Everything in Brazil's modern culture it seems is celebrated with an exclamation point. And the current show at YBCA promises just that: "originality of the culture of people who live in the tropics." Here, the Tropicaìlia art movement is loudly explored, portraying a uniquely Brazilian art culture. I was, however, left reeling not from the surprise of innovation but by the bold, dizzying colors and the overwhelming aroma of coconut and suntan oil (actual smells!). More cloying were the smells of different bowls in one exhibit, where the viewer is invited to sample the flavors of colors, a task as arbitrary as the names of colors themselves. It’s a psychological exercise: substituting one sense or impression for the other. In hypnosis, they actually assign colors to numbers for a similar purpose, and although this is an exciting concept, in the age of Purell and swine flu, it's better in theory than practice.
Flavors are also invited into the gallery through Rivane Neuenschwander’s photographs and video installation of ingredients manipulated into geographies and architecture. Pangea is depicted by beef carpaccio squirming around a dinner plate on the backs of ants. Her relationship to food is not unique to the Brazilian experience; many cultures celebrate themselves through cooking and other domesticities. The eerie slither of the meat around the plate however was a fantastical and clever trip into surrealism, but the artist's other pieces, photographs of architecture made of radishes and toothpicks (et al.) are less inspiring.
A kaleidoscope of steel and vectored shapes, Ana Maria Tavares’ piece Airshaft (to Piranesi), 2008, is a venture from the splashy color in the collection, with its bewildering and futuristic grays and blacks, in its silvered pools of mirrors and never-ending stairways. The 3D video takes the viewer through a bizarre, metallic labyrinth, not unlike an Escher illusion or a Borgesian Labyrinth. The video oscillates between a slow descent through the nucleus of the stairwell and ascension, creating a feeling of falling vs. floating, as well as motion sickness for the equilibrium-challenged. Surrounded by mirrors, the floorless stairwells look as if you'll never hit bottom. Disorienting, but that’s the point: to express something unreal but simultaneously actual, the whirling steel life of a metropolis, with a strange and fevered velocity.
The psychological effects of Isabela Capeto’s Lucha Libre, 2008, are less blaring than Tavares’ work but equally potent. It’s a massive and dramatic tapestry of little, gold sequins and metal pendants, showing off Capeto’s skill in the handicrafts. The floral patterns are delicate and intricate with subtle pops of lime beading and surprise hints of blue embroidery. Unlike Tavare’ piece, however, Capeto celebrates spatial density with romantic and decorative attributes.
It’s all a rush, a sensory overload. If one sense isn’t fulfilled, another will be involved (to the point of abuse). From the spastic acid trip installation of assume vivid astro focus to Tomie Ohtake’s bold, strangly romantic geometries and radically abstract forms a la Mark Rothko, from the optical illusion of Lucia Koch’s photography to Erika Verzutti’s mythical fruit-animal hybrids, all the pieces are extraordinarily vibrant (!) and though they address many of the same themes, they never exhaust their impulsiveness towards the surreal.
(Images: Marepe, Untitled; Marepe, Mariinha; Ana Maria Tavares, Airshaft (to Piranesi), 2008; Tomie Ohtake, Untitled. All images courtesy of artists and Yerba Buena Center, SF)