Studio visit: João Freitas

In João Freitas's studio

Every week, AGENDA goes in search of the sound & vision of Brussels. This week we are moving beyond the two dimensions of the drawing with João Freitas.

João Freitas was born in Portugal, moved to Luxemburg before the age of one, and later decided to study drawing in Brussels, the city where he still lives and works. Though the fixed northern soil may have tempered the urge to explore that is natural to his Portuguese heritage, Freitas’s veins still run hot with curiosity about the unknown. Setting his sights on the unsightly, he engages in a gestured and poetic dialogue with the medium paper. In his versatile work (consisting of sculptural installations, videos, drawings, and “silent performances”, acts without anyone watching), banal tissues are transformed into dynamic sculptures, passers-by leave their mark on the paper by moving helium balloons as they go by, and the idea into which his medium has developed balances on the fine line between existing and disappearing.

Ephemeral, intimate, and electrifying, his art has taken quite some distance from his work in the drawing class. João Freitas: “I’ve been drawing since I was in nursery school, but it was only at La Cambre that I completely dedicated myself to my artistic practice. This meant that I spent the first few years mastering the basic techniques: perspective, drawing from a model, and other figurative methods. When I started working on large formats and was forced to make more repetitive movements, I realised that I often found the movement itself and everything else going on around the drawing more interesting than the result, and that I could also employ those things to convey the message that I wanted to convey but without doing it literally.” The paper thus became more than a surface. João Freitas: “Precisely. Paper already inherently has all the qualities – fragility, vulnerability – with which I was imbuing my figurative work. What I do now is much more direct, simpler, and has more impact.”

It is true that the impact is substantial, despite (or perhaps thanks to) the at times very small creative act that precedes it. The minimal amount of space that the artist himself claims – as though he is at the point of disappearing – allows space for the work and its permanent state of becoming, or going to an end. This is the case in Trying to Loosen Up a Little, a recent work in which drying paper tests the flexibility of a sheet of MDF. Or the work that the winner of the Young Talent Art Prize of Art on Paper is creating for the contemporary drawing show: a bordered circle inside which graphite suspended from helium balloons starts drawing when passers-by move the balloons. João Freitas looks to create precisely these kinds of eloquent natural settings, this organic moment. “That doesn’t mean that I can’t test, adjust, or refine something, but ultimately it has to be a natural process. It doesn’t work if you tinker on it for too long.”

João Freitas’s work is fuelled by wonder, that intimate moment that can propel reflection and the imagination, and which in his case brings forth a subtle, almost silent poetic dimension from an intense, more aggressive process. João Freitas: “Frustration has had and still has a profound influence on the direction in which I have taken my work. Drawing oppressed me, I constantly felt as though I was failing and not achieving the desired result. So I started crumpling and tearing up paper. There was a whole series of things that I put the paper through. [Laughs] I’m not a happy worker. I am often dissatisfied with what’s going on. At a certain point, frustration gets the better of me and I react, and then something happens, something that can astonish even me sometimes.”

Like one of the helium balloons that narrowly brushes past our heads during our conversation with Freitas. The young artist’s studio – which for some time was located at the Carrefour des Arts but for the past several months has found a home with an Italian couple who founded a platform for upcoming talent – is almost a solo show in itself. Work lies, hangs, or stands all around us, just existing. “Sometimes only just. [Laughs] Sometimes I stretch the medium so far it almost can’t handle it anymore. Until it’s almost finished, yet still, barely, existing.” It is a matter of leaving room for the accidental. Freitas: “Yes, there are things you simply can’t control. I have discovered that trying to control my work does not make it any better. It isn’t only good to accept coincidence in my personal life, but also in my work, because it allows things to take shape more naturally. And the point is to try and accept that. I do it for this aspect of fragility. So if my work collapses now, so be it.”

In January, João Freitas is going to Helsinki with Muesli, an artists’ collective of which he and three other alumni of La Cambre are members, for a utopian project “that must not be achievable.” It almost seems like a point of honesty and wanting to do life justice. Freitas: “I have been told that I am too honest. [Laughs] I cherish the freedom of gestures and not being fixated on results, on being able to move freely between different media. The most important thing is not to cage myself.” And to explore all the possibilities of the medium. João Freitas: “To me it is especially about the will to go beyond the two dimensions of the drawing. Drawing often consists of presenting an idea, but that idea only exists in the drawing. I want the surface to be more than just a receptacle for ideas and to draw the act of drawing out of its cocoon by removing that restrictive framework. There is nothing that separates the work from reality.”

Borough: Elsene/Ixelles
Exhibition: Art on Paper: 11 > 13/9, Bozar,

Photo's © Heleen Rodiers

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