José Leonilson's first solo exhibition in the United States on view at the Americas Society

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José Leonilson's first solo exhibition in the United States on view at the Americas Society
Mirro, c. 1975, 15.35 x 15.75 x 3.15 in. (39 x 40 x 8 cm.), acrylic paint, felt, and thread on jeans, cardboard, and wood, glass, and metal frame. Bezerra Dias Family Collection / Projeto Leonilson © Projeto Leonilson. Photo: Edouard Fraipont.

NEW YORK, NY.- In the 1980s, when the world was reverberating from the shockwaves sent by AIDS, Brazilian artist José Leonilson (1957–1993) adapted the political discourse of the epidemic into a metaphysical rumination. His work offers a pantheon of symbols, poetics, and patterns, charting in personal terms the odyssey of a disease, which simultaneously sparked fear, confusion, and panic.

Americas Society is presenting José Leonilson: Empty Man, the first solo exhibition in the United States of one of Brazil’s leading figures of contemporary art. Curated by Cecilia Brunson, Gabriela Rangel, and Susanna V. Temkin, José Leonilson: Empty Man is on view at the Society’s Art Gallery through February 3, 2018.

Leonilson’s mythical universe constructs an existential narrative around his own predicament, and this timeless intimacy doubly resonates in the context of a disease characterized so often by losses. “Leonilson’s practice tackled the question of art as an exercise of introspection. It is mesmeric. Whether sketched, painted, illustrated, or embroidered, his symbols evolve into a vocabulary that can articulate his love, isolation, gender, sexuality—ultimately, a reconciliation with the idea of his death,” describes independent curator Cecilia Brunson. “Perhaps because of this personal journey—his own DNA at the core of his ‘diary’—he resisted being grouped with the so-called 80s Generation in Brazil, despite having been associated closely with its meteoric success.”

The exhibition opens with Leonilson’s most mature works from the last three years of his life and presents the trajectory of his interior world backwards. As the poet T.S. Eliot, wrote: “In my beginning is my end, and in my end is my beginning.” By following this path, the viewer can recapitulate Leonilson’s beginnings through the lens of the mature lexicon that developed over the course of his life. “José Leonilson’s raw, self-exposed subjectivity constructed an enduring artistic myth that transcended a mere chronicle of the AIDS epidemic,” says Americas Society Visual Arts Director and Chief Curator Gabriela Rangel. “His work expanded the language of painting to become decentered without gender and inviting the viewer to share his transgressive intimacy.”

During his lifetime, Leonilson’s work was frequently exhibited abroad and he traveled numerous times to Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, and Paris. His savvy taste for global culture is reflected in the diversity of his sources, which range from Arthur Bispo de Rosario to Shaker aesthetics, as well as in his knowledge and proficiency for languages. “One of the earlier paintings in our show is José Leonilson’s Pescador de Palavras (Fisher of Words), a surrogate for his own persona as a connoisseur of language. Like a collector, José Leonilson gathered words, song lyrics, and aphorisms, often combining languages, breaking grammar rules, and experimenting with sounds,” said Americas Society’s Assistant Curator Susanna Temkin. “Today, these puns and highly affective phrases continue to allow his voice to speak from his canvases and embroideries, revealing his wry humor and the stoic pathos of his final years.”

José Leonilson: Empty Man features around 50 works, including drawings, paintings, and embroideries, as well as documents borrowed from public institutions and private collections in Brazil and the United States. Focusing on the artist’s production dating from the mid-1980s until his death in 1993, the exhibition will showcase his fully developed idiosyncratic language in which he combined a distinct iconographic lexicon with intimate text. The show is organized by independent curator Cecilia Brunson, Americas Society’s Visual Arts Director and Chief Curator Gabriela Rangel, and Americas Society’s Assistant Curator Susanna V. Temkin, with the cooperation of the São Paulo-based Projeto Leonilson.

José Leonilson: Empty Man, is accompanied by an illustrated publication edited by Karen Marta and Gabriela Rangel. The book, designed by Garrick Gott, features essays by the show’s curators, as well as texts by invited scholars Jenni Sorkin (University of California at Santa Barbara), Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas (writer and art historian), and Yuji Kawasima (Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain). The publication includes archival documents and an exhibition history and bibliography.

Born in Fortaleza in 1957, José Leonilson Bezerra Dias studied at the Escola Pan-Americana de Arte and the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP) in São Paulo. A participant in the generation-defining exhibition, Como vai você, Geração 80? (How Are You, Generation 80?), he emerged as a seminal figure of the Brazilian contemporary art world during the 1980s. Over the course of his career, Leonilson traveled extensively throughout Europe, and his paintings, drawings, and installations were featured in solo and group shows in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, in addition to many exhibitions held in Brazil. In 1991, the artist tested positive for HIV. This diagnosis compelled a decisive shift in his career, as Leonilson began to develop his intimate embroideries, a practice he continued until his death in 1993 at the age of 36. Artworks by Leonilson are today included in such major public and private collections as the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou; the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona; the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others.

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