Helena Almeida and the Uses of Drawing
The little trunk-like legs, from which feet spring, tend to saunter from one side of the paper to the other, where there is a touch of blue in one corner. It is an area on the paper where you have to fix your gaze to see the slightest thing, like a line where the pencilwasnotliftedfromthepaper, tracing an arc reminiscent of thought.
Seated at her drawing board, Helena Almeida looks at the piece of yellow notebook paper; it is that a shade of yellow that leaves us unsure as to whether it is the paper's natural color or the result of ageing. All the drawings are in the same A4 format, a banal detail that is part and parcel of their standardized, commonplace, workaday, simple nature, so akin to thought itself, so close in fact that they are often undistinguishable from the memory of having drawn them, like feeling ashamed for having to uncover one's intimacy, like opening the doors of the studio and leaving a yawning breach in the portals of one's thoughts.
What a trial it was to get to see those drawings!
It took insisting; it required constant requesting. The artist's excuses were murky; the drawings are nothing to speak of. Well, almost nothing.
Sheet after sheet the drill went on; it was familiar to those who are well acquainted with the work of Helena Almeida: "This drawing is exactly like the photograph," she states. The other one "doesn't resemble anything." Yet another one "is almost exactly like another series would turn out in the end".
These drawings are like an atlas of the artist's work, along the same lines as the photographic atlas Gerhard Richter created. As strange as the analogy may seem, both are situated on the same ontological axis of the creative process: Richter takes photographs, collects images that he paints (or sometimes he paints). Helena Almeida draws and sometimes other works spring from the drawings, usually photographic images, sometimes videos. One could say that all of Richter's work results from an attempt to hold a dialogue with photography, based on his effort to find a meaning for painting. In the same vein, one can assert that all of Helena Almeida's work proceeds in the same way with regard to drawing. Yet even though Helena Almeida's artistic present and past may be marked by the same suspicious attitude toward painting (in fact her process of mourning for painting started early in her career), her ongoing dialogue with drawing proceeds in a pragmatic-rather than programmatic-way and her drawing forms two distinctive planes of her creative process, while occupying a privileged position in the artistic methodology she uses.
The two different planes on which drawing is placed can be described as follows: drawing is the model for all of her artistic production; at times it incorporates the work itself, other times it acts as an "arrière-pensée", or forethought. Yet drawing is also a practice in itself that proceeds in cycles which, though not constant or regular, define a body of future work. This means that in the studio, Helena Almeida starts off by drawing; her thoughts are on drawing. At the drawing board, on those faceless, historyless A4 sheets, the artist places the first burst of a gesture, of the position or action which she will then test in the area of the studio where first the video recording is done, followed by the photo shoot. Thus, drawing acts as an inner methodology for the artist's creative process.
Thus we are left with two meanings for the word "drawing" in Helena Almeida's work: model and method. Let us now clarify further what we mean by drawing in the sense of "model."
Drawing is an artistic practice that springs from a representational code that is simultaneously very intuitive and rigorously abstract: what the drawing traces is something that is not observable in the visible field, i.e. the line that delimits bodies. The simpler the graphic representation of bodies is in the drawing (and by "body" we mean anything, life-possessing or not), the more abstract its nature is and the more codified are the conventions governing its recognizeability. The drawing thus constitutes a game of recognition, the chance to generate a protocol of representation that comes as close as possible to the fleetness (and flexibility) of mental processes. In this regard, one will note how our references to the thought processes are nearly always graphic metaphors that allude to drawing: we speak of someone's "thread of logic" of "following a line of thinking" and of making a "mental map." In a certain way we are basing ourselves on the principle (the Leninist principle, if we attribute paternity) which asserts that "thinking involves setting up lines of demarcation where concepts arise once boundaries are set."
If thinking is, in fact, defining boundaries, then drawing, as an activity that sets graphic boundaries which are both physical (because they are placed on a support medium) and protocol-based, forms the general structure of form-based processes. That which has form can be drawn and that which is drawn takes on form. One frequently uses the same type of analogy with regard to writing, which "shapes thought."
