Jac Leirner in Conversation with Adele Nelson marks the third installment of a series of bilingual conversations (Spanish/English) with prominent Latin American artists published by the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC). The series aims to enhance appreciation of the exciting, albeit often over-looked, world of contemporary Latin American art through first-hand accounts of an artist’s life and work. Jac Leirner, who grew up in São Paulo, feels like a natural choice for this series, and the riveting conversation that ensues between her and art historian Adele Nelson does not disappoint.
In his introduction, Robert Storr, current Dean of the Yale School of Art, confesses that 20 or so years ago, before his first trip to Brazil, his “awareness of abstract art from South America was sketchy at best,” and his “ignorance of conceptual art on the continent was nearly total.” (Of course, he wasn’t alone; few American critics and art historians ventured into such unknown territory at the time.) That said, Storr returned to his post as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with Leirner’s Pulmão—a work composed of 1,200 empty packs of Marlboro Reds smoked by the artist, then disassembled, re-arranged, and strung together on a polyurethane cord. He also returned as a torchbearer for the mission and spirit behind this book series, spreading the word about the conceptual and technical sophistication of a rising Latin American artist.
Born into a family of artists, art critics, and dealers, Leirner didn’t care for collecting art, instead she focused on collecting things. As she says, “I don’t buy. I just search for language.” She has spent her life turning uninspiring “things” into iconic works: in addition to Pulmão’s cigarette packs, there are the business cards given to her throughout her life that form Fol um prazer (Nice to meet you) and the collected bumper stickers on glass of Adesivo 44 (Adhesive 44). 144 Museum Bags is exactly like it sounds— mounted and stuffed plastic bags from museum gift shops.
It’s truly baffling how Leirner manages to uncover poetry in such banal objects. Poets tend to stretch upward for that one perfectly transcendent word, while Leirner reaches into the trash over and over again. She makes a year’s worth of empty envelopes (To and From) rise and fall like a wave, then open up in individual, dynamic shapes. She has a rare ability to see the tiniest spark of defiance, personality, and storytelling in the mundane—even in the graffiti on hundreds of banknotes in a time of hyperinflation (Os cem [The One-Hundreds]). Then she lets her formal skills take over so that, as Starr writes, the quotidian object’s “inherent absurdity or beauty becomes visible and its inherent meaning becomes apparent.” Nelson calls this trait in “discovering transgression,” but it’s a subtle transgression—the type of measured rebellion to be expected from an artist who played bass in a punk band in her early 20s while still holding on to a love of classical music. Leirner recognizes the latent power in crude forms but has the vision to transform them into something provocative, sophisticated, and stunning.
Her most recent works have been reimaginings of older works, as she keeps finding new ways of dealing with old materials. For instance, she’s returned to the plastic bags, this time cutting out their centers and removing their names. It’s her way to “keep thinking art.” While Leirner strives to avoid autobiographical representation, her materials—taking on a second life as art, once their functional duty is fulfilled—embody a sense of one person’s wasted time: cigarettes smoked, bags emptied, dollars spent. Each work comes with its own previous life, its own story. It’s this implied action that I find so fascinating; it’s as if Leirner can’t stop thinking art.
The Spanish half of Jac Leirner in Conversation with Adele Nelson reads just as clearly as the English side. The conversation—originally conducted in a mix of English and Portuguese—reads like an autobiography. Nelson, a specialist in modern and contemporary Brazilian art, knows Leirner and her work (as well as her influences) intimately; her lucid and concise questions gently lead from one work to the next, one artistic phase to another, without wandering off topic or aimlessly dipping into previously discussed subjects. With thick paper and detailed, full-color photographs, the craftsmanship of this volume cannot be overlooked. Nelson’s italicized expository sections, accompanied by helpful footnotes, further reinforce the CPPC’s mission to bring interesting, though-provoking Latin American artists to a broader, uninitiated audience. For that, we thank them.
Jac Leirner in Conversation with/en Conversación con Adele Nelson
Series editor: Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, essay by Robert Storr
New York: Fundación Cisneros, 2011
200 pages, $25.00