Silvia Poloto Review by DeWitt Cheng 2012
Contemporary art, in all its bewildering variety, makes for a dazzling spectacle, but a confusing one. Since there are no prevailing styles, but rather a Babel of competing voices and visions underlain by various theoretical issues, the casual viewer gradually comes to the baleful conclusion that contemporary art is an insider’s game, and that all one can reasonably expect from the culture industry is mild entertainment. Cultural traditionalists have often made the case that modernist art no longer satisfies human emotional needs; if we are honest we must admit, despite fears of playing the curmudgeon, that there is some truth to this opinion. Art’s decline—from the personal religion that it was for early modernists, a substitute for traditional religion—to its current status—as hipster tchotchke and corporate-state status symbol—was already the target of critic Jacques Barzun in the 1950s. Great critics, he declared, produce work that is “autobiography enlarged; their opinions are not gathered but felt; the truth is not a work of ratiocination but a secretion from experience.” His statement apparently applies to artists as well, for in his essay, “Why Art Must Be Challenged,” he sounds the clarion:
Nowadays anything put up for seeing or hearing us only meant to be taken in casually … the Interesting has replaced the Beautiful, the Profound, and the Moving… if modern man’s most sophisticated relation to art is to be casual and humorous, is to resemble the attitude of the vacationer at the fairgrounds, then the conception of Art as an all-important institution, as a supreme activity of man, is quite destroyed… if art has importance, it is because it can shape the minds and emotions.
These remarks, of course, implicitly place a huge burden on the subject of the essay, but Silvia Poloto, a talented and prolific Brazilian-born mixed-media artist, self-taught and inner-directed, is not a product of America’s art higher-education system; she is an artist committed, almost defiantly, to self-expression and emotion. “Nothing could stop me,” she once said, describing her progress from electrical engineer to artist, a personal quest not without its humorous side: after “inventing” welded metal sculptures on her own, for example, she discovered a book on Abstract Expressionist sculptor David Smith.
In a 2008 show entitled Absence/Presence at the now-closed Gallery 415 in San Francisco, she explored the psychology of illness and mortality. Her Crush series paired enlarged photographs of common but unidentified household objects with allegorical titles like “Lust,” “Discord,” “Crave” and “Release’; her Unresolved series, comprising “Power,” Penance,” Worship” and Lies,” employed photos of dolls to investigate religious themes. At the time I wrote:
The new works, generally door-sized, hint at transcendence and transformation, combining the beauty of her painterly color and gesture with the submerged emotional content of the photographic work to suggest an infinite or mystical vision revealing the eternal and the temporal as interpenetrating and complementary. Art critic Terri Cohn writes: “Poloto consistently savors the play between the power of the photographic images she uses, the gestural, abstract ground she paints around them, and the gridded compositional format that holds the two in dialogue with each other.” For the artist, objects and field, figure and ground are equivalent — merely different states of matter.
What I did not elucidate then, four years ago, was Poloto’s plight—with her father recently died, and her husband failing. Poloto, in a recent statement:
Eight months ago I lost my mother. Four years ago I lost my father. Three years ago I lost my husband. One year ago I lost my best friend. … During this period, my identity as a wife, daughter, mother, and friend shifted and transformed. My identity as both woman and artist expanded
The themes of loss, memory, transformation and transcendence pervade her current assemblage work. If most of the pieces were made with the Triton Museum layout in mind, almost like a site-specific installation, each piece works separately as well, testaments to Poloto’s hard-won skills in painting, photography and sculpture; her unerring gift for color, texture/surface, scale and composition; and her ability to infuse her juxtaposed photographic imagery—a pictorial mode usually employed to communicate ironic detachment and knowingness—with beauty and emotion. The symbolic roses, thorns, webs, rays or threads, cells and holes/wounds, as well as photos of her family and relatives (often taken at religious ceremonies) suggest some contemporary version of Catholicism, but Poloto is, like the early modernists, interested in a kind of personal spirituality and seeking for meaning. She was astonished, on happening on a dictionary of symbols, to find that the objects she had selected intuitively had long cultural histories dating back centuries. Poloto’s written statement is an illuminating guide to the genesis of such personal, autobiographical works as “The ache, the sorrow, the grief, the tears…,” about Poloto’s family karma; “White flower as blood-tinged rose,” and “The void of the heavens,” about her fraught relationship with her self-sacrificing but narrow-minded mother; “A cry for more than crazy pink,” about her female relatives’ contradictory emotional strength and cultural conformity; “Ring around a rosie,” “Pink dawn, pink white, pink shift, pink Sao Paulo, pink San Francisco,” and “Sacred rose, rose profane,” about finding her way from science to art, despite familial disapproval; “The crazy pink is the crazy pink, the red rose, a cry for more than flower color,” about self-acceptance; “The gaze plumbs infinity, the pink forever escaping it,” about visiting the family home after her parents’ death, re-experiencing the past in the family home after her parent’s death; and “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” and “Optical Delusions” about the impermanence and illusion of human life. If this description tends to present the works as a kind a private scrapbook of the Poloto clan, that, too, is illusion: even without such notes, the works serve as a universal elegy and celebration for those of us who can, when called to do so, see ourselves as wayfarers, though no longer in conventionally religious terms, not consumerist vacationers. Poloto explains the symbolism of “The torn branch born in the rosebush”:
My process of working is highly intuitive. The rose has been present in my work for some time, while some of the other symbols have newly emerged. The rose for me, is both soul and female spirit, a celebration of womanhood… I have embraced my roles as woman, artist, mother … expressive and exuberant, unique yet connected.