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Luiz Zerbini’s “Fire”: Nature and Culture in and around Rio de Janeiro
On view currently at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, is “Fire” by Brazilian artist Luiz Zerbini (born 1959)—an exhibition of kaleidoscopic works that blend organic and geometric forms. The paintings are inspired by the Amazon and Mata Atlântica rainforests as well as urban architecture. They reflect the artist’s ongoing interest in the relationship between the environment and human activity in and around Rio de Janeiro.
The grid—a formal leitmotif closely associated with modernism and in Zerbini’s work a subtle nod to the mosaic pavements and façades of Brazilian tower blocks—is present in all of the paintings in the exhibition. Using it as a compositional structuring device, several pieces show squares and circles combined with lush, tropical flora. A cacophony of colour, these works convey the immersive and seductive quality of Brazil’s natural landscape.
“Fire” refers to the spark that is created with friction, the collision of opposing forces. Here, nature and culture. Zerbini also says about the title: “Some months ago, the world was burning; here in Brazil, in California, in Australia and Indonesia as well, and it keeps on burning. One morning, when I arrived at the studio, I looked at one of the paintings and I saw what seemed to be a flame among the other patterns painted on the canvas. That was when ‘Fire’ came to my mind as a good name. Then I found the size and the sound of Fire beautiful, and the meaning powerful.”
Across his career, which spans over three decades, Zerbini has developed a complex visual vocabulary at the intersection of figuration and abstraction. He first emerged within the generational (and global) ‘return to painting’ of the 1980s, centred in Rio de Janeiro around the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts and subsequently defined by the landmark exhibition ‘Como vai você Geração 80?’ (How Are You Doing, 80s Generation?, 1984).
The exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery follows Zerbini’s major presentation in the group show ‘Trees’ at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, in 2019. There the artist transformed the main gallery into an urban jungle, combining a large-scale herbarium—complete with a living fig tree—with hyperreal paintings of the rainforest and symbols of Brazilian modernity. In “Fire”, flooding the viewer’s perception, Zerbini tries to provide the impression of “being in the painting as you could be in a forest”.
Zerbini has interesting thoughts on the secret life of paintings. He writes: “Once I heard from someone somewhere that paintings can talk. I thought it was a metaphor. But with time—spending months and months, sometimes eight, nine months looking at the same painting waiting without knowing what to do—I understood that paintings really talk. After that, I treat a painting as an oracle. The painting gives you everything you need to keep going. All the answers. It shows you the ways, suggests images, ideas, thoughts. It gives you an explanation why you should do that. I have no doubts about that, but you need to be patient.
“The answers come with time. You need to be open to see and courageous to accept and try. If you act, the answer will be a question. And so on. A painting is the result of a sincere conversation between the artist and his craft. If you have a chance to sit in front of one of my paintings for a long time, looking at the small details, you would certainly have better answers than this one. And please don’t be shy. Ask the painting your question, ask everything you want to know and wait.”
The answer that the artist’s paintings give us is one of confident, vibrant, dizzying hope. They point at a future of reconciliation, an overcoming of competition, at harmony, at peaceful co-existence. We find the bounty of nature gracing human endeavours. Palm fronds, coiled ferns, tree trunks, breeze, waves smoothly merge with the rigid bricks of civilisation. Loose and free, the intoxicating elements of the jungle meet the hard-edged lines of settlement and society in friendship. In turn, human intervention does not cut down rather it nourishes and organises nature even better. And the fire of contact that emerges is one that sets the two opposing forces quietly aflame, not incinerate.
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