Ascânio MMM: the construction of sculpture

Lauro Cavalcanti, 2005

Brazil is a unique country. Since Modernism, the artistic languages that have 
taken shape here have been reinterpretations of currents from the Northern Hemisphere. But these re-readings have done more than import ideas, digest them and change them on the basis of a tropical organism, following the blueprint of Anthropophagy. The operation is a bit more complex than that: Brazilian artists have tended to establish links between currents, ideas and positions that were antagonistic and even irreconcilable in their countries of origin, investing them with new combinatorial potential. Empowered by a certain amount of daring, halfway between heterodoxy and a wholesome noncommittalism, Brazilian artists and intellectuals have been able to discover bridges, mixtures and possibilities that solve the original impasses, allowing new, less reductive readings of various trends. An example of this is the 
unlikely marriage of innovation and tradition, geometry and subjectivism, Phenomenology and Constructivism.

Ascânio MMM is an artist whose work combines a number of influences and central issues of Brazilian art in the last fifty years. His output remains very much internally consistent in such diversified domains as Constructivism, architecture, truth of materials, dialectics between project and execution, art in public spaces, three-dimensionality and planar composition.

For a long time, the fundamental basis of his work was a lath painted white and moving through an axis. The white paint made us forget the nature of the material and concentrate our sight instead on the curves and scrolls formed by the movement. The curves traced out by straight lines articulated the strictness of the project with the dreamy, vertiginous nature of the rising spirals. The pieces were either grounded or affixed to the wall. The wall structures, which were planar, both denied and reinforced the plane. Starting out from a module consisting of a lath and a source of light, Ascânio made “sculptures” or, more properly, constructions. He did not make sculptures in the traditional sense of the word: he neither removed parts of a volume in order to give it a new shape nor used momentarily plastic matter to create shapes that later became fixed. Ascânio’s pieces are formed by means of an ordered accumulation of elements; in this way they are closer to the problems and methods of architecture. Pure volumes under light: light and shadow, as in Le Corbusier; nothing could be more natural to someone originally trained as an architect. But construction is only the most visible face and least profound aspect of his relations with the problems raised by twentieth-century architecture.

One of the issues Ascânio is particularly concerned with is Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism “Less is more.” To van der Rohe, asepsis should lead to the creation of an ideal, exemplary space that, through the use of noble materials, fine finish and a limited number of elements, would establish a contrast and provide new parameters to man, then succumbing to the individual and social chaos of modernity. Ascânio subscribes to every item in this program, except for the use of noble materials. He establishes a minimalism of poverty, in which white paint overcomes the imperfections of the strips of wood. Minimalism, on the other hand, is carried to its extreme consequences with the creation of rhythm through the uniform and obsessive movement of the initial module. This rigid structure, which is not without humor and irony, ultimately leads to curves that, poised between discipline and indiscipline, affirm and negate gravity in a helicoidal movement.

What Ascânio takes from modern Brazilian architecture is the dialectical marriage of avant-garde and tradition. Contrary to what took place in international Modernism, in Brazil the new architecture rejected the simplistic opposition between original invention and historical quotation. Modern Brazilian architecture, particularly through the influence of Lúcio Costa, complexified this duality by rejecting copy and pastiche and affirming a structural similarity between the new forms and those of eighteenth-century Brazil. Brazilian Modernists established a dialectical bridge between past and future, a fundamental step in a country where it was necessary to construct both nationality and modernity. The unique nature of Brazilian Modernism lies in intellectuals’ simultaneous and dialectical commitment to the utopian construction of a past and of a future for art and for the country itself. The new art should follow the process of industrialization, and the need to provide access to industrialized goods to wider segments of the population might lead to the incorporation of specific traditions and cultures.

In his work Ascânio reinterprets some principles of the international 
avant-garde, establishing a dialectic between them and local visual poetics. His sculptures are closely related to Constructive purism through the movement of pieces in relation to a central axis. This movement generates an ascensional leap in space, so that the body and the eye follow a baroque path. If his work is based on a rational project, on the other hand it is entirely constituted in the very process of its making. The artist’s presence in every phase of this process rejects the idea of merely intellectual work. 
The artist is also a craftsman, and in this sense he differs from the architect 
or the designer, who may be absent at the moment when the work is 
actually done, as long as every step and every possible occurrence have 
been anticipated and spelled out in the original plan. The very engineering 
of Ascânio’s sculptures alludes to the cabinetmaking that is a part of the remarkable Portuguese-Brazilian tradition of craftsmanship. 

