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Sonia Gomes and Marina Perez Simão, Untitled, 2020, oil and embroidery on canvas, 31-1/2" × 39-3/8" (80 cm × 100 cm) © Sonia Gomes © Marina Perez Simão

Essays

A Conversation with Sonia Gomes and Marina Perez Simão

Conversation recorded on Tuesday, August 18

On the occasion of our current exhibition Sonia Gomes / Marina Perez Simão, Pace Gallery Associate Curatorial Director Michaëla Mohrmann spoke to the two artists over Zoom from their respective studios in São Paulo.

Michaëla Mohrmann (MM): I wanted to know about your relationship. How did you meet?

Sonia Gomes (SG): We met in Paris. I was visiting, and Marina was studying there.

MM: So it was a brief meeting?

SG: Very brief. Later on, we met through the gallery [Mendes Wood] in São Paulo.

MM: What were your first impressions of each other’s work?

SG: My first moment of impact with her work was very strong. I liked the drawings that she was presenting very much. I still like her work very much. I saw her first drawings, and then she began creating paintings. And since I like painting very much but don’t paint—though I would like to—I was very surprised [by her paintings] with the colors and her attempt to create landscapes from dreams and imaginary possibilities.

MM: And how about you, Marina?

Marina Perez Simão (MPS): I adore the work of Sonia. It’s wonderful, and I always loved it. I became acquainted with her work through Pedro [director at Mendes Wood], who always spoke to me about her. There’s also a parallel in that she studied at Guignard University of Art in Minas Gerais, in her native city, and I also studied there. So we also have this link through Guignard. I studied under Solange Pessoa, but overall the school has a very strong focus in studies of landscape.

After, when I studied in France, I always heard of Sonia and was very curious, and when I saw her work for the fist time I was in awe and continue to be to this day, because these sculptures that look like cages from which people escaped, I think, are emancipatory until today. Her works are not what they appear to be. You think they are light but they are heavy, at least some are. And then we got closer. I gave her a book to read, do you remember, Sonia?

SG: Yes.

MM: What was the book?

MPS: Um Defeito de Cor [A Color Defect by Ana Maria Gonçalves].

SG: Um Defeito de Cor, yes.

MPS: But I think it was a very heavy read, right? Do you remember this?

SG: I remember. I didn’t go beyond the first chapter because the book really resonated with me. For example, at the beginning of the story the character has a close bond with grandmother and loses her grandmother, so I stayed on the first chapter and couldn’t contemplate going on. Though I had been warned of the book’s story, I stayed on the first chapter, and I’ve met other artists who had the same thing happen and stayed on the first chapter.

MM: So you had a relationship in which you began having this intellectual but also personal exchange through this book and art. When did you begin contemplating collaborating together?

MPS: During the pandemic we relocated to a farm. There wasn’t much to do, so we began drawing. Sonia was interested in gouaches. She had always told me that she was interested in doing gouaches, and she had brought an already completed and beautiful drawing, and I started combining my drawings with hers. So it began like this.

MM: And so this was a separate series of drawings that preceded the particular collaborative piece in the exhibition?

MPS: Yes.

MM: Were there many of these drawings?

SG: No. We stayed at the farm for a short time, and we began to play. I intervened in the work of Marina, so that’s how it happened—without any expectations or a project. It just happened. It was nothing forced, [nothing like] “we are going to work together”—No. It was an encounter, it was good, and we enjoyed the experience.

MM: What strikes me is that the pandemic is a moment of separation, of social distancing, and you paradoxically were brought together by that context. How did the atmosphere of the pandemic, if at all, impact the nature of your collaboration or your view of it? Did it make it more moving in a way?

SG: It’s a difficult period. But it was really through this pandemic that we were able to have this encounter and get to know one another.

MM: It became an intimate process in a way?

SG: Yes.

MM: Since drawing was the common ground, the medium through which you both began to collaborate, I wanted to know more about the role of drawing in your respective practices. Sonia you are primarily known as a sculptor. How does drawing relate to your sculptural practice?

