I didn’t immediately see Leonor Antunes’s works at Lina Bo Bardi’s ‘Casa de Vidro’ (Glass House), which is to say, I saw them without apprehending them to be out of place. The tortuous steel, twisting in controlled but vital serpentines against the dense green vegetation that rushes in through the porous windows, could have merely been part of the eclectic collection of objects dotted around Bo Bardi’s living room. Ultimately, their undulating verticality - an enduring trademark of Antunes’s sculptural practice - gave them away. These works, collectively titled ‘Lygia’ (2019), comprise one sculptural body in Antunes’s multi-sited exhibition ‘joints, voids and gaps’, at MASP and continued at Bo Bardi’s Glass House, in São Paulo’s Morumbi district.
It is exhilarating to see Antunes situated directly within the structures devised by one of her key references, the renowned Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, who designed both the iconic MASP building, and her residence-cum-studio called the Glass House. Antunes never really stands alone; her works incorporate an assembly of modernist, and primarily female artistic references, refusing to let them lie fallow in the canon. But Antunes’s practice is more dialogue than memorial, and the subtle mimicry enacted by works like those at the Glass House is testament to kinship rather than deference. In addition to Bo Bardi, this exhibition incorporates Cuban-born, Mexico-based furniture and interior design pioneer Clara Porset, Brazilian artist Lygia Clark and Italian architect and designer Franco Albini, also an important reference for Bo Bardi. At a talk, I once heard Antunes say that she doesn’t see herself as making sculpture from scratch; “I don’t believe in originality, I guess.” The work is steeped in the visual languages of others who have come before her, a proliferation of affinity unfolding like an almost musical conversation in space.
At MASP the sculptures feel like bodies, animating the space through a dynamic parcours where before there was only an open plan. Works like the wood and cotton string ‘Franco’ (2019) and ‘Lina’ (2019) create partitions that suggest a sinuous passage through the narrow strait between them, while never entirely blocking our access or line of sight. On the contrary, the multiple sculptures emphasise porousness and contamination, overlapping in various assemblages as one moves through the space, subject also to the changing light of the day. Like the interior of the Glass House, the sculptures on view at MASP are exposed to a large window fronting onto landscaped plants, transforming with the passage of the sun. Light is sculptural for Antunes, and with it - both natural and artificial - she modulates the works’ volume and their presence in space.
Antunes recurrently uses materials including wood, cotton, rubber, polished steel, leather, aluminium, and brass, exploring their yielding properties and the sculptural possibilities unlocked through applying tension or accommodating lassitude. What is clear is that these materials rely on each other to gain form and retain some semblance of structure. Leather, rubber, wood: these are animal and vegetal skins, evoking an epidermal quality that warps and wefts the space into a tessellated whole, particularly true of Antunes’s floor and ceiling pieces. ‘Clara’ (2019) is a wooden ceiling panel inspired by a detail of Porset’s house in Mexico City, from which hangs the aluminium and polished steel ‘caipiras, capiau, pau a pique’, referring to elements in the homonymous 1980 exhibition organised by Bo Bardi at São Paulo’s Sesc Pompeia. The group of works is displayed on ‘discrepancias com L.G.’ (2015), a rubber floor whose pattern draws on the geometry of Clark’s painting ‘Superfície modulada’ (1952). The visual languages of Antunes’s companion figures are abstracted, contracted and distended, generating a geometric and material connective tissue that links diverse practices: connected thus, the works are no longer isolated objects in space, but instead rendered into a sculptural unit.
In this particular instance, Antunes is not only in direct conversation with Bo Bardi, but also hosts a dialogue between Bo Bardi and her contemporaries, as in the case of the neo-concretist Clark, who made work that simultaneously challenged patriarchal oppression and spoke to the political repression of the 1964-1985 Brazilian military dictatorship. In the face of a fracturing social order, it is no wonder that both Clark and Bo Bardi responded by highlighting how things are held together: Clark’s 1960s ‘Bichos’ and ‘Trepantes’ draw attention to the hinges that unite sculptures and to the voids between their folds or curves. Similarly, Bo Bardi’s architecture is exoskeletal, insisting on transparency and making visible the structures that support her buildings or iconic concrete and glass plinths, to which Antunes responds with two works in the upper floor of MASP. In light of the current political climate in Brazil, Antunes’s exhibition seems to suggest the urgency of reclaiming ‘joints, voids and gaps’, and the logic of visibility that they represent.
Simultaneously, her work is a way of rescuing practices of making, which is to say, practices of living, which is really to say, fostering a closeness with, and between, others. Perhaps most significant about the works and characters that populate Antunes’s practice is the singular way they inhabit, or rather cohabit space. Soon after I saw the exhibition, Covid-19 began to dominate the headlines, and a few weeks later, movement was restricted. Distance, on the one hand, and extreme proximity, on the other, had installed itself between colleagues, families and friends. Antunes’s exhibition acquired a new dimension. To articulate connections, highlight lines of affinity, forge paths for overlaps, suggest new models for cohabiting - now more than ever is the time for work that identifies the possible joints amid the voids and gaps.