FOR A PLAYFUL DOMESTICATION OF HISTORY | Michael Asbury
At Julio Villani’s studio, amongst his seemingly heterogeneous production, what begins to emerge as I talk to him is a sense that the work’s formal and procedural ‘simultaneity’ (as he likes to call it) betrays the consistency of his creative thought. This is not to say that the varied nature of the work is constrained by these more operational levels of his creative process. On the contrary, much of his work stems from the juncture of a subjective sensibility and a very particular way of apprehending art historical preferences. In their respective ways both these strands arise from his geographic and, by extension, cultural dislocation. Villani’s sensibility and art historical references become incorporated into the work via the employment alter egos, whether these are fictitious – through the adoption of pseudonyms as he has done in the past – or by referring to 20th century avant-garde aesthetics and the practices of significant art historical figures.
At times these appropriations appear as explicitly as they could possibly be and at other times they are more discreet. Whichever the case, it would seem that a simultaneity of different aesthetics and procedures is accompanied by another concurrency, one in which different forms of memory, bridging the personal and the art specific, the subjective and the shared, are articulated.
His career as an artist became initially identified with a loosely geometric form of painting, predominantly black and white, that through repetition transformed forms into other forms in a type of process of subdivision and multiplication that possessed a certain organic character. I see here a connection with D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form which leads me to remember Richard Hamilton’s and Victor Pasmore’s Developing Process at the Basic Form course at King’s College, Durham University in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne during the 1950s, itself drawing strongly on the methods developed at the Bauhaus.
Similarly, Villani’s work evolves in both its form and concepts through a historical awareness that acknowledges wider cultural processes, as if stating that culture is inevitably referential and that it is from repetition that originality arises. Procedurally, the mirror and the scissors become his means of duplicating, of multiplying his own traces, in a way analogous to how he ‘punctures’ different historical layers, making one bleed into another, exchanging qualities and at times contaminating one another.
This essay, a fragmented attempt to bring these explorations together, threads one possible route for these different forms of simultaneity, binding them into the linear structure of a book. Like a pack of cards they could be easily reshuffled and rearranged so that they would tell the same story with another intonation, with another accent perhaps.
ALMOST READYMADE | Michael Asbury
‘Almost Ready-Made’ is the generic name for a series of works that arise from Villani’s compulsive desire to laugh at art while being absolutely serious about it. Amongst the works in this series, his playful assemblages of Birds follow a process of minimal interference with found domestic objects. If this particular series seems at odds with the rest of his work, particularly his painterly production, this is because they appear already as a consequence of the artist’s embodiment of fragmentation. Here we find the artist incorporating the popular Brazilian creativity that improvises and transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.
The Birds refer to an origin, or at the very least, they search for one. They attempt to re-trace the first engagement that the artist had with the act of creating during his childhood, the memory of playing in the workshops at his father’s farm, constructing all kinds of toys and objects from whatever he could get his hands on. They stand as such as a search for the source of his artistic impetus, even if at the origin, so to speak, they were not conscious works of art. The origin after all arises out of the repetition of its copies, and by doing so disperses, disappears.
Chronologically, Villani’s Birds become ‘Almost Ready-Mades’ at the stage in which Julio becomes an ‘Almost French Artist’ and, as the series title suggests, they relate as much to his new cultural milieu as they invoke the bricolage character of popular Brazilian artisan traditions. Yet we find in these playful assemblages the memories of the French cuisine, as almost invariably they involve food processing utensils which he picked up at the Parisian marchés aux puces. Villani claims that it is not he who imposes these new identities upon the objects but that the objects themselves tell him of these possibilities, which is after all, a process at the very least as old as Leonardo da Vinci who saw war horses on the damp patches of a wall. This type of memory, which collectively we can identify with, appears in the Birds’ playful reminiscence of artists such as Brancusi, Meret Oppenhein, Calder, and Picasso, in short, the process recalls the dada spirit of recuperation and its irreverent transformation of serious cultural markers into seemingly light-heartedness play things, charged with humour and irony.
