SAO PAOLO, Brazil — The first time I saw the installations of the Brazilian-born artist Lucia Nogueira, at the 2018 São Paulo Biennial, her work was relatively unknown in Brazil. Born in 1950, Nogueira emigrated to London, in 1975. She was an influential sculptor, close with Young British Artists (YBAs) such as Tacita Dean. But her premature death, from cancer in 1998, left her work underexposed.
Now, Brazil is discovering Nogueira posthumously, following several solo exhibitions in Europe. Her latest show, at Luisa Strina Gallery in São Paulo, includes a stunning series of 14 works in watercolor and pencil, entitled Inferno Divine Comedy (1983), found in storage by Nogueira’s husband, the gallerist Anthony Reynolds. This previously un-exhibited body of work sheds new light on Nogueira’s production — particularly her gift for haunting evocations of the female body.
In its vaporous figuration, Nogueira’s Inferno is hot and frightful, as one would expect it to be. Decapitated monstrous figures drift in landscapes rendered quickly in dead greens, diffused browns and reds, with hints of fire and smoke. In one watercolor, a headless rose-colored female body languishes under a sheet. In another, a trio of naked bodies hovers above a tub that contains a sunken landscape. And yet, these lithe, lugubrious scenarios beguile as much as they haunt. Rhythmically composed, the bright orange-pink rawness of exposed flesh lends them a debauched, oneiric sensuousness. At times, their frank, desperate carnality at times recalls Egon Schiele and Francis Bacon.
The curatorial text also points to Nogueira’s own art-historical references, from William Blake to Eugène Delacroix. The latter’s early-Romantic painting, “The Barque of Dante” (1822), for example, depicts the condemned clinging to Dante and Virgil’s boat on the River Styx. As in Delacroix’s composition, Nogueira’s reinterpretation possesses a gestural force, in energetic lines and varied color washes. Here, submerged landscapes and mythic figures such as Fortune and Cerberus — Noguiera was also inspired by Blake’s “Cerberus” (1824-27) — evoke existential torment, rather than religious one. Bodies dissolve — nearly liquify — into matter, with aquarelle as the perfect medium to capture such ghastly transmutation.
The show is framed around the theme of exile, with Nogueira living much of her adult life abroad and Dante banned from Florence. The work of both artists is imbued with longing but one could say that Nogueira took this metaphor further. For example, her two small ink-and-watercolor works, both “Untitled” from 1988, evoke a female breast not as living flesh but instead a floating, dense, mottled lobe. The breast’s mass touches a wispy red line in one watercolor, a pale red line in another — an abstraction that nevertheless conveys a sense of danger, vulnerability, even muted horror. Melancholic exile indeed comes to mind, but this time, in the form of alienation from the totality of one’s own body.
Lucia Nogueira continues through January 16, 2021 at Galeria Luisa Strina (Rua Padre João Manuel 755, Cerqueira César 01411-001, São Paulo, Brazil).