In Helena Almeida's work, drawing thus acts as a device that defines the game of recognition using this formal structure, while acting physically as a graphic process that is inseparable from the black and white of photography. But we can go even further in these assertions: the physicality of the pencil stroke, the line and the pencil-lead smudge-the blue or red brush stroke-offer up another state of reality and a temporal structure that is not simultaneous, that is delayed (as Duchamp says) in comparison with photography. A photograph is always wedded to a time, to the moment it was produced. Its temporality is linked to that moment, that fraction of a second the shutter blinks (although we know it is not that simple because the dark room process constitutes a second temporal framework). However, Helena Almeida often draws on her photographs, thus making the reality structure of the image porous or, to be more precise, liminal. In other words, in the photographs where a hand grasps a pen that is drawing a line that is, in turn, a horsehair that juts out of the paper into three-dimensional space, the materialization of the drawing process acts as a device that allows the artist to construct an elaborate fiction: what if our reality has, in fact, been engendered from that state we call representation? It is reminiscent of the film The Others (2001) by Alejandro Amenabar, in which the trio of protagonists lives in terror of supposed ghosts ; then the viewer understands that they are the ghosts and that the haunting has become our reality. Likewise, in the works of Helena Almeida, a complex, complicated ambivalence exists with regard to the reality of representation and the physicality of the three-dimensional realm, where the border (set by the picture plane) is constantly being traversed by processes belonging to the drawing, that migratory, ironic vehicle that shuttles between the two symbolic levels.
In this way (as we may now add) drawing provides an overall model of permeability in Helena Almeida's work. It is the intervening burst of breath between the various states of reality, through its ironic transposal of levels of representation, and through the actual process of photographic representation, as exhibited in the Seduzir series, where the wire wrapped around the leg provides a second level of reality within the photograph itself.
But besides providing a model, drawing is also a day-to-day process, of experimenting, representing, practicing, noting down and repeating. For the sake of ease, we can call it "writing." In fact, Helena Almeida uses drawing in a difficult and dubious way in the structure of the creative process. The drawings, in their original state, would not be classified as "works of art" in the everlasting, ageless sense of the term. Quite the opposite. They are notes, traces of gestures, actions and situations the artist will eventually create if she decides to do so.
In the beginning of the 70s, the drawings followed a sort of script-line and often resembled the tight, disciplined storyboards of movie directors, like Eric Rohmer. Over time they became less markedly sequential but the cinematic quality of Helena Almeida's work remained. It was as if notational drawing, based on the storyboard technique, had infused her work with a serial character, and heightened the importance of space between the images. At times the drawings in the 1979 series sente-me, ouve-me, vê-me (1979), or the set of images belonging to the inhabited canvasses (tela rosa para vestir, for example) give us the feeling we could flip through the pages in sequence and end up with an animated picture-book from the pre-dawn of the motion picture era..
In some of the more recent drawings, the artist's image recording style is closer to the notation used in contemporary dance, which struggles with the gargantuan task of tracing movements that follow no established canon. Of course dance, in its effort to make movement and gesture last beyond the celluloid or video recording of the performance, has always attempted to develop more effective types of notation. Since the Baroque Era, attempts have been made to perfect dance notation and the 20th century greeted the birth of a plethora of methods that appeared in rapid succession. Some are more wide-ranging and inclusive (such as Labanotation) while others cater to the more private, specialized and idiosyncratic. In any case, notational drawing has turned into a wide-ranging means of recording gesture and body movement. It is particularly intriguing to reflect, for instance, on how notation has migrated and ended up as the bedrock for Trisha Brown's large body depiction drawings
As a curious side note, after the performance, based on Helena Almeida's work that João Fiadeiro presented in 2004 (I am here), the choreographer-dancer was confronted with an interesting problem. His performance (in which he danced on large sheets of paper and held handfuls of powdered graphite) ended up yielding a by-product in the form of large, random drawings in powdered graphite. Should he keep the drawings and exhibit them at some later date or not? Fiadeiro opted not to because the seductive quality of the drawings lay in their flamboyant, visible plasticity, not in the inherent merit of the choreography---more arid and invisible-that had generated them.
Likewise, these field drawings by Helena Almeida are captivating because they are captures of her creative process and products from the worlds of notation (i.e., writing down) and pure experimentation.
With no exaggeration, we can safely assert that these drawings are the very test sites for Helena Almeida's work. And this exhibition is the thrilling moment when, for the first time, the artist drew the veil away, making the process that much clearer.
They are notations and, as such, bear witnesses to the relationship between Helena Almeida's creative world and the field of contemporary dance. The connection exists at every level, joined together by the umbilical cord of the performance structure that pervades her work.
We need only look at the Robert Morris (with Carolee Schneeman) performances to find how the structure of the performance is also permeated by drawing, which not only graphically entails gesture but also represents space.
In the end, this is the final destination for Helena Almeida's drawings. Their spatiality lays in the sheet of A4 paper, but also in the photographic medium; and they are also maps of her studio's three-dimensional space-- that field of action we will only see later in a photograph.
Thus, her drawings are a touchstone, a lost moment in the mapping of her studio which is a metaphor for the mapping of the body that Helena Almeida has been developing over the years.
Again, these drawings are an atlas of her work, of her personal path, of gestures, of iconography, of notation, of movement, of the body. It is an atlas that is fragile, tenuous, cinematic and liminal. That is why they took so long to leave the studio where they dwelt and see the light of day.
And glad we are they did.