Discovery Series: Tiago Carneiro da Cunha
Rhoni Blankenhorn for COMPANY
Images courtesy of Kate MacGarry unless otherwise noted.
(November 15, 2011) - Brazilian artist Tiago Carneiro da Cunha looks for ways to best express obvious, even primal truths. His sculptures look as though they've risen from the clay on their own, and take such forms as drippy mudmen, monkeys and skulls. Tiago's satircal voice resonates throughout his sculptures as he references sex, money, power, violence and egomania. He got his start as an artist by taking life-drawing classes in his hometown, São Paulo, Brazil. His mother dragged him into every museum, and decorated his house with tribal artifacts bought during her field work as an anthropologist in Africa and Brazil. Tiago has always loved comics, and even had one of his own published as a teenager by the infamous Brazilian underground magazine, Animal, before he turned his attentions to the contemporary scene. Tiago is represented by Kate MacGarry in London.
COMPANY: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?
Tiago: My current work consists of figurative sculptures executed in faience with a drippy polychrome glaze finish. The subject matter explores mainly twisted clichés of social satire, including some of its classic icons like Gargantua and Ubu. The sculptures emphasize the gestural aspect of the modeling - hand and finger-strokes are frozen under a thick coat of shiny glaze in a semi-satirical effort to point out its lofty ambitions to eternity and perfection.
That’s something that comes from my previous series of faceted sculptures in resin, which had an equally shiny finish and also tried to develop a formal style which in itself would carry a critical posture towards its own neo-classical/highly fetishized approach... But of course I would never actually describe my work like that to anyone (except for right now) for fear of sounding silly or delusional or both.
COMPANY: Artists or movements that have inspired you?
Tiago: There are so many artists whose work I love and that continuously influence me, both living and not, it’s hard to pick my favourites. Off the top of my head: Ensor, Bordallo Pinheiro, Blake, Luiz Zerbini, George Condo, Victor Arruda, Erika Verzutti, Philip Guston, Edika, Shay Kun, Goya, Chapmans Bros, Carl Barks, Howard Dyke, Robert Crumb, Harvey Kurtzmann, Poe, Da Vinci, Baudelaire, Burroughs and Malcom Morley...
COMPANY: Your work has progressed from smooth sculptures to more organic forms. What inspired this change of method and are there parallels between the two?
Tiago: As I wrote above, both series share the desire to be formally critical - though in a funny way - while at the same time being executed with extreme care and attention: i.e. with love and craft. One of the main reasons for the change was the fact that the sculptures were becoming too complex to be done in resin: the last ones in the series attempted standing or action poses that were very hard to achieve technically. Plus the resin required an absurd amount of finishing work: 7 different grains of sandpaper to achieve the perfect facet. By the end I really wanted to re-route my practice towards a gentler - and faster - approach to modeling. The change in the form itself occurred in a very intuitive, although linear, way: I simply started making facets with my fingers (instead of the tools I had been using) and it sort of progressed on its own from there. I also wanted to make further use of my drawing and cartooning background, and integrate them deeper into my practice, so I guess that orientated the shift in subject matter from the sort of heroic, colossal art-historical clichés I was using in the faceted series, to the more “everyday” social satire clichés that I’m currently exploring... though there’s still a bit of both really.
COMPANY: Are there reoccurring themes in your work?
