José Leonilson “Empty Man”

Americas Society

poster for José Leonilson “Empty Man”

This event has ended.

Curated by Cecilia Brunson, Gabriela Rangel, and Susanna V. Temkin

In a world reverberating from the shockwave that AIDS sent through the 1980s, Brazilian artist José Leonilson (1957–1993) adapted the political discourse of the epidemic into a metaphysical rumination. His work offers a pantheon of symbols, poetics, and patterns, charting in personal terms the odyssey of a disease which at the time sparked fear, confusion, and panic. His mythical universe constructs an existential narrative around his own predicament, and this timeless intimacy doubly resonates in the context of a disease characterized so often by losses. According to Cecilia Brunson, Leonilson’s practice tackled the question of art as an exercise of introspection. “It is mesmeric—whether sketched, painted, illustrated, or embroidered, his symbols evolve into a vocabulary that can articulate his love, isolation, gender, sexuality— ultimately, a reconciliation with the idea of his death. Perhaps because of this personal journey—his own DNA at the core of his ‘diary’—he resisted being grouped with the so-called 80s Generation in Brazil, despite having been associated closely with its meteoric success.”

The exhibition opens with Leonilson’s most mature works from the last three years of his life and presents the trajectory of his interior world backwards. As the poet T.S. Eliot, wrote: “In my beginning is my end, and in my end is my beginning.” By following this path, the viewer can recapitulate Leonilson’s beginnings through the lens of the mature lexicon that developed over the course of his life.

For Gabriela Rangel, “Leonilson’s raw, self-exposed subjectivity constructed an enduring artistic myth that transcended a mere chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. His work expanded the language of painting to become decentered, without gender and inviting the viewer to share his transgressive intimacy.

Leonilson enjoys near cult status in his native Brazil. Although not widely-enough known or appreciated today, during his lifetime he frequently exhibited his work abroad and traveled numerous times to Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, and New York. His savvy internationalism is reflected in the diversity of his artistic sources, which range from Arthur Bispo de Rosario to Shaker aesthetics, as well as in his knowledge and facility with languages. As Susanna Temkin notes, “One of the earlier paintings in our show is Leonilson’s Pescador de Palavras [Fisher of Words], a surrogate for his own persona as a connoisseur of language. Like a collector, Leonilson gathered words, song lyrics, and aphorisms, often combining languages, breaking grammar rules, and experimenting with sounds. Today, these puns and highly affective phrases continue to allow his voice to speak from his canvases and embroideries, revealing his wry humor and the stoic pathos of his final years.”

This fall, Americas Society will present Leonilson: Empty Man, featuring approximately fifty works, including drawings, paintings, and embroideries from public institutions and private collections in Brazil and the United States. Focusing on the artist’s production dating from the mid- 1980s until his death in 1993, the exhibition will showcase the artist’s fully developed idosyncratic language, in which he combined a distinct iconographic lexicon with intimate text. The show is organized by independent curator Cecilia Brunson; Americas Society’s Visual Arts Director and Chief Curator Gabriela Rangel; and Americas Society’s Assistant Curator Susanna V. Temkin, with the cooperation of the São Paolo-based Projeto Leonilson.

José Leonilson: Empty Man, will be accompanied by a forthcoming illustrated publication edited by Karen Marta and Gabriela Rangel. The book, designed by Garrick Gott, will feature essays by the show’s curators, as well as texts by invited scholars Jenni Sorkin (University of California at Santa Barbara), Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas (writer and art historian), and Yuji Kawasima (Universidad Complutense in Madrid). Additionally, the publication will include archival documents, an exhibition history and bibliography, and an excerpted re-publication of Brazilian curator Lisette Lagnado’s interview with the artist, first published in the 1995 book São Tantas as Verdades [So many are the truths].

Born in Fortaleza in 1957, José Leonilson Bezerra Dias studied at the Escola Pan-Americana de Arte and the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP) in São Paulo. A participant in the generation-defining exhibition, Como vai você, Geração 80? [How Are You, Generation 80?], he emerged as a seminal figure of the Brazilian contemporary art world during this decade. Over the course of his career, Leonilson traveled extensively throughout Europe, and his paintings, drawings, and installations were featured in solo and group shows in Spain, Italy, France, and Germany, in addition to many exhibitions held in Brazil. In 1991, the artist tested positive for HIV. This diagnosis compelled a decisive shift in his career, as Leonilson began to develop his intimate embroideries, a practice he continued until his death in 1993 at the age of thirty-six. Artworks by Leonilson are today included in such major public and private collections as the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou; the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona; the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others.



from September 27, 2017 to February 03, 2018


José Leonilson

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