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Critical Essays

Heads / Tellers 

Clarissa Diniz | 2018


Edges of the body have been present for a long time in Cristina Canale’s work. If Talkative (2018), one of her recent paintings, pushes into the foreground a sort of speech-razor able to cut the face – that monolith which, in a portrait, tends to marginalize everything else – this figure-background relationship is an echo of other angularities of her career, already expressed, for example, in her paintings from 1985.


Just as in Talkative the portrait is a sort of trigger for the dispute between the hierarchies of the composition, at that moment a kiss was the theme for an inevitable tear in the space where the painting was operating. Constituted by cutout and glued parts, the painting from 33 years ago did not have its bodies split by the background, but tore the space with its pictorial body, elbowing it in a hug.


As an embryo, it already evinced the artist’s interest for what she circumscribes as “tension in the coexistence between contradictions,” a central axis of her pictorial investigation, seeing that, in the late 1980s she went beyond the impasto characteristic of her first work, freeing the color, the form and the material of totalitarian corporealities. Disconnected from the large masses – which generally structured her first paintings – they could finally clash, forming the territory of the following decades of Cristina Canale’s production.


This decoupling – and the subsequent dispute – among the parts of the composition was doubtlessly anchored in the tension between figuration and an “abstract situation.” Unlike abstraction as a negation of representation, Canale’s abstract situations are shapes and blotches, unrecognizable and unnamable presences, and yet, on the other hand, are generous enough to perhaps operate as prints, patterns, liquids, smoke, and vegetation. They do not aim to signify anything and, for this very reason, do not ignore signification or programmatically oppose it. They operate based on another system of meanings in which the figuration-abstraction duopoly is not inevitably hegemonic.

That which is representation and that which is nonindexical presence in Canale’s paintings are part of a delicate equation that is fundamentally different from this duopoly, based on the “minimal dosage of context for the utmost contextualization possible,” or in other words: tending to restrict to zero the presence of elements pointing to some context not intrinsic to the painting in order to maximally empower the potential for the mutual contextualization among the pictorial forms. The result is more a system of intensities than a construction linked to the relations between figure and background, sign and form. 


In her paintings, it is mainly through color that these intensities are configured and negotiate space, density and movement among themselves. In the artist’s production, from the outset it has been color (rather than the line or the planes) that has “dimensional power,” founding pictorial arrangements that organize levels in the space, even though they do not behave in accordance with the planar preciseness of the Euclidean tradition. By organizing and hierarchizing the spatiality of the painting, as Canale underscores, the “color is functional.” It is nevertheless preponderantly intensive, making the things “vibrate” in their places and states, animating what could appear stable if it were not continuously disturbed by a sort of exuberance that emanates from the colors. 


As is especially evident in the small-format paintings shown here, the artist’s chromatic economy is supported in flows created by differences in intensity, of midtones, that lead our perception through the painting until we come up against some color that is strange to that spectrum, producing a leap that will then once again become part of another sequence of midtones, thus avoiding a certain (eminently graphic, when not strident) ping-pong effect characteristic of some artists who, like Canale, arose in the 1980s amidst a return to the painting of an expressionist bent.

It is this mode of circulation of the color that underlies paintings such as Ella (2018) or Nuvens e sombras (2018), in which the monopoly of a chromatic spectrum is challenged by some chromatically insurgent presence, such as the vibrating pink that invades the lateral areas of Ella. Or like the conjunction of whites between the chair and a whitish blotch that forms a vertebral axis in Nuvens e sombras, imposing itself toward the front of the plane and thus lending vagueness to the spatiality and transforming it into a protobackground that nearly does not become established insofar as it does not defi nitively operate as either a floor or a wall.

In Cristina Canale’s recent production, these dynamics of color acquire other singularities through the coincidence between theme, form and material. This is what takes place when, for example, the pattern of the person’s clothing overflows to other parts of the painting, in certain cases doing this through the collage of a fabric which itself bears a printed pattern. The color is a driving force in this game of reversibilities between figuration, abstraction and “ornament,” which not only complexifies the artist’s current pictorial undertaking, but furthermore inscribes this project, in its formal particularities, with a historical thematics – that of the tradition of female portraits in painting.


Considering the last ten years of Cristina Canale’s production allows us to see how much the classic format of the portrait has, little by little, been presented as a territory for intensive investigations which, like color and plasticity, have brought her painting to this point. The portraits have absolutely foregrounded the more or less hegemonic fields of color that

once circumscribed the figures that previously protagonized her canvases, as in those produced during the first decade of the 2000s.

They are uniformly colored, featureless faces that engender this reversal between what used to be “background” (fields tending toward the monochromatic) and that which is thereby raised to the status of “figure.” Often formed by the raw canvas of the support, with the addition of a few diluted brushstrokes, the faces of Canale’s women play the role of the background by their minimization of form and subjectivity, which, in turn, are transferred to the area surrounding the portraits, whose pictorial happenings retroactively acquire something akin to the status of subjects, imbued with intentionality.