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Sonia Gomes, Vôo, 2014, amarrações e tecidos diversos sobre arame moorings and different fabrics on wire, 39-3/8" × 39-3/8" × 23-5/8" (100 cm × 100 cm × 60 cm) © Sonia Gomes

SG: My process is inverted. First, I create sculptures and then I do drawings. The drawings emerge from sculpture. The sculpture has a lot of movement. I always seek movement. So I understand the torsions in [my sculptures] are part of a line, a sole line. In my process, the sculptures emerge from drawings. I draw first. After I go placing and making volumes, which is a sculptural process, and then I add paint, which is the color. Since I enjoy experimentation very much, I found a way to experiment, to draw on the paper itself. I enjoyed this experience, but I think I was also motivated by my will to paint. [But] I don’t call this painting, I call it drawing because the support is largely paper and there is canvas as well, but it’s paper and gouache that I use as well as permanent pen. I have difficulty with paintbrushes. I think I have a heavy hand with paintbrushes. So the drawings that emerged during the quarantine, they emerged with a circular form. Now I’m making a lot of circular forms. I don’t know why. Maybe because after staying home alone, after forty days, I had a different kind of time for drawing. Drawing asks for another kind of time. It asks for you to be alone with it. I had this time during the pandemic, maddened by not knowing what to do, and these drawings started coming out in these circular forms. So those are the drawings that I’m showing there [in the collaborative piece], too.

MM: Yes, I saw these organic shapes are present in the untitled piece that you made together. Could you tell me more about the process of making this work together? It seems to be a mixture of mediums, including embroidery of sorts. How did it begin?

SG: As a result of the experience we had at the farm, which we enjoyed, Marina sent me some works, some canvases that she had already begun painting, and I did an intervention. I began experimenting. I had some cutouts there already, and I experimented with which cutouts to use with the support that she had sent. It worked really well. I accepted this from her painting, and after that I gave it to her to see if it was good. We worked on this with a lot of respect for one another. I didn’t interfere in her painted forms, and she didn’t interfere in the drawings or collage that I made—it was more of a collage. She made some additional marks to her painting. We liked the result, and we decided to present it.

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Sonia Gomes and Marina Perez Simão, Untitled (detail), 2020, oil and embroidery on canvas, 31-1/2" × 39-3/8" (80 cm × 100 cm) © Sonia Gomes © Marina Perez Simão

MPS: When we did those drawings at the farm, we adored it. And when I got home, I already had these canvases that I had begun, and I sent some to her [Sonia]. And when I received them back, with the embroidery, I had the desire to intervene more, of course, without altering the embroidery done by Sonia, but I wanted to create new formal rhymes with the drawing that was stitched to the canvas. So what I did was a sort of amplification of her lines and to create a rhyme [with her work] but without undoing the character of superimposition of the collage. They’re two mediums, and I didn’t want to transform them into a single thing. I wanted both of them to cohabitate in the space of the canvas.

MM: I’m struck by how it’s the work of art that moves through space and connects the two of you, becoming a carrier of dialogue. How did you know when the work was done? Was it an intuitive decision, a joint decision?

MPS: After I received this work in my home, I wanted to work a bit more. I sent some photos to Sonia, but it was almost done. And when I sent Sonia a photo of what I had done, we thought it was done. Right, Sonia? But I felt it needed a bit more work, so I asked if I could work it.

SG: When I returned the work with the collage, I thought it was resolved. And when she sent the photo, I felt “No. I still need to do something.” She became curious about what else I would do. But once I sent the final version, she said that in her opinion it ended up being much better, the resulting work.

MM: It’s interesting that you also used photographs to assist in the creation the work. There’s really a layering of different mediums.

SG: Since we were in lockdown, we turned to photography for that reason.

MM: The exhibition will feature works that Sonia created before 2020 as well as works that Marina created this year while in quarantine. Is there a relationship or dialogue, if any, between the work you created together and the other paintings that you, Marina, created during the same period? Did the collaboration influence your other works?

