A fully-illustrated brochure with an essay by Barry Nemett accompanies our current exhibition of Filipe Rocha da Silva, Here to There: Textile Drawings. Below is the essay:
Here to There: The Overall Quiver of a Filipe Rocha da Silva
By Barry Nemett
Going from here to there; that’s what I think of when I think of the contemporary Portuguese artist Filipe Rocha da Silva. I think of walking with him through the center of Renaissance art to museums, friends’ apartments, restaurants, his studio, and to SACI (Studio Art College International), an overseas art institution in Florence, Italy, that he had attended as a student more than thirty-five years ago and where he now directs the MFA in Studio Art Program.
Centuries and continents of art history thread through Filipe’s work almost without our noticing. That said, Filipe himself never loses his place, his own identity, or his thicket-y sensibility. His visual excursions, full of finespun, flickering surprises, are like the magical, Florentine streets once traversed by not only Leonardo and Michelangelo, but by Giuseppe Abbati and Giovanni Fattori, Italian (Macchiaioli) counterparts of the French Impressionists.
Regarding movement, in Reflections of Clouds and Fish in a Pond (2016) and Aggregate of Cork Trees (2018), light leads the eye and the imagination from luminous expansion on the left side of both compositions to a dimmer huddle on the right. In Aggregate of Cork Trees we zig-zag back from angled, in-your-face tree trunks to straighter ones, then on to the thinnest and most erect furthest away. The vantage point is lower, and the horizon is higher in Fallen Tree (2016). This allows for a more expansive, hillier foreground through which the artist can weave the graceful lines of the subject pointed out in the work’s title. Or is that fallen tree just a shadow cast by an actual, silhouetted one? Probably not, but hard to tell; differences in this artist’s world are subtle.
Like his palette, we move from one color to another — without really noticing — the way we sometimes move in a song from, say, a low-pitched singer’s vocal chords to the chords of a bass guitar, and back again. Take green, for example. For Filipe, it’s not merely a single, five-letter word. But it is a singular phenomenon. Breathing streaky greetings, it welcomes ungreen. Warm hues slip into cool. Nothing is fixed. Color is eyeball mixed. Yellow weaves through blue, which, in turn, slides under and over threads of other hues, creating a lavish, verdant range.
I recall how I saw in terms of this kind of optical coloration when, during one remarkable visit to Florence’s Basilica of Santa Croce, sunshine first filtered, then blazed, through the church’s tall windows. Distinctive art forms, such as the altar’s grids of stained glass, mosaics, and frescos, dissolved into each other, into pure patterns, as representation became abstraction, which flipped back to representation.
An intentional tangle between representation and abstraction patterns Filipe Rocha da Silva’s paintings. Sure, there’s a rhythm by virtue of how leaves and branches flutter across his woven, wooly landscapes. There’s also the kind of detailed stitchery one might see in Portuguese folk art. I’m thinking here of the thousands of tiny stick figures camouflaged through their multitude into Filipe’s exceptionally labor-intensive, layer-by-layer-built works. Veil-like, they lead us here, there, everywhere, and nowhere — fast. The long-lost starting line, if there ever was one, is located somewhere amidst the teeming streets of Manhattan, or maybe it’s Brooklyn, where the artist went to grad school (Pratt Institute) and lived as a young man for years. Ironically, these frantic creatures take time to take in. Close up, they’re detectable; step back and they dissolve the way an aggregate of similar stitches fade into the overall texture of a tapestry, the way minutes fade into months. Which brings up the issue of how time ticks in these quirky, ephemeral weavings (especially for the weaver), which is refreshingly slower than how it moves for most of today’s artists, at least in the West.
In Reflections of Clouds and Fishes in a Pond (2016), like what is seen in Fertility Landscape and Fertility Landscape II, we move from America to France, or vice versa. I imagine the twentieth-century American abstract painter, Agnes Martin, shaking hands with the nineteenth-century, French Impressionist, Claude Monet. Listen closely; the handshake hums because of the air it stirs. Distance and time hum, too.
Ultimately it’s a quiet, kaleidoscopic drama that rules. Metaphors mix. In these textile images, the colored air is so thick it’s like walking through waist-high water. But it’s also like walking through a rainbow. Or a poem. Or, like in that lulling song from Les Misérables, a castle on a cloud. You look down and see up, which, of course, is what happens with reflections of landscape details like overhanging branches on the surface of a pond. If fish flew and birds swam within a Rocha da Silva work, they’d get dizzy in slow motion and collide somewhere between underwater ripples and seductive skies. In his upside-down and sometimes sideways world, there are many moving targets for this high-reaching artist with dead-eye aim.
The author Flannery O’Connor approaches life in her stories from multiple vantage points. “The novelist,” she says, “writes about what he sees on the surface, but his angle of vision is such that he begins to see before he gets to the surface and he continues to see after he has gone past it.” How enigmatic a top or bottom layer can be. As well, a complex, playful aerialist of an artist like Filipe Rocha da Silva takes seriously the depth of flatness, thereby joining competing quivers.
Likewise, Filipe is joyous and meditative at once. His light is lambent. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an unpictured sun or moon, but from within his empyreal canvases themselves. In Aggregate of Cork Trees the foreground tree, distinguished by a large knot, is modeled tonally to show off its three-dimensional form. It’s as if Caravaggio planted this forest, but his chiaroscuro is tempered by Seurat’s dots, Cézanne’s dashes, and Turner’s tumbles. Filipe’s work moves between painting, drawing, tapestry, needlepoint, embroidery, Portuguese folk art (like Arraiolos rugs), and the overloaded grandeur of Santa Croce’s altar.
As is the case with most serious artists, art history plays an influential, but behind-the-scenes role for this humble, gifted man. In his Room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (2017), however, art history takes center stage, functioning as the literal subject. Here, art hangs salon-style in the corner of a museum gallery. Filipe is less interested in identifying any of the paintings than he is with the work’s overall atmosphere. In Room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, aura is as solid as architecture. The perspectival lines of the hanging canvases result in an illusionistic fold or crease, blithely undermining the modernist notion of “the flatness of the picture plane.”
When I view the skillful sorcery of a Filipe Rocha da Silva, I imagine myself, the wind in my beard, drifting over out-of-focus castles that quiver simultaneously far below and way above. I watch the world from my magic carpet glide. Is that Filipe down there walking through his beloved, family-owned cork tree forests located just outside Lisbon? Or is that him, on foot, amidst thousands of other pedestrians dodging traffic and each other in New York, to which the artist returns whenever he can. The city’s “energy and fragmentation,” the artist says, “interest me so much. This is where the thousands of running stick figures in my weavings come from, after all.”
His are dazzlingly fragile, fantastical images created by a down-to-earth romantic who appears to be as at home in the clouds as he is on the ground. Filipe Rocha da Silva is a traveler who transforms us into his traveling companions. His weavings are solid, sublime, and worth our time, these gentle, colorful journeys that morph from workaday stitches to otherworldliness, almost without our noticing.
Barry Nemett is an artist, writer, and Professor of Fine Art at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).
© 2018 Art Projects International