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Smoke Signs

CELSO MARTINS

in: Expresso Newspaper - Revista Atual, 21 of December 2013


Ascension, fall and rebirth of images filtered through the "decadence" of smoking


Among the artists who emerged on the national scene during the last ten years, João Leonardo ( born 1974) holds a very special place. Not because he has sharp stylistic trademarks or he focuses on a specific theme or has a recurring conceptual approach. What is it that differentiates him then? Let's say there is a definite constant in his artistic production that is not immediately revealed, or could be revealed. His work is always personal - whether psychological, sexual or emotional - and then opens, in its consequences, to identity and cultural dimensions. That does not guarantee him any kind of artistic early success, but guarantees him an authenticity that infects the viewer, either by generating empathy or revulsion . His creative energy, both concentrated and obsessive, is therefore largely instinctual, yet it finds very concrete ways to materialize.

Lately, the artist has used tobacco as his preferred material. He has collected his own cigarette butts, and those of his friends, using liquid nicotine or even ashes, this material is full of medical, psychological and moral resonances in a manner which, ultimately, always results  metaphorical. Leonardo also incorporates the idea of residue or garbage as a biographical index, and little things like our trash talk so openly to us.

" Flying High, Falling Low" is perhaps the most "gallery-oriented" exhibition" by João Leonardo. An aspect which is strengthened by its inclusion in the 111 Gallery space, with a majority of wall works, which in a broad sense we can call paintings, some sculptures and a floor piece that has a strong visual impact.

In many cases, the works are crossed by numerous winks to art history; classical, modern, contemporary, that Leonardo translates, not without irony, to the smoking medium. See in this regard busts made ​​with cigarette filters  in the best classical tradition; the almost lyrical abstractionism of " Mantra", the various pieces from "The Flow of Time"; the nearly putti or angels flying without wings or falling; but also the "Stars" series, whose circular stellate forms recall some of the circles of Richard Long. Other works reinforce the dichotomy flight / fall, which dominates the exhibition as "The Fall", the silhouette of a life-sized body made with cigarette butts that extends on the gallery floor in the manner of a crime scene outline of a victim's body. The idea of ​​rise and fall is also present in "Love Me / Rape Me," or "Toxic Country",  which following the terminology used by rating agencies against the P.I.G.S. country markets, shows a map of a vicious and dependent Portugal. In fact, the idea is to widen a supranational scale to the logic:  we / others, pure / impure, that we have seen in the antismoking crusade.

João Leonardo does not neglect the formal aspects in the production of the artwork, but this aspect always has an instrumental purpose. It serves to force the images and signs to come into unexpected contexts in which it gains new cultural and political resonances . His paintings and sculptures are smoke signs, not only in that they show what is literally left  from smoke but also because they represent images that travel through it like reincarnated ghosts.


Celso Martins

Art Critic