A Collision of Sex, Samba & Rebellion

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The New York Sun

F or many Americans, Rio de Janeiro exists somewhere between the mythically dreamy and mysterious “Black Orpheus” (1959) and, starring Mickey Rourke, the sleazy, sex-obsessed “Wild Orchid” (1990). Cinema treats Brazil as a multicultural clash of poverty, Old World religion, myth, and folklore, on the one hand, and modernization, political corruption, and exotic seaside resorts, on the other, all set against a paradisiacal backdrop of ecstatic sunsets and string bikinis. Surprisingly, the exhibition “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture,” which opens Saturday at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, reinforces rather than alters that perception.

“Tropicália,” the inaugural exhibition of more than 250 objects that celebrates the expansion and reopening of the Bronx Museum, is an orgiastic cornucopia of sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures. A multidisciplinary convergence of 1960s Pop art, folk art, and counterculture — of sex, Samba, rebellion, Duchampian circus, and Carnival — “Tropicália” is a heady mix of work that expresses both a time and a place.

The experimental Tropicália movement (1967–72) takes its name from Hélio Oiticica’s 1967 art installation of the same title, as well as that of the smash pop album issued later, featuring Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, and Caetano Veloso. It is synonymous with the Brazilian pop music scene of the late 1960s. Yet, the exhibition, guest-curated by Carlos Basualdo from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Lydia Yee and Erin Salazar from the Bronx Museum, brings us the full, politically rebellious scope of the Tropicália movement. The show, which includes set and costume design, posters, fashion, periodicals, sculptures and installations, architectural drawings, film, and music, is, in part, an effort to convey the transformative, and — through the next generation — ongoing impact of Tropicália on Brazilian culture.

Oiticica (1937–1980), the founder of Tropicália, hoped to overthrow the standard myth of Brazilian culture with works that were socially, ethically, and politically — rather than aesthetically — significant. He wanted to break down the barrier between art and viewer. Fueled by political protest against the military coup of April 1964, Tropicália is what happened in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo when the arts collided with an oppressive, dictatorial regime.

As with most collisions, “Tropicália” produced some interesting results along with concussion-based works that are simply off-track or dazed and confused. Taken piece by piece, a lot of the bland and politically based Pop art–inspired work in the show, as well as the fashion and graphic design, look like they could have been made almost anywhere during the late 1960s through the early 1970s. On the other hand, the show as a whole conveys something that feels uniquely Brazilian.

Typical of “Tropicália” are multi-sensorial works that allow for interactive, hands-on participation. Don a pair of white cotton gloves, and you can touch some of the works on view. You can also bend down to the floor to sample Lygia Pape’s “Wheel of Delights” (1968), a circular grouping of 16 white bowls filled with colored, scented liquid that, with droppers, allows you to taste yellow, orange, green, and blue. Pick up a piece of chalk and you can write or draw on Rivane Neuenschwander’s wall mural. Perk up your ears, and you can listen to Arto Lindsay’s “Orgy Flower” (2005), a layered montage of yelps and moans sampled from X-rated movies. Take off your shoes, and you can move through Oiticica’s interactive “Tropicália” and “Eden” (1969), meandering environments that, filling a gallery at the Bronx Museum, interweave as a jungle maze of sand paths, interrupted by tents, a pool of water, straw, vegetation, cubicles, beds, books, and live parrots. Oiticica’s works make a big statement, but, nearly 40 years later, they feel like much ado about nothing.

The Tropicália movement, as presented in the exhibition, feels as if it was born out of cultural need and in mid-run. The movement’s art is often weighed down by its politically rebellious and anti-art beginnings. But despite the Brazilian artists’ seemingly blind adoption and emulation of American art, music, and fashion, Tropicália has an inherent and vital Brazilian life of its own. And a number of artists shine. Hélio Eichbauer’s drawings and maquette for the play “The Candle King” (1967) are magical and lively. Lygia Pape’s relief sculptures, though rhythmically even, are clear and concise; and their painted edges give colored auras to their geometric white forms.

Still, the uneven exhibition can be a little self-involved and plodding. A number of the works are merely derivative period works. But only in this exhibition could I imagine coming across Nelson Leirner’s “The Pig” (c. 1966) — merely a taxidermal sculpture of a pig in a crate — and feel that it was more than a missing link between Robert Rauschenberg’s stuffed goat and Damian Hirst’s pickled cow. Here “The Pig” fits right in. Rounding out the show, “O Porco” is the low to “Tropicália’s” highs.

October 7 through January 28 (1040 Grand Concourse at 165th Street, 718-681-6000).

The New York Sun

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