Denise Carvalho: Abstraction’s Spiritual Life

Denise Carvalho, originally from Brazil, has spent many years in America, living mostly in New York, although recently she moved upstate, to a small town near Syracuse, where she currently maintains her studio. An abstract painter of considerable talent, the artist cites as her influence’s ancient cultures and their practice of writing, such as Sumerian script, and her long, ongoing involvement in meditation. The painting themselves can be understood, at least in part, as belonging to the now-venerable tradition of New York School abstraction. But they are more than that, too, in the sense that their complexity does seem to involve the influence of very old cultures in addition to the contemporary use of abstract art as an action, a record of the hand’s movement. This complexity is what characterizes Carvalho’s paintings, which often seem to have layers building on top of each other like a palimpsest. The intricacy of her paintings creates a dense format, in which both linear and abstract forms build over each other, massing in ways that take up the entire composition. As indicated, the recent work references writing in ways that convey script as a visual but non-legible presence.


What happens when writing is stripped of its meaning and reduced to an image expression? For one thing, we never really forget its original, primary function as marks conveying meaning. But many of us can remember the experience of looking at a text in a language we don’t know and finding the visual demonstration of the letters or characters highly interesting in their own right, of themselves. If the mark-making that occurs in a visual structure can be reduced to abstraction, then it can play a purely visual role in the art in which it is found. Yet we never lose the awareness that the lettering means something that was originally read. The tension between the writing’s denotative meaning and its connotative implications as art is key to the way these recent works by Carvalho make their impression. It is a very different practice to use words as readable statements in art; this has often been done in modernist and contemporary work. The text therefore is clear and means something. But Carvalho is after something different; she wants the writing to fit into a complex display of painterly abstraction, in which the forms are submitted as entirely visual objects.


Visual meaning and literary meaning are two separate entities. But the visual incorporation of writing can be said to demote the writing to the status of abstraction, in which the literary significance of the writing is more than remote. To give a powerful example,“The Book from the Sky”,the remarkable installation by the Mainland Chinese printmaker and conceptual artist Xu Bing, consists of banners, wall texts, and books printed with some four thousand characters that in fact cannot be read. It is a seemingly textual piece that has no discernible meaning. In Carvalho’s art, the text is subsumed within the overall statement of the composition, which has very little to do, if anything at all, with the meaning of the literary implications of the writing used. In a couple paintings, “Write to Paint 2 (Thanks to Cy Twombly)”(2021), horizontal layers of abstract markings are stacked vertically. The topmost layer consists of a seeming calligraphy, curved expressive lines in white, that look like they owe their origins to Asian characters, but which are reduced to a purely formal function.


Some of the characters that exist in Chinese are pictographs: articles of writing that have a pictorial base. The calligraphic markings in the “Cy Twombly”painting look like writing but cannot be deciphered. The implications of their existence are moving, in the sense that we expect letters to make up words and words to make sense. But this doesn’t happen in Carvalho’s art; instead, by refusing to contextualize the art in an understandable fashion, she enters into a nonobjective realm, in which marks exist and have meaning in their own right, without a deeper connection to legibility. Carvalho’s paintings are notable for their density of surface, and while writing is important to her art, it is not the only component evident in the work. Instead, the writerly markings weave in and out of the paintings, giving them the impression, but not the actuality, of a context in which whatever language is being used might be read--if only we could separate their visual effect from the actual written content of what they were meant to convey. Additionally, to take Sumerian script and employ it in a painting is not only a visual device, it is a cultural appropriation from a very old culture across millennia. We must remember that these traces of unreadable text also suggest the presence of different cultures, with different values from the contemporary art we are seeing.


Besides writing and older cultures, the other influence Carvalho cites is her long practice of meditation. This particular practice emphasizes concentration on emptiness, the envisioning of a void filled with nothing but itself. From this vacuum, it can be said that all things emerge. Given the marvelous density of most of Carvalho’s paintings, the notion that emptiness is an originator of extraordinary magnitude makes sense--fullness comes from the void. One imagines the imagery rushing in to fill the gap, both in the artist’s mind and on the canvas. This practice, we recognize, originated in Asia. It is again a borrowing from another culture on Carvalho’s part. Perhaps it can be said that the exuberance and vibrant energies of her work stems from an awareness that the imagery comes from somewhere unknown, perhaps the void encountered in her contemplation. The painter’s practice is long established and resolute, providing her with a base from which to develop a style that may remind us of the New York School but is actually the demonstration of a presence that is eclectic and far-ranging. Today, we jump from culture to culture and epoch to epoch in search of a viable style. The process, though, is secondarily physical, of the hand; in other ways, it is fully dependent on the processes of the mind. The way it generates an imagery may well appropriate the cultures and artists we find Carvalho referring to but hopefully remains independent and assertive of contemporary life.


“Scroll”(2021), whose definition is a roll of parchment for painting, presents a wonderfully complex façade, in which black lines curve and swerve on the top of the imagery; beneath the lines are two vertical columns with gray wraps that act as tops of inchoate masses, mostly brown in color. On the far sides of the painting, the audience can see a bit of bright, light green. The composition reflects, in the same moment, both unusual freedom and equally determined discipline. This happens a lot in Carvalho’s work, which manages to be both intuitive and rational--perhaps the combination results from her meditative thought processes. One has the sense that the painting is being held in marvelous flux for a moment, just before the picture might move out of control. Indeed, motion is central to the way the painting proceeds, although the spinning black lines, seemingly oriented toward extreme freedom, also constrain the imagery beneath them. As a result, the composition not only suggests great changes meant to happen in the next moment, it also stands as an abstract monument that carries its weight in a stationary fashion, taken as it is with a real bulk that also suggests a structure with gravitas. While it clearly is not a monument, it also leads toward an image of meaningful heft. 


