While we often think of photographs as flat images presented in the static pages of a book or in a frame on a wall, there are many artists working with the medium today who push their interpretations outside of traditional rigidity. Photography has the versatile potential to be moulded into new forms, like sculpture, performance and interactive installations, breaking the limitations of a flat, reproducible image. Instead, the medium becomes a unique experience for each participating viewer.
Inspired by the Brazilian Neo-Concrete movement that originated in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, artist Alice Quaresma incorporates geometric shapes into her work, inviting her viewers to interact with each piece through touch and movement. She disrupts her original photos with paints, pastels, gouache and other materials.
In this interview, Quaresma speaks to LensCulture about the traditions that influence her work, the importance of her viewers interacting with each of her pieces, and how her passion for both photography and painting first came together into one practice.
LensCulture: Your work is rooted in photography, but there are also traces of your artistic exploration of other mediums. Tell me, how did you start developing an artistic practice? Were you always drawn to photography?
Alice Quaresma: I decided to be an artist when I was nine years old – it was all I wanted to do. The idea of captivating someone through an image really intrigued me, and when I was 14 I read a book by two Brazilian artists who spoke about using a lot of geometry in their work. I was so impressed by this way of drawing people in.
I’ve always had a passion for painting, which is much different than photography because there are more boundless possibilities. We don’t necessarily rely on a painting to tell us concrete facts – it’s always free to be expressive, whether through the type of paint you choose, textures you create, strange colors you incorporate, or combinations of all of those things. It was only when I started using photography that I really began to appreciate that limitless feeling that comes with painting.
LC: When did you start focusing on photography as a departure from painting?
AQ: It was a back and forth. In my later artistic studies, I focused on photography, and I started out doing work that was very technical and precise. Soon after, I took a risk and stopped photographing altogether, and did a residency in painting so that I could get back to the roots of my passion for it. That was the beginning of the work that I am making now. During that time, I was looking at all the photos I took over the years in my spare time, when I wasn’t really thinking intensely about what I was photographing – when I was just present in the moment.
LC: When you revisited those photos with fresh eyes, did you see any subconscious patterns in what you had been photographing? What stood out to you the most?
AQ: At that point I had nine years’ worth of archives, so it was quite the process. Looking through those photos, I had so many memories and a lot of nostalgia for the past, especially since a lot of them were taken after I left Brazil. I started realizing that I had a tendency to focus on creating images of landscapes and oceans. I was born by the ocean in Rio de Janeiro, just a few meters away from the beach.
I started thinking about the ocean as an in-between place, and the horizon appearing as a vision of hope. The way I enjoy exhibiting this work is lining up the horizons in the photos across a wall, even if they were taken in different places, so it all looks like an endless horizon across frames.
LC: And these long, linear landscapes relate back to your interest in geometry that you mentioned earlier. Can you expand a bit on that? Who were those artists you read about when you were younger?
AQ: Oh yes, so the book was about the Neo-Concrete movement, which originated in Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, just after the region entered a dictatorship. At the time, most artists were banned from expressing themselves, so geometry allowed them to communicate in an expressive, coded way without getting into trouble. Because geometry doesn’t describe anything specific outright, the government couldn’t really intervene. They were creating paintings, objects and performances – everything you can think of – and they used geometry to invite people to be a part of each work.
The art didn’t end with the final piece or object itself, but the viewers themselves were actually a part of that final work. This is how I became interested in the process of making my pieces, as well as the process of people interacting with them. The Neo-Concretists believed that art is more relevant when it exists in the presence of the public, and it’s more meaningful when we interact with it to make it into something unique.
LC: Describe that process from start to finish, then. How do you begin interacting with the work, deciding which materials to use to intervene? How do you make the decisions about how you will disrupt the photographs?
AQ: When I take a photo, I have no idea how I am going to use it, and they are all chronologically off within the series. Some were taken ten years ago, and some were taken last year, and they also alternate between analog and digital processes.
Because I’m into the process of making, I really like experimenting in the moment. So I don’t experiment beforehand – I experiment while I am actually putting the paints or whatever other materials onto the work. I recently became fascinated with gouache, because it gives me more of a surprise than acrylics. The way it reacts with the photo paper is unexpected, and I can’t really control it. It gets sucked into the paper, and because it’s more delicate and translucent, it has a different quality than the more opaque things I have previously used.
LC: And while you use paint and other materials like oil pastels, I also noticed you sometimes use bits of leather ribbons and lace threaded through this work. What do those materials represent?
AQ: Good question. I like making the photographs into objects that are out of my control, so that the photograph can takes its own shape and make its own shadows when it’s hung on a wall or installed somewhere. I’m interested in creating ways that we can actually interact with the work, bringing it out of the standard frame. I incorporate things like ribbon and lace so that you can actually touch those bits, pull on them to move the piece around, interacting with it as an object instead of a static photograph.
This also makes the work more vulnerable. They keep mutating and creating their own bodies. The photograph has volume, so you can play with the lace and actually participate in the installation. I actually call these “mobiles,” not photographs.
LC: It’s also important to address the use of color in your work, because it plays an integral role in each piece. There’s obvious contrast when you use a black and white image and put colors over top of it, but you also have many pieces where you overlay colors on top of a color print, and that’s quite interesting.
AQ: I believe that the colors I use are the most subjective part of my work, and they are determined at the moment when I am standing in front of the photograph, ready to act. I think those decisions come to me through observing the image over and over again. It’s almost like an exercise in memory and going back, revisiting my story and everything threaded throughout it. And then I can decide.
LC: Speaking of the materials, what types of photo paper are you using for this work and why?
AQ: I use a very simple paper: Epson Enhanced Matte. It’s the most basic photo paper you can find. One of the reasons I use it is because of its durability, and when I use paints and other materials, the paper reacts to them quickly and immediately shows its response. It creates volumes and waves and different forms that are out of my control, which I love.
LC: So with all these moving parts in the work and viewers interacting with the objects and bringing their own experience to them, what is the impression you want them to leave with?
AQ: For me, what is important is getting the viewer to inch closer and closer towards the work, so that they end up using their own imagination. I want to invite them to use their own experiences to complete the work. The actual piece is just the beginning of the entire experience. I want them to tell me what the piece is for them, what the experience is or them, and let them draw their own conclusions with their own eyes.
— Alice Quaresma interviewed by Cat Lachowskyj