Art, a thing of the past

"A past that does not pass" is the title and the conceptual focus that, from the very outset, urge us to reflect on how we deal with persistently recurring facts. In this exhibition, Pedro Varela connects both to Latin America’s colonial past and to the recent history of his own work, returning to old processes, reproducing former orderings of images on different scales, and rethinking direct incursions into the exhibition space.

In the images and figures of Varela’s paintings and drawings, Nietzsche’s "eternal return" is fleshed out with historical, cultural and allegorical allusions. We are also confronted with a political chronicle, since, as the ancient Stoics believed, ethical conduct should be turned into destiny.

It is in the clearings in Pedro Varela’s paintings, where we find this "past," that ethical conduct is marked by icons of violence that return to haunt us full of questions. What did we do with the land exploited by the conquistadors? How did slavery lead to modern-day labor relations? What has the legacy of Carmen Miranda and Zé Carioca done to the characteristic features of Brazilian identity?

Varela subtly orchestrates these elements, rather than opting for an all-out political critique. He avoids grandiose gestures and restricts himself to traditional supports. However, the very use of drawing methods broadened by the repetition of tiny strokes—as if total lack of commitment were capable of generating pictorial mass, the graphic mark—turns Pedro Varela’s art into a journey: a destiny stoically pursued through repeated but subversive acts. Varela both revisits and updates the past, he both shuns and makes use of figuration, he builds up historical landscapes and invents many others, he draws geometrical lines but positions them erratically, breaking the rules of composition with hand-made imprecision.

Another path that Pedro Varela’s art can be seen to take is that of dealing with temporal narrative using superimposed planes, as we find in the work of Alberto da Veiga Guignard or even the engravings of Goeldi, in which the pictorial plane, the flatbed, produces a perspective and a landscape that could only exist in fables.

"Un passé qui ne passe pas" is an expression used by the historian Henri Rousso, who has dedicated himself to the challenge of producing a history of the present. In other words, he distances himself from current events and manages to plumb the archives of something that has barely begun. Art, as Jean Luc-Nancy taught us, is a thing of the past, but we still insist on facing the present and distancing ourselves from it.

Marcelo Campos
March 2017