Lucas Arruda. Sem título (Untitled), 2017. Oil on canvas, 24 x 30 cm (9 1/2 x 11 7/8 in). © Lucas Arruda. Courtesy Mendes Wood DM, São Paulo/Brussels and David Zwirner, London. Photograph: Everton Ballardin.

Lucas Arruda grapples with what its means to paint through tradition in his first solo exhibition in New York, ‘Deserto-Modelo’

Lucas Arruda, 36, mentioned in an interview with a Sao Paolo newspaper that his paintings are inspired by myths and tales. This maybe understood in the context of a pedestrian comparison to Mark Rothko or of being interested in myths when they seem less essential than they were in the past to the education of a painter. Arruda goes on to talk about childhood memories and songs that inform his painting. With the proliferation of text and images in our hyperconnected world, the painter is “intrigued” by finding harmony in the density and chaos, comparing himself to a bug in one corner that is able to watch everything but without a sense of order. His goal he says, is about “organizing” the information and making it beautiful.

His exhibition at David Zwirner is divided in four sections, each with a specific room lighting. In the first room, the visitor will find seven medium-sized paintings, no more than four feet in width and height, mostly dark-toned gradient. While the paintings are not overwhelming, there is a tightness in the view of this enclosed space. The soft lighting does not reveal the complex thin layers of paint at first glance. Each of the painting has a distinctive almost rectangular area, subtly made one below and one above of the same size, delimited only by incidence of light. The spectator witnesses on canvas, a cadence of lightness and darkness.

The softer regions of these works represents the sky – “the dreamed, imagined part, the fantasy, the unreal, the remembered.” The in-betweens of almost imperceptible paint below, flatter, “would be the earth, the real, the palpable.” “Almost like yin-yang” or “ideograms of painting,” Lucas Arruda’s composition speaks of a “balancing utopia,” he says – and its presentation reminds us of the serene seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs. The polarities, he expresses, interest the Brazilian painter. And just as in the melancholy of chorinhos (little cries), there is a very thin line that separates darkness from radiance.

The artist says that he has already been criticized for the “monotony” of his works – which, in fact, is about persistence, about “debugging” the same subject. Since 2011 he has been making paintings that can be seen as the purest seas or the purest landscapes – in them, only one horizon separates the sky and the sea; the sky and the earth. “I’ve been doing these landscapes for so long that the landscape theme almost dissolved, almost became a structure for me,” he says. In these works, most of them, small canvases, the painter creates “atmospheres”.

The exhibition continues into three other spaces but can only be accessed by passing repeatedly through the first gallery, as if suggesting that one reconsiders the larger works in the first room in light of the variegated and more latently abstract landscapes of the smaller canvasses. In all the other rooms, the lighting resembling the glow just before dusk, Lucas Arruda shows a beautiful linear sequence of his small canvases, all freshly painted, with a brushload of oil paint bleeding beyond the surface of the canvas.

It is as if we find a series of paintings that represent the same views taken on different days and some seem from another historical time, especially the ones that closely recall Turner. “The idea of making the paintings the same size and showing them in the same space is a way of emphasising repetition and, at the same time, subtle variations,” says the artist.

In the desert, he remembers, anything that happens – an usual glimmer in the sky; a trail in the sand – gains eloquence. “In this place that has no weight of language, you experience a sense of temporal, metaphysical suspension,” he comments. When Lucas Arruda defines that the landscape has become a kind of structure, he reinforces the fact that the theme is connected, rather, “to a state of mind.”

Quotes taken from Lucas Arruda’s interview with Sao Paolo publication, Estadao.

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