Paradoxical Expression: A Conversation with Carmela Gross
The Brazilian artist discusses repetition, geometry, art under dictatorship, and the unlikely significance of rubber stamps.
Inés Katzenstein, Carmela Gross
Sep 10, 2021
In title alone, Stamps (Carimbos) (1978), by Brazilian artist Carmela Gross, calls attention to its own compositional process. Made from stamped ink on paper, each of the 80 works in the series contains a distinct mark—either a stain, a scribble, a brushstroke, or a line—that the artist found in different paintings reproduced in art history books and then transformed into her own “bureaucratic” instrument. In an exercise of gestural expression turned into mechanical repetition, Gross literally stamped, methodically, other artists’ discrete gestures across the surface.
In this interview, Gross elaborates on the method she developed to make the Stamps during the oppressive authoritarian regime of 1970s Brazil, and reflects on the use of geometry as a tool relieved of utopian aspirations.
This conversation is part of Thinking Abstraction, a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work raises questions about the transition between abstraction and the emergence of Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s.
This interview has been translated from the original Portuguese by Stephen Berg.
Individual sheets from Carmela Gross’s Stamps (Carimbos). 1978
Inés Katzenstein: We would like to start the conversation by focusing on Carimbos (Stamps), six of which are on view in the Touching the Void gallery at The Museum of Modern Art. They are a series of prints, each of which shows a small fragment of a painterly gesture that has been stamped on the page in the configuration of a grid. Can you talk about how the series was made, and also about the context of ideas in which you were working at the time? Brazilian curator Ivo Mesquita mentions the importance of semiotics during the 1970s, and the centrality of the concept of the sign.
Carmela Gross: In the late 1970s, prior to creating the series I named Carimbos, I made a group of medium-sized drawings that expressed a desire to automatize gesture. By means of scribbles and stencil/molds, I was able to transfer and repeat identical forms onto the surface of pieces of paper, thus engendering serial graphic masses.
Through its mechanical features of repetition and multiplication, the rubber stamp seemed to me to be an efficient tool for furthering the analytic aspect of my work. With it, I arrived at a radically automatized and reproducible manual operation.
The images that went into making the stamps were taken from reproductions in books of drawings by several artists (Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, and Pollock, among others). I selected an expressive fragment of any given work and, after copying, tearing, enlarging, reducing, combining, etc., I determined their final form as graphic signs—there were many of them. I selected and organized these into four principal groups: lines, scribbles, stains, and brushstrokes.
After transporting the fragments—through successive operations of artisanal and industrial preparation—to stamp-forms and their traditional elements (the rubber surface, the wood support, and the handle), I was able to begin to elaborate the formal/visual field and finalize the set of drawings.
To emphasize mechanical repetition, I used a single stamp, frequently repeating the action upon the same paper support at regular vertical and horizontal intervals. But I stamped “by eye,” as it were, with no prior demarcation. Hand-eye coordination was instrumental to spot-on stamps. Trial and error yielded over 8,000 acts of stamping.
I wound up making 80 plates, 20 for each series, originally shown in 1978 at the Gabinete de Artes Gráficas, in São Paulo. Mounted onto rigid plastic surfaces, the plates were displayed side by side, no intervals between them, upon continuous friezes that covered all the walls in the gallery, making up an installation of sorts.
How did you approach the procedure of transposition from the “original” image by Matisse or Picasso, for example, to the rubber stamp?
This process of transposition and translation necessarily implied some kind of transformation—any mistake, distortion, or maladjustment with regard to the primary book reproduction was always most welcome. My deliberate, rule-free intervention resulted in a form that had been intuited or discovered by chance. Ultimately, it was like a “salami factory”—I worked on the product’s flavor, seasoning, and density until it became “savory.”
Carmela Gross at Museu da Cidade – Chácara Lane, São Paulo, 2016. Photo: Marcos Santos
I would like to know more about your interest in the relationship between the artisanal and the industrial, or between the manual and the mechanized. Could you expand on how the tension unfolds in Carimbos, as well as across your artistic practice?
According to Brazilian tradition, manual-artisanal work was informed by the prolonged persistence of slavery. In the case of mechanical-industrial models, new ways to work almost always came from abroad. Unlike one model or the other, the Carimbos conjoin contrary procedures. Thus, as a critical act, the Carimbos question the supposedly free and singular making of art by evoking the automatic and abstract act of mechanical labor.
