Far from the Fireplace
Bassline is the title of João Marçal’s new exhibition in the gallery Quadrado Azul in Porto. The title refers to Marcal’s double album, Heart Frostbite, that he will soon release thanks to Porto City Council’s artistic creation support programme, Criatório. This will be his first album since Group Show, that he released in 2015. The paintings and drawings in Bassline are related to the songs of Heart Frostbite, including tracks such as Drunk Optometrist, En la calle or Diapers for Adults. Marçal considers that the bass guitar plays a role similar in music to that of painting in the visual arts. Like the bass guitar, painting is a structure that "wraps around" things. It is very different from drums, for example, whose prime function is to "set" the rhythm. Painting can also be understood as a bassline, from the point of view of Art History; i.e. as the background of all Western art. Sometimes more present, sometimes less, but always there.
Unlike his other recent exhibitions - such as Inner 8000er, in the Pavilhão Branco, in Lisbon (2018), that mainly featured paintings; or Dzi Bead, in the Quadrado Azul gallery, in Lisbon (2019), in which he experimented with large scale murals - in this new project, Marçal wanted to emphasize the relationship between two scales, painting and drawing, creating a dialogue caused by juxtaposition of works, like diptychs, on one of the gallery walls.
In addition, Marçal decided to install a chair in front of each of the paintings, able to be used by visitors. The chair introduces the human scale and establishes continuity with his other works, such as the pole from a metro train in his Dzi Bead exhibition. On the opposite wall, the exhibition concludes with a painting that reproduces a detail of the fireplace in the home of one of his partner’s relatives - following a logic similar to the work that refers to the bathroom of his old apartment in Porto, shown in the Pavilhão Branco, thereby creating an environment of domestic reminiscences, which at the same time is uncanny.
The paintings are inspired by the upholstery of buses that run between Portugal’s rural areas and the capitals. The drawings, on the other hand, refer to the imagery of comics books, of which the artist is fond (in particular those by the artist, Jiro Taniguchi). The paintings are abstract, while the drawings are figurative, which means that they seem to be completely unrelated. Nonetheless, they still influence each other. In fact, drawing in general could also be defined as the "bassline" of painting; the structure that underpins the most visible and accessible part of the work, a bit like the guitar and the vocalist's voice in a band. In terms of the content, the relationship between upholstery and comic books is related to memory and perhaps to nostalgia for another life.
The upholstery of buses is a recurring theme in João Marçal's work. It first appeared in 2012, in his exhibition Dona MariaAmélia. This recurring theme is related to the need to maintain an umbilical cord with the past. More specifically, with the social environment that accompanied and nurtured him during his childhood and adolescence - until he moved to Porto to study Fine Arts. The environment of these buses consisted of misfits who, despite everything, were unable to travel by private car and therefore used more modest travel options, such as public buses or coaches run by local private companies. It was mainly formed by students, people with few resources and the elderly. A bit like the Greyhound buses – filled with renegades, drug addicts and fugitives, who are part of the American literary and cinematic imagery.
The paintings made from the upholstery of buses and trains have a peculiar behaviour because they are not what they seem: the fabric is reproduced in such a way that it looks authentic, rather than represented. This forces the spectator to draw close and then move away, to check the reality of the objects he or she is seeing. This illusionist behaviour was already present in Marçal’s previous exhibitions, such as Dzi Bead (2019), and is now repeated in works such as Above the Clouds. A-B-O-V-E-T-H-E-C-L-O-U-D-S, Lisbon (-Porto), Emotionally Homeless or Foggy Dawn. Frames composed of patterns with a generally dark background and geometric or arabesque structures in lighter, more luminous tones, superimposed on the foreground, whose effect distracts the human eye, making it possible to conceal or hide dirt and stains. Colour is absent in the grotesque drawings - such as the dog barking or the head of an elderly man with Bart Simpson's hair – which nonetheless share the popular or familiar vocation of upholstery.
With Bassline, Marçal has consolidated and expanded his language. Sometimes in a radical manner, as happened in his recent exhibition at the Quadrado Azul gallery in Lisbon, in which he surprised visitors with a set of new works that interacted with architecture.
Marçal is one of the Portuguese artists who has best and most intensively rethought painting in Portugal, both in terms of historical references (Stella, Noland, Palermo, Polke, Krebber ...), as well as local references. He belongs to a generation of new Portuguese artists (Sónia Almeida, Ana Cardoso, Joana da Conceição, Ana Manso, José Loureiro, André Sousa…), who are renewing and transforming the modern tradition initiated by their predecessors - artists such as Eduardo Batarda, Ana Jotta, Álvaro Lapa, Ângelo de Sousa ...
In this context, João Marçal's painting is distinguished both by its intense self-referential character and his love for the vernacular and the popular, creating a very productive and personal dialectic: first and foremost, because his painting is intensely biographical, although it doesn’t seem so at first glance. This is something that is present in the way that he approaches his personal origins, for example, in the self-portrait he produced for his master's degree project (MPAC) in 2008, in which he wore his favourite polo shirt and beloved Reebok Classic sneakers. His painting is also self-referential because it is a reflection on the medium itself: "There is always a layer in all my works", he stated in 2018, "which refers to a thought about the painting itself, as a genetic analysis of the environment itself, intrinsic to the entire practice. " (Inner 8000er: 2018, 10)
Between its self-referential nature or abstract and popular references, we can imagine João Marçal travelling by bus from Coruche to Porto, while reading a comic book or drawing in a notebook. His paintings and drawings emerge from the conflict between this personal reality and the formal culture of school, artistic institutions and museums. They thereby achieve a kind of synthesis between his personal origins and the new social and cultural contexts in which he has lived since then. Another way of interpreting the bassline that is referred to in the exhibition’s title - always present, but discreet - would be to see it as a kind of deep or subconscious voice that emerges in these works with a certain melancholy mood that coexists with the brightness and superficiality of this mirage that we call "contemporary art."
Pedro de Llano, March 2020