MPS: No. [Laughs] I imagine that the points that they have in common transcend this particular work; they exist in my work and hers. I was also in this process, where I was stuck at home, working a lot, because in part there was nothing else to do during the pandemic. We do have things in common that converge. Our works are very different in terms of form, but I, too, am very interested in this question of fluidity, of images, of looking, of different possibilities. It’s the opposite of the labyrinth, you can come out of the painting through a variety of ways. There’s always a promise of shortcuts within the painting that something can develop beyond the painting. I think it’s interesting because the work of Sonia already has these images, these cages that look like someone escaped them. I always have that in mind when I look at her work. And I have this idea of creating landscapes that are not exactly post-apocalyptic but that are a new place that you’ve gotten to and that, although arid, hold a promise of construction. We perhaps share an optimistic vision of the future.

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Marina Perez Simão, Untitled, 2020, oil on canvas, 19-3/4" × 15-3/4" (50 cm × 40 cm) © Marina Perez Simão

MM: I wanted to talk about this fluidity that you bring up. Separately, you both developed an abstract language that is marked by ambiguity and fluidity. For example, Marina’s paintings are suspended between abstraction and representation and, while Sonia’s sculptures are undeniably abstract, they are also evocative of the body, of the vitality and movement of living beings, even non-human ones. Do you see your collaboration as another strategy for augmenting the ambiguity and polysemy of your abstraction?

MPS: Yes. I love to create a confusion of planes within my paintings, what comes before or after. And when we collaborated and I requested the piece back, it’s because I wanted to create a bit more, because I don’t sew and Sonia mends this distance. I don’t use sewing, but I try to mend it with the lines of the painting. I think yes. Ambivalence, in my case, is something that I seek out a lot. It’s important, this ambivalence, to me, because I don’t want to delimit or impose. I need a certain kind of mystery. Because I require that, I am also a bit ignorant when I am creating a work. I start from almost nothing and what I go on building always ends up surprising. I feel a little bit like I am going to a new place for the first time—this sensation of ignorance, when you don’t know where you’re going when you’ve arrived to a country you’ve never visited before. That’s also a sensation of freedom.

MM: And I imagine that the process of collaboration is its own adventure into the unknown since you don’t know what Sonia will do and where the work will end up. Sonia, can you tell me a bit more about the role of ambivalence and ambiguity in your work? Because within this collaborative piece, your contribution also plays with depth, with the difference between the optical depth of Marina’s painted planes and the actual depth of your collaged elements. What appears at first, as a flat drawing, reveals itself as an element with a pronounced materiality—stitches—that are in relief.

SG: Yes, I think that what happens with this work often happens with my three-dimensional works as well. What has volume and stitching appears in photos to be very flat. I love these surprises very much. I’m always preparing surprises. When the viewer sees the work in person, this [effect] is enhanced.

MM: In the forms of your sculptures there’s also a fluidity between inside and outside that I think parallels the play with planes in Marina’s work and goes back to this idea of ambiguity. It’s also interesting to me that the viewer, in trying to follow these ins and out, will contort herself in ways that almost seem to mimic the torsion and tension in your [Sonia’s] sculpture, thereby eroding the distance between art object and viewer, dissolving the separateness of these categories. As you create or install the work, do you think about this relationship to the viewer?

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Sonia Gomes, Cordão dos Mentecaptos, 2016, costura, amarrações, tecidos e rendas variadas stitching, bindings, different fabrics and laces, dimensions variable © Sonia Gomes

SG: In general, my work is very intuitive. But I have this preoccupation with movement. No matter the work, there is always movement. And it’s a work that’s really organic. I first do this one thing, then I think about that. I don’t have a ritual. The thing unfolds. But it has a relation with the body, because these torsions when you are making those movement. The person who looks at the work must have strength, I think, because the wire is hard. I make these movements not with my hands but with my body, more than with my hand.

MM: So there’s a loose correspondence between your motion in the act of creating, the work’s torsion, and ultimately those who move around the work.

MM: I also wanted to ask you about the relationship between this collaborative work and the Brazilian landscape. The piece’s colors and structure—its horizontal bands, for instance—seem to suggest landscape painting. And your individual works have also been linked to Brazil’s flora and fauna in their critical reception. Was Brazil’s environment a referent for this piece?