The thick overlaps of yellow and blue build a beautiful structured surface in “Write to Draw”(2021), which presents a density of imagery that draws us in, almost hypnotically. The upper two-thirds are yellow and blue, while the bottom is much lighter--a near white. There is no visible evidence of a script to be seen, and the overall nature of the picture feels very much like it is meant to refer to the New York School. But the title itself, both a verb and a command, could not be more abstract or more contemporary. The task facing us truly is trying to develop an imagery that would reflect the spirit of the time. One of the struggles contemporary artists face is the sense that it has all been done before. In New York, lyric abstraction lives on and is practiced as if it had originated yesterday, when in fact historically we have more than a few generations of artists who committed their work to a style that came about in the middle of the last century. In Carvalho’s case, the question is not only exploratory in regard to new content, it is also a recognition that writing is itself a visual construct and is able to communicate considerable beauty when it has been freed of literary meaning. “Write to Draw”reminds us that the New York School’s style remains alive in the artist’s mind, but it also advances what can be said--or drawn.


A slightly earlier painting “Prelangue”(2017) communicates something different. It consists of a maelstrom of abstract shapes, red and green and mauve and blue, that are scattered across the plane of the painting but in some way fit together closely. There is black space between the forms that intensify the luminous colors we see. Despite the discrete shapes and energies forming the composition, this is far from an unorganized painting. The placement of the shapes is perfectly held and resolutely fills the space of the plane. It is as if a group of brilliantly colored forms were randomly thrown onto the canvas and ended up in unusual alignment and a reasonably arranged design. One cannot underestimate the role of pattern in this painting and others by Carvalho; pattern is the underpinning for the sense of structure that comes across despite the seemingly random arrangement of the forms. “Prelangue”means the condition prior to the emergence of language, and so, on some level, what we have is the chaos that occurs before language asserts its rational discourse. Images communicated concepts before language, and it may well be that this painting is a contemporary attempt to represent such a condition. If we cannot find words to establish our thoughts and feelings, we can in fact find images that will do the same, usually in a way that is understood by cultures throughout the world.


“Detours”(2018) is filled with a marvelous, sprawling energy. Gray, blue, white, and brown and bits of red collide as if they were being forced to connect in a reactor. This kind of painting does feel close to the American style, and how could it not be, given that Carvalho has lived here for many years. There is in fact a critique to be made, not so much of the artist’s work in particular, which is original and independent, as in the style itself, which is inevitably showing signs of fatigue, or at least repetition, because it has been prominent in New York for so long. It is as if no one knows anymore how to paint outside convention. The truth is that the abstract expressionist style has become diminished by the length of its cultural domination. There are in fact alternatives to this style--one thinks of the cartoon paintings of Nicole Eisenman, now a painter in her prime who has been extensively recognized. But lyric abstraction does remain strong--consider the work of Amy Sillman, which is in the process of being canonized. Carvalho does in fact belong to this latter tradition, but she invests it with a complexity unrelated to the idea of action painting, or the record of physical activity. Instead, she paints a complexity that explores and describes our wish not only to see, in visual terms, but also to understand, in a literary manner, the content of her art.


The title of the essay “Abstraction’s Spiritual Life,” indicates that beneath the often roiling, intricate surfaces of Carvalho’s art, we sense a need for expression on a wider, deeper level. Spiritual life is a product of inner reasoning, but it can be explained and communicated by both word and image. While Carvalho abstracts language to favor its role as an imagistic element, the meaning of the script cannot be entirely erased. Instead, it projects an elementary bridge between its life as something actually demonstrative of verbal content and its slightly eccentric power as an image in its own right. This is of course different from reading something. But it does move the picture, however slightly, toward the language of something more than merely visual. The combination of the visual and the literary in Carvalho’s work allows for a density of intention that much contemporary abstract art lacks. It can be said, too, that her involvement in meditation is silently conveyed in the aura of these pictures, which possess a serious intent not easily found in much current art. 


The spiritual life of abstraction is always close to its practice. It involves a self-contained world, in which the elements of painting are separated and used in their own right, without the construction of a realism meant to trick the viewer into the sense that he or she is looking at something actual. It is true that Carvalho suggests the actuality of writing, but that is only by implication, not by direct copying of the forms. Necessarily, the spiritual can only be implied, in the sense that it exists outside the accessible worlds of our knowledge. Ancient cultures, such as the one the artist makes use of, seem to have stayed closer to this truth than we do now. Carvalho is aware of the current situation in art, which is devoted to the superficial. So, she makes paintings whose atmospheric intention is to read the invisible as if it were fully visible for inspection. Perhaps we can say that meditation is about encountering the invisible in a way that supports steadiness of mind. If it is true that all the world, indeed the universe beyond it, proceeds from emptiness, then the paintings I have described owe their impression, powerful and new, to abstract circumstances. This is why spirituality is particularly pure in abstraction, which rejects specifically cultural religious influences in favor of a language that is nearly absolute, attentive to itself without referencing a particular tradition. It is not so much a matter of intention as it is a matter of appearances whose origins are self-complete. Thus, Carvalho’s output impresses us with intricacies derived from truths that appear to come from nowhere, luminously appearing in the mind,


Jonathan Goodman