Helena Mendes Pereira

in conversation with

João Penalva

Part I


HMP: Does contemporary art production fit into the generational processes that Art History has always experienced or is it ‘trans- historical’ (if one may say so), that is, upheld by unrelated authorial processes?

JP: Contemporary art production is more varied than at any other time. We see the influences, the citations, the combinations of the most diverse languages in the work of artists who today have immediate access to the entire History of Art and who, consciously or not, use it as a bank of knowledge. The dissemination of images of works of art is today an industry, information reaches us very quickly and perfectly produced, be it related to a 400-year-old object from Flanders or to an exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul which opened yesterday.

Art production has always evolved from the experiences accumulated in its past; it is impossible to think of Cubism without having Cézanne as its predecessor, or to see the spaces created by Fred Sandback’s threads, already in the 2000s, without thinking of Donald Judd’s Minimalism, or to think of Judd without thinking of Malevich’s 1915 Black Square. But also in that same year Picasso was still painting Cubist harlequins which were considered the avant-garde. So, how many simultaneous avant-garde movements can we have?

HMP: In the art of concrete things, is there abstraction in the artist’s gaze? What is it that fascinates you: the element of chance in what you record, in what you see, or the materiality from which forms suggest themselves to you?

JP: It is an instinctive mechanism but trained by many years of study and work. In the first moments of my encounter with an object in which I recognise its potential to become material for my work, I see it as an image — the photographic image of its image in the world — I anticipate the possibilities of its framing in the camera, and that framing is already part of the narrative that I will build around it.

But, besides all the formal aspects, there is also the process of interpreting the object, a process that is entirely subjective and inseparable from my own cultural references. A block of lacquered wood or glazed ceramics about 20 cm wide by 10 cm high and 10 cm deep will be immediately recognised by a Japanese person as a pillow, but the European concept of a pillow corresponds to something much larger and softer. This is why the objects that fascinate me most are those that make me ask “What is this? What is it for?”. I have to understand the object like someone who understands a character, because it is as characters that these objects move in the script I invent for them.

HMP: And in your works, in the way you cultivate images, would you say they echo other artists of your own time or that they draw from their influence?

JP: The only definition of art that I am swayed by is that art is what artists do. And, to me, no one has described better than John Cage how none of us work in a bubble: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio — the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas — all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.” Personally, everything and everyone is also there when I start working. Only mine won’t budge. Their influence is constant and theirs is a friendly company I hope I will never lose.

HMP: What are the limits of contemporary art creation? Do you think there are such limits or is it that everything could possibly be considered Art? I think, for example, of the NFTs’ issue.

JP: Those limits have always been expanded by artists. Can everything be considered art? My belief is that the definition of what art may be falls to the artists because they are its producers, and apart from it being the artists’ work, art is not something that hovers around in the air. The NFTs are a curious example of the concept of ownership, but I don’t think they are really expanding the limits of art creativity.

HMP: In that little aversion of yours to titles do you think that the work speaks for itself?

JP: The works would speak for themselves even if I titled them Untitled — which is a mannerism that stands in for a title that one doesn’t want to give, but which is a title nonetheless. However, I don’t know what they would say. By adding a ‘worked’ title, a title composed with an intention, I can influence how the work is perceived. At the moment of reading this text that is the title, a dialogue begins between the work and its viewers, employing a language that is accessible to everyone: I am using words that I and those viewers have in common.

The works in this exhibition show a very varied spectrum of possibilities of what the title can be, but I use many others. I can title some stacked chairs Worn out mid-twentieth-century dressing room chairs waiting to be removed from a theatre, facing their replacements on the opposite wall, and the title holds a complete story.

But I can also title another pile of chairs Harlequin in profile, and the narrative is replaced by a nod to art history because I saw the rhythm and colours of Cubism in that pile, I saw all of Picasso’s Harlequins, and this was my way of conveying that vision to the viewer. If something is titled Harlequin in profile, one looks for the Harlequin in it and if you find him he’ll be in profile — but it’s all thanks to the viewer’s imagination. I only start the process.

I can also title a series of images of London pavements with the postcodes of the buildings along them. These codes will certainly seem cryptic and I use this resistance very consciously because they also have the particularity of being able to lead the viewer exactly to the place where the photograph was taken — if the viewer is curious enough to want to know where these pavements are, by searching the postcode and the word ‘London’ in Google Maps.

Other titles like Crashed, or Blanket Picture are very straightforward: Crashed are images of crashed cars, and Blanket Pictures are images of bedcovers, or blankets.

The images of sanitary wares, with the titles Solo, Trio, Fountain, Chain and Bowl, and Double Swivel Door Bathroom Cabinet, are exactly the names by which these pieces are identified in a catalogue of the British building materials company Nicholls & Clarke. That is why I added ‘(after Nicholls & Clarke Ltd.)’ to the titles.

