Brazilian artist delves into layers of the mind

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Memory is an elusive attribute anchored in the mind, itself uncharted territory, where what is factual and what is constructed frequently blend, or even reverse roles, and what is retained evolves.

Those concepts are part of what informs Brazilian artist Jose Rufino's explorations of how we remember. His efforts were inspired early on by individuals who disappeared between 1964 and 1987 in Brazil during a notorious military regime.

Rufino gained international attention at the 2000 Sao Paulo Biennial with compelling installations that combined artifacts of the missing (papers, furniture) with somewhat spectral figural components, inviting viewers to link physical presence and absence, remnant corpus and vanished corpse.

He is currently in Pittsburgh to arrange a residency with the University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer research center to explore this more sanitized, if equally devastating, experience of disappearance. The resultant artwork will be exhibited in a 2010 exhibition of contemporary Brazilian artists, "Flipping Pop," at The Andy Warhol Museum.

"Of course we have boundaries we cannot cross," Rufino says, "[but my intent is] to explore what is really forgetfulness and what is really the lost relative that's alive. It's similar to my work in Brazil, but the body is present and all of the people are living. In [Brazil] the body is absent. But both are about memory and loss."

Rufino also made a presentation this week at an academic conference co-organized by The Warhol and the University of Pittsburgh, "The Arts, Human Rights & Human Development: 21st Century Intersections and Ramifications."

"I outlined the process for my work in Brazil with Brazilian missing people, and the relationship of my personal and intimate work with the whole of the museum. The museum works like a catalyst.

"When the missing people work was exhibited in Sao Paulo, the museum was inoculated with the problem of trying to break the silence. The work grows in each museum with the staff working like partners, like artists also," Rufino says.

Such collaborative ventures also serve to blend disciplines, says Rufino, who is a paleontologist as well as artist.

"Scientists study the nature of things and try to describe the process, but they don't try to change that process. As an artist I can re-create the time, I can subvert the layers of time."

Subverting layers also informs Rufino's work for the Artists Image Resource 2009 print portfolio project, which he has been creating at the well-regarded North Side artist-run organization.

The artist has for some time incorporated into his work ink blot patterns inspired by the clinical studies of psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach and the spiritualist engravings of German physician Justinus Kerner.

That was long before he learned of Warhol's Rorschach paintings, one element that connects the two artists. He says he also shares Warhol's interest in catastrophic news events.

"I am a very dark Brazilian artist," Rufino says with a soft smile.

At AIR, Rufino combines reproductions of Warhol's Rorschach patterns with his own, not so much obfuscating the former but connecting with and revivifying them. He has similarly altered archival material from Warhol's years in Pittsburgh, including an April 13, 1945, Post-Gazette, the year Warhol graduated from Schenley High School, as well as old Schenley Journals.

"I can't work with white [blank] papers without history," Rufino says. "I need the spirit of the papers, furniture. It has to be linked with the human condition."

Creating layers means that neither the artist nor the viewer stop at the surface, he says. The probing goes deeper, like excavating layers of the mind.

"Before today," Rufino says pointing to the yellowing PG pages that sport an overlay of colorful imagery, "this was just history. But now it's pushed to another point of view."

The forthcoming exhibition is only one example of The Warhol's bi-national venture with Brazil achieved through the guidance of Jessica Gogan. The Warhol curator of special projects has divided her time between Pittsburgh and Brazil for the last two years.

Last year, a project that brings together university students and teens who live within a Rio de Janeiro-area favela (shantytown) was initiated by The Warhol and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Niteroi, Brazil. The latter is famously housed within the spaceship-like Oscar Niemeyer building that overlooks Guanabara Bay, across from Rio.

The concept, Gogan says in the Spring Carnegie magazine, was to "connect art, health and social justice, give it a supportive framework, and watch what happens."

Dubbed "Comuniarte" by the teenagers, the project was one of the case studies reported on at this week's arts and human development conference, bringing it to the attention of a broad audience including physicians, lawyers, educators, bioethicists, artists and art historians.

Such exhibitions and events, and their resultant consequences, are examples of the diverse and forward-looking role The Warhol is taking as it shapes the definition of museum and of art in a new global century.

Brewer honored

Tina Williams Brewer, whose solo exhibition "Guided by the Ancestors" is at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts through June 21, will be presented with the Center's Lifetime Achievement Award June 12. Brewer is only the second recipient to be so honored. She is an internationally recognized story quilter whose work is inspired by the African American experience.

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-1925.


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