This process led to the radicality of paintings such as Talkative or Smoke (2017), in which the protagonism of the subjectivities portrayed is fiercely disputed by a wholly subjectivized painting, in which everything that is not the face not only escapes from the tradition of being background, but in later cases began to spread over the figure itself, rivaling it in terms spatial, formal and symbolic centrality. This phenomenon is likewise seen in Sacolinha (2017) and Fenster (2018), in which it is not a face, but an object, whose protagonism is put to the test by a compositional mode “tensioned by the coexistence between contradictions,” according to the artist.

A further essential feature of this process is the imaginary realm convoked by Cristina Canale through her portraits, whose identifiable elements – cigarettes, necklaces, purses, earrings and high heels – mostly refer to the glamorous grammar of 1950s fashion. If, in the fashion photos from that time the extravagance of the subjectivities aimed to “reactivate” their power and femininity through the reconstructed postwar luxury, it is precisely the smothering of this excess that brings about the reversal operated by the artist. Portraits of inexistent facial expressions, diffuse patterns and rough features (out of keeping with the pleated delicacy of the forms of the “New Look” by Dior, for example) highlight the redistribution of power between the constitutive

parts and forces of her painting.

To do this, Canale resorts to the portrait and thus avoids grand themes or narratives: “I do not like to portray anything very dramatic. I prefer everyday scenes, and for the intensity to come from something else, from the color, from the relation of the aesthetic form with the figure.”(1) The artist is not interested in the “world’s drama or disgrace,” but rather in a certain “dense fattening” of everyday situations, configuring atmospheres which, by their strangeness, favor the transit between the pictorial hierarchies in one of the most traditional genres of art, that of the portrait. In her effort to fatten the ordinariness of life, Cristina resorts to iconography, collecting images and patterns that can motivate her to produce paintings. Many of these images come from fashion publications, in which the bodies are, in her words, “unbanalized” by the stylization or fictionalization of their subjectivities.


This recent set of paintings includes the very striking image of a black woman, Mãe (2018), the only profile in the series of portraits. Marked by the absence of jewelry, adornments or gestures, the portrait’s central aspect is the woman’s clothing, through the white that finds continuity between her turban and her dress and the striped fabric which, sewn to

the canvas, becomes a support only for the lower part of the painting, while also – linking form, theme and material – being the fabric which, in the image, holds the baby carried on the portrayed woman’s back.

The image of this slave woman, photographed in Bahia in the 19th century by Marc Ferrez (Negra com seu filho, 1884. Coleção IMS), is part of the memory of Brazilian coloniality. The relation between slave labor and motherhood revealsthe wound of slavery, still open today and which, already at that moment, had acquired perverse outlines beginning with the Law of the Free Womb (1871), since the two beings represented there, mother and son, belong to different realms of existence and humanity.

Ferrez’s anthropological outlook is also distinctive, isolating woman and son from their social context and photographing them as though in a fashion photo of Brazilian society, an operation pushed to the extreme by Canale, who in her painting leaves out the tray of bananas which the woman in the photograph carries on her head, while also merely insinuating the baby carried on her back. On the other hand, differing from Marc Ferrez’s monochromatic background, the painting seeks to compose – through procedures of intensity and color indicated throughout this text – an atmosphere of subjectivity not circumscribed to the woman’s faciality, magnetized by that feminine presence, while magnetizing it. 


The edges of that enslaved body and its social history, however, find little space. Even though eminently static and angular, the profile of the black mother does not manage to elbow the space, nor is it embraced by it, giving rise to a politically imprecise strangeness. In light of the set of Canale’s recent paintings, Mãe is especially solitary since it is not possible to find an equivalence between it and the repertoire of gestures of the small-format works, short-circuiting the game of correspondences we spontaneously experience while observing the other works of the collection.

Perhaps we are, therefore, seeing a turning point in the portraits of Cristina Canale, where the body, identified and traumatized by a history and its inextricable imaginary, is no longer enough before our gaze. If there is something that hinders the intensity of Mãe yet simultaneously locks our gaze onto it, perhaps it is because something extrinsic to the

painting, situated outside its formal omnipotence, is imposed. Edges that do not fit in the rectangular pictorial territoriality and which, demanding other modes for their inscription in the (also social) space seem to warn us that there is something which, insinuated ever since the elbows of 1985, still requests passage.

(1) INSTITUTOFF. “Cristina Canale – Protagonista e Domingo – IFF”. YouTube, May 09. 2016, 0’15”. Available in: <>. Acesso em 29/10/2018.

Clarissa Diniz (Recife/PE, 1985): is a curator and an art writer. She graduated in Art Ed. / Fine Arts at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (UFPE), has a master’s degree in Arts from the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (PPGA/UERJ), and is pursuing a PhD in Sociology and Anthropology from the Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Sociais at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IFCS/UFRJ).

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