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In a new painting by Brazilian artist Lucia Laguna, the glowing object suspended in lush foliage is not a parrot but a pair of discarded sneakers dangling from electrical wires. These overhead wires, along with a hurricane lamp and a deconstructed bicycle, frame a collage of shacks on a sugar loaf hill.
Even before the pandemic lockdowns, the open windows at Laguna’s Rio de Janeiro studio were an endless inspiration for the 81-year-old artist, who has been influential among younger Brazilian artists since her first solo exhibition in Rio in 1998. Lives in Rocha, in the North Zone of Rio, a historically working-class area a world away from the tourist area of Copacabana and Ipanema.
“In my studio I have three large windows that look out over the vast landscape of the northern suburbs and Mangueira Hill,” he says when we meet in London’s Mayfair. Its views include the seaport, the railway, disused factories and the famous samba school on the hill, an “important cultural center for the poorest people”. Its lime green and pink façade echoes in his paintings, but the dangling shoes dangling from electrical wiring hint at darker realities. “Kids throw sneakers almost like a sport,” she says. “It’s very dangerous because we don’t have underground cables. Drug dealers cut copper wires to sell. Sometimes the cables fall down.
Laguna, who taught Portuguese in secondary schools before being reborn as an artist at fifty, is in London for his first UK solo show, Life is only possible reinvented, at the Sadie Coles headquarters. He will also have a presence at Art Basel Miami Beach through the Brazilian gallery Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel. “Life, for me, is painting,” says Laguna, speaking in Portuguese. “And I feel like I can only do that by reinventing. I know very little about traditional art, so I created my own way of painting within my own landscape.” Her compositions combine geometric abstraction and a subtle tropical palette with intriguing figurative details. Architectural lines, railings or wire mesh usually structure the compositions. The Covid lockdown made her canvases even more densely layered. “I experienced an excess of landscape because I didn’t go out,” he says.
The three-story house where she has lived for 40 years (long with her husband, who died 12 years ago) has a top-floor study and a strip of front yard whose debris, from broken china to discarded shoes, finds its home. I walk in the paintings. She divides her collected works into three series: Scenery, Yard Y Study. His daughter Laura, a flamenco dancer, is the director of the studio. Laguna collaborates with young artists studying at the free Federal University of Rio to create his paintings. Using “triggers” ranging from Japanese prints to engineering catalogues, she talks to them about painting and they create images, which she partially deconstructs and erases.
Although her only medium now is acrylic paint, Laguna describes her practice as pictorial collage, isolating areas with masking tape and “introducing other elements that I can see.” Some enlarged details (leaves, insects, tiles) appear surrounded, as if they were under a magnifying glass. “I subvert the scale,” she says. “Objects that should be small due to distance become prominent. This displacement, to give movement to a normally static landscape, leads your eyes and your thoughts to wonder why”.
Laguna sees its northern suburbs as the opposite of Rio’s postcard (and largely white) South Zone. “The fact that the rich live near the beach and the poor build their huts on the surrounding hills is already a representation of the city,” he says. His stylized favelas dialogue with other artists, such as the Italian-born modernist Alfredo Volpi, whose Klee-style paintings of flags and facades hang in São Paulo’s MASP, where Laguna had an exhibition in 2018. “Volpi is much more geometric and static,” he says. “It is precisely in the movement and displacement that I add that I am contributing a new perspective”.
This perspective owes much to living within the community, rather than observing from a distance, as most of the prominent artists who had previously represented the area had done. Laguna was born in 1941 in Campos dos Goytacazes, a small industrial city in the interior, where his parents worked in a sugar factory. Sent to a school run by Salesian nuns who taught women to be teachers, she became a nun at 18, but resigned after nine years. “It was not what I wanted; it was what was possible for me,” she says. “I left with little money and no place to stay.”
Teaching in Rio’s public schools during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, she became involved with the resistance when her housemate’s son was arrested and tortured. “Everyone was ready to fight, not just for a cause, but for the disappearance of our children in police stations.” Hélio Oiticica’s installation of a shack in 1967 gave its name to the Tropicalia counterculture movement of the 1960s. But for Laguna, its musicians were paramount, including Gilberto Gil, later minister of culture under the first administration of Lula da Silva, who helped bring black consciousness to Brazil (where slavery was only abolished in 1888). “We used to sing and drum, and I gave his lyrics to my students to analyze. It was a way of transforming what was happening.”
Laguna fell in love with and later married a celibate priest from Spain, a liberation theologian named Severiano who was expelled for his activism. He built a church in a poor neighborhood that became a center of resistance and it was there that she made her first artwork. The couple opened an educational toy workshop in her home, salvaging wood from the fruit market. Excited to paint toys, she enrolled in the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts, where she credits Scottish artist Charles Watson as the “teacher who made me an artist.” He led trips abroad before she set foot in the galleries of Brazil. An encounter with Manet’s fragmented canvas “The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian” at the National Gallery in London left a deep impression. Those intense years of study spawned an ever-growing list of artists she considers her “family,” from Uccello to Cézanne.
The abstract series that he considers his first real work of art, Between the Red Line and the Yellow Line (2001-06), alludes to the highways that connect the northern and southern areas of Rio. “My neighborhood is framed by the two freeways,” she says. “So the first thing I did was place myself in that space. This is the place I want to paint. I can feel and talk about it because it is what I see; the place I know Laguna refocuses the world from her vantage point, placing the viewer in her landscape and surprising him with her beauty and darkness.
He still paints every day. “My place is a landscape to constantly repeat; I always see it differently,” she says. In his art, “nothing is realistic, it’s what I see.”
to December 17 sadiecoles.com