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  1. Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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Albano Afonso: Self-Portrait as Light

Albano Afonso’s Enchanted Realism

Daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.
– Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

The enchanted land and light-scapes Albano Afonso conjures in his multi-dimensional art belong to the realm of the daydream: consciously conceived, shaped by imagination, suspended in fantasy and experienced in lived reality at once. Duality is a hallmark of Afonso’s poetic practice, which transforms art’s traditional genres of landscape, still life, and portraiture into dazzling, multi-faceted meditations on physical and psychological perception. Photographer, sculptor, installation, and light artist, Afonso is a contemporary alchemist of art history: his layered landscapes and bejeweled bones dissolve dichotomies between the organic and the artificial, between figuration and abstraction, between light and shadow, between interior and exterior space. Journeying through bodily, earthly, and celestial spheres, Afonso’s immersive, experiential art extends the pictorial emphasis on light in Old Master painting through Impressionism and the 20th-Century art of light and space to pose challenging questions about identity, time, and mortality.

A femur, a clavicle, along with other human body parts covered in mirror or rendered in bronze and suspended alongside crystals, are activated by a pendulum and further animated by a projection in Afonso’s room-size installation, Anatomy of Light I. The title applies to the artist’s entire oeuvre, as light—natural, painted, projected—is his central subject; here, the anatomy is predominantly human, but the forms are composed as much of light as they are skeletal bodies. As writer Caue Alves notes, “to place mirrors on bones is also a way to make them disappear. And thus they become more of their surroundings, more of everything they reflect.” German artist Otto Piene’s Light Ballets (1959-2014), composed of sculpted and mirrored forms that cast light and shadow, are an evocative precedent for Anatomy of Light, as Piene also sought to transform the physical into the immaterial, and to reference the celestial.

Afonso’s dazzling theatre of starry light and nuanced shadow expands upon the artist’s own Natureza Morte series, which presents mirrored body parts in clear glass boxes, set in dark spaces and illuminated to create the reflections and refractions which become even more dynamic in Anatomy of Light. While referencing the centuries-old memento mori of still life painting, Afonso’s figurative sculptures are animated as abstractions that transcend death. As Alves writes, “When two fragments of mirrored bodies reflect each other an infinite hiatus is formed… These reflections dissolve the body’s bone structure and transform it into light.” The resulting immersive environment places the viewer within a starry sky, offering access to the infinite through the ephemeral projection of light.

Shadows dance with and within the sparkling light as well, in a spectrum of darkness which at times obscures the identify of the forms: do we perceive a human limb, a tree branch, a merging of both? The Man and the Tree, part of Afonso’s Illuminated Pictograms series (2010) presents a semi-recumbent figure with a tree growing from his torso. Flesh and muscle, bark and branch are drawn in wire, dotted with microlamps—points of light, rather than mirrored projections. The breadth of Afonso’s engagement with luminosity correlates to the science of quantum mechanics, to the study of how light, at the atomic and subatomic level, behaves like both particles and waves. Light, in Afonso’ s Pictograms, glows in points, while its reflections, refractions, shadows move through space in his installations, where the resident skeletons become mirrored particles. Reality—the imperceptible reality of microscience—is manifest in Afonso’s art, interwoven with magic and metaphor to make visible what is unseen.

Below ground level in The Man and the Tree is a photographic landscape, a genre deftly manipulated in several bodies of Afonso’s work that examine the nature of perception. For Afonso, “landscape, especially the garden, is the stage to develop the human drama,” says critic Paul Reis—the drama of what and how we see. The Garden series consists of groupings of photographs taken in public parks, botanical gardens, and other urban and suburban sites all over the world. Some images include one or more figures, and many suggest human presence through absence, while other photographs are framed in color or perforated with holes; a monochromatic image appears here and there, emphasizing a particular hue in the landscape. While the location and date are sometimes included in the title of a particular Garden (as is also true in Afonso’s Forests, Maps, Constellations and Landscape Crystallization series), the aggregate of images undermines geographic identity. Views of ponds, trees, grassy lawns seen in contrasting light and shadow repeat, shift in scale and focus, and on occasion are interrupted by squares of color or perforations, rendering these landscapes enigmatic fields of mystery. The specificity of a time and location is negated by the suspension of time therein; Afonso dislocates the known to redirect our vision toward the unknown, or unknowable. Critic David Barro observes that in Afonso’s landscapes, “all feeling of recognition is deactivated by the fragmentation of the setting. It is as if time is stopped, space contained…Deep down they are no more than deconstructions of the landscapes that are still left to us to inhabit…That is why he delves into the invisible and the visible, into the edge, into the parenthesis, into the fissures.”

