‘Landscapes of the South’
Through April 18 at Mendes Wood DM, Manhattan; mendeswooddm.com.
Lecturing in Buenos Aires two years ago, the novelist J.M. Coetzee — born in South Africa, now a citizen of Australia, and teaching regularly in Argentina — argued that the southern hemisphere has a big problem: Its artists and writers can only win global attention by pleasing “the cultural gatekeepers of the metropoles of the north,” who “decide which stories by the south about itself will be accepted.” It’s exactly these contesting gazes on the spaces of the south, by colonizers and colonized, that animate a rich exhibition staged by the Brazilian gallery Mendes Wood DM at its New York outpost.
I had the chance to see “Landscapes of the South” in person, and online Mendes Wood offers a dozen installation views of the presentation and images of 23 Brazilian landscapes, spanning four centuries. The earliest is a 1659 view of a convent in Pernambuco by the Dutchman Frans Post, the first landscape painter in the New World. Landscape painting was long an act of colonial mastery — slaves congregate in front of the stolid white abbey, yet the tropical landscape has the same coloring as any view of Delft — whereas, by the early 20th century, Brazilian artists were using landscape to forge a new national identity out of European, African and Indigenous influences. Check out three beautiful biomorphic drawings here by Tarsila do Amaral, the leading artist of Brazil’s interwar avant-garde, whose lumpy cows and spiky cactuses marry folky, vernacular traditions with the imported forms of French experimentalism.
New paintings by young Brazilian artists like Lucas Arruda, the author of a tight and textured jungle scene here, update these landscape traditions for an age of ecological disquiet. I’ve always thought of these Brazilian artists as no more foreign than my neighbors, and when I saw their paintings in person a few weeks ago, I idly wondered if later this year I might hop a cheap flight to São Paulo. Now housebound, flicking online, I have rediscovered the meaning of distance, ruing how far I am from southern climes.
As we settle into quarantine mode, the internet bristles with ways to turn your apartment into a recording studio or artist’s atelier. Unsurprisingly, there are artists who were well ahead of the curve. Guanyu Xu’s show of photographs of his childhood home in Beijing, currently on view in “Temporarily Censored Home” at Yancey Richardson is one example.
Mr. Xu grew up on a military base where he did not feel free to express or reveal his gay identity. For him, information about L.G.B.T.Q. life was gleaned from images and websites far away from home. To make the photographs in this exhibition, Mr. Xu, who now lives in Chicago, returned to Beijing, created elaborate photo installations and photographed them when his parents were not at home.
Knowing how these works were produced in 2018 and 2019 adds a suspenseful charge to them, despite banal titles like “The Living Room” and “The Dining Room,” in which Mr. Xu transformed placid domestic spaces into what look, initially, like digitally produced collages. “Space of Mutation” contains photographs of American flags; “Parents’ Bedroom” has large-scale pictures of nude men strewn on the bed; and the wall over “My Desk” has images of a map and a globe.
Childhood, like quarantine, is a temporary condition. Rather than leaving the entire experience behind, however, Mr. Xu has found a way to engage with it — and with place, space and personal history in a manner that resonates, particularly at this moment.