Juliana Cerqueira Leite - Portmanteau
Third Text, Routledge, No.121, vol. 27, Issue 2, March, 2013
‘Time does not change us. It just unfolds us’ wrote the playwright Max Frisch. Juliana Leite’s artistic concerns seem to accord with this sentiment. In Portmanteau – her exhibition at London’s TJ Boulting gallery – the unfurling is corporeal. The sculptures and photos on show are all self-portraits that record her past physical activity while – she asserts – pointing towards a new and more general vision of embodiment.
The process by which Leite creates many of her large-scale sculptures can be characterized thus: creating a void in a large volume of clay and then producing a positive cast of this space out of plaster or latex. The first aspect is realized by laborious pushing, crawling, scratching and climbing her way into the material without the help of tools. As she does so Leite is unclothed, affecting the tactile qualities of the finished cast – impressions of feet, knees, elbows and fingers defining the surface condition, frozen imprints of her movements while removing material. The general scale of the final piece relates to the dimensions of her own physique and the range of motion she has undertaken.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, V (2012), was created in response to the gallery’s architecture, whose basement level is only accessible by a set of stairs. The object was cast in latex from a clay mold replicating the form of this built aspect, through which the artist moved, creating two negative figures – ascending and descending. Referencing the modernist trope of the nude descending a staircase – inspired by Duchamp’s response to Edweard Muybridge’s photo studies of human movement – the work positions Leite as both subject and object, actor and observed.
While serving a practical function, Leite’s nudity also plays a key role in her sculptures’ aesthetic import. According to the artist, because garments can get attached to the clay and impede her task she must do away with them. But she also maintains that wearing clothing would date the works and that body casting allows her to imply a transhistorical field: foregrounding primal interactions between the human form, its strength and ability to move through space, and matter. The Baconian notion that the physical world is consistently subservient to our desires is, she writes in a statement accompanying the exhibition, part of a status quo in need of overturning. ‘One of the reasons I use so much density of material is that I want to put myself in a position where matter is in just as much in control as me’, she states. ‘My work is a negotiation’.
That this negotiation involves some drama is manifest in the haptic qualities of the finished cast, but there are other dialogues between the artist and her medium that are not voiced in the exhibition. In order to stabilize the heavy clay into which she must climb Leite builds large wooden structures that sometimes resemble over-sized coffins. These are demolished once the cast is produced. A pity – as there is an interesting tension between the endurance of confinement so central to her sculptural process and the expansive, somewhat wild forms that eventually go on display.
Oscillation between constraint and control, fixity and the possibilities of movement, is one of the exhibition’s key themes. All the works on show portray embodiment as a set of coexisting possibilities; mutable and multi-faceted, not so much conditioned by obvious social over-determinations as the ability to re-define space. While V captures Leite’s actions in their messy aspect – all lumpy yellowish latex – her Multiplied images marshal symmetry, superimposition and the slick hues of the C-type to beautiful effect. Through their many exposures – up to twenty – various moments are compressed into a single image. This photographic overlapping of Leite’s figure in numerous positions seems to be an attempt to convey an expanded sense of embodiment, perhaps an assertion of its polymorphic essence. Following on from The Singularity (2009) series in which the artist performed her own Vitruvian Woman for the camera – a full body rotation in a custom built circular climbing frame, her navel the only fixed point in the multiple exposure – these pictures recall the many-limbed goddesses of Hindu art. Once again, destruction and creation, limitation and the suggestion of infinity, wrestle in figural and metaphorical fields – yet, all the while, it is just her.
To make something from nothing – or from something close to nothing – is the work of the divine. It should be noted that ancient myths characterize the labour of Ur-creators as a kind of sculptural practice. Hesiod’s Prometheus creates man from clay, as does Allah, and in Genesis the Lord makes use of dust. In the manner of an everyday demiurge Leite recasts empty space as physical substance with Voids (2012), located towards the back of the gallery. These amorphous forms were produced by the artist’s carrying out the rotational arm and leg movements commonly used in dance training to carve away areas of wet plaster from the space immediately surrounding her body, leaving only isolated remnants – each corresponding to what would otherwise be the voids underneath and between her limbs. This group of sculptural remainders constitutes the artist’s meditation on the empty space so crucial to Henry Moore’s late work and it is impossible to ignore their oversize phallic shapes. It would seem, therefore, that Leite’s production of voids pursues the castration of at least one male god of sculpture, and the performance of her own erections in place of his work.
A portmanteau is a combination of two or more words that create a single new word. Continuing to flesh out this mission statement, Leite’s exhibition features more composite imaging than the C-Type photographs hitherto discussed, in the form of the video Collaboration Katie #1 (2012) and her Summertime Blues (2012) series of cyanotypes. The canvases of the latter were dipped in potassium ferricyanide and ammonium citrate, producing a light sensitive surface that turns deep blue when exposed to the sun. The imagery itself was created outdoors on a roof in mid-summer Brooklyn. Also multiple exposures, Leite held two consecutive poses to produce each image, the second a mirror inversion of the first, while crouching atop the fabric. The resulting chronophotographs are a synthetic compound of unusual anatomy, impossible bodies made feasible by the mechanics of visually compressing time. The evidence of the summer heat and her hard work is recorded in the starburst forms produced by her dripping sweat.
With this exhibition Leite has produced a multifaceted body of work, the art-historical, idealist and psychoanalytic implications of which exceed the scope of a review of this length. Portmanteau suggests that the artist’s negotiation with the limitations and ecstasies of sculpted human form has only just begun. As with her sculptures, further moments beckon.