I have stated more than once, in essays published in newspapers and catalogues of his exhibitions, that Paulo Roberto Leal was a new, post-modern type of artist. I still think that way. As a young man, he never imagined himself as an artist, so much that he graduated with a degree in economics and worked for many years at the Central Bank of Brazil. He never went to an art school, nor did he have any private art teachers. He learned his new trade through contact with artists and art critics, as a frequent visitor to exhibitions and studios. Little by little, he formed a small collection of works by Ivan Serpa, Franz Weissmann, Amilcar de Castro, Lygia Clark, Willys de Castro, Volpi, Ione Saldanha and Raymundo Colares, artists related with a greater or lesser degree of intensity to the constructive wing of Brazilian art. This was a clear indication of what his option would be.
His first work as an artist dates from 1969. But, for Leal, ever since his first authorial works, the important point was never to exorcise inner demons nor to insist on a political rhetoric, despite the seriousness of the situation at the time. In his artistic career, cut short by his premature death, the main purpose was to exert full control over the signifieds of his work, having a form of plastic thinking as a base.
As a constructive artist, his goal was always the materiality of his work, the affirmation of its physical components and not something situated outside it, but referred to or recreated as an image attached to the surface of the canvas. This was the case even in his initial phase, in which his raw materials were untouched paper sliding over the panel or folded paper accumulating in open cardboard boxes (“Arme”), inviting the creative participation of viewers. And also imprisoned in transparent or opaque acrylic recipients (“Armagem”). But, standing in front of his works, will viewers or collectors still ask themselves if they are actually in front of a painting? The answer is, of course, yes. In the series of works called “Entretelas”, we could say that the sewing machine’s needle acts as a brush and the thread is like paint. Thus, without actually using paint or brushes, or cutting and glueing fragments of fabric, Leal continued creating paintings, so much that they were made to be hung on the wall, as part of a tradition that began in the Renaissance. The portability of painting.
For Leal, however, painting was never a closed issue, even after so many avant-garde movements and so many foretold “deaths” of painting. And even if he does eliminate the image at different stages of his career, placing the support of the work in the limelight, he was to return to the zero degree of painting and start everything over again from scratch. Living once more the adventure of painting, starting with the canvas fabric itself, sometimes painted in the back and on the front, cut and sown – with occasional loose threads to break up the composition’s rigidity. Or glued, keeping the colors and stains prior to the paint itself, as well as the textures and other tactile values.
The paper cycle lasted five years. At first, it was left free and loose, to endure the interference of weather and time. Or to provide for the playful and tactile participation of the public – papers to assemble – in the “Armagens” cycle. Next, paper would be enclosed in transparent acrylic structures, slowly curling over time.
By replacing paper with fabric as his raw material, Leal posed the following question: “Would my work be the same if we were living in another situation at the time? If there had been any other type of impediment to creation? Or none at all?” He then answers himself: “Culture works within a chain of situations. If one of the parts is closed off, then all the other ones will suffer. It’s certain that imprisoning paper inside acrylic boxes can and should be considered a problem of mine in ethical and esthetic terms. But it is also a more general problem. Today I replaced paper with fabric, which represents for me an opening in terms of life: admitting with sincerity to a certain behavior, a more rational view of things, whereas before, with paper, I used to hide myself in a way.”
The most radically constructive moment in the work of Paulo Roberto Leal is the series “Entretelas” (1974-1976). It is comprised of stitched canvases, painted with oil, whose lines (stitched and not drawn) define modular and symmetric spaces, impeccably silent and clean. And they remain that way even when the internal modules fight for the primacy of the foreground or when the canvas, standing on one of its vertexes, allows itself to be cut by transversal lines without having its equilibrium affected. A second series, “Armadura” (1978-1980), covering oil paintings cut and glued on canvas, has the same constructive basis. But the clipped canvas fragments are in turn glued onto another canvas, creating fictitious, strong and very visible lines at its joints, while appearing to come unglued, anticipating the surface’s collapse, which however will never happen.
Answering the question contained in the title of my comment on an exhibition of Leal’s work held in Rio de Janeiro, in October 1980, I stated in the text: “It doesn’t take much of an effort to realize that even works such as the ones Leal displays at the Galeria Saramenha can have political implications. The constructive character itself of his works is in opposition to the permanent chaos of our society, a “tropicalistic” reality, but also, by being a Brazilian and tropical geometry, it has sensitive qualities that differ from other more rigid geometries. In other words, it does not just oppose the reigning chaos outside the limits of the frame. It attempts to understand this chaos and reap the spontaneity and the joy of a more open cultural society. Because the excess of rigor can also lead to the authoritarianism of form, which is just as harmful as the absence of any order.”