Tiago: Yes, many. There’s the Beggar, which is my attempt at addressing a grotesque but common image here in Brazil, in a manner that is also grotesque. Also a lot of monkeys, used often as a reference to ‘base humanity’ (or leftover, embarrassing but possibly more-formative-than-we-would-like-to-admit, genetic traits), tho not exclusively; as well as a lot of erect penises, on the one hand because it seems like such a successfully graphic way for nature to put its point across, and on the other because I tend to see it at the root of so much human endeavor... There are several skulls, ape and human, which have appeared so many times in my work that I eventually became embarrassed to keep referring to them as ‘Mementi Morii’ and simply started calling them ‘Clichés’. Actually around that same time I realized I had already been using clichés in most of my work, almost as if they were themselves a sculptural material: twisting and recombining them (like in “Buddha monkey”, or in “Sphynx”, c. 2004). I think that’s due in part to a desire to emphasize the form in which the idea (and feeling) is delivered, so often a ready-made, common-place concept is useful for that. And on the other hand, I mostly feel it’s useless for me to aspire to great original thoughts, so I try to concentrate on original ways (at best) of expressing obvious truths or obvious feelings. I suppose there are sex, money, power, violence and egomania references in most of the sculptures... so much so that I recently became embarrassed (again) that it was such a blatantly boy-fantasy universe and vowed to start a series of female nudes soon, though that can obviously be boyish too.
COMPANY: Can you describe how the idea for your mudman came about?
Tiago: Oh yes, that’s another reoccurring theme, and mainly because it allows so many variations... It came about as a sort of laughing epiphany (i.e. a joke, to myself, in the studio), when I realized I could use the figure that actually was emerging from the clay I was modeling, as a reference to the old cliché of the sculpture emerging out of matter by the grace of the artist’s hand (I remember as a teen seeing a sculpture by Rodin that made the same point in stone, and how corny it seemed to me at the time). But of course it inevitably carries traces of another layer of meaning: the even older cliché that compares the artist’s creation with divine creation, although here it could be construed as a contemporary version of that, since we now believe that life was indeed generated out of primordial goo (and we seem currently on the way of taking it back to that state)... The additional B-Movie monster reference was just too tempting a coincidence not to be included, since I’m an avid fan of the horror genre...
COMPANY: You just exhibited at SF Moma – what is the difference between showing in a gallery versus museum setting?
Tiago: I was quite scared to see my work in a museum, fearing it would not live up to the challenge. But I was very happy with how the show at SFMOMA looked, very very happy... And it was a deep emotion to see my work so close to so much of the art that I love of course. In that sense it is very different from the gallery setting... Or the art fair setting... I’m just kidding: there’s obviously plenty of art I love in art fairs and galleries. And I must admit that - when I started to develop work in sculpture - I had all of these different contexts very much in mind, in a funny, skewed way. I think that, in a broad sense, my work uses the monkeying/mimicking of its surroundings as an attempt to express that it is conscious of them, and to be self-conscious, in a way.
COMPANY: You curated a show for Lehman Maupin earlier this year, what is it like curating versus being featured in an exhibition?
Tiago: Being featured is much easier. Curating is fantastic but requires such intensive use of social skills that it ends up being a bit overwhelming for me. I did love to curate the show at LM though, and it was an incredible opportunity to work with so many of the artists who so deeply influenced my views on art, like Morley whom I mentioned earlier, or Jac Leirner, Ashley Bickerton, Luiz Zerbini, Adriana Varejão, Erika Verzutti and Saint Clair Cemin, to name only a few who graciously accepted to take part. It was also a great way of working again with artists whom I used to work for as an assistant, like Liam Gillick and Robert Wilson - who were both big influences in very different ways - but in a new context and dynamic.
COMPANY: What do you hope viewers take away from your work?
Tiago: I’m not sure. A sense of slightly pessimistic but funny realism, perhaps. Or maybe something associated with the values (though I cringe to use the word) that I - consciously or not - use in the work: like loving drawing and craft, or loving the specificity of particular ways of rendering things and people and details (although I realise those values can be easily be put to oppressive use, as Art History shows..). Or loving humour (and dark, twisted humour), and not wanting to take myself too seriously (as the old Ad Reinhardt line goes: “Art is too serious to be taken seriously”). Ultimately, I think I try to make sculptures that hold the ambiguous position of being icons with iconoclastic aspirations, though I can’t say that I’m always successful at it.
Tiago is currently working on his next solo show, which opens in September 2012 at Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo.