Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Magazine: Helena Almeida

The octogenarian Portuguese artist Helena Almeida was intent on blurring lines: her playful images might be considered paintings, actions, and performative photographs.

 - December 22, 2015

Here, Lisbon–based curator and writer Delfim Sardo introduces her work that is now the subject of a major traveling exhibition.

In Helena Almeida’s 1969 photograph Pink Canvas for Wearing, she is literally wearing a canvas, her arms wrapped in sleeves that seem to sprout from it. This is the first photograph of her career, after working for more than a decade as a painter since graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts of Lisbon in 1955. In Lisbon’s close-knit art scene of the 1960s, her importance among the Portuguese avant-garde, which included artists Alberto Carneiro, Paula Rego, and Lourdes Castro (most of whom were living abroad, far from the Portuguese dictatorship that wouldn’t end until 1974), was confirmed by her solo show of three-dimensional canvases at Galerie Buchholz in 1967. Despite her increasing renown as a painter, Almeida’s delight at discovering that she could function as a painting through the medium of photography is palpable in this lively image.

Italian artist Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, which Almeida encountered in Paris in 1964, prompted her to start seeing the physical support used for painting—the canvas and the stretcher—as a vehicle for a spatial, conceptual approach to painting that takes the body as its principal point of reference. (Other influences at the time included the French New Wave, which piqued her interest in a conceptual approach to image making, as well as the work of Rebecca Horn, Urs Lüthi, and Jürgen Klauke.) Almeida’s wearable canvases, which are applied to the body in the manner of orthoses, enable the literal embodiment of the painting and the transformation of the artist’s own body into the support and its medium. “I was impressed by the obscure side of the slash, the mystery of what is beyond the canvas,” she said in an interview in 2011. “But unlike Fontana, I wanted to do something that would detach from the painting. Instead of showing the reverse of the canvas, I went out of the canvas.”

A concern with drawing also informs much of Almeida’s work, and she treats the surfaces of drawings or photographs as portals for crossing from the domain of representation into the realm of physical space. In her series of drawings Inhabited Drawing (1975–77), she makes a line materialize (actually a piece of horsehair) and physically snake its way through the space of the image. As the artist described the process in 2006: “I passed to photography through drawing. The drawings with strings [the collages with horsehair] made me use photography. I wanted to grab the string with my own fingers to demonstrate that the line in the paper had become solid.”

While the artist’s initial forays into photography are grouped together as canvas(es) for wearing (1969–70) or, later, Inhabited Painting(s) (1975–76), subsequent pieces would incorporate a number of key forms of expression, including the series titled Studies for Inner Enrichment (1977). In this last body of work, a rich blue paint, somewhere between ultramarine and cobalt, is layered on top of the photograph, sparking little narratives: at times the artist seems to be swallowing or regurgitating the paint, weeping blue tears, slipping it into her pocket like a talisman, or embracing it, incorporating it into herself as she gradually blurs and fades away—almost like a process of transubstantiation.

While the project has eucharistic connotations, here the artist’s body is made visible by the fading of the blue color, highlighting the difference between the surfaces of painting and the flatness of the photographic image. Almeida has used the stringency of the grain in high-contrast photography to rob the pictures of their photographic poetry and render them purely documentary. In the late 1970s Almeida embarked on a vast multimedia series, Feel Me, Hear Me, See Me (1978–80), in which the commands of the title allude to a series of complex and contradictory situations. The Feel Me images are beset with representations of the impossibility of feeling the other, featuring images of closed eyes; the Hear Me images are based on the difficulty of communication, illustrated (among other groups of images) via eight photographs of Almeida and her husband (and work partner), Artur Rosa, facing each other, their mouths connected by what seem to be thin sheets of paper that materialize breath; and the See Me work features an amplified recording of graphite on paper, the sound of a drawing being made. About this sound piece, Almeida wrote in 1979, “I used to think how I would like to hear-see my drawings. So I have recorded some of them… In so doing I had no rhythmical or musical intent but I welcomed in surprise their breathing and rhythm.”

Helena Almeida is now eighty-one, and, although she has been exhibiting internationally since the 1970s, the idiosyncratic character of her work and the profound originality of her approach don’t allow for any easy interpretation. Even in her native Portugal, recognition of her work has been slow: when she had a retrospective exhibition in Lisbon in 2004, it was the first time her work had been on view in a Lisbon museum since 1983. The retrospective exhibition that is now on view at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, in Porto, and that will travel to the Jeu de Paume, in Paris, and to Wiels, in Brussels, in 2016, will be an occasion to see her work as belonging to a generation of artists who examined the relationships between the body, images, and physical space.

Unless otherwise noted, photographs courtesy Galería Helga de Alvear, Madrid.

To read the complete article, subscribe to Aperture magazine or purchase Issue #221, Winter 2015, “Performance.”