Letícia Parente

On cosmetic propaganda and the beauty standards set by society

By Silas Martí

Letícia Parente, Medidas (Measurements), 1976, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Everton Ballardin. Courtesy Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo

Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, 25 March – 25 May 

Her house was her entire world, littered with pages from women’s magazines that sometimes found their way into her work. The late Letícia Parente is remembered today only in fragments, mostly for the few forays she made into blatantly political moving-image work: silent videos such as Marca Registrada (Trademark, 1975), in which she recorded herself sewing the word ‘Brasil’ into the sole of her foot in black thread, branding her body as a product under the country’s military regime.

Parente preferred reclusion and quiet: her realm of resistance during the 1970s was her middle-class Rio de Janeiro apartment, the setting for these powerful early VHS works. Collectively they document performances of strange, upended domestic chores, such as Tarefa I (Assignment I, 1982), in which a maid irons the artist’s clothes with Parente still in them, lying facedown on an ironing board; or In (1975), the artist’s contortionistlike attempt to hang a blouse in the closet while, again, wearing the item of clothing. The works succeed in portraying her home as being as violent and uncomfortable as the nation heaving at her doorstep.

Taking this twisted domesticity to perhaps an even more profound level, her minimalist collages, poems and drawings all shed light on what it meant to be a woman whose body (then, as now) was under siege by patriarchal propaganda and chauvinism. These bold, albeit minimalist, phases of her oeuvre now find a broader audience in this strong survey exhibition. In one of the strongest and least-known series in the show, Parente borrows a pattern of stitches – most commonly used by the cosmetic surgeons of the time to stretch and smooth out wrinkles and reshape and augment breasts – in order to sew lines on black pieces of paper, again in black thread, sometimes adding nails to the jagged, broken contours. These pieces are abstract, monochromatic jewels that vibrate with unsettling tension. Her collages, which feature wide-eyed blonde babes plucked from the pages of fashion magazines, make this violence more obvious, with safety pins driven through the paper, piercing puckering lips.

This surgical motif continues in Preparação II (Preparation II, 1976), a video in which the artist is seen giving herself injections and then recording them on paper as ‘antiracism’ or ‘antimystification of art’, creating what resembles a medical record. This laboratorial aspect of her work summons her background as a chemistry professor, a science she dedicated most of her life to before becoming more involved with her artistic practice.

It is this search for a scientific methodology, aesthetics based on data collection, that shapes her most significant work here. Medidas (Measurements, 1976) is an installation first exhibited in Rio’s Museu de Arte Moderna in 1976. In nine steps, like a modern-day, ER-style Stations of the Cross, the exhibition visitor is asked to gauge their ability to read under a dim light, test resistance to pain by taking fingertips to burning candles and describe a favourite kind of silhouette given a few options. Though aimed at the general audience, it seems clear by the end of the process that Parente was targeting women, asking them to assess whether or not they meet the beauty and moral standards of their society. Her dry, clinical approach in works such as this contrast with the actual violence of cosmetic surgeons tugging at skin and flesh. Not surprisingly, this is the final work in the show, where the two sides of an oeuvre, vulnerable and detached, come together as a cracked mirror held up to a reality of women abused in a botched society.

First published in the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview