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José Leonilson

January 19, 2018

This carefully curated exhibition of the Brazilian artist José Leonilson (1957–93) presents a body of work that is intensely poetic, intimate, and materially fragile. Those familiar with contemporary Latin American art know Leonilson best for his delicate embroideries featuring images and texts that elusively ponder a range of existential issues, including the nature of the self, the possibility of signification, and the emotional life of the body. Empty Man (as the show is titled, after a work by the artist) delves deeply into this deceptively marginal practice. His first solo exhibition in the United States, it introduces Leonilson to a US audience through approximately fifty drawings, paintings, and, of course, embroideries, housed in the Americas Society’s three-room gallery space. 

At the outset of his career, Leonilson was part of a group of artists deeply invested in the medium of painting as a form of expression. Empty Man, however, focuses on the shift from painting to needlework that roughly coincided with Leonilson’s HIV diagnosis in 1991. To emphasize the importance of this later phase of the artist’s career, the curators have organized Empty Man in reverse chronological order, presenting his embroideries first […]

The other paintings on display in the final gallery echo the style and concerns of The City Streets. Unstretched canvases tacked directly to the wall feature simplified images, often with enigmatic words and phrases, set against monochrome grounds. Many engage and unravel the logic of conceptual systems, as exemplified in numbers, maps, and so forth. The artist mixes the inside with the outside: organs with streets, rivers with brains, hearts with kingdoms. The self is not represented, rather it is scattered throughout the world.

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