Jiri Svestka Gallery, Prague
Biskupsky dvur 6
110 00 Prague
artist / participant
The Portuguese artist Juliao Sarmento (born in Lisbon in1948, lives now in Estoril) is recognised principally as one of the most important painters of his generation despite a career that has refused to limit itself to a single medium. Since the early seventies, Sarmento has explored the possibilities offered not only by painting but also by photography, film and video. Unifying his work is an intimate and passionate preoccupation with the subject of desire; the theme underlies his art like an obsession.
Nourished on the representation of the female figure, and with a leading role taken by the erotic, it is hardly surprising that Sarmento's work should leave the viewer feeling in a position close to voyeurism, as if we were witnessing a privacy that is not our own. Identity is not an issue - faces are cut from view, bodies are made abstract by the closeness of the gaze - the personal dimension is lost, as it is in pornography, in order that the individuals depicted become simply entities exposed to the public eye. Sarmento never offers any moral judgement, yet frequently, without offering comfort, he allows the viewer the impression that he himself is equally complicit in this act of voyeurism.
As a young artist in the seventies, Sarmento was part of a generation who participated actively in the construction and development of a new aesthetic perspective based fundamentally on filmic language and on one of its essential components, narrative. His presentation of works in sequence suggests the sort of temporal progression and narrative we are familiar with from films, yet even his single images seem to refer to a much broader set of actions or situations. In his ambivalence of meaning, it would seem he is consciously blurring the distinction between where his paintings leave off and the viewer's imagination begins. His images often have a strangely bewildering air of familiarity to them - perhaps an offshoot of the curious sense of intimacy voyeurism can foster - like afterimages of a dream which remain partly visible in the imagination even after memory has drained colour away.
In his installation piece Landscape of 1980, a video projection that slowly scans a headless woman's body is overlaid by a tape-recorded monologue narrating memories from the artist's childhood. At one point the narrator recalls lying in bed at night and making 'all kinds of animal forms with my hands against the light.' It would seem Sarmento has returned to these early shadow-images in his most recent paintings, in which the female forms he represents are reduced to mere silhouettes, allowing a greater economy in palette and composition than can be seen in his earlier paintings. The use of silhouette draws our eye to small details that might otherwise have gone unnoticed - the wrinkle of a lycra-tight dress, the perk of a nipple, the tangle of uncombed hair - while the flattening of the girls' forms also works to charge the space (or sometimes lack of it) between them. Despite the clear undercurrent of sexual tension in these paintings, there is an innocence to the erotic flirting of these girls. One could almost imagine that they might be an older sister and friend frolicking unawares while a young Sarmento peeped out at their shadows from beneath the covers of his bed.
Juliao Sarmento's exhibitions in recent years at venues such as the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Hirschorn Museum in Washington have helped to cement his international reputation. In 2000/2001, he collaborated with the Canadian director Atom Egoyan to make the film Close which was premiered at the 2001 Venice Biennale. This is the first exhibition of Sarmento's work to be held in the Czech Republic. Pressetext
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