Sculptures, canvas and cigarettes


in: Público Newspaper - Ípsilon, 22 of June 2011

Can something low, dirty and expendable be worthy of our attention? In Galeria 111, the new exhibition of João Leonardo tells us so, with its paintings and sculptures produced from tobacco waste, which convoke time and body.

Once the cigarette ends, Joao Leonardo (Odemira, 1974) extinguishes it carefully. Then, without interrupting the conversation with Ípsilon, puts the butt in a small box. He will repeat the gesture again, with the same relaxation. But it is not a ritual or a pathological symptom it is part of the process of his art. Anyone who doubts this can visit the Gallery 111 in Lisbon to see, "One Hundred and Six Columns, Four Heads and One Table", the most recent work from the artist.

It is not the first time he has worked with tobacco. In his first solo exhibition at Galley 111, in 2006, he presented "Calendar I", which consisted of the framing of over 3600 cigarette packets he had collected since he started smoking at age 16. Time, body and dependency were some of the issues that the piece evoked and now he is returning to the Gallery 111, with results  of several years of studies (other works have since 2006, addressed the same subject): "It is a material that interests me, a legal drug like alcohol, but it has a very particular symbolism involving both pleasure and self-destruction. And within this contradiction, I have explored a set of concepts and metaphors that are suggestive to the onlooker. " In "One Hundred and Six Columns, Four Heads and One Table", more important than cigarettes, are the residues of this relationship (loving, intimate, ephemeral) between the smoker and the object that dominates them: Paper, nicotine, tobacco. All in one word: cigarette butts. "I smoke. They are part of my everyday life, I'm always putting them out in ashtrays and collecting them. Inside the studio I tend to observe the world around me, see what the objects are that surround me, what I can  do with them. I started to imagine what I could do with cigarette butts. They are the biggest waste from smoking and, contrary to popular belief, poorly biodegradable. And so I started by taking them and subjecting them to various handling processes to achieve different results.”

In the history of contemporary art there are artists abound  who have dealt or deal with perishable materials, degradable and organic - Jannis Kounellis, Giuseppe Penone, Tom Friedman, Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse or Meireles ... The singular most important reference to João Leonardo, however, is the German Diether Roth (1930-1998): "In 2008, in a residence in Iceland, I had the opportunity to see his studio, and I was fascinated with how his work evolved and with the evolution of his  self-representation. He systematically destroyed the boundaries between art and life and the fading of materials was an essential part of his work. He worked with chocolate, sugar and other food and spread it on canvas, wood boards and objects. However, he never stuck to one style and was continually reinventing himself. "

A physical presence

Just like Dieter Roth, this Portuguese artist believes the artist's studio to be a place of experimentation and sometimes a place to make errors. He expresses this idea with a table that has become a sculpture: filled with brushes, bottles, plastic containers filled with cigarette butts and tobacco paper. The process is revealed to us. "All the tobacco was taken from the ground. I could have bought a few packs in a store and destroyed them, but I wanted the actual collecting to be a part of the collection. The idea takes this process of selection and separation to the limit. This is picking a distasteful material and treating it very carefully, as if it were extremely precious. 

" This transformation process can also be seen in a political or ecological light.  But when we look at the table and, above all, to the canvas, where the cigarette butts make up grids, figures or chromatic surfaces, or the ashes and tobacco invent monochromes, immediately, another word comes to mind: alchemy." It was always present. Always in the studio thinking about transformation processes, to generate  a certain aesthetic refinement from this waste."

The formal elegance of the parts does not prevent, nor hide, the action and resistance of the body. For example, the artist filled one canvas with the phrase "breath in, breath out": "I see it as a very abstract representation of life. We are born to breathe the air and when we die expire it. Nicotine is something that we have introduced in this process, a drug, an interference ". The body is also evoked in disturbing busts, meticulously constructed with filters "They were the most physical pieces I've ever done, because I had the plaster cast on my face."

"One Hundred and Six Columns, Four Heads and One Table" resulted from a one year residency  at the Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Condordia in Germany (where this show was presented in February). It represents a watershed moment in the journey of Leonardo. "I've developed a visual language. The residency was very important. They invited me to work under  the best conditions: I had a studio to work in, an apartment and a stipend to live on each month." Since 2007, two years after winning the EDP-Prize New Artists Award, he moved to Sweden. "That year, as part of an exchange with Lisbon's Maumaus School, I went to study  at the Malmö Art Academy in Sweden for a semester. I applied  to do the Masters Degree Program and stayed there two more years."

Back on the street, the artist lights another cigarette. "We have not exhausted the possibilities of this subject-material. I want to make one or two more exhibitions with cigarette filters and butts. Incidentally,  I have designed some pieces which could be in this exhibition,  if  not for the lack of conditions and time. They are sculptures of a much larger scale." He stubs out the cigarette, saves the filter and proceeds: "For me sculpture is absolutely fascinating. It  has an ancient tradition and at the same time it has something that is unattainable through cinema and painting. A physical presence of a real object. It creates an emotional response in the person who sees, an inexhaustible fascination. I feel I have to respond to that."