For the artist to make it to this point, her first solo show, a lot of water had to flow under the bridge, which is admirable considering her young age. Prior to working in fine arts, Mirela Cabral had a stint as a filmmaker, four years of college here in Brazil, a year studying abroad, plus a year working on screenwriting – getting acquainted with the meanders of a thorny industry in which decisions are made in inaccessible realms, rendering such concepts as control and authorship chimerical. But this might not matter much. To paraphrase Joseph Brodsky on artists, just like with birds, biographical data matter less than the uniqueness of their singing, though they carry this (diluted) data in their core. In calendar time, her work established itself quickly, which came as a surprise, even to her.
Up until the far-off year of 2019, her production was essentially figurative, which can be seen in Sopro, the earliest piece in this show – a drawing on paper made with pencil, charcoal, oil stick, blow torch, watercolor, acrylic paint and palo santo (a type of Peruvian wood which functions as charcoal) on a 60 x 60-inch sheet of paper. I list the materials so we can get a glimpse of the many procedures and gestures involved in the making of a twisted, scrawny body, as if its skin had been ripped off, its muscles and bones had conducted electrical currents, the hands and feet retracting, forcing them to join at a point of convergence, from which a thick, blurred line flows, downward to the paper’s lower margin, escaping it. The drawing/painting is stamped with dirt, the colors are intense, and blend with one another while competing for every inch. There are hues of yellow, blue, red, grey, white and black, and they come in clusters – amalgamated, but also frayed –, with vibrant blotches and strokes. In fact, everything about it vibrates, if only because strokes and planes are intermittent, truncated, the result of incisive labor which somehow seems to run into massive resistance.
The figure’s left arm looks as if it has been amputated, the deformity of the shoulder on the same side shares the spotlight with the head, and one can see two breasts – two eccentric spheres –, although it’s impossible to be sure whether the body is male or female. It doesn’t really matter. In this case, both gender-related binarism and the binarism of the “abstract art vs. figurative art” formulation – which was so important throughout the 20th century – don’t have much to say anymore; they have ceased to be valid. Mirela shares that principle according to which art is not about real things, but about ideas that refer to real things. Art is an adventure of language. As such, it refers to human beings. This is what she believes and so she constructs this figure, employing these many resources. It echoes the statement made by Henri Bergson, for whom the vital impetus – the need for expression – is based on the impulse condensed in the material and, first and foremost, it is based on impulse itself. What are we if not our own actions – the urge that brings us to converge upon them? Back to the materials, pencil is nothing like charcoal, which is nothing like oil stick, which is nothing like watercolor, and so on. Each material, ranging from acrylic paint to the blow torch and its focused fire beam, has its own character, its own personality. They take some learning, some practice. They draw upon the particular intelligence and sensitivity of those who use them. This thing called skill is nothing more than the result of interaction. Knowing how to listen to the material, the instruments used to deal with it, knowing how to listen to the world.
Except for the aforementioned piece, all the works in this exhibition – drawings, paintings and embroideries –, were created during the pandemic and the isolation that led the artist to an eight-month lockdown at a house in the São Paulo countryside, most of the time with her small family, choosing to work late at night while others slept, in a quiet garage until then inhabited only by a mouse, a cohabitant whose presence she mostly just intuited. Until she finally saw it. Then everything changed. That is, it had been changing.
Isolation is a pretty standard situation for a significant number of artists, which is why they get the jitters when obligated to publicize their work and act “professional,” which implies holding an exhibition every now and then, like Roberto Carlos’s unfailing Christmas album. Is this an overstatement? Being represented by a gallery entails an exhibition every two or three years, as well as the occasional participation in art fairs and group shows. And this is when the gallery is not well-connected. When it is, when it branches out and shares artists with foreign galleries, well, then life can indeed turn into a living hell. More than one famous artist has confided to me that they miss the old times when they were not well-known, because back then they were able to work. Nowadays, being professional also means being nice, going to exhibition openings and dinners other than their own, hosting visits from collectors and curators. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is stressful and distracting. Being an artist is knowing how to deal with the art scene. Mirella better watch out.
Being an artist is about struggling with your work, a kind of intimacy that others don’t appreciate: the image of the artist as an “inspired” being still prevails, a condition contrary to a methodical, disciplined daily routine. Therefore, while the pandemic has pushed everybody to resort to staring at the television, the computer screen, the hypnotic smartphone, artists stuck with their obsessive and often unproductive routines. That’s what Mirela has done: she painted, drawn and embroidered continuously in order to sustain her most intimate questions through these media, engaged in extensive readings along with the study group led by Rio de Janeiro artist Fred Carvalho. She manufactured materials missing from the marketplace due to the pandemic, such as oil sticks, and turned in method to her guardian deities, an array of artists ranging from Egon Schiele to Eva Hesse, Jean Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Maria Lassnig, and to her Brazilian colleagues like Lucia Laguna and Edu Berliner (she did not yet know of Marcelo Solá and wasn’t aware that he was a relative). Other (direct and indirect) references can be counted, including William de Kooning, among other vectors of abstract expressionism. Nothing new here. Regarding the inevitable references that all works of art possess, Eugeni d’Ors’s bombastic statement rose to fame as quoted by Luis Buñuel: “All that is not tradition is plagiarism.” Tradition is inescapable, like language itself. The artist’s magic consists in working on the edges of this limitation, fertilizing it, which also means denying it. After all, what does expressive art mean nowadays? The artist deeply commits to answering this question.