Carimbos coincides conceptually and temporally with projects by several of your colleagues in Brazil, who were critically appropriating acts and symbols associated with bureaucracy: I’m thinking of Cildo Meireles’s stamps in his Inserções em circuitos ideológicos... or Freedom Territory by Antonio Dias. Can you discuss the Carimbos in the context of the dictatorship, and in the midst of the cultural repression in which you were working at that time?
And also, to what extent were you aware of or in dialogue with other artists working internationally who were exercising a critique of painterly expression along the same lines as the Carimbos?
Indeed, the semiotic aspect was important to some during the 1970s. Yes, somehow, we were aware of international artistic practices that converged with conceptual poetics. We had news of those around here. But the environment was rarefied. And, in those times, Brazil was quite isolated from the international art scene. By cultural distance, certainly, but above all because, since the military-civil coup of 1964, we had been living under a dictatorship. After 1968 and the issuing of the AI-5, the repressive state apparatus was further intensified; arrests, torture, killings, and individuals “gone missing” increased its power to control and destroy lives. Official censors established what could be read, seen, and heard in films, on stage, over the radio, and on TV. Certain art exhibitions were closed. Universities were dismantled and scores of teachers were forbidden to teach classes. Everyday life became inseparable from tragedy.
During that period, my children were very young and raising them kept me very busy. I carried out my work in great isolation and, somehow, this came to determine the course of my research on drawing. As previously noted, I was able to advance to the radical limit of non-expressivity. The drawing would no longer be executed with sensitive gestures; instead, it would be made by blows, by violent acts that left indelible marks upon the stiff paper surface, reproducing hard signs upon paper in a machine-like way.
Although political facts were part of my materials, it was not a matter of working directly with them. Think of a procedure of condensation that transmutes elements of reality onto a condition that proposes sharper focus...that reveals a process. The operation begins in the real world, but it dismantles the world to reassemble it on another level. And because there is no control of this world/machine, a work is accomplished through approximations. It seeks out possible senses, certain meanings, a scratching onto the world. Silently, in my studio, and with the limited resources of a stamp, I was able to “shout” against the all-encompassing ideological-bureaucratic construct of the country’s political scene.
You mentioned earlier that for Carimbos you would select images from reproductions of books with artworks by Matisse, Picasso, Dubuffet, and Pollock, among others. Were you exercising any sort of critique or comment by choosing fragments from European or US male artists, or was the selection purely formal?
I used materials that were then at hand. I should say the materials were “possible,” rather than specifically “chosen.” Overall, what picture books I owned or had been lent to me were very simple and, in most instances, the reproductions were black and white. As for the artists, they, too, were “found” among the scant material available to me in cheap editions.
It may be hard for you to imagine the precariousness of working conditions over here. Art books were rarities—there were no specialized publishers—and there were precious few bookstores in São Paulo. Imported books were as scarce as they were very expensive.
Conversely, rubber stamps were readily available and could be made in small shops. Almost completely handcrafted, their fabrication was rudimentary: a given image or text served as the plate for a metallic print; in turn, it was used as a matrix for the rubber mold. In Brazil, the rubber stamp had historical implications. It was used on documents, notices, theater tickets, and advertising pamphlets to certify the validity of such papers. It transmitted the recognition and permission of authority in the materiality of an instantaneous gesture. In the case of my work, the stamp introduces a critical distance from the spontaneity and legitimacy of the artistic act.
Carmela Gross. Stairs (Escada). 1968. Drawing on cliffside, outskirts of São Paulo
Carmela Gross. Project for the Building of the Sky (Projeto para a construção de um céu). 1980–81
This work relates to another one of your series from this same period, also in MoMA’s collection, in which you continue working on the convergence of opposed systems of representation: Project for the Building of the Sky (Projeto para a construção de um céu) (1980–81), which was initially presented at the 16th São Paulo Biennial, the same year it was completed.
In this series of 33 drawings, you juxtapose the loose, pictorial representation of an image of the sky, with its unstable formations of clouds and fleeting colors, with the rational, rigorous grid of technical measurement. Again, we see the humorous encounter between opposite elements—the mathematical against the un-formed and transitory. Was this emphasis on opposite elements a comment on the limitations of conceptual art’s ability to grapple with the real?
