By Lindsey Herkommer DeVries
Artist Scott Gleeson draws on a range of international Modernisms and theory. One of his noted sources of inspiration is Neo-Concrete art—a short-lived, yet potent movement in Rio de Janeiro that has come to symbolize Brazilian Modernism in the West. From my earliest training as an art historian and critic, I perpetually return to study the myriad practices of Neo-Concrete artists fascinated by the phenomenological, semiotic, and expressive possibilities they achieved through Constructivist aesthetics. In recognizing these continuities in Gleeson’s work, this interview interrogates the influence of Neo-Concretism on his current body of work, and the continued relevance of Neo-Concrete art.
LHD: The Neo-Concrete movement is often characterized as a break, a rupture, or even a peak of Constructivism in Brazil. What draws you to Neo-Concrete art? Do you see your work as a continuation of Constructivism or, like the Neo-Concrete artists, a rupture?
SG: I do not promote an interpretation of my work as a continuation of either Constructivism or Neo-Concretism – doing so might limit the flexibility and maneuverability of this body of work, which I will continue to develop to meet the needs of combat veterans, their families, and caregivers. For the time being, I want to align the work with Neo-Concretism and with El Lissitzky’s Prounenraum (1923) to remind the viewer of the complex histories of the avant-garde and that the ideas I am exploring are not necessarily new, only the historical and social context has changed. I do advocate the primacy of participation in my practice, from the interactive lunchbox archives of Las Manos Negras (2012), to the Bilateral Stimulation Units theorized in Travels In Ithaca, which always consider the shifting meanings of the works in relation to the context and spectator. Rupture is a recurring theme in the body of work; however, I hope to expose existing ruptures within the discourses of abstraction rather than by breaking away from a particular tradition or body of ideas. Like Neo-Concretism and Russian Constructivism, my work is Utopian – I dream of an empathetic society and government responsive to the needs of warfighters.
The primary problem in the Travels In Ithaca series is the transformation of domestic and institutional spaces into healing environments or structures for the preservation and processing of cultural memory. In asking this question, we can access broader notions of an artist’s social responsibility or the social function of art. We may also continue to develop theories and discourses about the autonomy of the art object and the utility of the work of art. Rather than develop an entirely new visual language, I selected a hybrid accumulation of visual forms and ideas drawn from 20th Century abstract art which allow me to position the work in relation to these ideas for the purpose of making very specific arguments. I am not concerned about developing a personal style, rather I am concerned about finding forms reflexive of the ideas and conversations I hope to catalyze. The EMDR Visual Aids are graphic objects offering themselves for use by the psychological casualties of war. When presented in an academic or gallery context, they also serve a didactic function—creating topics of conversation about the social costs of war.
LHD: In Ferreira Gullar’s 1959 Neo-concretist Manifesto, he states:
Neo-Concretism, born from the need to express the complex reality of modern man by means of the structural language of new forms, denies the validity of scientific and positivist attitudes in the arts, and reconvokes the problem of expression in incorporating the new conceptual dimensions created by Constructivist, non-figurative art.
In this quote, Gullar describes the Neo-Concrete aim to fold human expression into the rational, formal language of Constructivism. This expression of complex human realities via Constructivist aesthetics I feel resonates with the geometric abstraction and therapeutic intent of the Travels in Ithaca series. How does one infuse the rational with the expressive?
SG: In developing this body of work, I have struggled with the notion of expression and how to suggest a scientific method through a logical, disciplined visual presentation. I have made a short-term decision to reduce or eliminate the visual signifiers of “expression,” mostly as a continuation and critique of historical disciplinary practices within military psychiatry for dealing with traumatized soldiers, which involved redeployment to combat, punishment, or the stigmatization of diagnosis. The logic in military psychiatry in using discipline to manage battlefield trauma is to benefit the combat unit by maintaining the operational readiness of the troops, a strategy which denies the needs of the individual in favor of the unit or mission. Where I see an interest in subjectivity manifest in the work is in the consideration of viewer participation, creating visual spaces for the projection of the viewer’s traumatic cognitions. The work also functions as a backdrop or context in which to hold public dialogs where expression of personal narratives assumes a central focus, such as the combat trauma panel discussion I recently organized in conjunction with the exhibition at Southern Methodist University, The Social Costs of War: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.
LHD: In that same quote, however, Gullar seems to reject scientific attitudes in art while Travels in Ithaca embraces science—namely Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. What are your thoughts on the role of science(s) in art and for your work?
SG: The tension between scientific positivism and subjective expression is constantly in play within this body of work – and to insure this tension remains a central theme, I deliberately selected American psychologist Francine Shapiro’s controversial and problematic Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy as an object of study and reflection. Since its development, mental health researchers have questioned the efficacy and physiological basis of EMDR. This is a therapy method based upon a hunch that the healing effects of REM sleep may be artificially simulated in therapy through guided eye movements. This therapy is administered globally by military and civilian care providers in theaters of war, and in response to natural disasters or incidents of sexual trauma. In certain paintings, I allow the rational to break down, I allow for entropy and failure. In The Oarsmen, for instance, fluorescent pink drips violate the strict symmetry of the composition, interrupting the efficacy of the painting as a Bilateral Stimulation Unit and injecting pathos into what is otherwise an optimistic, hopeful body of work. I have been asked if the drips signify wounds. I do see the connection to gore, however, I was particularly interested in referencing the leaky, moldy, decrepit architecture described in Anne Hull, Dana Priest, and Michel du Cille’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 Washington Post exposé on the deplorable conditions of Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Building 18, the ultimate failure of contemporary military medicine and mid-century modernist architecture.
