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05/06/14 Portuguese Artist Daniel Melim

Usually, art falls under the dictates of its maker and not the other way around. After numerous exhibitions and awards, Daniel Melim decided to dismount the lofty stance of an artist and sought commune rather than ego-driven creation. In 2012, Melim took his art to the streets of Lisboa, Portugal and began offering “free drawing” sessions to the public, rendering peoples’ imagination onto paper, be it their greatest wish (“Focar o Invisível”/”Focusing the Invisible”) or a POV on their relationships (“Flor de Nós”/”Flower of Us”). Through this co-creation, the artist’s resonance with his work deepens and his subjects get literal perspective into their innermost thoughts.  

Prior to Melim’s “Desenhos Para Pessoas (Drawing for People)” project, he had already broken barriers with artistic medium through his paint-only paintings. When dry, a painted image is removed from its glass medium and hung like a poster, a style that became his signature before he felt it was time to move on.

While preparing to leave for an MA in London’s Goldsmiths University, Melim talks to NOUS about reverting to his original intents as an artist, Hockney and Tintin as inspirations, and taking art out of the confined space of a gallery to communicate more directly with people.

Hi, Daniel. What have you been working on lately? 

Right now I’m in the process of focusing more on the essence of what made me follow the art path in the first place. After some years of gallery exhibitions and some awards, I was feeling it all to be a bit unsatisfactory and, to some extent, heavy and not natural to me. So, kind of instinctively and not always elegantly, I moved over the last 2 years or so more and more towards projects that made me have a more direct contact with people. I also re-engaged with my drawing work, which has always felt a bit like “home” for me. Sure, I had to find other sources of income to stop exhibiting, but it is making all the sense to me. Not that I wish to step outside of the gallery world, just that I don’t want it to be my life’s main focus, both personally and financially. I’ve just been accepted to the MA Participatory & Community Arts at Goldsmiths, London, in September. So I’m just waiting for the Gulbenkian Foundation’s reply on my request for a scholarship to take that stimulating next move.

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When did you start offering drawings for the public and how did this idea come about?

For a long time, I’ve been interested in drawing in as many different styles as possible, and most of my Fine Arts school work was about that, so at as certain point it felt like some images could have been done by more than one person. In 2006, after visiting an amazing Ecovillage in the south of Portugal and going deeply into João Fiadeiro’s rich Real Time Composition practice of open-performance classes, I became more and more interested in the possibility of co-creating art.

In 2008, I made a first experiment called “Free Drawing,” in which I was sitting for two weeks at a desk in a gallery, a few hours every day, just drawing whatever people asked me. I just followed people’s requests and gave them the drawings for free. It was a mind-blowing experience for me, and I guess it was doing its subconscious work for some years. So in 2012, in the context of this “deepening of the path” that I described before, together with a friend researcher and psychologist Rita Tojal, I went out to the streets offering this free-drawing service for people who where recovering from something. We had a poster announcing it and we didn’t define “recovery,” it was up for the people to feel if this was for them. All sorts of situations appeared, from mundane concerns to truly tragic life situations. So this “Desenhos Para Pessoas/Drawing for People” project stemmed from there. The aim is to connect with anyone, and to provide both an experience and afterwards a visual mark that can act as pretext for the person to go deeper into his or her inner life. It also provides people with very cheap or even free, depending on the context that I am in, artwork.

What are your plans for this project—where else would you like to take these public drawing sessions? 

Well, in September I’m moving to London, so I hope to do it there too. Wherever I can do it both according to my level of demand and really being of service to people, I’m interested in doing it. I don’t really like the feeling of repeating myself very much, and I get it quite quickly, so I guess even though I will keep finding ways of opening to others through visual practices, naturally the outside shape of that gesture will always change a lot. I wish I can find a context in which, in a financially consequent way, I can develop these things for people’s deepening and for my contempt as a creative person. That is also why I’m going to take part in this MA at Goldsmiths.

Growing up, were you exposed to certain works that influenced your style and formed the foundations of the artist you’ve become?  

I believe you are influenced by the whole world that reaches you, and you influence it too. I don’t really care very much about originality anymore, but I believe that it is good to keep checking the freshness and honesty of what you are offering to the world. If you take care of that, if you are in love and enthusiastic about what you do, originality is natural. Life is original by default, it ceaselessly originates. So, if you follow your path, something meaningful to other persons is inevitably going to happen. Creativity is not at all an artist’s domain, this is almost a cliché but I feel it is not really understood by most people, oftentimes not even by our needy artistic egos.

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Having said this, I have benefited from the presence in this world of people like Giorgio Morandi, David Hockney and Francis Alys. I am also constantly falling more and more in love with artists like Hokusai and Hirosige. I spent most of my early-teen time reading classic comics like Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Tintin, and that left a mark, too. For a long time I love poetry very much, Rumi, Herberto Helder, Fernando Pessoa etc. And to some extent, interiorly I have always felt more of a poet than really a painter. But honestly, I can’t say that those things and people have contributed to my creative life anymore than some of these things I will now state: my grandparents both grew vegetables in totally improvised and clumsy backyards; in Madeira island, where I grew up, nature is very strong and the sky is almost always blue with a couple of clouds here and there; my grandfather loved my drawings and asked me for more; my uncle’s girlfriend was a painter that painted in a small amazing attic; I didn’t really have a lot of kids to play with outside of school, and always had pen and pencil around; I ultimately have no idea why painting chose this person.

