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Adriana Varejão

Cracks the Unseen Surface



Adriana Varejão is a chemist, not only of tactile materials like foam and plaster, but also of histories that have been kept disparate or veiled. The Brazilian artist might as well be a jester, too, playing tricks on our perceptions about mediums’ professed natures. In her undertaking, sanguine-hued cuts of bubbly polyurethane convince us to be a pile of bloody flesh gutted out of a painting’s abstract surface, which one indeed can see as ceramic tiles. Look closer and you will notice painterly touches and plaster’s organic reactions, as well as history’s gnarly paths.  

In the last three decades, Varejão has maintained a commitment to painting while traversing other disciplines’ visual potentials to germinate socio-political discussions over her canvases. Mystery never forgone, the Rio de Janeiro-based artist unveils new ways to understand the past through aesthetic traditions that cultures have adapted to write their histories. The glazed lavishness of Portuguese azulejo tiles blends with the neat rigidness of Modernist geometry; lavish Baroque interiors with ornate silhouettes bleed into the hedonic steam of Moorish baths. The amalgamations, however, yield cracks, shattering of the surface into blossomed fissures that are calm in their mantra-like formations. Their tectonic radiance lures our eyes to submit to a static viewpoint, but in reality, while the artist’s compositions linger through cultures’ ornate interiors, façades, and nooks, they also haul us to their established hierarchies’ dim corners. 

Osman Can Yerebakan: The crack imagery has been the epitome of your visual lexicon. Cracks or supposed blemishes have different philosophical connotations in different cultures. They are also results of experience, use, and chance. Let’s start with your journey into assuming cracks as part of your practice.

Adriana Varejão: I was studying Chinese ceramics at the end of the 1980s. I came across a special Celadon piece from the 11th century Song Dynasty era with its surface totally cracked. This was an example of how they traditionally incorporated the cracking into the ceramic in very elaborate ways. The cracks are a very precious part of the philosophy of the ceramic but also a connection with the beginning of the language in China and the oracles’ reading of the cracks on turtles’ shells as pictograms.

At the same time, I was learning the history of calligraphy and the history of the language itself, as well as its poetry and connection to literature. In 1991, I spent three months in China, and I also visited a very important collection of Song-era pottery in London, perhaps the biggest one in the Western world. I also was interested in the Baroque which is in many ways totally on the opposite end. I decided to put these two ideas together and develop a technique on the canvas. I apply the plaster with glue to make the canvas smoother and easier to paint, and when I add more in quantity, it begins to crack. It cracks in order to find a balance.


OCY: There is a living, bodily element to these fissures; they are almost reminders of life.

AV: I incorporate the cracks into the tile paintings because they give a sense of the body over the surface—instead of being an imitation of the tile, it’s a recreation of it. Even today, many think my works are actually in ceramic, and they ask how I can burn such a big piece or ask what size oven I have at my studio. I like this misconception because my work is always simulating something else. I could be referencing meat, but I do not work with real meat and the same goes for tiles. Simulation is a strategy of Baroque.


OCY: From Baroque to Minimalism, various forms of expression find their way into your work. The styles also signify different periods in time. Do you see a parallel between time and form?

AV: I have always been interested in ceramics, tiles, and decorative arts in general, which reverberate but are not necessarily subject to the official timeline of art history. There is no hierarchy of movements within the decorative arts. When the Baroque comes from Europe to Latin America, for example, even as a persuasion strategy, it starts to incorporate many elements from the local culture, and somehow it ends up being swallowed and re-signified by these elements. There is a great deal of syncretism throughout Latin America, and this has always caught my attention.

In Cuba, author José Lezama Lima called Baroque the language of counter-conquest. When I was working for my show at the Gagosian in 2021, I wanted to move away from Portuguese tiles, so I looked into the geometric forms from Mexican talavera ceramics. Many years ago, in Mexico City, I came across the huge façade of a talavera ceramics factory covered with geometrical motifs. The whole history of forms from different times and places were put together on that huge wall, as in “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. There was Modernism, Minimalism, and geometry, but everything mixed with patterns of flowers and birds, which made it also about the history of decoration. I don’t mean to reference, let’s say, Ellsworth Kelly, but instead, talavera. The idea is to build a culture of forms through fragments of different cultures and times. When you talk about movements, they are static in terms of date and chronology, but this kind of thinking is more fluid—it doesn’t belong to any one specific moment. 


<Read the full interview from Issue Six>


This story is from Issue Six.


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