In other assemblages within this series, Villani connects the toy more overtly with art historical heritage. In Anthropophagous Venus, the intervention transforms an ordinary mass produced plastic doll into a modern totem. The poet Oswald de Andrade in his celebrated 1928 Manifesto Antropofágico, equated the modern Brazilian condition with the Tupi Guarani natives who cannibalized the early Portuguese colonizers, illustrating the manner in which European culture could be irreverently appropriated, distorted, mocked, or rejected. Oswald demonstrated an ironic or paradoxical sense of national belonging that is best exemplified by the playful parody on Hamlet in the statement: ‘Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question’.  Recalling Freud, Oswald claimed that Anthropophagy was the absorption of the sacred enemy so to transform him into totem.
In explaining the Oedipus complex, in the final chapter of Totem and Taboo (the infantile recurrence of totemism) Freud connects our primordial collective psyche with the singular case of a patient. This method is playfully replicated in the conjunction that Villani presents, given that the single ‘venus’ is constructed out of the swallowed multitude of smaller toy figurines that in turn give her the totemic character. Villani’s Venus stands therefore almost as a manifesto of his creative drive, invoking the singular through the collective.
What we see in these playful objects is therefore a process that characterizes Villani’s œuvre as a whole, a process of collapsing distinct forms of memory that range from the subjective to the collective, from the culturally specific to the grand narratives of art history.
 As the literary critic Roberto Schwarz has argued, the manifesto is itself an expression of the contradictions that it attempted to overcome: as the search for a national identity passed through the English language, whose classical quote was irreverently distorted by the play on words.
ARCHITECTURES | Michael Asbury
Villani’s Architectures are quick drawings, almost doodles, in charcoal over acrylic, gesso or other opaque primers. They are produced by drawing over a still wet coat, and as such are not quite paintings nor drawings but something in between: the drawn trace becomes absorbed by the paint, it gains a painterly quality, while the paint is penetrated, tainted by the charcoal mark.
For Villani, the main point seems to be the spontaneity of these structural formations. As such they are demonstrative of the artist’s attitude vis-a-vis the act of drawing, in short, the quest of the sheer pleasure of tracing a line. This freedom of line gives these works an intrinsic serial quality. The drawings are composed of what might be called concrete forms, geometric figures that seem to be free of any figurative connotation, neither representative nor derived from reality. These same concrete forms appear in a series of ethereal monochromatic collages.
Here, however, anchored by charcoal lines, sometimes materialized by color, they become quasi-representations of architectural spaces. In other words, our gaze imposes a spatial quality on these quick charcoal lines on fresh paint that is not present, or less obvious, in the collages.
Elaborating on this series, Villani recalls Lygia Clark, referring to her notion of an organic line formed by the junction of two planes. The lines in the Architectures series stem from the juxtaposition of planes, then merge with them – as if Villani were rewinding the Constructivist legacy back to his original gesture, to Joaquín Torres-García perhaps, and the confrontation leading to the creation of the term “concrete art” by Theo van Doesburg. “Nothing is more concrete than a line, a color, a surface,” he said, thus advocating a “non-abstract” painting of reality, in which the pictorial elements have no other meaning than their own reality.
Yet it is not the origin that matters to Villani here, but the unfolding of historical references in his work, and a strange process of inversion appears in his Architectures: sending concrete and abstraction back to back, he presents us with an “almost-figuration”, in which the line, color and surface of van Doesburg intertwine with the emotional reality of a Torres-García.
EXPROPRIATIONS / APPROPRIATIONS | Michael Asbury
When he addresses the forms or theories of Art History, Villani does not allow any orthodoxy or intransigence get in his way; rather, he adopts a joyful and curious posture, watching for paradoxes and then deploying them in irreverent disjunctions.
In the Expropriations / Appropriations series, he seems to respond directly to the concept of the imaginary museum developed by Malraux, according to which the democratization of art would derive form its photographic reproduction. Using as a yardstick images that have become almost universal by the extent of their reproduction, such as postcards or exhibition opening invitations, the artist gnaws and chews on “mass images”, in what seems to constitute an anthropophagous exercise. Proposing a re-individuation of the works, he reverses the Benjaminian perspective, as described in The Work of Art in the Age of its technical reproducibility.
