Studio visit with Tiago Carneiro da Cunha

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Brazilian artist Tiago Carneiro da Cunha is working in a small studio at University of the Arts, near the end of a fall-semester artist’s residency. He is creating a new version of Mudman, one of his stock characters the appear and reappear in his work. This version, a clay figure, is about 2 feet tall, about double a previous version, and too large to fit in the typical Brazilian kiln.

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha working on Mudman at University of the Arts
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha working on Mudman at University of the Arts

The artist’s residency for the internationally recognized artist was arranged with the help of his hosts, contemporary art collectors Mari and Peter Shaw. He is not the first international artist the couple has brought to Philadelphia and the University of the Arts, providing a chance for students, faculty and the visiting artist to have an exchange.

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, alegoria, alegoria, 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 12 (a) x 35 x 35 cms, in part inspired by the song Alegria, alegria. and a cartoon of an art critic as a barking leashed dog
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, alegoria, alegoria, 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 12 (a) x 35 x 35 cms, in part inspired by the song Alegria, alegria. and a cartoon of an art critic as a barking leashed dog

Tiago is far from his family. His wife, he says, has “a baby bump”–the couple’s first is due in January (it’s a girl)! When I visit him he has just returned from a quick trip home, and seems a little sad that he’s missing this experience with his wife. He seems a little startled by the changes in her belly, even though they have been staying in touch via Skype (a nice lesson in the differences between immediate and mediated, 2-D and 3-D).

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha's skull ashtray includes a rest for the cigarette or cigar; smoke comes out the note and eye cavities when a cigarette is resting there.
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha’s skull ashtray includes a rest for the cigarette or cigar; smoke comes out the note and eye cavities when a cigarette is resting there.

At 34,  Tiago is full of charm, energy and enthusiasm. He apologizes for the small amount of work in the studio. Besides the figure, there are a couple of ultra-lumpy skull ashtrays with drippy glazes, part of a larger series with no two exactly alike. When I ask what they fetch at his gallery, he seems almost apologetic when he says $2,000. “They are either an expensive ashtray or a reasonably priced sculpture.”

tiagonietzchiano
Tiago Carnerio da Cunha, antropomorfismo nietzschiano coçando, 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 30 x 31 x 40 cms; the philosopher is scratching his balls and not getting much done

His work, inspired by kitsch-y objects, cartoons, fables and movies from Brazil, fits snugly in what’s going on in U.S. and international art, and also Philadelphia art–Jeff Koons, Urs Fischer, Paul Swenbeck.

Tiago’s taste in easy listening as he works in the studio reflects his engagement in popular culture. ” I’ve been watching House Husbands of Hollywood, a horror movie, the newest episode of South Park. I’m really trashy in my tastes.”

generalidade / generality 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 29 x 25 x 23 cms
generalidade / generality 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 29 x 25 x 23 cms

That same relish for the tacky comes through in the work, but, Tiago’s work, like the artist himself, has a boyish sweetness and playfulness as he mucks about with materials and ideas and culture. It’s tacky as thoughtful commentary on the themes of death, corruption, greed, waste and the human comedy.

tiagolatinoamericano
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, latinoamericano pensante verde e amarelo / green yellow latinamerican thinking, 2004

Among the figurines that have inspired Tiago’s work are a sleepy Mexican drowsing under a giant sombrero, a masturbating monkey, surf boards and diamonds. “They are all sort of cliches, they are all sort of ready mades usually involving sex.” He tells me about another popular figurine in Brazil–a caped priest with a mechanical erection–one of the inspirations for his Generality caped military man.

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, pedinte pequeno / small beggar 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 21 x 21 x 24 cm
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, pedinte pequeno / small beggar 2009 faiança policromada / polichrome faience 21 x 21 x 24 cm

Saccharine beggars is another favorite theme. “…The beggar is a Brazilian traditional figure, portraying misery at the same time that it becomes an opportunistic cliche [i.e. a cheap figure for sale]. I wanted to make it even more pathetic and sarcastic. It’s a reaction to seeing the real beggars on the streets in Brazil.  There’s emotion there. I wanted to do something with that .”

caveira realista roxo perolado 2004 resina de poliester moldada, polida a mão / cast poliester resin, hand-polished 13 x 12 x 20 cms edição variada de 7 mais P.A. / edition variee of 7 plus A.P. coleção privada / private collection
caveira realista roxo perolado 2004 resina de poliester moldada, polida a mão / cast poliester resin, hand-polished 13 x 12 x 20 cms edição variada de 7 mais P.A. / edition variee of 7 plus A.P. coleção privada / private collection

His work has veered from slick, faceted objects cast in epoxy to chunky clay objects heavily imprinted with exaggerated thumb impressions and coated with drippy glazes. Tiago says the elegant facets on the epoxy pieces (which start as plaster) and the crude-looking fingerprints and the exaggerated lines in the clay work are all one–a preoccupation with gesture. “I think the subject matter is an excuse,” he said. “They are about preserving values more linked to drawing. …The facets and the thumb prints are the same thing, defining planes and spaces. I wanted to rescue drawing. I started drawing as a teenager. …With the resin I’m reducing the gesture to something shiny.” He switched to epoxy when he realized his folded paper sculptures were easily damaged.