I had the good luck of meeting early on that painter that was my uncle’s girlfiend, Filipa Venancio, who is surely one of Madeira’s artistic pearls. Then I had an excellent and dedicated High School arts teacher-painter-poet, Teresa Jardim. Later in college, I had very good drawing teachers, and other teachers that supported and inspired me a lot. I also had a big bunch of amazingly creative colleagues.

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Regarding my painting path, or image-making in general, I don’t really see it as evolution, right now I relate more richly to the word “deepening.” I believe life is incredibly surprising and demanding to everyone, specially in financial and emotional terms, and sometimes I believe it is a bit of a miracle that I keep painting in the midst of all these bills to pay and people or situations that need your attention. Painting started out with this focusing on a chocolate house—I did a series just out of it. Then this series of paintings of daily objects appeared, represented one by one. All of this was done with a technique on glass with acrylic paint, where the paint was taken out of the glass and hung in the gallery like a poster with double-side tape. While I painted, the glass was placed between me and the model, so I used it a bit like a Renaissance perspectograph. In the last series I did with that technique, I was using as models temporary clay statues I built myself, under direct sunlight. Then the thing evolved, within the same perspectograph-like set, to paint not on glass but on an acrylic membrane stretched between me and the model. From 2010 to 2013 I painted like that. It allowed me to paint bigger pictures and to have a more relaxed logistic, because glass is very heavy and sometimes dangerous. But since in this technique, you always have to paint with a very rigid view point and using stretched brushed to reach the whole surface from one standing point, I began to have some neck problems and overall, the whole painting-in-the-darkness-of-the-studio-with-just-a-lamp-to-illuminate-the-model was getting all a bit too much. Plus my growing disenchantment with the art circuit, as stated before, made me start the more communitarian projects. In terms of studio work, I’ve mostly gone back to drawing. Very slowly I’m now letting painting back in, in small formats, and in whichever technique I feel like doing—even some normal canvases! It’s funny how you can lose track of the pleasure for you own job. I’ve never been a full-time painter, so this kind of suits me more.

Can you talk about the recurring themes in your paintings? Maybe socio-political issues in Portugal?

I’m called again and again to paint real tridimensional recognizable things that are intrinsically impossible to fully understand. Visual presences that point towards a silent rich inner life that we all share. I strive to be visually generous but always challenging. I naturally find great motivation for painting and drawing in traditional and land-related cultures. I’m not ethnographic or theoretical about it, or at least I hope my speech about it doesn’t cover up the essential, but I do get tremendous amounts of energy from cultures and people that adapt to present circumstances in a very lively way, while at the same time honoring and follow the basics teaching of their old culture.

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I’m thinking, as an example, of certain expressions of Brazilian popular culture in the area of Pernambuco that aren’t at all menaced by globalization. Having been always in the crossing between Portuguese-African-indigenous identities, they feed from that globalization, eat it, and spit out an incredibly alive digestion process. My imagery stems from nature, from contexts of physical transformation and from those cultures. I think connecting to your innermost core topics is a radically political act, too. Reconnection is a word that is very dear to me, and there is something in the images I make that points to that. It might sound a bit strange, but I feel a good part of what influences my images are music. There are musical consequences to be taken from my images—from anyone’s images, I would say—and so these native cultures’ poetry and musical expressions are rivers that also feed this visuality happening under my name. Of course the Portuguese traditional culture is the first of these rivers, because I was raised here.

Even though I try to check the consequences of what I do in my community, I don’t really feel I need to talk about politics to be political in my work. If through engaging with my work, be it studio or communitarian work, one person raises his or her awareness about something relevant to their personal or social life, for the moment it’s good enough for me. Even though I think pedagogical and activist approaches are very important and quite necessary, for my life right now I believe more in inspiring than in literally teaching.

What inspired the idea behind creating unsupported acrylic paintings? It’s as if you are trying to make art more real to its viewer by removing it from a constrained space.

I think this medium comes out of sheer curiosity, out of joy for a new and potentially communicative approach to images. I do understand a connection of such medium with the idea of fragility. I like the dialogue between the image’s power and the medium’s weakness, a bit like the fact that even though our ideas can sometimes be very shinny and seem strong, they eventually are all very fragile and unsustainable for long time. I don’t like images that believe in themselves very much.

I believe we also make images to deepen our connection with life and each other, so for me these paint-only paintings are an ongoing meditation on the fragility of every shape in the universe. We are supported by gravity, but what supports gravity? I don’t feel at all seduced by making speeches about art history or medium-specific history, or about the connection between what I do and that. Maybe the only relevant comment I can make about it is that nowadays, we artists spend way too much time talking among ourselves about our supposedly specific issues, and to a great extent have forgotten the real vibrant and urgent life outside of bookshelves and white cubes.

I hope my paintings can talk to anyone in some level, from a five year-old child, to an illiterate person in the Northwest of Portugal, to a director of a Contemporary Art Museum. I also don’t feel inclined to off-the-system speeches—it’s another way of avoiding real life and avoiding yourself. Life is a bit more surprising than our big speeches about the meaning and importance of our art. Maybe I went a bit off topic with this answer, but this is what shows up now when you ask me about aesthetic choices. I prefer to primarily relate art to the rest life, to our inner life and to our shared life, than to any kind of artistic rhetoric.

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