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Hélio Oiticica at Lisson Gallery

Hélio Oiticica
, Sêco 1, 1956. 
Gouache on cardboard, 
15 1/4 x 16 7/8 in. © Estate of Hélio Oiticica, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Hélio Oiticica: Tropicália

Lisson Gallery

October 28, 2020 through January 23, 2021 

By JONATHAN GOODMAN, January 2021 

The Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937-80) was one of the originators of installation art and conceptual art, establishing an influence still felt today. A poet of the favelas, or makeshift slums, found in Rio de Janeiro, Oiticica created installations that were influenced by the social circumstances of his environment. This double show in the two close-by spaces run by Lisson in Chelsea offers Tropicália  (1966-67), the artist’s first installation, in one gallery and a selection of paintings and architectural models in the other. Together, the two exhibitions give a good sense of the innovatory imagination of Oiticica, who created memorable spaces, tied to architecture and a social realism that was ahead of its time. His merger of urban awareness and a point of view that brilliantly explored a minimalist approach to painting opened avenues of artistic progress very much present in the way we make and consider work in the present. Indeed, Oiticica’s remarkable ability to create experience in a durational sense with his installations, which in the case Tropicália fills the gallery’s large space and present gravel pathways surrounded by sand for visitors to walk through, looks contemporary even though it was created more than fifty years ago. 

Visually, the environment consists of a low expanse of sand, through which a gravel walkway has been established. As the viewer proceeds along the curving strip of gravel, he or she comes across two Penetrables, shedlike shantyhouses, too small to live in but built with the fabric and cheap wood we expect of their construction. There is also a large, open cage with a low, pointed wire roof, in which two macaws sit among color toys made of blocks and eat the seeds provided for them. Their creaturely poise animates an otherwise lifeless landscape, animated only by the passage of the viewers, who make of this spectacle a cogent comment by Oiticica, in regard to his country’s impoverishment, but also the poetic possibilities engendered by such circumstances. Other notable structures include large plants and ferns in clay pots, usually embellished with a board on which a poem by Roberta Salgado has been written. In general, the installation plays with the clichés associated with Brazil as an exotic paradise--a lure for those interested in warm weather and easy pleasure.

Hélio Oiticica
, Hunting Dogs Project (Projeto cães de caça), 1961. 
Oil on wood, sand
, 10 1/8 x 63 3/8 x 63 3/8 in. © Estate of Hélio Oiticica, courtesy Lisson Gallery

The show at the other branch of the gallery, a few doors west of the first space, includes paintings and the model for Hunting Dogs Project (1961). Intended to be a public site, the maquette indicates the placement of several Penetrables, installed so as to create an archeological site containing a theater to be experienced by one visitor at a time, along with a group of buried poems to be unearthed and read. The description gives a good account of the mixture of public awareness and personal experience that characterizes Oiticica’s art, which clearly was more than ahead of its time. Much of the environmental work made today, especially architecturally oriented art reflecting an interest in sustainable structures, feel like they have been influenced by Oiticica, whose social sympathies cannot be separated from his astute grasp of both public space and private ritual. The paintings, too, often simple exercises negotiating a grid, look to the future, when this kind of imagery had a great hold in the 1970s. Coming close to a small museum retrospective, this excellent show by Oiticica shows that movements American artists were thought to have begun in fact were much more international in nature, originated by far-sighted artists from all over the world. WM

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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