by Manu SharmaDec 16, 2021
Brazilian photographer and visual artist Paulo Abreu creates lonely and contemplative pieces that brim with mood and melancholy. A self-taught practitioner, the 28-year-old chooses to focus upon issues that arise out of his own lived experience, and does so outside the visual idioms of set genres of photography, visual practice or performance art. While Abreu has not engaged with formal artistic training, it is perhaps this very aspect of his practice that liberates him in a sense, so as to pursue his own line of inspiration, which he coalesces to create a composite body that is highly telling of one who is deeply involved with the inward extents of his own personal psyche, externalised through an exploration of the human form.
Abreu tells STIR, “I like to think that my work is a way for me to translate my reflections on the issues of human existence, or simply just a way to express my feelings”. This inward exploration certainly typifies the artist’s work, yet it is fascinating that it manifests itself chiefly through Abreu’s treatment of the human body; the external shell. Posture and pose are brought to the fore in his images, and it is almost exclusively these aspects that Abreu allows to do the talking. Within pieces such as A-paixão-esgotada for example, these become everything, as Abreu isolates his subjects, somehow, within the presence of each other even. His actors stand solemnly, facing opposite directions, yet each places their head on the other’s shoulder. This signals a certain solace found in each other’s company, and perhaps in each other’s alienation as well, as they grow distanced within the ambit of their proximity. A spent matchstick in each subject’s hand completes the artist’s meditation on lost love: Abreu has masterfully conveyed the all-to-relatable travesty of a fizzled romance with a painful subtlety, that may not have succeeded to the same degree without the image’s Spartan construction. He says, “My intention is to present a human figure without material belongings. I think that when we do that, more important things start to come to the fore”. A critical point of nuance here is that he does not subscribe to the notion of his art presenting a certain consummate sensuality; instead choosing to connect the bare bodies of his subjects to his desire to strip away every non-critical factor within his framings that may draw attention away from the salient, often singular themes that dominate Abreu’s images. At the same time, Abreu is well aware of the generally melancholic tone of his artistry, and endorses it saying, “It is certainly done with intention. I consider myself more a melancholic individual than a happy one. Themes like loneliness, love delusions and anguish always attract me”. However, the melancholy to be found within his work must not be confused for outright despair, as nowhere does it signal some apocalyptic conclusion to a life-journey. It is, instead, born of a sensitive contemplation on that very same life-journey; one we must all take, and serves in a sense, to highlight and explore a certain enduring sadness that is part-and-parcel of this human experience. With this in mind, one may look back at A-paixão-esgotada, as it was studied above, and seek a sense of exultation behind the sorrow contained within. Abreu’s subjects continue to shoulder each other’s pain, as best as they can, until they can’t, and such a paradigm would not have arisen in their imagined private tryst were there no shared experience so beautiful as to attempt to preserve.
Abreu elaborates on his keen eye for posture by connecting his work to Greek sculptures. He explains, “I believe that most artists are somehow influenced by Greek art. I think the way the bodies were portrayed is beautiful and the storytelling is extraordinary”. Clearly, he himself is one to allow storytelling to occur through stance alone; and one may even add the sheer physique of his subjects to the ambit of influence he has drawn from the ancient Greeks. The term “Spartan”, then, finds a new meaning in a reading of Abreu’s work, denoting the glowing health of Abreu’s models, as if signalling the possibilities of the human form sans the dietary excesses and diminished rigors of modern capitalist culture. The sorrow, loneliness and heartbreak within his work must be seen not merely as emotions we may connect with, but emotions that the ilk of Adam and Eve, perfect specimens had they remained in the Garden of Eden, could have also experienced.
Along with an appreciation for Greek physical motifs, Abreu also engages extensively with dance. He explains, “I like to consume various forms of art that use the body as a poetic instrument,” and of late, he has been captivated by the Israeli dancer Ohad Naharin. Naharin spent nearly three decades directing the celebrated Batsheva Dance Company, during which time he is known for developing the Gaga movement language that emphasises a somatic relationship between the dancer and the wide extents of the tangible realm. Gaga pushes practitioners well beyond their natural limits, and by doing so, creates ethereal visions of the human body as a communicative instrument. It is no surprise that Abreu is captivated by Naharin’s work, and one instantly sees echoes of the dancer’s sublime physical language informing the artist’s photographs.
The pandemic has been difficult for Abreu. While his artistic works are chiefly created and exist within the digital realm, his professional vocation has been affected negatively by the sharp drop in job offers. To add to this, the Brazilian government has re-imposed stringent lockdown measures, leaving most with precious little bandwidth to engage with the arts. This has stymied his plans to put together his first exhibition, yet Abreu is not one to be deterred, and as he searches for other like-minded artists to work with, he is also playing with the idea of publishing a small book that explores his consummate photography. Whatever direction Abreu pursues, he will undoubtedly remain a practitioner to look out for, and it will be fascinating to watch as his contemplative and sensitive oeuvre continues to grow.