The Art of Illusion

by Illeana Marcoulesco

Born in 1947, Mario Cravo Neto is a native of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. His training started early as his father instructed him in sculpture and later offered him the visual experience of Europe in the 19705.

The artist then travelled to New York and studied for a year at the Art Students' League. This was the glorious epoch of Abstract Expressionism in painting and minimalism in sculpture and the influ­ence of Morris, Claes Oldenburg and others was keenly felt.
New York City in 1969 to 1970 offered this artist a vitally formative experience not only because of the pressures — both cultural and social — of the city, the extraordinary density of artistic life but also because of the fundamental solitude of the man in the metropolis. Solitude did not induce an extroverted turn in Cravo Neto; to the contrary, it made him even more bent upon inner reflection.
It took physical strength to survive afterwards in Bahia. Cravo Neto devel­oped an art that is attempting to halt theacceleration of chaos and entropy univer­sally threatening us from all angles and sides — an art that is about arresting the chaotic flow of time that will inevitably gobble us up.

Saturno (1992) is a Goyesque, staged image of a giant white Chronos (a self-portrait?) devouring the minuscule dark figure of a young man: a symbol both of the cannibalistic acts by which a civiliza­tion historically feeds on another and of the inexorable cruelty of Time. The clas­sical myth of Icarus is carried by an impressive photograph of flying-falling.

By his utter subjectivity, elevated by simplicity and avoidance of all accidents to an essential approach to things andevents, the artist as thinker seems to in­scribe himself in a phenomenological type of experience and perception.Concerning Time, his concept is almost directly lifted from T.S. Eliot's Quartets but strongly, if indirectly, resonates with the phenomenological-existential view of the plenitude of the now.

In fractions of seconds, Mario Cravo Neto avidly appropriates events which he freezes or half-freezes on film. The tran­sitions from objective to subjective and vice-versa are both fragile and compelling. It is a va-et-vient of the subtlest kind, an art of allusion and infinitely reverberating auras of connotations which would give the lie to Benjamin's famous aestheticpronunciamento: in fact, in the era of mechanical reproduction, the aura of the work of art is enhanced rather than diminished.

Man with Two Fish (1992), possibly the most precious piece in the show, exceeds in poignancy and shine many a famous painting with a similar subject including canvases by Matisse or Braque for both of whom ichthyology was tempt­ing. In Cravo Neto's photograph, the back of a man is present, as a curved surface striated with blood; the fish look alive, scared and ready to bite. Light contrasts are so well managed as to literally burst your eyes open ... It is hard not to be haunted by this image; it has a movement of its own, as if rapidly receding into the distance, and yet at the same time staying with you.

The two portraits, Tinho (1990) and Head and Eyes (which should have been juxtaposed in the exhibition for the addedstrength of the "double"), draw attention to the shiny shaved skull; in Eyes, there is an upturned look and a wrinkled forehead as a result. Head — just a skull collecting light with somewhat protruding ears — is as striking as a Brancusi's Egg.Elsewhere Cravo Neto segregates backs, necks and collar bones overhung by an upturned head with unambiguous smiles (Satiro).

The Voodoo series achieves equally magic secrecy through a combination of statuesque postures and white speckled transparent black veils. The symmetry of the nude in Voodoo Figure (1988) is disturbing. Voodoo Child (1988) is a rela­tively small (18" x 18") piece, quite essen­tially combining greys, blacks and whites in a musical-tactile whole. In other images of sacrifice, the immaculate white of the bird is intertwined with the ebony of wiry hands and arms in a magical embrace. Sacrificer and sacrificed are one. The artist does not have to "depict" scenes of ritual sacrifice, but only point to them allusively in order to rouse a "sacred awe." Explicit is, as far as I am concerned, the attach­ment to an aesthetic of hieratic gesture, to verticals intimating threat and violence pointed towards the above and to the sacred acts of conjuring forces of war or death. But mostly, as any accomplished modernist, Cravo Neto would look at — and transmit to us — the plenary beauty of these sacrifices whose significance he doesn't need to penetrate, leaving the explicative task to the ethnologists who might write scholarly tomes about them without ever reaching bottom.

(1992) emphasizes the titanic effort of a sculptor trying to inscribe some message in the stone. Stone as aphotographed medium is frequently present, in the strange cult objects (a polished fetish in a cucumber shape that serves as ear stopper in Silence (1992) — a large very impressive rendition of this inner state) and appears in other magical connections as well as, e.g. in the half-humoristic, half-pathetic literality of the rugged Heart of Stone (1991), gingerlycarried by two hands that seem to make a religious offering of it.

Says the Brazilian critic Paco Baragan in Nexus: "... his images are very dual, given that they show a strong tension between the spiritual and the erotic." Cravo Neto agrees with the characteri­zation. Nevertheless, he subordinates this tension to a preexisting, objective and permanent, vertiginous swirl. It is a verti­go that may well be a cosmic apperceptionrather than the trite assertion of a duality between spiritual sublimation and the corporeal-erotic pull. Yet both appear as a corollary of cosmic turbulence and chaos.

