange organic outgrowth produced by the machine, the warm, smooth appearance of which contrasts dramatically with the cold and harshness of the industrial objects. Like Picabia’s machines, the figure is in Ham parade seems to have acquired anthropomorphic qualities not only because of its mysterious self-functioning mechanism (i.e., a thing that moves without human intervention), but also because it appears to produce something that is laden with human feelings of desire, sensuality, or seduction. It is noteworthy, however, that Silvares’ interest in machines as image sources does not match the early modern ideals of industrialization as progress. Machines appear in his works more as signs of a hyperconsumptionist world on the edge of the environmental apocalypse.
At work Smooth teller (2021) shows a set of four metal straws that sprout from a juxtaposition of foamy surfaces in green, brown and gray gradients in front of the bright red gradient in the background. Here, too, Silvares regards a historical precedent as inspiration in the construction of the composition; This time the reference is De Chirico’s use of architectural elements and dramatic shadows to create a succession of flat planes in the same picture. The viscous drops at the tip of the straws suggest that the object’s function has somehow been undermined: instead of being a tool for consuming liquids, the straw seems to consume the image itself. In fact, Silvares is referring to Smooth teller as a self-consuming painting that brings ideas on the contemporary status of art as a coveted commodity to the table. In this case, it is the painting that voraciously consumes its own delicacy, seduced by its own image and caught in a never-ending narcissistic-fetishistic loop.
Silvares not only seems to criticize the financial or speculative aspects of today’s art world, but also seems to get to the bottom of our relationship to art – and to images – and to explore what triggered the centuries-long human impulse to make and experience art . The greatest work can be seen at Smoked ham is a mural-sized triptych entitled Late Night Booty Call (2021). The composition pervades the entire extension of the three canvases, starting on the right panel with a crumpled piece of foil, typically used for take-away, lighting a small flame that grows larger and larger and covers the entire surface of the left panel. The massive yellow-red gradient is reproduced in a similar way to the other organic volumes that are created by different objects in Silvares’ paintings: soft, sensual and, above all, very ambiguous. In this particular case, the gradient can only be read as a flame in relation to the figure, which gives the viewer enough contextual information to identify him as such. But there is also something very hedonistic about the volumes that make up this flame; the picture is reminiscent of a heap of luscious human bodies (torso, buttocks, legs) entangled in an orgy of the senses; Adding another possible level of meaning reinforced by the title. Eventually, Late Night Booty Call Humorous suggests that perhaps the source of all desire – whether it be to satisfy a hunger attack by getting a falafel to go after a drunken soirée, or being haunted by an urgent sex drive in the middle of the night – is pathetically the same.
But what are these gradient masses that recur in all the paintings in this exhibition and what function do they fulfill in the composition? Technically, they are precisely executed, their smooth surface shows no traces of traces that could reveal the subjectivity of the artist. From an art historical point of view, a more obvious correspondence could be established with the work of the Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral, whose treatment of curved figures as synthetic sculptural volumes (via Léger) loosely resonates with Silvares’ forms. In contrast to the cold and precise quality of the industrial objects in these images, the gradient masses are amorphous, uncontrolled substances that appeal to the various senses. But not only that. The work Annunciation (2021) takes as a starting point the famous early Renaissance altarpiece by Fra Angelico, on which the Archangel Gabriel is depicted in a magnificent pale pink robe with gold embroidery. Silvares’ Annunciation is also dominated by a pale pink substance that oozes from a meat grinder and appears to splash out of the edges of the canvas. Despite the obviously different subject matter of these paintings, Silvares’ decision to take up a traditional religious reference suggests a desire to ascribe a transcendental quality to the fleshy discharge in his own painting. Ultimately, it says more about Rafa Silvares’ relentless belief in painting’s ability to deeply touch the senses and create a myriad of possible meanings that can change over time. Painting as a thing in itself, freed from the obligation to surpass or destroy the preceding, to illustrate current cultural debates or to represent something. Words Kiki Mazzucchelli
Rafa Silvares smoked ham October 8th – November 19th 2021 Peres Projects peresprojects.com
Rafa Silvares (* 1984 in Santos, BR) graduated in visual arts from Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado, São Paulo, and in language and literature from FFLCH University of São Paulo. His first solo exhibition, Smoked ham, can currently be seen at Peres Projects, Berlin. He lives and works between London, UK and Berlin, DE.
- Peres projects
- Rafa Silvares