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha,  meu 2001 rosa bebê / baby pink my 2001, 2004 resina de poliester moldada, polida a mão / cast poliester resin, hand-polished 50 x 22 x 35 cms edição variada de 7 mais P.A. / edition variee of 7 plus A.P. coleção privada / private collection
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha,  meu 2001 rosa bebê / baby pink my 2001, 2004 resina de poliester moldada, polida a mão / cast poliester resin, hand-polished 50 x 22 x 35 cms edição variada de 7 mais P.A. / edition variee of 7 plus A.P. coleção privada / private collection

Here’s a little more of our conversation:

L. Tell me about your name?
T. My name is from my father’s side of the family, which comes from the Northeast side of the country. Historically, they are famous slave ones and abolitionists in equal number. My mother is a Hungarian Jew. She was born in Portugal but migrated to Brazil. I’m mixed. I’m Jewish but I was baptized. My mother is a professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago. She has lived here for the past 20 or so years. So I’ve been in this country before. (His English is great).

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, zumbi faiança policromada 23 x 30 x 27 cms
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, zumbi faiança policromada 23 x 30 x 27 cms

L. Has the U.S. changed since the last time you were here?
T. The general perception of the states by Americans themselves has matured. Americans no longer think that the U.S. is the center of the universe. That’s better.

L. Are you excited about the Olympics?
T. At first I was cynical. Brazil has a tradition of public officials stealing money. Huge pubic works in Brazil are started and then never finished. But when I went back, my friends were excited, and now I’m excited too.  International pressure for accountability is too great for the Olympics projects not to get done.

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, esfinge amarela / yellow sphynx resina de poliester moldada, polida a mão / cast poliester resin, hand-polished 28 x 27 x 60 cm edição variada de 7 mais P.A. / edition variee of 7 plus A.P. coleção privada / private collection
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, esfinge amarela / yellow sphynx resina de poliester moldada, polida a mão / cast poliester resin, hand-polished 28 x 27 x 60 cm edição variada de 7 mais P.A. / edition variee of 7 plus A.P. coleção privada / private collection

L.Where do you live?
T. in Rio. We used to live in a bohemian area that was in the middle of slums. At night we heard grenades, anti-aircraft, machine guns. Now we live in Leme; it’s a community of 18,000 people who all work hard, but it’s dominated by a small gang of 18 to 15 youths. …An effort is being made now to institute community policing. People realized power could be taken back.

Tiago told me that his method of sculpting in clay horrifies the ceramics artists. “I start with a solid piece of clay and carve it. It’s not safe. It’s not the kosher way to do it. I create tunnels and other ways to hollow it out. I don’t think of myself as a sculptor, anyway. I always used domestic sized kilns, That’s how ceramics survived in Brazil. There’s not a ceramics market there to allow ceramics to be risky.”

 Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, gargantua rex 2009 faiança / faience 42 x 43 x 38 cms
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, gargantua rex 2009 faiança / faience 42 x 43 x 38 cms

I asked him if he’s ever had a piece explode. Yes, he said. Will this one be okay? “I hope so. I think so.”

The photos in this post are all by permission of Tiago, taken from his website, which is a preformatted photo website hosted by SmugMug for $50 a year.

Postsscripts

Did the mudman sculpture survive the firing? I got the following notes from Tiago about it, now renamed the Philadelphia Experiment (tres Frankenstein).

1) 11/2/2009
i’ll be firing the mudman this week, which is my final week here in philly! it atually broke in half but the ceramics head technician here at uarts saved my life and helped me restore it. hopefully it will survive the kiln.

2) 11/5/2009
i’m coloring the big ‘mudman’ sculpture this afternoon… should be ready by tomorrow… i will definitely send u images as soon as it’s ready! by the way it’s called ‘the philadelphia experiment’: i thought that sounded like it had the right mix of b-horror references, hendrix, and what i was actually doing here…

Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, The Philadelphia Experiment, 2009
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, The Philadelphia Experiment, 2009

3) 11/7/2009
here are some images of the finished piece… unfortunately the base cracked during the final firing.. but the sculpture is still standing! and the colors came out great! take a look

Tags

mari shaw, tiago carneiro da cunha, uarts, university of the arts

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