Contemporary Artist Henrique Oliveira Knows How to Command a Room

Oliveira’s works do not sit, nicely displayed, in a room nor do they invite quiet contemplation. They command. They invade. They burst through walls, bulge and creep into space, drip, project, grow, and otherwise overtake and overwhelm wherever they happen to be. His paintings, too, dictate their own unique terms of viewing. Their abstract surfaces composed of patched-together, fat, squiggling, brightly hued brushstrokes take the eyes on a wild ride from one edge of the canvas to the other. Their striated strokes resemble the patterns of the grain on the countless individual pieces of wood out of which Oliveira constructs his three-dimensional work.
While the artist welcomes viewers to read what they wish into his evocative pieces, and molds them into forms resembling skin, human anatomy, organs, tumors, vines, and tree branches, he is primarily focused on the sensual. As he once said: “[M]y works may propose a spatial experience, an aesthetic feeling, a language development, and many more nominations to refer to the relation it establishes with the viewer. But any attempt to find a message would fail.” So, leaving messages aside, he recently made a tree grow in Houston, one of the many cities worldwide that have played host to his fantastic artistic invasions.
Like most of his sculptural and installation work, this Texan tree began as numerous bands of plywood. Oliveira chooses plywood for its resonances to his hometown of São Paulo, Brazil, where it is ubiquitous as the material used to block off construction sites from the street. “What first caught my attention […] was [the plywood’s] pictorial aspect,” he has explained. “The textures, the colors, and the different tones that were organized in layers reminded me of a painting surface.”
Working opposite to the way an actual tree grows, he built this piece from the top down. He began with the branches, which appear to pierce the ceiling in the space in which it is set. He ended with the roots, which seem to penetrate the concrete floor. Its convincing appearance is in keeping with the artist’s sleight-of-hand approach, about which he says: “My wood constructions are natural in their materiality, but they are artificial in the sense that they give the viewer a sensation of something that is actually not happening.”
Karen Kedmey