SG: In the case of the collaborative piece, I wasn’t worried about that really. But my work has a lot to do with nature, with trees, with the movement of trunks, with branches. I like nature very much. Of course, Brazil is a very diverse country, and this diversity is all there in our face. And we who live in Brazil, there’s no way this doesn’t interfere with our practice. For me, this emerged, and everything was ok.

SG: I propose always when I’m working in a space, if there is an outdoor space, I like that my work has this conversation with nature. So I aim to make a site-specific work creating that: the integration of the work with nature. That was the case of the Casa de Vidro, where I placed a work on the tree and the work was made with that tree in mind. And since the garden was very beautiful, I also wanted to integrate the outside with the inside. I therefore requested that they open all [the blinds] to have this conversation between the gardens and the work. The installation was very thought out.

MM: I find that in this dialogue between the inside and outside, there’s a parallel with Marina’s work as well. There’s also some of that with this collaborative piece in which external elements are brought into the confines of the canvas, blurring boundaries. Do you see it that way?

SG: I see what you are talking about. My work is very open to different interpretations. Sometimes the viewer brings out things that are there but that I never had the intention of creating.

MM: I see and, Marina, what is the relationship between landscape and your work?

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Marina Perez Simão, Untitled, 2020, oil on canvas, 31-1/2" × 39-3/8" (80 cm × 100 cm) © Marina Perez Simão

MPS: Yes, in relation to the nature of Brazil, of course there’s a great influence because nature here is very imposing, very present. If you have a garden in Europe, in a temperate climate, and you don’t take care of it, nothing happens. It’s just somewhat ugly. But here in Brazil if you don’t take care of it, it engulfs your house. So nature here is truly present and beautiful. But it is also ambivalent. It can be beautiful but also brutal and cruel. You’ll see when you’re walking in the streets how roots break through the pavement. It’s very relentless. That’s the character of nature. If it rains, it’s a drama. It’s not a drizzle. It feels like the world will end. And this creates in the paintings this mysticism, in turn. Nature really is intelligent, imposing, implacable. Nature has a past and a future. And I think this has influenced me in some way. I think that’s beautiful—Brazil.

MM: I also wanted to ask you about the role of literature in your work, especially poetry, which seems to inform your practices. Sonia, you’ve described yourself as a voracious reader since your childhood, and your exhibitions often have titles that refer to the verses of Maya Angelou. And Marina, you’ve explained that your paintings seek to evoke the same intangible moods and feelings that poetry expresses obliquely. Through their ambiguity, your works replicate the slipperiness of language. Did literature also inform this collaborative work or your approach to making it? Did your shared sensitivity make you more aware of the way that language comes to mediate any collaborative process?

SG: I am not a voracious reader as much as I am a voracious artist. As a result, my work always pursues beauty and poetry.

MM: So your repeated references to Maya Angelou are secondary to the work. They come after you’ve already created the work?

SG: Yes. It’s as if my work finds this [the poetry]. I never think of a title ahead of time. I let the work find that title. For example, with the title Still I Rise, I was literally rising, and I thought of this. So I went looking for this poem that I had already read a long time ago by Maya Angelou. I liked this. And literally in the work what I was after was this lifting up of a root. I thought this was appropriate for the times that we are living through right now in Brazil. We are trying to rise up all the time. Because nothing here is easy. So that was that. The work found this title.

MM: And for you Marina, is it the opposite then? Poetry is where you begin, where you find inspiration? How would you describe your relationship with literature?

MSP: I would describe it as a very close relationship. I enjoy reading and writing. I love it when in a poem, for example, there is a description of maybe an image of an object, a scene, a subject, everything—but all this falls into the background and what comes forward is a sensation, something more invisible, through the cadence, the forms that are spoken. In painting, this figuration which sometimes exists also falls into the background to make room to talk about something more abstract. I like it when I’m reading a book and within the space of a paragraph, one goes down into an almost abyssal depth and then comes back to the surface, feeling a vertiginous form. This fragile equilibrium that sometimes happens with some authors, it happens that this very sensation of vulnerability that exists there is something I look for in painting. And there’s also some things that have to do with poetry proper: the rhyming of forms, this type of cadence. So, yes, [poetry] influences me.

