Julião Sarmento. Being Forced into Something Else. 1991

When analysing the whole of Sarmento’s output, what first strikes one is the progressive building-up of a solid coherent, consistent body of work capable of renewal and profundity, in permanent dialogue with the present, running alongside a fidelity to obsessions, themes and problems that provide a foundation for personal authorship or authority. During the twenty years that he has been working, Sarmento has lives through a range of artistic turning points from post-Pop to the present day, and has undergone the usual influence of those tendencies that were most kindred to him; particularly various post-conceptual practices much in vogue in the early 80s. However, Sarmento has managed to preserve and explore a personal nucleus of problems that originates and determines his output while at the same time, through a creative confrontation with what he has found most stimulating in each artistic situation, he has continued to renew and diversify his artistic discourse. Sarmento’s international fame, evidenced in his participation in documenta 7, has remained associated in a way that is chronologically inevitable with the ‘return to painting’ and ‘ new figurations’ of the change of course that took place during the decade from the 70s to the 80s. However, Sarmento never shared these trends or their – purely pictorial – pleasures, chromatic or material for example, their impulsive or expressive recording in the raw, or their anecdotal, primary or illustrative treatment of the theme of desire and sex. The sensuality of the textures, the complexity of the composition and the ever-enigmatic nature of the images display a principle of delicacy, in the Sadean sense, and a perverted logic which refer back to a higher level of visual and theoretical sophistication.

Julião Sarmento’s work goes on with the permanent task of making the work of visual invention and creation coincide with an exploration of the territory of formulation and examination of desire in its infinite modellings. The process of visual creation is understood as a dynamic equivalent to the process of configuring the territory of desire. The energy and tension that project a rendential identification of the two processes are the motive factor in the artist’s attitude and ensure the permanently open and renewable nature of his work. Sarmento’s work has no conclusion, present no thesis or hypothesis. No answers, no questions. Sarmento’s work exhibits and explores a territory without limits permeated by the throbbing of a personal viewpoint. Hence his enormous versatility and his ability to use and combine different techniques and supports.

In Sarmento’s work the reference to desire does not necessarily imply sexual or sexualizable representation of figures or substitutions. There is a dimension of desire which exists before, after and beyond figurability, and that is solitude, memory, silence and darkness. A secret dimension inhabited by such high-pitched signals that the senses are barely able to capture them, an amazing world of flashing images that the imagination can scarcely retain. The dimension of solitude and deep memory is perhaps the founding urge and most decisive anchoring point in Sarmento’s work.

In the latest phase of this work – the 90 ‘white paintings’ – Sarmento’s sophistication, combined with rigour and versatility, leads to his opting for purifications, austerity, sobriety. Rejecting spectacular effects. In terms of colours we find almost exclusively white used in an elaborate work of supeimpositions and transparencies which provides great richness of textural effects. For Sarmento, backgrounds are textures. Physical entities that are not so much a support in the mechanical sense or a background in the visual sense, as a material with an effective sensible presence, real surfaces that permit and suggest specific relationships. White is the white of sheets. When sheets that have been used and slept on cease to be white and start to go yellow. Whites declined in innumerable tones of grey that make us recall the meticulous knowledge of the work of developing in photographers’ studios. Sheets that are transformed into the great shroud that receives and preserves the mould of the bodies that is to be enveloped in them. Dirty, sleepy white, the white of dawn, bright with the first rays of light that enter the room when the window is opened, painting shadows, pouncing on the bed to chase away the night. White is the white of snow. The infinite expanse of white desert whose intact integrity renews itself in a soft delirium. Layer upon layer covering all traces, absorbing all marks. The overwhelming peace of deserts of snow, the palpitating peace of the white skin of a body exposed to light for the first time.

In the “white paintings” the systems of figuration also forsakes truculence and aggression. The figures, barely sketched in, incomplete, corrected, are simple but ambiguous, sober but incisive. They inspire both familiarity and surprise. Familiarity because they take us back to our personal memories and intimate obsessions. Surprise because they emerge separately from the ordinary context, elliptic, reduced to the essential. Traces or signs of an experience or vision. Forms of what we call the exploration of the territory of desire. A combination of solitude and passion. Imperious obsession and suspended gesture. With Sarmento, the image is always the object of a game alternating between dissimulation and revelation. A game that must be related to the impossibility of an appeasing, totalizing representation of the idea of the object of desire.

Let us look at a work like “Being Forced into Something Else” (1991). Tension is established straight away by the title. The image depicted suggests, at first sight, a pleasant gesture, a harmonious movement. The title, however, announces violence. If we look at the painting again, the tranquillity of the female figure begins to seem suspect of us. Isn’t her apparent calm really hiding a stubborn refusal? And what is the meaning of the circle she is squeezing between her fingers? A game or a challenge? Finally, the frontal nature of the figure depicted below seems to indicate a more vehement attitude. But it is only a sketched figure in which the determined posture of its arms does not allow us to guess at the solution to the mystery. If we summarise the path of the simple reading of this painting – the same method could be applied to other works by the author – we see that we started out with a feeling of harmony and familiarity, and then immediately afterward we discovered some strangeness of latent tension. We then searched for an element which might provide the solution of this tension. But all of the answers were ambiguous and inconclusive. The tension has become suspense. A suspense which feeds upon our curiosity as observers, and which is the key to the energy of Sarmento’s painting.


Alexandre Melo, por ocasião da exposição individual de Julião Sarmento, no Van Abbemuseum (Entr'acte), Eindhoven, Julião Sarmento Two Rooms, (catálogo), 15 de Setembro a 24 de Novembro de 1996

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