LHD: Lygia Clark was deft in moving across mediums, from paintings to sculpture and beyond. While she is a prime example, this infidelity to a media holds true for most Neo-Concrete artists—sometimes using quotidian materials as simple as matchboxes. Some of your most striking works are your oil on canvas paintings, but you also have installations and works on paper. What role does the medium play for you? What plans, if any, do you have to further diversify the materials used in your studio work?
SG: I have no formal training as a visual artist. I always desired to be a painter, but it has taken years of self-teaching and several years of purely academic art historical and theoretical research to finally find a sound philosophical position from which I can produce images with a sustained sense of purpose. I have returned to painting after a seven-year hiatus because my research has lead me to rethink the role of image making, with a specific interest in the contemporary relevance of abstraction and progressive avant-garde movements. Painting is a highly flexible, yet problematic category of object production, which I feel continues to be relevant so long as the artist is self-consciously aware of painting’s mythic and contingent status in our culture. I paint primarily because it is more interesting to work within a problematic discipline than to reject it entirely in favor of, say, socially-engaged public art, a discipline to which I have already made a contribution through my work on Las Manos Negras and The Invention of Drawing, an partnership with the national veterans’ non-profit Defenders of Freedom.
For instance, the Travels In Ithaca suite of images and the Cognition in Space watercolor series theorize a system of objects within the context of contemporary combat psychotraumatology. For the next generation of the EMDR Visual Aids, I will be exploring what it means to systematize production through the refinement of compositions and color pallet and the introduction of prints, multiples, sculpture, furniture, wall papers, built environments, interactive websites, videos, and architectural projections. This development will shift the body of work a bit further away from a Neo-Concrete ethos toward the works of São Paulo Concretists who were more concerned with industrial materials and systems of production. I have, however, rediscovered the value of an intuitive exploration of materials and processes. The Cognition in Space watercolors, for example, question what I will call a constructivist model of cognition in Shapiro’s thinking, which regards traumatic memories as discrete units, which may be isolated, targeted for reprocessing, and neutralized. These paintings rely upon the specific working properties of the materials to illustrate an abstract critique of Shapiro’s model.
LHD: Gullar’s Theory of the Non-object (also published in 1959) signals a shift in thinking about the art object. His theory synthesizes sensorial and phenomenological experiences with the object, creating opportunity for an active viewer which gives Neo-Concretism its distinctly participatory character. Is there an element of Gullar’s non-object in work? How do you activate your viewer?
SG: Histories of the avant-garde are punctuated with shifting theories of participation and viewer agency. One assumption consistent in many movements is the belief in the inherent passivity of spectatorship. These avant-gardes attempt to stimulate or shock the viewer into a state of awareness in the belief that activated spectatorship will necessarily lead to political or class consciousness and political participation. Fluxus and Situationism are good examples of these movements. I am drawn to a genealogy of ideas that questions assumptions of viewer passivity, such as the work of Michel de Certeau and Jacques Rancière who argue that acts of spectatorship, reading, consumption, and appropriation are indeed activated forms of participation. His notion that contemplation leads to action seems to suggest a middle position on the spectrum of viewer agency. In my own work, I am not so much concerned with inspiring others to political action because I believe that contemplation leads to subtle shifts in viewer subjectivity. I want to stimulate dialog and raise awareness about social issues. I see progressive social change as a glacial process of shifting perceptions, not as a violent or revolutionary event as did some avant-gardes of the 20th Century.
LHD: The therapeutic and social aims of paintings such as Telemachus Before the Plow (EMDR Visual Aid) immediately invokes Lygia Clark’s trajectory to a healing, therapeutic practice, but she abandoned painting to do so. What are your thoughts on artists as healers? Does it take abandoning painting or, as MoMA’s Clark retrospective suggests, art all together to accomplish this goal?
SG: The Travels In Ithaca suite places the status and autonomy of painting in a precarious relationship to academic traditions, the market, and to other media such as sculpture, social practice, design, and architecture. I have been very fortunate in my work with private art collections to have handled and manipulated Lygia Clark’s Bicho Em Si (1962), a sculpture composed of approximately a dozen hinged aluminum plates. I have also worked with a version of Duchamp’s Box in a Valise. These experiences revolutionized my thinking about the art object and allowed me to ground my thinking about social issues within a history of object production. I see my works as mediating or creating social relationships or situations. The EMDR Visual Aids advocate art as a means of preserving cultural memory or for facilitating healing. Although I argue the images could be used as therapeutic aids or for transforming spaces into healing structures, I want the audience to be alert to a certain irony in my rhetoric. I have no particular allegiance to image-making practices, and in fact my first professional project was a grant-funded public art initiative for migrant workers which had mostly to do with building social networks and being an active listener. What I want to suggest with the EMDR Visual Aids, particularly the modular works which tack directly to the wall, is that image making is inherently contingent upon a social, political, ideological, economic, or institutional context. By tacking the images to the wall, I advocate a unity of painting, design, and architecture and the dismantling of disciplinary boundaries that might prevent the development of a society responsive to the needs of warfighters.
Ashbury, Michael. "Neoconcretism and Minimalism: On Ferreira Gullar's Theory of the Non-Object." In Cosmopolitan Modernism, edited by Kobena Mercer, 168-89. London; Cambridge, Mass.: Institute of International Visual Arts; MIT Press, 2005.
Bois, Yve-Alain and Lygia Clark. "Nostalgia of the Body." October 69, no. Summer (1994): 85-109.
Brito, Ronaldo. Neoconcretism: Apex and Rupture of the Brazilian Constructivist Project [in English and Portuguese]. Translated by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify Edições 1999.
Fer, Briony. "Lygia Clark and the Problem of Art." In Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988, 222-31. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
 Lygia Clark; Yve-Alain Bois, "Nostalgia of the Body," October 69, no. Summer (1994): 92.