To gain entrance into the work of Brazilian artist Regis Silva, it is important to first look back at the origins and wide-ranging influences of the Surrealist movement. A movement whose history is as full of the imaginative and unexpected turn, as the work of its founding practitioners. Artists like Arp, Ernst, de Chirico, and – maybe most interestingly in light of the discussion ahead – American artist Man Ray.
Interesting because on the map, The World in the Time of the Surrealists, published in a 1929 issue of Variétés, America is conspicuously absent. All but an engorged Alaska seems to have been swallowed by the border between Labrador (Canada) and Mexique (Mexico). South America, save Peru, remains an unnamed blankness of land.
It would seem, with both his native and adopted homes forsaken by the movement, an artist like Regis Silva might never come into being. But seventy years is a long corridor to travel and Surrealism has grown from Andre Breton's First Manifesto of Surrealism to influence not only its contemporaries, but a century forward into lands once dismissed and forgotten.
America, of course, would not only shortly find itself on the surrealist map, but at the very center, offering refuge to the exiled artists of war-torn Europe. The path to Brazil though would be a more circuitous one, traveling, some might say, posthumously.
This end of Surrealism has been appointed several dates but as is fitting for a movement of such liberating tones, it has refused its own obituaries. Some argue that World War II effectively disbanded the movement. Others would contend that the death of Andre Breton in 1966 marked the end of Surrealism as an organized movement.
But organized or not, Surrealism continued to resurface with identifiable impact. Strands were (and continue to be) undeniable in film and theatre, Free Jazz, even the politics of the French revolt of 1968, in who's slogan "All power to the imagination" one can clearly hear the protests of Breton, of Dali and Magritte.
A protest which eventually made landfall across the Atlantic in the Latin American literary tradition of Magic Realism – a very specific South American genre influenced by the blurring of realism and fantasy in Brazilian writer, Mário de Andrade's influential novel, Macunaíma.
And here, Brazil having been named on the map, one can almost imagine the artistic development of Regis Silva. Nourished in his schoolrooms by this rich tradition of storytelling, he will, at ten years of age, first see the image of Dali's, Geopolitical Child Watches the Birth of the New Man, which he'll carry with him leaving his Brazil for that once non-existent America.
When speaking to Silva about this transition to the United States it is not his art work which he discusses first. "I had to adapt to a culture completely different from where I was coming from". The Bay Area, for all its exciting opportunities, was unrelentingly foreign in customs and language. Weather as well.
So overrun by the tectonic changes, he didn't work on a single canvas for some time. Then came City People, his first painting in the United States. Colorful no doubt, but tame in its palette and size. Geometric, crowded. It establishes one thing with certainty: that Silva intends to free himself of the objective, the realist, boundaries of form in order to get at the roiling emotional core.
His characters anxiously tumble without moorings. One seems to hoist itself up by finger hold so as to get a better view of the commotion, the goings on. But there is no rest in the piece. No native, no comforting, assurances.
In what seems an almost direct response to the tumult of his assimilation, Silva retired for some eight months to the coastal towns of the Monterey Bay. Here his more celebratory work began.
Inspired by the meandering northern coastline and its abundance of sea animalia, Silva's explosive colors take hold in this seminal collection of oceanic abstractions. Vibrant, mysterious and gravity defying, these studies display Silva's keen interest in his organic surroundings, but most importantly they introduce the complex dialectic characteristics of his future works.
His bright pallet; his evocative cubist renderings of the face; and his obsession with the voluptuous, the sexual. Furthermore, in these interlocking, loosely tied together ameba forms Silva begins to establish the importance of interrelatedness to his work. All is connected, he seems to be saying. No one, no action, exists in isolation.
We are, he clearly illustrates, in this together – whether we like it or not. For example, in Brazil Eyes of Hunger, Silva sets out to demand viewership for the pandemic monopolization and waste of food products throughout the world. If we are all in this together, this piece asks, and can all see clearly these crops rotting in the silo, then why are some of us going hungry?
Silva's large collection of watercolors emerged upon his return to San Francisco. And in this new collection, his surrealist – or self-proclaimed Pop-Surrealist – tendencies come to the forefront. In line with the tenants of Surrealism, the works feature the element of surprise, unexpected juxtaposition and non sequitur.
Their composition is reliant upon a peopled but barren, expansive depth of field. There is, in their fractured narratives, the return to order which was so central to post-war artists. But referential as Silva's watercolors appear, they are undoubtedly unique and completely his own.
Where the Surrealists landscapes are mainly exteriors, vast wastelands or subterranean voids, Silva's watercolors are predominantly built interiors. Checkered walls that narrow almost to a vanishing point, but never quite vanish, instead revealing the idol, the narrative focal point. How could they be anything but interiors when representing such intimacies as the artist's childhood memories and dreamscapes?
The Widow's Life is as an exemplary representative of this series. Two armless women mourn in the foreground, looking out towards the viewer as if to ask, What now? while in the distance a body lays in state. The women's costumes are colorful, though subdued by grief; odd non-structural girders occupy the space, but support nothing; and the checkered floor and ceiling recede from the canvas, drawing the eye to the casketed body.
