Five decades of work comprise “Art is Our Last Hope,” Brazilian artist Paulo Bruscky’s first solo show in the U.S. Born in 1949 in Recife, the capital of the northeast state of Pernambuco, Bruscky began making art following the 1964 ouster of Brazilian President João Goulart by a military coup, which started a two-decades-long period of political turbulence. Birthed during this fraught cultural moment, Bruscky’s work has always been markedly different from that of the Concrete artists, whose clean, abstracted geometries began to dominate Brazilian art in the ’50s. Spanning multiple mediums, the 140 works on view show Bruscky’s willingness to experiment with technology and demonstrate a style of object-making and performance that is simultaneously whimsical and political.
Though Bruscky actively participated in international arts movements like Fluxus and mail art, he was thoroughly ensconced in Recife, where, until his recent retirement, he worked full-time as a hospital administrator. His day job inspired a number of works created with medical technology, exhibited in the smaller of the show’s two galleries. Among them is a 1976 series of electroencephalograms (EEGs), the results of Bruscky’s attempts to “draw” with an EEG machine by moving his facial muscles to manipulate his brain’s electrical activity; the word “thought” is printed over the EEGs’ skittering lines in a direct take on sign and signifier that borders on corniness. Equally overt but much more ominous is the nearby Bio-Graphy (2010), a black leather box/briefcase containing the artist’s medical records from throughout his entire life.
Featured alongside the medical imagery is a video of Bruscky’s performance Funeral Art (1971), in which he led a funeral procession through Recife’s streets, ending up in a gallery packed with candle-holding onlookers. His public performances often led to hardship, as the military began to view him as a nuisance and repeatedly arrested him (more, it seems, as Bruscky has expressed in interviews, because they didn’t understand what he was doing than because he posed any direct threat). In the larger gallery is video documentation of Stop Art (1973), in which Bruscky slung a giant ribbon over a two-centuries-old public bridge, as if inaugurating it with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Cars slow to a halt and confused pedestrians mill about in front of the ribbon, creating a palpable tension. When an impatient passerby finally slips under the ribbon and the traffic resumes, the viewer feels a visceral sense of relief.
Works on paper and sculptures take up much of the larger gallery. Many are small and playful, as demonstrated best by I’m pickling myself (1974), a pickle jar containing a laminated, cutout photo of Bruscky. Despite its humor, however, “Art is Our Last Hope” is haunted by the political violence that plagued Brazil over much of Bruscky’s lifetime. That quality is most evident in the selection of mail art, which includes a striking series of photonegative portraits showing people from Recife who had gone missing under the military regime. Being part of the global network of mail—art participants allowed Bruscky to send missives on the state of Recife and Brazil all over the world, his body of work serving as a kind of precursor to the international art scene of today—though with a refreshing lack of jet-setting on the part of Bruscky, who manages to be widely connected while remaining indelibly rooted in his specific context and place.