My Highlights from SP-Arte 2014

Simon Watson
Mar 25, 2014 3:06PM

My selections are based on my 30-year history in the U.S. (and now in Brazil) curating more than 200 exhibitions for galleries and museums, advising art collecting programs for private collectors, and advising individual artists on unique projects. My area of curatorial expertise is in spotting visual artists—both emerging artists as well as under-recognized established artists—with outstanding potential. Year-in and year-out, my goal is to discover art stars and bring them to the attention of new audiences; which is why almost every major New York City gallery has an artist that I have worked with as a curator. 

My Selection: 

Ettore Spalletti, Sia o no così, azzurro, 2009, at Lia Rumma

Ettore Spalletti is a senior figure in Italian art-making, who brings a unique Mediterranean warmth to Minimalist abstraction. Spalletti’s work offers great pleasure: delicate and sensual surfaces in colors and forms just sufficiently different from the familiar so as to intrigue and provoke. Mostly working in monochrome, his fresco-like sculptural paintings have the delicacy of presence that suggests they were caressed into being. Almost 30 years ago, I had the immense pleasure of going to Italy’s Adriatic coast to visit Spalletti’s studio in Cappelle sul Tavo, the tiny 12th-century town of his birth. During our afternoon visit, he explained his inspiration and process, all the while preparing the most magnificent meal of pastas, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and bread—all presented in memorable monochrome. His preparation and presentation of that lunch taught me so much about the craft and vision of being a dedicated artist, and it has echoed through the decades. It is the same grace found in his artworks. Spalletti’s work is also on view at the SP-Arte booth of Cardi Gallery

Cris Bierrenbach, Fired #1, 2013, at Galeria Lourdina Jean Rabieh

Cris Bierrenbach is an emerging Brazilian artist who appeared this past season with startling and much noted life-size, bullet-riddled self portraits. She is working in an illustrious tradition that touches the performance tradition of 1970s Chris Burden and his radical approach to the body (being shot and being nailed being but two memorable examples) and the self-portraiture of Cindy Sherman. As though merging the practices of those masters, Bierrenbach’s work exists in a sociopolitical context, asking questions about who these women are and what happened to them; it speaks to the casual happenstance of everyday violence at work, at home and in public; and all the while it teases the notion of everyday portraiture. 

Olafur Eliasson, National career lamp, 2007, at Galeria Bergamin

Brazilian audiences are familiar with Olafur Eliasson’s work because he was the subject of a superb museum exhibition two years ago at Pinacoteca São Paulo, and he has a very fine telescope-like sculpture on view at Inhotim sculpture park. (Inhotim is one of the Eight Great Wonders of the contemporary art world and well worth the trek to Belo Horizonte, Brazil). His works merge art, science, and natural phenomena, and emphasize the role of the viewer. Eliasson’s National Career Lamp takes the form of an eye pulsating electric red, orange, and yellow swirls from its retinal center. It’s both a powerful example of his art and a wonderfully collectable work from an artist who frequently requires a museum-scale space! Also on view at SP-Arte, at the booth of Galeria Fortes Vilaça, is Eliasson’s Polar Fall Fade (light green, pink, light yellow).

Thiago Rocha Pitta, Sem título / Untitled, 2013, at Galeria Millan 

Thiago Rocha Pitta was one of the standout stars of the truly magnificent, “poetic themed” São Paulo Biennial of 2012. He makes brooding, contemplative interventions into nature. In a professional practice dating a little more than a decade, he has created a substantial body of work—of paintings and sculptures, as well as performative video and photographs—that investigate the twin preoccupations of the passage of time as experienced as singular events in natural settings. This watercolor painting is one in an ongoing serial investigation that might suggest a deluge-like rainstorm, or even human tears; in any case, they are a joy to behold.

Abraham Palatnik, W-484, 2013, at Galeria Nara Roesler

Abraham Palatnik makes abstract, constructed paintings that suggest electromagnetic currents or sine-waves. Born in 1928, Palatnik is an art pioneer, an explorer of technological advances in the creation of the Brazilian avant-garde. He has been the subject of two major retrospective exhibitions at Itaú Cultural, in São Paulo, and the Museu de Arte Contemporânea—MAC-Niterói. His artworks are just as strikingly relevant today in our ever-more-advanced digital society. Other fine examples of Palatnik works are on view in SP-Arte at the booths of Simões de Assis Galeria de Arte and at Anita Schwartz Galeria de Arte.

Opavivará, Sala piquenique, 2013, at A Gentil Carioca

Hands down my happiest discoveries at the past two editions of the ArtRio art fair have been the presentations by the Rio-based artist collective Opavivará. They bring an anarchist spirit to their art-making that’s much like imagining Marcel Duchamp visiting a Bacchanalian Carnival street party. In Manhattan, I have lived with hundreds of artworks on the walls of my loft, but my apartment in São Paulo is like a monk’s chambers: spare, bone white and no art on the walls—except for five works by Opavivará that hang by the front door and serve as a daily reminder to celebrate the irrational exuberance of life all around us. 

Rineke Dijkstra, Forte da Casa, Portugal, May 20 (B), 2000, at Marian Goodman Gallery

Don’t miss these portraits of bullfighters smeared in blood, direct from a fresh kill, leaving the ring and stopping to sit for a Rineke Dijkstra portrait. Although she’s been seen in numerous shows and her works are held in dozens of important museum collections including the Tate, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, mostly I catch up on her work at Marian Goodman Gallery’s presentations at art fairs. And every time I come upon them, they stop me in my tracks. Dijkstra manages serial portraiture in a way that gives breathing space for her sitters to quietly release their personal anguish, to reveal their awkwardness, or to project their energy.

Denise Milan, Ilha Brasilis II, 2013, at Galeria Virgilio

Works from Denise Milan’s Mist of the Earth photo collage series are now on view at the SP-Arte booth of Galeria Virgílio and in a solo exhibition that I co-curated with Virgílio gallerist Izabel Pinheiro. Seen in a U.S. solo museum show a year ago and now collectively in Brazil for the first time, Milan’s photo collages draw actively from her two-decade experience living with and interviewing people in the Brazilian coastal villages and the dry desolate lands of Brazil’s northeast. Mist of the Earth is the culmination of this experience and the embodiment of the artist’s ongoing concerns: a testament to a troubling legacy of colonization, the enslavement of African and indigenous peoples, and the despoilment of whole regions, as well as a tribute to the more life-asserting side of Brazil, its beauty and soaring spirit.

Explore SP-Arte 2014 on Artsy.

Simon Watson