The depth, as is true of the entire series, is masterful. Each paint stroke accentuates the minute details hidden within the cracks of the previous layers, adding to the compositional depth with the illusion of live texture.
But these are only the physical demarcations.
The emotive remains central to Silva's work. Through his gestural mark making and saturated color schemes he is able to convey the duality that anchors the series. The notion that daily life in Brazil is a coexistence of violence and innocence; of shame and joy; abundance and famine.
Even while Silva describes the series as melancholic, there remains a celebratory aspect to near every piece. Be it in bright colors, or a secondary smiling glance from a character, the spirit, as in The Tearful Hug, rises from the apocalyptic.
In 2002 Silva's research of the mythological Orixás would propel his work beyond the limitations of both the two-dimensional canvas and his own interior narratives. The Orixás, often referred to as Black Gods in Exile, were carried to Brazil in the oral histories of abducted slaves. Kings, queens, and mythical heroes, these African deities were worshipped in the songs and lore of slave encampments.
"The more I read, the more I liked about the whole mythology," Silva says. "It's a lot like Greek mythology." A mythology whose cross-cultural interpretations, natural animism and inter-woven mythology were the perfect accompaniment to Silva's own childhood fascination with Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion.
In Brazil, as in Cuba with the Santería, African deities are cloaked in the stories of Catholic saints so that this forbidden religion may be practiced. So that its native voice is not extinguished.
"It mixes indigenous Brazilian, African and Catholicism," Silva says, "When I lived in Brazil, it was a part of the daily life. Many people go to both church and other spiritual centers. They see them as the same entities."
These entities, Gods of air and water, of mountains and animals, are among Silva's first sojourns into three-dimensional practice. They are small in scale when compared to the work to come, but no less powerful. In fact, these slight idols stand among the artist's most potent, most informed work, due to their rich historical context.
They are Forces of Nature, each deity engendering a specific attribute: a color, a metal, a day of the week, a favorite dish, or certain drumbeat. Their colors resilient, their posture upright, proud in their bold costumes. They have, in story and now in form, survived five centuries in hiding.
On the coattails of the previous year's Orixás series, 2003 would see the most drastic and lasting re-invention of approach for Silva. By exploding the combination of his painted and sculpted works he advanced directly into the body of two- and three-dimensional work that continues today. All as a result of one fateful step:
"I found a weekend garage sale in the city," Silva recounts. "A lady, who had been a fabric designer and was now retired, was selling fabrics from the '70s, '80s and early '90s. I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but I had to have it. I bought bags and bags of fabric."
Fabric is the perfect media for an artist who of his own imagination re-rendered his departed homeland, his now receding childhood. Everything to this point had been manifested, created really out of thin air, in paint. But fabric offers the perfect bridge. Tactile, earth-bound, recognizable, associative even, cloth anchors his otherwise loose, completely imagined compositions.
For Silva it elicits the rich layering of memories tied to his mother's seamstress work, his sisters fabric shop in Paraíso. And to the viewer, it ensures comfort in the recognizable. It says, at bottom – This is a dress, on a woman. This is cloth, on a table you yourself might have gathered around with family.
From there Silva's characters are free to morph, to float, to attend to physically impossible gestures and acts of magic in order to communicate that illusive impossibility, the internal.
And with this new freedom, Silva celebrates in exploding his scale. Serena, for example, stands 48" W x 124" H inches. Her breasts extend 13 inches into the room. Her floral hat illuminated like a high chandelier.
To realize these dramatic works is no simple physical feat, with much of the mark making and carpentry high up the ladder's back. To anchor the weight of the piece Silva starts with a wooden panel wrapped in canvas. From there he begins three-dimensionalizing, building out the skeleton with recyclable materials such as newspaper, magazines and bottles. Wire, metal and nails are used only for support. Once this sub-structure is in place, it is covered in canvas and sealed. Then, as Silva says, the best part begins. The painting, and the birth of his characters.
Their bodies (primarily female) are central to this series. And though the body has been sexualized in Silva's work to this point, it has not appeared as it does in this first fabric-ed series, a series that will go on, to make up the artist's first solo exhibition, The Beauty and the Trash, at the Pacific Grove Arts Center.
In keeping with the early abstractions and misshapen bodies of the watercolor series, nearly all the characters remain armless with dualistic faces. However, they are otherwise proportionate, colloquial even, except for their central feature, greatly oversized breasts, which, though now clothed, heave three-dimensionally from the canvas.
Breasts which not only interrupt the space, but command the narrative of each piece. Veiled in mourning in one case; exploding with confetti in another; and finally, den to a pair of snakes whose venom tells the truth of an otherwise bright and inviting work.
Inside these folkish compositions, of wallpapered interiors often adorned with bouquets, the question begs attention: are these female characters the Prostitute, or the Mother figure returned to the artist through fabric? Or, are they simply Silva's Brazil.