In 1979, as part of work for my master’s degree, I began a systematic investigation of drawing, examining the various modes of representation of the visible world historically called observational drawing, geometric perspective, analytic geometry, topographical drawing, architectural drawing, and so on. Although I hadn’t developed a theoretical dissertation, all this material served as a conceptual foundation for making the series of drawings called Projeto para a construção de um céu, which I presented in 1981 to obtain a of master’s title in visual poetics from the Universidade de São Paulo. I exhibited 70 × 100 cm drawings, made with colored pencil and china ink on paper. Each one contains an observational drawing, two orthogonal grids, topographical records, and schematic annotations of a sky map in 33 fragments, the sum of which chart the sky of the Southern hemisphere. As in architectural blueprints, the lower right-hand side of each one bears a numbered and signed conventional stamp. Among other, more complex configurations elaborated within the productive scope of these drawings, there was a deliberate critical effort to highlight the dialectical relationship between drawing and project.
Carmela Gross. Familiar Cards (Cartões Familiares). 1976
Could you expand on your engagement with questions of geometry in art? Especially given the historical dominance of geometric abstraction in Brazil, I’m curious to know which aspects of the geometric have been most interesting to you.
There is no specific interest. To me, geometry is but one of many work instruments. It is often necessary for configuring a project and, in this case, it is intrinsically linked to its execution, part of its constitution, although this may not be directly visible. Geometry is occasionally implied in the framework for or the support of other, more visible events, as is the case of light-bulb works. At times, its presence in the work confronts a drawing of another nature, as in the Projeto para a construção de um céu. In the Carimbos, geometry is purely virtual—it’s there and it’s not.
About your question and what it may seek to elucidate, I can say that I’ve noticed geometry constitutes a value and a desirable horizon for the generation of artists that studied and became active in the 1950s through 1964. Geometric abstraction was part of the dream of reconciling modernization and democracy. Contrarily, to me, geometry consists of nothing but a tool.
Which artists were you looking at at that time?
Our history is the history of a country without history, that is, without a critical awareness of its own process. When I made the Carimbos, I wasn’t interested in a tradition of art, in other examples or models of art. Rather, I wanted to escape from those references and forge new paths of my own. Of course, I studied art, but the school was a very informal one and, in the 1960s, in terms of art, you could do pretty much anything. Nowadays I try to work outside the boundaries of art.
Carmela Gross. For Sale (Se vende). 2008
In talking about the boundaries of art, I wonder if you could speak about your public art projects, and specifically the role of writing and light in them. How important is it for you to be able to communicate detailed, contextual content within the public sphere?
As an art student, ever since the 1960s, I had been paying attention to things that happened in the streets and in the city: workers, everyday life, neighborhoods, roads, stores, workshops, and city lights. I frequented and recorded the folk art of the periphery’s impoverished neighborhoods and much of my work from that period is linked to such experiences. A group of art school friends and I also worked on the streets, proposing free art activities for children on Sundays. The movement was called Arte na Praça [Art in the Square] and it existed in São Paulo’s city center from 1966 to 1971.
The city runs through and penetrates my work. It is both its material and its critical reason. I extract my materials from it. Why work with fluorescent light or neon, for instance? This may not be so in other contexts or countries but, in Brazil, in lieu of evoking the pizazz of successful businesses, neon and colored lights are associated with the more degraded aspects of city life. They signal bars, cheap hotels, bakeries, and corner body shops somewhere in the city outskirts. It is nearly always the most fragile things that are associated with them. Neon light, tubular fluorescent lighting, is almost always a sign of occasionally precarious, degraded, and very simple environments. This is what I’m talking about, and am therefore interested in. To me, colored lights would appear to be a strident synthesis of the contradictions that exist in the street—a political place, par excellence.
 Translator’s note: AI-5 is shorthand for the Ato Institucional Número Cinco, the fifth of 17 major decrees issued by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the years following the coup. These were the highest form of legislation during the military regime, given that they overruled even the highly authoritarian Brazilian constitution, and were enforced without any possibility of judicial review. They were issued on behalf of the “Supreme Command of the Revolution.” AI-5 resulted in the forfeiture of mandates, interventions ordered by the president in municipalities and states, and also in the suspension of any constitutional guarantees, which eventually resulted in the institutionalization of the torture commonly used as a tool by the state.
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