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It’s not uncommon for artists to fall short of their own expectations, only for the public to find delight in the charged gap between the aspiration and the goal.
In the case of Tiago Estrada: The Wall of Pleasure, which is on view through tomorrow at the Rooster Gallery on the Lower East Side, the artist’s stated intentions are impossible to achieve, but that doesn’t stand in the way of a thoroughly enjoyable show.
Estrada, a Portuguese artist born in 1967, has been focusing on the intersection of handwriting and drawing for a number of years. In a statement dated April 2011, which appears on the Artist Registry website of the Drawing Center, New York, he writes:
Western writing practices reflect the way we draw. These inclinations have an important role in the formation of our persona. The ways in which we doodle and scribble are similar and repetitive in their essence.
According to the press release for The Wall of Pleasure, Estrada is attempting “to find a truly apprehensible universal language, not guided by any set of grammatical rules or even mental inhibitions.”
The installation’s “use of repetitive onomatopoeia written on the walls,” which takes up the small storefront gallery’s entire street level, is meant to isolate “the notion of scream, particularly the one associated with sexual intercourse in Western culture.”
This means that there are lots of clustered “Ohs,” “Uhs” and “Aiiiis” written in black marker on the white walls in various sizes and configurations. A comparison to bathroom graffiti is as expected as it is unkind, but it is also difficult to sidestep. And that’s about as universal, at least to my mind, as the language of the show gets.
However, if you ignore the installation’s intention and just pass your eyes over the shapes that the word clusters take on, you can feel as if you are immersed in a black-and-white aquarium with dozens of schools of fish darting by. Not an unpleasant sensation in the least.
The portion I heard from the accompanying sound piece, composed by Adolfo Luxúria Canibal and António Rafael in collaboration with Estrada, was terrific — a pulsing, grating wave that lends heft and urgency to the loopy lettering on the wall. And you can pick it up on limited-edition vinyl for twenty bucks.
But that’s not the end of the story. In the gallery’s basement, at the bottom of a dizzying spiral staircase, six paintings done in watercolor, graphite and colored pencil gouache on paper are on display. While they are not particularly sizable works, each 31 inches tall with widths varying from 31 to 38 inches, their expansive passages of white paper interrupted by spills of pale oranges, yellows and greens, textured with graphite jots and rubbings, make them feel big and open.
Imagine Joseph Beuys with a Mediterranean soul and you’ll get an idea of what these works look like. The limpid colors and silvery marks evoke aerial landscapes, however elliptically. The seemingly random interactions between the watercolor washes and the faint, squirrelly graphite appear to be simultaneously pushing into and pulling off the surface, a there/not there quality both lyrical and arresting.
And speaking of Beuys, the landscape allusion got me thinking that his student Anselm Kiefer would not feel so ponderous at times if he had more of Beuys’s — and Estrada’s — lightness of touch.
The paintings are collectively titled “Newbies” (all 2013) and are numbered one through six. A brief chat with the gallery director revealed that they came about through a distillation of writing gestures, which the artist reduced until there were no letters left, only the abstract movement of marks.
But all that extraction seems to have brought Estrada to a place where he has unintentionally escaped his conceptual trappings and drilled down to a true universal language, which is and has always been, simply, painting. And that’s beautiful.
Tiago Estrada: The Wall of Pleasure continues at Rooster Gallery (190 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 21.