João Onofre, Untitled (in awe of), 2023
João Onofre: Untitled (in awe of)
Oct 10 – Nov 18, 2023
Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art
Lisboa, Portugal

By the time you get to see it, you already have a share or stake in it. Objects revisited. Objects which never come without baggage, points of reference, signs of identification. It’s how you understand them, on the one hand, but it’s also what gets in the way. What keeps you looking. Histories, personal histories, and shared affinities, like an image or a musical memory. It’s a curatorial impulse, to make sense of and render these fleeting but essential moments of experience visible.

[ . . . ]

If it sounds like a deeply conceptual practice, Onofre’s work seeks material and spatial solutions. It’s never abstracted. Nevertheless, the conjunctions only make sense according to the terms of reference that Onofre sets up. In this way, Onofre makes objects according to a logic of their own making. Every work starts from first principles, almost reinventing modes of perception every time.

Objects formed by brief phrases of Miles Davis. Breath lending form to space. An object which tells of an event, the brief passage of time, of movement. Of something gone silent before you know it. An object residual to the event, an object left behind. Untitled (It’s About That Time Corner Piece) [2022-2023] revisits its earlier incarnation, adding new layers of complexity to the earlier blown glass piece. Each phrase or burst of sound now assumes its own discrete dimensions. Each is sealed, as if to trap the very breath which made them. You can’t not think of Duchamp’s Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette [1920-21]. And now these stabs of silent sound are configured (randomly?) in the corner. What is it about corner pieces? The tense meeting of planes, and a resistance to conventions of display? And you can’t not think of Beuys, of Flavin…

But don’t think too hard because the allusions are only gently implied. And, as so often with Onofre’s work, they are the result of an act of translation from which, crucially, there’s no return to the original source. Miles is entirely inside the formation of these objects, but, at the same time, you have to resort to inherited memories, or what you think you remember, to ‘hear’ him again.

There’s always translation at work, or perhaps you might call it an act of transubstantiation. Materials change through suspension of disbelief. Think of A Promise of a Sculpture [2012], where the object is contractually defined, but offered in a state of perpetual deferral. Or Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an image of beauty converted into binary code (key version), [2014-2015]. The binary code should be stable enough, but is there a possibility of reversion? Perhaps it’s the ‘image of beauty’ that you always seek that ironically complicates the coding? Or perhaps the image is another deferred promise…?

So much of Onofre’s work sets the object in front of you against evidence or prior knowledge. There’s a moment, for example, when you’re standing outside of Box sized DIE [2007-], when all you can see is the sculpture’s formal authority, and you can no longer hear what’s going on inside. It makes you look harder. The viewer might be in a privileged position, but that location produces anxieties of perception. Barbary Falcon (in awe of) [2023] is an incarnation of that destabilised positioning which so much of Onofre’s work engenders. You are momentarily at a loss. From where do you place yourself in order to engage? It’s an art historical conundrum. In the arch-romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich for example, you gaze upon the gazer. It’s impossible to know from where the painting is painted. You’re both inside it and struggling to establish the unstable viewpoint of perception – two places (or more) at once.

Barbary Falcon (in awe of) takes this further. It doesn’t just track the creature’s motion but also tries to frame the bird’s perception. The Barbary has two foveae in each eye, offering acuity of for close focus as well as improbable distances. You can’t imagine what or how she sees. Perhaps it’s like looking through micro and macro lenses at the same time? As if the bird inhabits two planes of perception at once.

The eye of the lens tracking the eye. Onofre sets up a particular subjectivity to this perceptive process. There’s a configuration of screens that reinforces notions of surveillance, while an arrangement of screens invokes a panopticon. Where will the viewer be able to position themselves? Horizontals – historically identified as the planes of perception – are set against verticals. (It’s perhaps only since we’ve been scrolling through Instagram that we have reinvested so much in the vertical image, and so thoroughly that the early twenty-first century may yet prove to be the era of the vertical image.) Barbary Falcon (in awe of) asks questions of perception and how an image is constructed. It asks how we see the unseeable.

So often with Onofre, what you see is only part of the story. He invokes a different type of evidence, always. It all makes perfect sense for that moment, as you experience it. You have to trust your eye to see what you believe you see. But it’s set up to resist your overdetermination and remains ungraspable in a tension of opposites or contrasts. Contradictions which, in this constructed space, are not contradictions at all. There’s always a tension between the surface of things and something going on underneath. (You always wanted someone to show you what was going on underneath…)

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