In addition to the consulted bibliography, the massive catalogues raisonnés, examined on a daily basis, a warm-up strategy for the long day’s journey into night, the daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga which means a steady sequence of movements that exert a subtle action of strength and cleansing on the body, on the construction of self, Mirella started observing the house, the empty spaces, the corners and the potted plants in these corners, the empty niches and the staggering outer world, nature, reduced to a garden, but which also included a bunch of woods and a nearly dry lake with imprecise margins, the ground split open by branches and roots. At this point, the mouse starts to make a lot of sense. Who else inhabits the house where we live? What lives, as minuscule and unnoticeable as they might be, are there, active, sometimes for days and nights, like ants?
Short walks around the house and the garden as well as attentive contemplation led Mirela to an understanding of Rilke’s advice in his Letters to a Young Poet, which stated that it was up to her whether to succumb to boredom or extract poetry from an everyday object or situation. Resulting from this stance, the first realization was that nothing ever stops. Ever. That the static greatness of a wall covers the irreversible process of its ruin, expressed through the delicate webs growing in the corners of the room, through insects, some weird ones, coming from who knows where, through fungi that sprout in the poorly washed grouts of the bathroom tiles. In terms of the garden and the surrounding woods, the experience has taken on a larger scale. For months, she wandered around the garden among the pacovás (Philodendron Martianum), snake plants, Peruvian lillys and ferns all around, carefully treading the narrow tracks shared with Southern lapwings mindful of their nests in the ground, peering at the neighbor’s vegetable garden where chives bloomed. When viewed attentively, a garden and a stretch of the woods are stages for more or less secret explosions of spores and seeds causing the plants bodies to burst, throwing themselves into the air, scattered to far-flung areas, carried by the wind and the animals.
The artist’s awareness of these incessant pyrotechnics caused her to blow up the figures. They’re present in the drawings, paintings and embroideries displayed here, but, under such names as Pedra (“Rock”), Aquática (“Aquatic”), Bambú lírio (“Lily Bamboo”), Ninho (“Nest”), and Beira da ponte (“Bridge’s Edge”), it might be better not to waste time trying to identify them. What matters are the strokes, the exuberance of the graphism, the peculiar way the artist shapes and figures her expression. Once the shapes were eviscerated and the outlines were lacerated by their own selves, they took on prevalence in the process. It was not for them to represent anything anymore. They took on a life of their own.
The anxiety that stems from dealing with a renewed world led her to a new path, a practice capable of bringing elements into her research that could unlock temporal experiments, different from the fast pace achieved in her drawings. Virtuosity has a paralyzing effect, as is widely known. This is how she came to embroidery and the fabric stores in the nearby town with its shelves stocked with stranded cotton mouliné and piles and piles of colors in an exuberant palette.
When compared to the fierceness with which the artist tackles paper and canvases, the pace of her embroidery stands out for its deceleration; a slow pace, especially for those who, like her, have no prior technical knowledge of embroidery. Taking the line/color in her fingers, she would thread the needle after separating it from the skein, setting in motion the methodical and repetitive zigzag, like a mantra constructed and chanted by her hands. It’s important to emphasize the great difference between tracing a line and constructing it step by step, stich by stich, managing the variability in crafting each one of them as much as the artist’s limited technical repertoire permits. Ninho I (“Nest I”) and Ninho II (“Nest II”) display a thickening of lines, sudden color shifts, textured planes coexisting with subtle shapes made of thin lines; a premeditated lack of unity, a mosaic of decisions and rhythms.
The embroideries contributed to a change in the drawings and paintings. Though it’s possible to glimpse a figure – a plant, objects, landscapes –, they’re more of a hint than a clear rendering, since, as I said, the artist started to blow up the aforementioned figures, the motifs taken from so-called reality. The main subjects of her drawings and paintings gradually ceased to be things and feelings to become an assemblage of the pictorial and graphic matter on the paper or canvas. There’s a glimpse of a slender plane here and there, hinting at the vanishing points of a table or a room, while other nuclear arrangements bring flowers and bushes to mind. But this is all vague. The result, as can be assessed in this impressive display of works, is driven by discontinuity, i.e. instead of uniform results or coherent compositions and crafts, there are interrupted crisscrossed fractured lines, a product of the decision to employ mixed media. One stroke begins with its body outlined in oil stick, then pencil, and then it metamorphoses into charcoal, transmutes into oil paint, while all along it could be accompanied by India ink. As if this wide array of materials weren’t enough, each one stimulating and requiring particular procedures from the artist, there’s also a profusion of blotches, drips and smudges. The artist breaks from virtuosity, from the trained straightforward gesture; while others in her generation prefer the cleanliness of seductive and soothing hyper-real images, she opts for noise. Instead of the clear sign, she offers us scribbles, doodles; this apology for the uneducated hand approximates her to that which is wild in us, to the realization that there is no one, single path, one solution, but an ongoing quest with no end in sight.
Mirela Cabral was born in Salvador, Bahia, in 1992. She holds a BA degree in Social Communication with a major in Film from FAAP. Simultaneously, she’s attended art programs in such schools as Parsons Paris, NYFA and UCLA. In Brazil, she took classes with Agnaldo Farias, Manoel Veiga, Leda Catunda, and Charles Watson. Today, she dedicates herself to drawing, painting, and embroidery as her main media of investigation, interested in researching how they interact and complement each other.