Ascanio MMM’s Piramidais [Pyramidals]: transparency
Ascânio MMM is probably the only Brazilian sculptor of his generation who works within channels opened up by the technical principles of Russian Constructivism: his work is based on the articulation of parts, rather than on the whole block as in traditional sculpture (carving out of wood or stone, or casting). He builds sculptures that thrive on the relationships that they set up within the place where they stand.
However, we cannot consider MMM’s work faithful to the Constructivist principles, as they were originally determined at the time od the Soviet Revolution, nor can we consider him a natural heir to Brazilian Constructivism, Concrete and Neoconcrete, of the 1950’s. Ascanio MMM’s use of the modular element, that is, of a single unit whose repeated use constitutes the whole, is considerably different from both the Russian Constructivist (c. 1920) and the Brazilian Constructivist (c. 1951) production. Neither of these movements ever made use of modulated construction as MMM does.
Tatlin, or ever Gabo or Pevsner, made their spatial works by joining elements, through fitting, glueing or welding, etc., that although were geometric objects (battens, in shapes of various dimensions and materials) were not modular, as they individually refer to different formal sources and perform diverse functions within the structure of the piece.
On the other hand, Concretism or Neo-concretism, the principal manifestations of the Brazilian Constructivist Project, seem to have no direct influence – whether in technique, formal or spatial – on Ascânio MMM’s production. Even the modulation, which characterizes much of the pictorial poetics of Concretism and also of MMM’s work, is more of a coincidence than a legacy. We could say the same thing regarding Lygia Clark’s planes on modulated surfaces, whose spatial and functional nature is entirely distinct from that of MMM’s modules since hers are two-dimensional surfaces and each one different from the other.
The modulation in MMM’s work perhaps originates in his education as an architect. If so, it is also in synchrony with the birth of Minimal Art – which made use of modular seriation in order to criticize subjectivity in art, exacerbated by American Abstract Expressionism of the previous decade – and is a fundamental factor in Ascânio MMM’s work of ever since the beginning of his career in 1966.
The constructive method and modulation, principles of the objective world of industrial seriation, were imported into the field of art via the more rationalist theories of modern art, not just with the intention of objectifying art as product but also to criticize the emphasis on the role of subjectivity in aesthetic production. Instead of the free expression that flows from the artist’s interiority, there is a project, intellectually conceived.
The extreme simplicity of the elements of MMM’s sculptures does not, however correspond to the aesthetic and ideological expectations of historical Constructivism or Minimalism, in that his sculpture was conceived to fully incorporate the practice of craft. Just as in a construction game, the direct intervention of the artist is imperative and fundamental in all phases of the work. He employs a rationality that is regulated by the very process of making, and therefore opposite to pure thought. With room for doubt, impasses and solutions, MMM’s works unites both concept and execution. And yet he has also no intension of substituting reason for empiricism. The intellectual origin of the use of geometric forms remains and resonates within the work, although the artist’s creative process prevails. Only the systematic, physical involvement, both sensitive and intellectual, could produce a constructivist poetic as unique as MMM’s, that appropriates the methods and techniques of the impersonal world of industry by subjectifying them into a specific visual poetic. 1
His recent works, the Piramidais [Pyramidals], a series begun in 1989, reveal new tendencies in relation to his former production, such as: the decision to use on color (blue, red, white, black, etc) on the surface of the pieces. This allows for a kind of semantic reverberation 2 caused by the contrast of colored areas with the contours in aluminum, which are inseparable modules of the Piramidais [Pyramidals]. At the same time, the painting introduces a surface rhythm into MMM’s essentially three-dimensional work which activates the work’s significance on the wall.
At a certain angle, the aluminum contours result in the sectioning of a parallelepiped. They have four solid sides and two hollowed sides. The characteristics of the module (angulation and positive and negative faces) produce formally diverse sculptures, with some sides that are impenetrable to the eye, some partially hollowed, and others that are almost transparent. Therefore, light and shadow, opacity and transparency, which are fundamental elements in painting, become points of singularity in MMM’s three-dimensional work.
His sculptures with aluminum contours are primarily intended for the eye. As in painting, only the sense of vision, and never the sense of touch, is able to perceive the shifting back and forth between density and lightness, within the areas that reveal themselves as either solid or hollow as we walk around the piece.
There is no doubt that the exploration of the interplay between positive and negative spaces is a Constructivist issue. In Brazil this concern is demonstrated in the sculpture of Amilcar de Castro and Franz Weissmann, as well as in Lygia Clark’s “Bichos” and many of Luiz Sacilotto’s “Concreções”. In contrast to the artists mentioned above (who explore the simultaneous perception of positive and negative spaces), Ascânio MMM’s modular system creates a movement of alternation in the perception of these spaces. According to the position of the viewer, the sculpture appears either as hollowed, open space or else as a continuous surface, upon which MMM has recently begun to add a layer of monochromatic painting. This painting serves to emphasize the density of the surfaces in relation to the more translucid points of view of the Piramidais [Pyramidals]. The color, therefore, allows for the coherent displacement from real, three-dimensional space to the virtual space of the wall. But also offers the surprising possibility to look through a volume without mass (as Naum Gabo has observed in respect to Constructivism), depending on one’s position and point of view.
A similar process of alternation occurs in the perception of the wall Piramidais [Pyramidals]. The depth of each module, which makes the closed surface of the sculpture looks like steps in a staircase, prevent us from defining the work as a painting. Actually, they are reliefs which deal with the same visual issues as the sculptures – transparency and opacity – although now limited to a frontal display. Produced entirely from the repetition of a single unit, Ascânio MMM’s Piramidais [Pyramidals] demonstrate that invention can thrive and unfold even within the limits of the minimal. Limits, which here, open up way beyond the objective configuration of the works, generate activity of light and shadow and color, which is the origin of any visual experience.
1 | The ideas in this paragraph were taken from a text about the work of Ascânio MMM, also written by me, published in the catalogue for the exhibition of MMM’s work, which took place at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro in 1994.
2 | Which evokes the cultural distinction between painting and sculpture, the relativity and indefinition of these mediums within contemporary art: the difference between vision reinforced by tactile experience (Renaissance) and vision isolated within its own physical premises, such as the perception of light and shadow (Baroque, Impressionism, photography, etc.).
[Text written for the Ascanio MMM’s solo exhibition Pyramidal IV at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, on 25 November 1999 to 2 January 2000]