My titles are part of the conceptual construction of the work; they are an opening to add with words something that only words can convey and, because they show so deliberately an intention in terms of language, they also are revelatory of myself as an artist.

Therefore, that you may think that I have a ‘small aversion to titles’ is a small misunderstanding that probably arose when, a while ago, you asked me if I already had a title for this exhibition, and I replied that I rarely have titles for my exhibitions except when the exhibition involves a fictional character. I always like to see my name next to another, of someone who doesn’t exist.

When I recited to you the list of images that would be part of the exhibition and you repeated it and said that it might well be the title, I immediately agreed, adding the ‘for sale’ because, much to my liking, that list sounded to me, and still does, very much like shopkeeper’s language.

HMP: Following on from the possibilities you open up for us with some of the titles of the works in this exhibition at zet gallery, what is it, in your opinion, that unites the group of works shown? Could we speak of a sort of poetry of the urban observed freely, or is there, in this group of objects (and sets of objects), a narrative of our everyday inattention?

JP: The objects I use in my work are, for the most part, every day, very ordinary things, but I never think of them as banal. My work is to present them as things in which the gaze can linger and give wings to the viewer’s imagination. This is what all the works on show here may have in common. It was not my intention to fathom a narrative with them but it will not be difficult for the viewer to create one, if they so wish. I’ll give you a hint: think about how the body is absent from these images but also that they all refer to it.

HMP: João, in this exhibition we selected a set of artworks drawn from different series. The listing of these different series (chairs, blankets, cars, flowers, shoes, fabrics, toilets, pavements, urinals) ended up being the title of the exhibition. I would like to ask you to tell us about each of these series and their relationship to each other when that is the case.

JP: The London pavements series, from 2014, is of images of details of streets that I have known over years and years, from my neighbourhood or streets I often walk along. One of them, with a very rich and delicate composition, is of the pavement outside my supermarket, Waitrose on Edgware Road. Another, of my street. Others are on the way to the studio I had at the time in Bermondsey, in the south of the city.

When I started photographing these pavements, looking at the ground as if I was looking at paintings, marvelling at these stains of who knows what, at the random distribution of rounded marks of chewing gum, the cigarette butts, I decided that it would only be interesting to reproduce them on their real scale; that these images would be an exact document, but that they would evade being a photographic document for their type of printing and support. The digital, photographic printing would have had a much higher resolution were the images printed on paper or canvas coated with the specific emulsion for digital printing, but I preferred that the printing be on the back of linen prepared for oil painting.

There was an important technical issue that led me to this choice: digital printing with inks of high pigment saturation is done on a roller, and the paper or canvas to be printed requires a certain stiffness so that they do not wrinkle when passing through that roller. If they do they can break the heads of the ink-jet print, which are fragile. The base for oil paint on Belgian linen that I chose gives the linen, which is rather thin, the necessary body. The characteristic smell of oil paint lingered on these canvasses for a long time — the smell of linseed oil, which matched perfectly with my idea of seeing these images as China ink paintings. Much as they look like paintings they are also a record of a time in a large city where everything changes rapidly.

After a few months almost all the pavements I had photographed had changed so much that, although I was in the right place, I no longer recognised the image in the photograph. In some cases they had disappeared altogether because the slabs they are made of had been replaced.

In the Blanket Pictures series, from 2017, the blankets, which are called kantha in Bangladesh, are made from scraps of saris, dhotis, lungis, and other clothes that are no longer fit to be worn. The various layers of fabrics are sewn together by a regular, quilting stitch in the direction of the largest dimension. This work is done exclusively by women, and can take months or years.

The threads from the edges of the saris are removed, saved, and used to embroider intricate designs on the good side — because they have a good side and a back. It’s the back that interests me most, and that’s the one I photographed. On the back, the patches are made without any attempts at subtlety. They are there out of necessity, and the colours and patterns of those patches, in contrast to the background, give them the rhythm of a composition that only chance would have designed.

When I called these works Blanket Pictures what I wanted was, in their photographic representation, a doubling as faithful as possible to its colours and dimensions, that these blankets continue to be blankets but also ‘pictorial’ images. I have not translated the title because picture is a difficult word to translate into Portuguese. Despite its Latin origin — pictūra, from the act of painting, or from a painting — we have no word in Portuguese that can cover a visual or mental representation, a painting, a photograph, a drawing, a film, an impression, a scene, a situation.

Much like the pavements series, the reproduction of these blankets is also in their real dimensions, but while the life-size scale of the pavements stresses a documental attitude, here it would be to reproduce these blankets in a small format, like in a book or an auction house catalogue. In their one-to- one scale, with a white border and a frame, these very colourful images become pictorial in the sense that they live from a dynamic composition that the various patches bestow on them.


(to be continued)


This interview was conducted in writting between October and November 2022.