The artist refuses to practice any mimetic theory of art, and this is everywhere evident in the work. I can't think of Cravo Neto's photographs as depicting anything, the way, more or less figuratively speaking, Ansel Adams' depicts Mt. Whitney or an orchard in the Santa Clara Valley or even a Cezanne perspectivally depicts the Mt. Ste. Victoire. Cravo Neto's subjects are not famous and recognizable as Man Ray's are: figures that patently existed in the mundane consciousness before his camera focused on them. Much like the Japanese artist-photographer Nakaji Yasui in the 19305, the human dimensions (including ethnic characteristics) are powerfully expressed. This is due, however, to the strict pursuit of form, the mastery of contrast, the stylized rhythms we face not subjects in themselves, waiting to be uncovered and rematerialized, but are dealt essentially the human drama, the live encounters, the felicitous occasions for the artist's appropriation, the supports for his aes­thetic vision. In what the late Heidegger described as "the event of Appropriation," Time and Being come together; the artist's sending (e.g., of the art work) in the des­tiny of Being (viz: into the world at large) may be characterized as a giving in which the sending source keeps itself back and thus withdrawn from unconcealment (the openness of truth). In this appropriating space-time expanse, that is the work of art, Being gives itself without division or opposition.

A different kind of approach to criticism imposes itself therefore when photography is neither reporting on his­torically recognizable events, nor doing portraiture, nor trying to fix on paper a landscape — urban, rural, microscopic or astronomical. Such criticism does not have to be necessarily formalistic. Even when our artist focused on the growth of plants in a terrarium, the aesthetic object far overstepped the boundaries of the natural process. Hence "describ­ing depiction" misses the point. There are certainly in Cravo Neto's panoply some classically recognizable, even though unconventional, takes — for instance, the portraits of Lucia, Mother of the Artist (1993), the portrait of Mario Cravo Neto, the Father (1993) and of Lukas (the artist's son; as recent as 1997) all pro­foundly imbued with parental and filial piety. But don't they concentrate, rather than on a flatly recorded similitude, on intentional objects — viz on what he loves, on that which excites and inspires his aesthetic and ethical papillae? It is only through this prism that the well-known features will appear. Alone per­haps Lukas's swan neck in a favorite foreshortened position discloses a shade of expressionism. Elsewhere, too, the artist relishes in capturing curves ideally graceful which elevate the tonus of his pictures almost to symbolic heights.

Neto's art, at least in its black-and-white variants, is predominantly abstract, for he does not present or represent an optical retinal view of his subjects, does not imitate, emulate or simulate objects of our everyday visual universe, does not lay claim to anthropological, ethno­graphic, psychoanalytic, ideological or political truth. If truth there be, it is of another order.

The black-and-white set of Cravo Neto's photographs shows a moving, if sad, paradise of birds; snow white or speckled, young and silky, strangled or on the verge of being killed, always poised in a meek, sacrificial posture, hostages to men's dark hands, never soaring, never free.

His photographs are relatively large (38" x 38" for the largest; 18" x 18" for the middle ones; and 15%" x 15%" for the smaller ones). As is the case with any artistic "perfection," it is hard to substantially reduce their size without losing the originally intended effect. Rothko said once: "I paint large in order to be intimate." It seems that by involving us in his big images, Cravo Neto achieves something similar; we are drawn close to the palpable textures of the objects which, in turn, envelop us in their subtle drama of sacrifices, magic rituals, alert us to the mysterious significance of sacred objects and people officiating with hieratic ges­tures. This is one, if not the main, proce­dure conducive to the emotional impact of Cravo Neto's art.

So far, we have seen in Houston only about one hundredth of Cravo Neto's oeuvre. The little that was made available, however, by the judicious choice of Maria-Ines Sicardi, compensated in kind and quality our huge gap in information. There is this enormous body of work in color that includes definitely closer historical-anthropological perspectives, portraits of people at their daily trades, the life of the shanty towns as well as the famous Portuguese baroque style of buildings.

At the present stage in his life, Cravo Neto relishes in the potential of electronic media. The computer, he says, not only helps him build mock-ups of portfolios and catalogs but also serves as the best tool for videos and installations. Obviously he is able to dominate the beast; and we certainly hope that it will not overpower his deeply spiritual and innerworldlymessage.

However, this is by far not the only message. An inner epic of people and clusters of peoples in this part of the world, of their lives, beliefs, moments of contemplation and self-reflection, the austere beauty of the human environment in its unshakable historicity, are present in this search that one may call implicit nar­ratives or stories; however, this dimension remains cryptic; its impact on us, one may say, refers to the continuum of a collective unconscious, if the notion were not so fuzzy and abused. One thing ought for sure to be left out: the sterile hunt for Freudian symbols — at the same time facile and unnerving.

Most of the issues involved in this ar­tist's work have to do with an evaluation of modernism today. Is modernism dying? Modernism is alive and well in Mario Cravo Neto's vision and treatment of his subjects. Once appeared on the world art-scene — whether drawing on ancient, prehistoric, and the so-called primitive, little explored cultures, relatively exotic — it is here to stay. Not perhaps as man­nerism was within the Rococo period — a minor of a major style. Speaking through its best representatives in the concert of thinking, not to say philosophizing, litera­ture and music, modernism has infiltratedthe consciousness of many viewers, read­ers and neophytes in art appreciation; semantic or ideological misunderstand­ings notwithstanding, Mario Cravo Neto's impeccable modernity will invariably stir up the frisson of emotion that great art produces from Brancusi to Man Ray.Yet his work is not congealed at any given stage of modernity. Rather, it appears prototypical of an opera aperta; all diachronic barriers and signs collapse, and the "tale" becomes part of a continu­um painting-poetry, immutable in its flow that preserves the inner circuits of motion, allowing at the same time an openness to dream, projection, fantasy and interpretation.

lleana Marcoulesco is a free­lance philosopher and art critic in Houston, Texas.