Friday, March 02, 2007

Artist Alert: Dane LaChiusa

Dane and I went to high school together. We both ran off to New York right after graduating, and lost touch until about a year ago. He is also a brilliant and accomplished illustrator, but Brazil has been inspiring his paintings, about which I can't say anything better than Dane does himself here:

Dane LaChiusa
Artist statement

Saudades do Brasil, “Longing for Brazil”

It has been said that the less a tourist knows, the fewer mistakes he’s likely to make, and the less likely he is to have to explain his ignorance. I was born in the midwestern United States so I’m only Brazilian by extension.

My grandmother was a Paulista (Born in Sao Paulo). In the late 1900’s her family sold their coffee plantation in exchange for passage to the United States. Pitti, my partner of 9 years, was born and reared in Rio de Janeiro— it is his family that we visit. Which is how I came by my love affair with Brazil. Having never lived there, and only having formed a surface impression of the culture based on my limited travel experience I embarked on the task of translating my affection for the Brazilian people and their country on paper and canvas.

…A hillside peppered with cows, a man with a wheelbarrow of yucca who went door to door in Pitti’s hometown, a little girl who lives in a house made of cardboard, and a businessman wearing nothing but a bathing suit while crossing a busy Rio de Janeiro street.

These excerpts of Brazilian life are painted with a naive hand; expressing a directness of expression and lack of refinement in the stylistic tradition of a self-taught outsider artist. Although, technically, my work would fall into the category of Marginal Art; existing in that gray area of definition which lies between Outsider Art and normal mainstream art. However inaccurate, with regard to designating my work as such, the term outsider artist interests me because I am very much an outsider. Rooted in a kind of otherness, both stylistically and geographically, I am depicting a culture that I am ten thousand miles away from. Considering that I am a New Yorker, which is the polar opposite of the Brazilian landscape, it might even be argued that it is my very distance from my subject that makes my work interesting in the first place.

Yet, I feel terribly conflicted about the subjects I paint. Brazil is a country that is both beautiful and brutal. On the surface it may seem picturesque to see farmers, sometimes entire families, working in the canes. But if you scratch beneath the surface there lies a world of poverty and hunger.

The Indian boy I portrayed selling baskets by the side of the road is cast in a positive light against a radiant sky. Of course he is happy. He is happy to be alive. He can feed his family for several days on the ten reais I gave him for the turtle he carved out of a piece of driftwood.

I feel sadness for the little girl from Rocinha. Water is scarce in the favelas. And fewer and fewer cats. Churrasquinho de gato (Skewered Cat Barbeque) is no joke. The only thing they have in abundance in the favelas are guns. Health, Peace and Love is the slogan of the children’s slum association. Drug traffickers have other ideas.

But what do I know of this? It is just dumb luck that I was born in North America, in the very country, it can be argued, whose closely linked intervention and establishment of Brazil’s military dictatorship on December 13, 1968, and voracious appetite and consumption of natural resources, is a contributing factor to many of Brazil’s problems today. Ironically, I was reared in a suburb of Detroit, which was once one of the most affluent parts of the country. Such was the segregation that you could visibly see a dividing line between the city of Detroit and the landscaped suburban community of Grosse Pointe. I percieved this as a socially and politically motivated division between rich and poor, black and white. The analogy was not lost on me when transcribing my experiences in Brazil.

According to a World Bank study, Brazil has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any country. The fifth largest nation in the world, Brazil has a population of 180 million people. Approximately 24 million Brazilians live in extreme poverty and earn less than $1 a day while the minimum salary of $65 per month hasn't changed in 25 years.

So what are we to feel when we look at my paintings? Do my paintings evoke a sense of nostalgic longing for a pastoral lifestyle; or a sense of guilt and indignation towards the hardship suffered by what many consider a third world country? No matter how one might interpret my work, my intentions are first and foremost to communicate the charm and beauty of the Brazilian people. My paintings speak from my personal vision, experience, and memory and not any compulsion towards what is stylistically in vogue; or even this obsession that we have to sugar coat everything with a thin veil of political correctness.

Of course, I recognize that as an artist, your work exists in the context of the real world and does not retain autonomy. Or to borrow a Brazilian expression, “What do mothers ever know about their children?” Perhaps you know better than I what my intentions are. Art has a life of its own. And others can find in them meanings unsuspected by the artist himself. It is only when someone understands a work of art in a certain way that it becomes controversial. Having never exhibited my work in Brazil it remains to be seen whether it would be viewed as a social commentary or seen merely as a collection of snapshots culled from a tourist’s memories. You may come from somewhere else and bring your own relationship to the work. Everyone is right. --Dane LaChiusa

You can see some of Dane's paintings until March 10th, 2007, in Greenpointe, Brooklyn:


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