Born in 1964 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she continues to live and work, Adriana Varejão is a painter that draws upon the complex heritage of her country, its colonial past and its topography, as well as popular, religious and art historical imagery, while critiquing the creative process itself. Her works address charged subjects, including the body, religious ritual, cannibalism, mutiliation, and tatooing. Tactile and saturated, Varejão's visceral projects are studies in contrast: pleasure and pain, the fragment and the whole, the grid and the uncontainable organic, representation and reality, painting and sculpture. Her references range from Theodore DeBry's colonial drawings to Portuguese Baroque tile patterns, from Hokusaï ink washes of the ocean waves to Lucio Fontana's sliced surfaces.
Varejão's early paintings included the Terra Incógnita (1992) series, which alluded to historical miniatures on surfaces ruptured by small, painted scars. These wounds forcibly overflowed in the Tongues series (1995-1998). In these, fleshy innards poured out, becoming sculptural presences which burst through the tile-patterned, painted picture plane, protruding in grotesque folds. This work projected Varejão to international attention. They extended the space of painting; her abject, tangled entrails pushed far beyond Fontana's opening of the two dimensional surface. While the works examined painting itself--its enduring presence, its excesses, and its corporeality--they were also timely in that they conjured any various histories of repression. Obliquely, they referred to Oswald de Andrade's 1928 "Manifesto Antropófago," which theorized Brazil's hybridity by celebrating the country's voracious capacity to absorb the foreign and turn it into its own. Andrade precipitously described the modern Baroque, the voluptuous, dynamic cyborg contemporary.
The Tile works (1995-2001) culminated in the Azulejes (Big Blue Tiles, 2001) which reinvented the surfaces and iconographies of the decorative, quintessentially blue-and-white Portuguese tiles found throughout Brazil; the Jerked Beef Ruins which followed were free-standing fragments of such tiles found in demolition sites, in which the edges were inspired by the meat counters of the local markets. Varejão's tiles spoke to their own, overlapping and lengthy histories. Her method involved painting on thickly-applied, cracking plaster (craquelé) that summoned the ever-disintegrating state of the body. More recent developments include the Sauna series (2003-2006), in which optically complex, monochromatic tiled bathing rooms are envisioned through the warping filters of steam and watery pools in which, at times, trickles of blood seep up ominously through the tiles. The more recent works bring Varejão's investigation of pictorial musicality to the forefront. Her tiles have long served as a beat or rhythm, against which the sinuousness of the corporeal slithers like the melody of a samba. In the Sauna works, mathematics and geometry dominate the biological.
This work, Pele Tatuada à Moda de Azulejaria (1995) is from the Irezumis series (1997-1999). Irezumi, the Japanese word for tattooing, implies the customary practice of the full-body suit, created on a man. Normally, the arms, back, chest and upper legs are completely covered with traditional Asian symbology, leaving only an undecorated strip down the center front of the body. Varejão's works in this suite are composed of two, tactile surfaces against the picture plane: images of decorated sections of skin stuck to white tile, in which the bloody edges smear and fingerprint the wall. In this painting, the artist imagines a Caucasian back and two arms, complexly tattooed in the style of 17th and 18th century Portuguese ceramic. Between what would have been the shoulders, the flayed skin preserves a central, cobalt "figura de convite," or entrance figure. This angel would be found near doorways and arches, inviting and guiding visitors into their spaces. A courtesy figure, the angel is surrounded by the decorative architectural baroque flora and fauna designs of convents and gardens. The two separate arm sections terminate in depictions of both sides of the hand's skin; peeled apart, it reveals two simple, more indigenous patterns, like those used for tribal tattoos, on the palms. Such a layered influence--here, the Asian, the Portuguese, and the indigenous--literally upon the skin of Varejão's work, is typical of her compelling style.
Deborah Cullen, Director of Curatorial Programs, El Museo del Barrio, New York.