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Helena Almeida - Inside Me - John Hansard Gallery - Southampton - 9 February - 1 April 2010

A complex interplay between absence and presence characterises the work of Portuguese artist Helena Almeida. This is a very female preoccupation, and one which utilizes performance in respect of performance for the camera.

'Inside Me' also problematizes that which is not usually seen, the relationship between inner and outer space, inside and out, truth and fiction. She is concerned with the layers of artifice and reality, and in terms of the photographs which speak of absence, they are 'interrupted', 'disturbed' in their illusory qualities by painted marks both in bold primary colours, and in subtle hardly perceivable ways.

In 'Ouve-Me' (Hear Me), a video work from 1979, she is recorded from behind a mesh screen, performing from inside the 'canvas'. Her mouth sucks air in, and with it the gauze, her tongue licking and pushing from the other side of the material. She writes in saliva, or at least the letters appear from behind the gauze, described by her finger: 'ouve-me', which she then crosses out with a 'pen' held in her mouth. This clearly has an eroticism which is a key quality of the work as a whole, more or less pronounced in each of the works.

In 'A Casa' (The House), 1979, there are two photographs of this name, the paint on the surface of the first photograph dramatises the absence of what is depicted, and simultaneously creates a presence in terms of mark making. In the second photograph the blue painted 'empty' space of the mouth also suggests both presence and absence; the inner space of the interior of the body as the house of the soul.

'Ouve-Me' (Hear Me), 1978, is a sequence of four photographs, which make 'visible' the projection of speech, at least communication, as like a magician she pulls tissue paper from her mouth. In the tissue paper is embedded a strand of horse-hair, which in the last two images becomes real; real horse-hair emerging from a tiny hole in the surface of the photograph, casting a shadow onto its surface.

One of the most important qualities of the work is a concern with the foreclosure of the real in photographic terms. At the same time it is a disruption of the boundaries which traditionally separate the author from the visible context of the work. Almeida looks intently at particular visual conundrums while at the same time insisting on the importance of that which cannot be seen, the complex of relationships between herself and the images she creates. The work insists on the aura of the creative act, while at the same time liberating the female subject, as artist, from the nexus which is representation. The important thing is that she is in control of that which is 'inside' herself, and its expression challenges the viewer, as though this is a transgression of the portrayal of the feminine itself.

In Desenho Habito (Inhabited Drawing) 1975, Almeida 'poses' in the photograph, appearing to look at the 'drawing' she has made. The drawing is in fact made with horse-hair, suspended in space to the front of her gaze, even though the photograph suggests it was made with the pen she holds in her hand.

In Sem Titulo (Untitled), 1970, a drawing is made both with indian ink and horse-hair, so that it is momentarily difficult to say where the illusory and the real intersect. A sketchbook is displayed in a vitrine with horse-hair threaded through the pages. In another work from 1977, 'Desenho Habitado' (Inhabited Drawing), again she dramatises the act of drawing, with the photographic 'simulacrum' of the hand and pen, casting shadows captured through photography, and yet the line is drawn afterwards onto the photograph, and in this series of images the horse-hair is 'magically' drawn out of the paper, by the 'artificial hand', and in its turn casts a real shadow.

In 'Tela Habitada' (Inhabited Canvas), 1976, Almeida encloses, clothes herself in transparent mesh like fabric, and is photographed as she moves behind and in front of a canvas stretcher which is also covered with the fabric. In this way she extends the concept of painting, where she would traditionally have been object of the gaze, to perform as woman artist, discontent with the limitations of the canvas.

More recent works are large scale black and white photographs of her lower legs, in images like 'Seduzir' (Seduce), 2002, where again she explores the illusory and the 'real' in terms of the materiality of paint pigment, drawing attention to the photograph as object. In this image Almeida's lower legs are wrapped around by 'wire', another illusory line drawing.

In 'Dentro de Mim', (Inside Me), 1998, a trail of black pigment diagonally crosses her studio space. At the other end from the 'viewer', she crouches over the pigment giving the impression that it must have come from 'inside her'; from her mouth. At a primary level this is a very powerful image.

In 'Negro Espresso' (Thick Black), 1981, Almeida dramatises 'hanging from a wall'; a white surface, where her hands appear to leave behind 'scratch marks'. Her feet appear to add to the illusion, although it becomes apparent that she is lying on a flat surface.

All these images are charged with a sense of performance captured, a necessity in Almeida's case, as it is the drama of engaging with materials which give the work a slightly vertiginous feeling, as though it is very important that the work isn't live but staged in retrospect through the manipulation of photographic and painterly structures.

 

Sarah Thompson 01.03.10

www.hansardgallery.org.uk

Interiority from a position of strength - on Helena Almeida