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One Man's Trash

Discarded plywood in Brazil becomes engaging art at the Rice Gallery.

After a gross misstep with its previous exhibition of New York-based artist Paul Villinski's useless response to Hurricane Katrina's aftermath ("Emergency Response Studio"), Rice Gallery presents an utterly redeeming installation by Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira that not only renders the artistic ideas and schemes posed by "ERS" ridiculous, but also engages the imagination in clever and visually arresting ways. "Henrique Oliveira: Tapumes," a massive, abstract installation exhibition constructed from discarded and deteriorating plywood harvested from construction sites in São Paulo, is the artist's first American solo exhibition, and there isn't a more appropriate place and time for Oliveira to make his solo debut than Houston right now.

Interestingly, Rice Gallery included an article by Times-Picayune (New Orleans) art critic Doug MacCash in its press materials for Tapumes. The article was a review of the show "Something from Nothing," an exhibit of work by 14 artists from around the world who descended on the Big Easy to create post-K art with limited supplies and no real studio. MacCash picked Oliveira's contribution as the exhibit's best, but the critic also called the show "stale as a box of doughnuts," noting that New Orleans artists had been creating "plenty from nothing" for a long time. "Plenty and better," he wrote. MacCash blasted the show as "boring" and "based on a backward concept." He also chastised its curator for choosing outsiders instead of spotlighting local artists. As I pointed out in my "ERS" review, a lame concept cloaked in the costume of good intentions can only backfire.

Thankfully that's not the case here. Oliveira has no such motives, even though catastrophic correlations to "ERS" might be detected in the installation's local setting.

Tapumes is made from discarded plywood harvested in São Paulo and shipped here.
Courtesy of Rice Gallery
Tapumes is made from discarded plywood harvested in São Paulo and shipped here.

From a referential perspective, Tapumes bears striking similarities to abstract impressionist painting — its thousands of wooden shards resemble the texture of brush strokes when viewed from a distance, especially through the gallery window, which acts as a frame. Up close, Tapumes reveals its sculptural and architectural elements; it appears to have formed like cavernous rock weathered by the elements into a random conglomeration of tubes and contorted channels subtly stained with color. Oliveira built a rough frame of flexible plywood attached to the gallery wall, what he calls his "drawing stage," and then organically layered the painted wooden scraps he shipped from São Paulo to the frame — his "painting stage."

Put together with staples, the result bears the hallmarks of a rushed process, like a gang of skaters throwing up a shabby half-pipe in a day, but the gorgeous interplay of color, texture and shape is a credit to Oliveira's instinctive but careful method. Tapumes's seamlessly fluctuating forms imitate rolling waves, funnels, bulbous protrusions and violent splashes. Parts of the work call to mind Dan Havel and Dean Ruck's Inversion, the site-specific installation that looked like a vortex being sucked through the old Art League building on Montrose. Representational elements crop up here and there — a stalactite hanging from the ceiling, a freestanding form resembling a giant bulb of garlic.

Tapumes also has the potential to rip the scabs off any emotional wounds inflicted by Hurricane Ike. Even six months after the storm and a feeling of normality restored, there's no denying the work's ability to conjure images of windswept debris and chaos, as if Oliveira had harvested his materials locally and constructed a monument to disaster. Conceptually, though, Oliveira might have never meant to invoke local events. Tapumes is very much in the vein of Oliveira's other works ("tapumes" is Portuguese for "fencing" or "enclosure"), and it captures the "tridimensional" quality that results from Oliveira's concept of translating a painting into a spatial entity. And on that level alone, it's spectacularly successful. Don't forget to check out the time-lapse video documenting the piece's construction. It's a hypnotic rush of activity that strengthens the installation's presence in the space.

After a long look, though, it felt wrong that Tapumes was a temporary installation. I wanted to see something truly site-specific and permanent, like some of Oliveira's other sculptures — something that existed where it belonged and outside the context of a gallery. But that wouldn't work either. Not now. If he had permanently installed the work in a public space here in Houston, we might have renamed it "Ike." It's better this way. It flies in from an exotic locale, messes with our heads and goes far, far away. Forever.

 
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