Dark Paradise

Galeria Nara Roesler, São Paulo, 15 June – 10 August 2013

By Claire Rigby

David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (laying on a mattress), 1978–9/ 2004, silver gelatin print, 36 x 28cm . Courtesy estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York Patt Smith, The River Ouse, East Sussex, England, 2003, silver gelatin print, 36 x 28cm. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Robert Miller Gallery, New York

With a cheerful eclecticism that’s in contrast to its brooding, lyrical title, this group show adheres only sporadically to its stated theme of landscape. A set of children-in-peril-themed collages (Untitled, 2010–3) by the self-styled outsider artist Alex Rose seems dislocated from the figure-free landscapes of most of the other works; while in A Fire in My Belly (A Work in Progress) (1986–7), by David Wojnarowicz, the only terrain discernible is an inner panorama of fear and shock. In the infamous film, which sparked outrage in the art community after a version of it was excised from a 2010 Smithsonian exhibition for fear its religious imagery might offend, ants swarm over a crucifix; a man’s mouth is sewn shut; and images of death and fire flicker past, torrentlike.

Four small portraits from Wojnarowicz’s Arthur Rimbaud in New York series (1978–9) depict a ‘bankrupt, burned-out and dangerous New York’, in the words of curator Tim Goossens (a version of this show was presented at the city’s Clocktower Gallery earlier this year). Backstreet, desolate beauties, the images evoke the lonesome rattle of a freight train passing tenements in their perfect noir encapsulation of that New York at that moment in time. Their tone chimes unexpectedly with a nearby set of photographs by Patti Smith, taken on a 1981 trip to French Guiana. In another of Smith’s images – now beautifully realised as silver gelatin prints, but originally developed at Walgreens – the serpentine River Ouse (in Yorkshire) slides by, sinister in the twilight.

It’s inhospitable sandy landscapes that go past in Nancy Holt’s 16mm film Pine Barrens (1975), as the voices of local people – these are the backwoods of southern New Jersey, near where Holt grew up – tell of chilling local legends, including that of the fearsome Jersey Devil, a winged, clawed creature with the head of a goat. Down by the river and into the trees, branches snap back into the moving camera’s face as it rushes through the pines.

In Thiago Rocha Pitta’s O Cúmplice Secreto (The Secret Accomplice, 2008), an ink-blue sea fills the alcove into which the film is projected, rising and rolling moodily against itself. The work is shown to poor effect here, with insufficient darkness (on a sunny Saturday afternoon) for its deep navy blues and blacks. But glinting in the water against a Rio de Janeiro horizon – all hooked black mountains, reminiscent of the iconic Pedra da Gávea rock shown in a lushly tropical photo montage by Marcos Chaves, also part of the show – a mysterious metallic object rocks and rolls in the high sea, moving closer (or is it us getting closer?) as the screen smoulders and fades to black.

Further along, a quartet of 2m- and 3m-wide panoramas by the Israeli-born artist Zipora Fried bring us soaring mountains and heavy, undulating landmasses illuminated by washes of colour and light. Up close, Fried’s sumptuous images, made from found postcards overlaid with paint, smeared onto slides and scanned, have the look and feel of acid-etched, devoré images on velvet: in the slightly gritty texture of the pigment on archival paper, and in the darkly kitsch, created landscapes they depict. Their semifictitious essence only adds to a sense of standing before mysterious nature, portrayed here on a scale that eclipses and almost obliterates the viewer. Then the pleasure of the colours, infiltrating the dark skies like the Northern Lights, pulls us back into the picture in an act of recognition, witnesses to wild beauty. Marrying their unknown, unpopulated terrains with an audacious, fertile dash of human creativity, they make a sure-footed finale to this darkly paradisiacal show.

This review originally appeared in the September 2013 Issue