Daniel Senise’s Complex Minimalism

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The story of the Brazilian art movement Generation 80 is often told as a return to painting: rather than a definitive break with the hegemony of abstraction in its numerous guises (Concrete, Neo-Concrete, New Figuration, and Tropicalia), it is an absorption of abstract styles into a renewed interest in loosely defined figurative painting. Generation 80 artists who immediately come to mind, such as Beatriz Milhazes, Luiz Zerbini, and Leda Catunda, are as indebted to geometric abstraction as they are to expressionism (Zerbini), to textiles as support (Catunda), and to popular and commercial materiality (Milhazes). Recent works by many Generation 80 painters are notable for their often vibrant colors, forceful patterning, and incredible compositional denseness.

Daniel Senise’s paintings, by contrast, are grand yet sparse. At first glance, they appear coolly cerebral. One must stand close to the canvas’s surface to observe that, in fact, they are teeming with detail. Not accidentally, my recent experience of Senise’s work, at the Museum of Contemporary Art MAC-USP, in São Paulo, where he’s having a career survey featuring 37 paintings dating from 1992 to 2022, felt like detective work — an association reinforced by Senise’s naming one of his sprawling canvases, a monotopia of wooden detritus and acrylic on canvas, “Detective” (2007). 

Curated by Helouise Costa and Marta Bogéa, Biographer: Daniel Senise is the artist’s first solo exhibition at a museum known for championing Brazilian contemporary artists. Organized chronologically, with a smaller sampling of early career works from the early 1990s in the more intimate mezzanine space, and an ampler display of more recent large-scale works in the vast main hall, the show allows visitors to witness the evolution of Senise’s interest in residue, and his increasing shift from the more personal realm to a commixture of art historical and historical references, particularly regarding architecture and the idea of ruins.

Painted in dirtied browns, “Detective” depicts a subsection of an empty shelving unit. The composition is oddly cropped, slanting ad infinitum, and, in the end, more of an ontological puzzle than a straightforward representation of furniture. The mysterious title, disoriented perspective, and titillating sense that the work somehow points beyond itself, its lines escaping — into infinite distance, time — all invite viewers to linger on its looming voids. The connection between hollow structures and what they hint at is naturally speculative, yet throughout the survey I couldn’t help but notice that precisely this conjectural aspect — linking Sense’s biography and architectural spaces to art-historical references and buildings — is what makes his oeuvre so poignant.

Senise’s process enhances the ties between biography and art history. In “Home” (2005), for instance, he uses glue to collect detritus from the wooden floors of his studio, and then incorporates it into acrylic paintings. The result is a sense of paint as a residue of corporeal presence and life matter. In this way, “Home,” which seems to depict an empty room with brick walls and shelving and rigging, is a much more literal transference of space and its psycho-emotional dimension to pictorial form. In an expansionist fashion, the artist also depicts art-historical buildings, including museums and other sites. “Untitled (Galeria dell’Accademia)” (2022), for example, combines wall plaster with acrylic paint, so that the residual markers are clearly visible — a commentary on the way that time imbues architecture with memory, but can also strip it away. Senise’s architecture is haunted, for even though its material basis is physically present, it presents a vision of museums as susceptible to the historical, temporal processes of erasure. The artist’s monuments are solid yet spectral masses: as witnesses to historical processes, they’re obdurately mute.

One of Senise’s painting installations shown here perfectly encapsulates the idea of a glorious ruin: “The sun taught me that history is not so important” (2010) is made of pieces of recycled paper taken from printed matter composed of art publications — or, one might say, art pulp — bound with glue and plaster. Walking into the three-wall enclosure, built around one of the museum’s fixed pillars, is a bit like entering a whitewashed tomb, or a classical bathhouse. The paper bears a resemblance to bath tiles, and it’s only upon seeing them up close that a viewer distinguishes all the residue, the “dirt,” embedded in the apparently blank squares. Seemingly monolithic and pristine yet, in actuality, varied and imperfect, the ruin, blanched by the sun, is a melancholic structure. Yet, in its cool serenity, it avoids becoming sentimental. Here, Senise’s cerebral approach seems to hint at the fact that art history, as much as it wishes to see itself as a consolidated discipline, is an amalgam of recycled materiality and content, indeterminate till the end, eloquent but oblique. 

Daniel Senise, “The sun taught me that history is not so important” (2010)

Biographer: Daniel Senise continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art MAC-USP (Av. Pedro Álvares Cabral 1301, São Paulo, Brazil) through March 10. The exhibition was curated by Helouise Costa and Marta Bogéa.

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