2005 would prove to be a very busy year for Silva. First, his solo exhibition, The Beauty and the Trash. And secondly, a new small-scale series of amorous sculptures. To accompany the exhibited work in The Beauty and the Trash, Silva decided to explore yet another avenue for his textile work, by returning fabric to its utilitarian roots in clothing.
It is fitting with the previous developments of his work: first his dedication to the boundaried realm of painting, which then through the Orixá myths and finally with the inherent desires of fabric to be three-dimensionalized, he began to work away from the canvas. To widen his practice. Even painting on skin – he would clothe a dancer in his brushstrokes for a float in San Francisco's own Carnaval.
And then, upon the wild response for this first fully integrated three-dimensional painting, he chose again the grounded and beautiful human form to illuminate his exhibit. To walk among them, emerge from them, sing with their voices. The dramatic ten-foot fabric mural worn by Brazilian Bossa Nova singer, Dandara, is in many ways the perfect link between the early and future works of the artist.
The remainder of 2005 would be spent on a vibrant collection of voluptuous throbbing sculptures. In both size and subject matter they are akin to primitive African and Latin American ritual objects, but are no doubt contemporary explorations. Whereas the engorged human form in primitive works pays homage to either the prosperity by which they have been nourished, or to their own fertile creative powers, Silva's pieces speak primarily of the sexual.
Without question he alludes to fertility in gestures such as fields of flowers that grow from certain belly buttons, but the overarching feel is that of sexual celebration, of hunger for bodily and earthly delights. Breasts are adorned with dizzying designs, laced with delicate tapestries, while the head, the arms, and for all intense purposes, the legs are left out completely.
Fuck Buddies stands upright only because of an elongated anchoring penis (whose pleasures are the very heart of the piece). Another example of Silva's adept handling of our contemporary fascinations with the sexualized form appears in the tall, thin female, Brazilian Woman.
On her otherwise unassuming, armless body all of her sexual possibilities call out for attention. Her legs, in tall wanton boots, extend disproportionately up to her plump buttocks; her breasts as well, ornamented, over-sized and shaped as if to hook on-lookers; all of this under her large batting eyes, her desirous smile. Through her and her accompanying idols, Silva's investigation of Brazil's sexual comodification begins in earnest.
But first, two inspiring projects in 2006 would pull the artist away from this vein of work, if only for a year. First, the commission for the Hotel Des Arts suite in San Francisco, and then a glorious outdoor sculpture in Costa Rica, would finally manifest the dexterous power of Silva's work.
Having invited the artist, Bloum, to collaborate with him on the hotel suite, Silva set out to rupture the static expectations of guest quarters by creating a space where one could relax and forget they were actually inside. No surface – save for the ceiling and floor – went untouched. No media unused. From mural to sculpture, fabric to acrylics, the Regis and Bloum Suite exists as a joyous point of departure for the senses.
The Rains welcomed Silva to Costa Rica. Starting some mornings by 6 am, they would go on throughout the day, throughout the week even, feeding the abundant surrounding land. But having been summoned by a private client to produce a massive outdoor sculpture, Silva's spirits could not be dampened. The sculpture he'd proposed was, after all, a celebration of the myriad life forms that unite in creating the human experience and beyond. Water being key among them.
Working from his renderings, Silva hired a local welder and two construction workers to build out the initial form. Then, with the shadow of his bright creature realized, he began working the surface. Sculpting, painting, bringing to life the giant mosaic-ed entity.
The work, Humanetee – The Tower of Life, stands some 4 meters tall and 3 meters wide. It displays the representational sun and stars, lively flowers, the mouth, the eyes, heart and hand. All, as Silva testifies, elements which mold the human experience in this universe.
The sun, which nourishes the bountiful earth; the night sky we worship; and sensually, the mouth through which we try to pronounce those ephemeral sensations we feel upon our hands, see with our eyes, and feel with our hearts. And over it all, the singular eye of the Creator, all-present and all-knowing. A masterwork.
Silva's current work, his return to the canvas, is of two minds, at once lyrical and inciting. Both his narratives and abstract studies show a great deal of refinement in his employment of fabric. Stories unfold in its layering. His practice's sophistication has allowed it to move beyond wallpapering and into lucid playful gestures. His character's feelings rise from them and trail behind like aromas.
However, not all of the present work enlists the use of fabric. Silva's Carnaval series is as exciting and revelational as any in his oeuvre. Depending on flat primary colors – often even monochromatic – Silva engages the complex subject of sexual salesmanship inherent to his homeland's greatest festival, Carnaval.
The annual festival begins forty days before Easter, marking the beginning of Lent. During Lent, Roman Catholics are commanded to abstain from all bodily pleasures. The Carnaval is thus celebrated as a profane farewell to such pleasures of the flesh.
However, Silva's series does not go as far as celebrating the festival, but rather calling to the forefront the excess, the erotic overload on the senses. In The Reality Behind the Carnaval six characters copulate in a flat perspective-less orgy. In Temptations the viewer is haunted by a field of female tropes. "Come to Brazil," Silva shakes his head, "We have Carnaval and sex."
Luckily, there is far more to Brazil, far more to the United States, and born of these two landscapes, far more to the work of Regis Silva.