Fissures are presented as material as well as metaphor in the Garden, Forests, and Paradises that feature perforated photographs on aluminum. The dotted holes appear as portals of light in these layered and shimmering landscapes, and recall the mirrored surfaces of Afonso’s skeletal forms, linking light, nature, and the body. The mirrors situate the viewer within an image, while simultaneously enacting a profound displacement. Afonso utilizes the mirror as understood by philosopher Michel Foucault, as a utopia: “I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space… I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives visibility to myself.” The mirror shows us to ourselves, reveals the hidden, while reproducing infinity.

Repetition of form, color, and imagery are utilized to further explore the duality of the visible and invisible in Afonso’s Maps, Constellations and Landscape Crystallizations. Lines drawn in drypoint on the dark surfaces of landscapes appear as ray tracings mapping the movement of light across space, form, and time in Afonso’s Maps, uninterrupted by the frame of a diptych or a minimalist column of opaque color. The unfiltered sky above Sao Paolo is reproduced in the multi-panel color fields of Constellation, Sao Paolo, Summer Days 2004/5. Working in the tradition of the Impressionists, Afonso captures nature’s imagery at scheduled intervals over a period of time. Using a camera, rather than a brush and paint, the spectrum of hues in this register of skyscapes—blues, yellows, browns, pinks, and more—reflect both the sunlight and the electrical light that illuminate cities around the clock today: natural phenomena are now both organic and artificial. Like James Turrell’s skyspace environments, Afonso’s pictorial Constellations immerse the viewer in color, and in the range of sensations those colors evoke.

At first glance, the Landscape Crystallizations read as realistic photographs of dense, jungle-like forest environments. In some areas within these monumental images, saturated color and sharp contrasts between light and shadow may at times give way to exaggerated forms: the flat planes of a Cubist geometry emerge among the flora and fauna, the contours of leaves and plants becoming faceted and reproducing like renderings from digital code—crystallized. Crystals are also featured in Anatomy of Light I, where they hang suspended alongside the mirrored and bronze sculptures, casting light and shadow, further dissipating forms into luminous emanations. The power to create balance, to harmonize energies, has long been attributed to crystals, and it is this invisible harmony these landscapes evoke. Photographed and manipulated forms blend and balance, while light—the light of the sun, the light in the mirror, the inner light of human consciousness—radiates in sun and shadow, alluding to the harmony of the bodily, earthly, and celestial spheres. Afonso’s vision of cosmic harmony is derived from the imperceptible physics that shape the micro and macroscopic spaces we inhabit, a reality articulated by neuroscientist Leonard Shlain: “Revolutionary art and visionary physics,” he asserts, “are both investigations into the nature of reality.” Albano Afonso’s realism embeds the figure in the landscape, reuniting the body with the earth in luminous waves and particles, creating a portrait of the universal within the individual, an interconnected self-portrait as light.

Alice Gray Stites, VP, Museum Director


Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Herterotopias,” 1967. Lecture:

Caue Alves, Anatomia da Luz: Albano Afonso. Rio de Janeiro: 01 Futuro, 2014.

David Barro, editor, Albano Afonso. Santiago de Compostela: Artedardo, 2011

Leonard Shlain, Art&Physics, Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light. New York: William Morrow, 1991.

About the artist: Albano Afonso (São Paulo, 1964) lives and works in São Paulo, Brazil. He graduated from Faculdade de Artes Alcantara Machado, São Paulo in 1990. Afonso’s first solo show was presented in 1993 at Centro Cultural São Paulo. His work has since been exhibited at museums and galleries worldwide, including Museu de Arte Contemporãnea de Niterói, Brazil; Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, Brazil; Mercosul Biennal, Porto Alegre, Brazil; Cuenca Biennal, Equador; Kawasaki City Museum, Japan; Museu de Arte Contemporáneo Español, Spain; Open EV+A, Limerick, Republic of Ireland.

The art of Albano Afonso is included in the collections of Colección Fundación ARCO, Spain; Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Spain; Coleção Gilberto Chateaubriand, Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, Brazil; Inhotim, Centro de Arte Contemporânea, Brumadinho, Brazil; BES Collection, Lisbon, Portugal; University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art, Essex, UK; and 21c Museum Hotels, US.

Together with Sandra Cinto, Albano Afonso is the founder of Ateliê Fidalga, an organization that supports and advises young artists in Brazil.