Faced with the challenge of creating large-scale works for public places, Ascânio began to use aluminum profiles. The original reason was that these works had to be weather-resistant, but the new material was used almost exactly in the same way as the wooden laths. As he became more familiar with aluminum, Ascânio began to explore its characteristics and to highlight the way the profiles were cut. This gave rise to his pyramidal pieces, which are compact in space and allow air and light in hollowed places. The Pyramidals contained obvious allusions to the historical pyramids as well 
as to the utopian architecture of the 1920s. If in his works with wood the opposing pairs were avant-garde and tradition, project and process, Constructivism and baroque, in his aluminum pieces the activated dualisms are rationality and mysticism, past and future, compression and verticality, solid and hollowed. The aluminum pieces implied forms that were later tried out, on a smaller scale, in his wooden Pyramidals.

In the first half of the 1980s Ascânio began to make works with raw wood. Instead of neutralizing the wood with white paint, he began to find interest in the grain, color and specific appearance of wood. Whereas his white sculptures emphasized light, shadow and most of all movement, the same pieces in raw wood forced the eye to dwell on the surface, which now shared the focus and created tension with the space they generate. Ascânio’s work, which already had links with painting in the wall reliefs, became more painterly in the variety of shades and textures of the different kinds of wood. Some of the pieces are characterized by minimal thickness, in comparison with the other two dimensions. The frontality of the surface is underscored, and 
the pieces make up a pattern in space that echoes the pattern on the surface. The relationship with the Portuguese-Brazilian tradition of fine cabinetmaking, previously understated, became more prominent in the new pieces. And the process gradually became as important as the project. The decorative aspect, previously shunned, was now openly in evidence, and one might say that on the plane of construction there were previously unsuspected affinities with what has come to be known as postmodern language. The use of natural wood instead of painted wood finds its parallel in architecture in the use of exposed concrete in the final phase of Brazilian High Modernism, as in Affonso Reidy’s Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Oscar Niemeyer’s Palácio dos Arcos in Brasília, Lina Bo Bardi’s Museu de Arte de São Paulo and other examples of São Paulo brutalism. Renunciation of ideal white might be seen as corresponding to disillusionment with model paper and with the power of architecture and art to bring society closer to an ideal. The emphasis on exposed 
materials underscores the weight and specific nature of the structure itself, and the sensation of effort replaces that of lightness. In Ascânio’s sculptures, the abandonment of white, immaterial paint brought to the fore a tension between the form and the natural material that generates new visual relationships.

In some of Ascânio’s pieces, such as Fitangular Longo, humor is quite evident, and the zigzag pattern made up by the use of lighter and darker woods emphasizes the profile the way concentric ripples signal that a stone has just been dropped in the water. A certain ironical skepticism can now be found side by side with constructive will in a piece that adds to the issues of sculpture in wood a “Pop” comment reminiscent of Oldenburg.

Brazilian walnut, massaranduba, ipê, pau-marfim, pine and cedar make up this sculptor’s palette. Sometimes Ascânio repeats a formal solution already tried with white paint. Formation 1, a piece that combines a planar and a curved surface, both on the same level, is made more dramatic and forceful by the use of laths of raw pine.

In his works made with exposed wood — Pyramidals, Formations and Angularribbons — the artist’s combinatorial inventiveness seems unlimited, like a roll of serpentine one throws that always seems to contain one more coil. The sculptures in this phase, to the extent that they derive both from the painted white pieces and the works in aluminum, amount to a sort of revision of the full gamut of Ascânio’s visual grammar, providing him with new creations and points of formation that seemed no longer to interest him. 

The Pyramidals sometimes amount to quasi-boxes that turn back into themselves, in a movement of contraction and focus inside the sculpture. The Pyramidals numbered 2, 3 and 11 are good examples of works that cause our sight to dwell on the surface first and then to plunge into the heart of the sculpture.

Two of his wall series — the guataias and the elatas — are of the kind Frederico Morais has referred to as hard-edge paintings: spatial reliefs with surfaces made up of the colors of the various kinds of wood used.

The pieces in raw wood are marked by optimism, good-natured skepticism and an aesthetics that is not ashamed of its own beauty. These sculptures, paintings, drawings, combinations of languages, tests of limits, unidentified objects and astrolabes of the present make up a sort of archeology of what the future may have in store for the work of a Brazilian Constructivist artist.