MM: Memory also seems to be a shared theme in your work. Sonia, you often use secondhand textiles that are tied to the memories and personal stories of individuals. Is there a mnemonic dimension to the materials you used in this collaborative piece?

SG: There isn’t. But there are so many things that I get from outside, that this memory that is there, the person who gave me the material will see it there when he or she encounters the piece, but I don’t remain obsessed with knowing the story of each and every one.

MM: And how do you view the role of memory in your work more broadly—for example, in the sculptures exhibited in the East Hampton show?

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Installation view, Sonia Gomes, Maria dos Anjos, 2017-2018 © Sonia Gomes. Courtesy: Mendes Wood DM São Paulo (Brussels, New York) and Thomas Dane Gallery (London, Naples). Photo by Bruno Leão.

SG: I receive life stories, therefore every material that I receive I respect very much—those stories. The work in and of itself exists because of the stories of each person. Because when I construct each work—for example, a sculpture, specifically Maria dos Anjos, that’s made of a wedding dress, so this work only exists because this wedding dress arrived. It already came with that appeal. It doesn’t let that story end. The work only exists in function of the material that comes to me. I didn’t look for it to make a particular work. They arrive. And sometimes there’s such a responsibility to that, that the material is stored for a long time.

MM: I’m wondering if there’s a political or populist dimension to your work in its preserving of stories that are often left out of the history books. These materials come from everyday, working people, who are not usually the protagonists of official, national narratives or the ones constructing them. And we can think of this in terms of race, too, since Black perspectives have been historically marginalized. Do you see your work as a sort of intervention in storytelling, in archiving?

SG: I think all work is political. I don’t have that concern. I don’t worry about creating work that is complete. Because I think if I had this concern, that a work has to say this or do that, it would block my creative liberty. Really the only moment I feel truly free is when I do work, so I don’t want anything to interfere with that. It becomes political subsequently, but I don’t have that intention.

MM: So for you, your work is this space of radical freedom that you insist on maintaining. Marina, I also want to give you an opportunity to respond, because memory seems to play a different role in your work.

MPS: Yes. I think that in the case of Sonia, when she takes the memories of people, it’s the remnant of memories of people she doesn’t know. Sometimes she doesn’t know the full story, and she transforms these memories into something else. It’s like she’s creating an exit from that pain. When a person brings her a wedding dress, it carries an emotional charge and when you use that to create a new form, it’s like you are finding a future for them. For me, her freedom is in that. She’s dealing with the past, trauma, pain, everything, and transforming that in something new, free, strong. In my case, I try as much as possible not to think in my own trauma, my biography, my pain, past, or cultural memory. I prefer to keep that far from me as much as possible, and to do something less biographic—and there’s perhaps a freedom in that too, because I tend to have a macro vision of things. It’s a type of painting that broaches other topics more important than me. The world is so much larger than me. There are so many possibilities, readings, and possible futures that I think of my landscapes as a place of construction, like something that was destroyed and doesn’t exist anymore, and then was sedimented where this future will exist with its own rules, other rules and even laws, like a space of play—when you play in this delimited space of a game, it has different laws. Anyway, these things are beyond me, so, for me, memory doesn’t have this weight in the work. So it really responds to memory differently.

MM: But you’ve described in the past that your works operate as composites of images, of places that you’ve seen and remember (with all the distortions and lapses that this entails).

MPS: Ah yes. It does have this side where sometimes I draw from memory or I start from almost nothing, like I said to you. They’re invented images, from memory, but there isn’t this attempt to recreate the past. It’s a dynamic that’s more like a game of telephone. It’s like you’re preserving a phoneme, and it’s transformed, transformed, and transformed, until you get to a different discourse. But it doesn’t have this attachment with the past; it’s more about an optimism regarding the future.

Translated from Portuguese by Michaëla Mohrmann
Essays — A Conversation with Sonia Gomes and Marina Perez Simão, Sep 3, 2020