Joining the artist, the medium also invites itself to the banquet: the replicas are literally swallowed by the painting; they are represented in the midst of their ingestion, immersed in the pictorial mass. Painting is thus the main agent of the process, framing in thick layers the photographic reproduction, while impregnating it, transpiring through the cracks that the artist opens in the postcards, thus bestowing upon them a new aura.
Perforating different historical layers, transfusing one into the other, Villani bequeathes rabbit ears to a Rembrandt portrait, makes Ingres’ Odalisque wink at Martial Raysse’s intervention, while a naughtier then ever Picasso seems ready to place hands dripping with fresh paint on Man Ray’s Ingres’ violin.
Symptomatically, Villani often shows this series alongside a video entitled The Parrot Complex. In it, we see the quintessential copy bird pecking at postcards, of which millions are sold, and which therefore made icons of the History of Art. The bird conscientiously destroys the reproductions one by one (Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a photographic portrait of Picasso, the Abapuru by the Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral) and ends up chewing itself.
“Repetition is a form of change” says one of the cards in Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck, designed to guide the creative process. All artists know this. Villani makes a point of exposing it.
MACHINES & SCULPTURES | Michael Asbury
Villani’s machines and sculptures playfully, and at times perversely, deny their own functionality, given that movement although implied is always deferred. Whether through an intricate mechanism or a simple elegant apparatus, these works present at times objects on the brink of movement while at other occasions, they are doomed by their scale to eternal immobility.
Domicilio Fixo (Fixed abode) consists of a wooden toy house formed of basic geometric shapes that the child can assemble and disassemble in a manner of different ways. The house rests upon a child’s cart, which in turn is placed on a conveyor belt resting upon a Thonet table. Driven by a motor, the belt contains a diagram forming a type of map which appears across several of Villani’s series: a life-map that connects things and places in the artist’s life. The cart seems as if it is about to break loose at any moment but remains fixed, held in place by a thin string tied to the wall, which both protects the status quo and stresses the fragility of the equilibrium.
If L’air de Paris was Duchamp’s way of playing with his condition of being dislocated, bringing the bottled essence of his home along with him to New York, Villani’s own ‘Machine Celibataire’ plays with this idea from the opposite perspective. The loaded description Sans Domicile Fixe, which is the involuntary condition of the homeless, of continuous exile from one temporary place to the next, is playfully re-enacted here as an autobiographical reflection: one that claims, I am constant, everything around me insists in changing.
The same house appears in the installation Five Continents. This time remade rather than readymade, gaining a scale that transcends the innocent toy and becoming almost threatening. Five houses rests on wheels, but the large scale bestows on them a sense of fixity. Mouvement is therefore here equally denied, albeit through different means. Amongst paradoxes and contradictions, these works constitute eloquent self portraits of an artist who continuously seeks movement and change.
Nevertheless, it is The Origin of the World that offers us the best insight into Villani’s creative process. He transposes Courbet’s famous and abundantly reproduced work into a toy, the bilboquet. The sexual connotation that the parts invoke is rendered, whether playfully or perversely, impotent by the sheer scale of the object. Three games in total form the installation, each one weighing 400kg. Turned from a single tree trunk, their surfaces possess a cracked skin quality, which further emphasizes the bodily relation. The cords that connect the ‘pins’ to the ‘balls’ are tangled so that it is not obvious at first which belongs to which.
Setting the bilboquet as origin is a perverse act in itself. The game appears in many cultures around the world, from Europe to the Arctic, from the native North American tribes to Japan, making it impossible to locate its origin. It is not known whether its presence in such wide ranging cultures is due to early nautical commerce or whether it stems from a common urge to train the child’s dexterity within cultures dependent on hunting. Villani’s Bilboquets, like his œuvre itself, possesses this duality: it refers to a painting, an origin, while suggesting the impossibility of locating its source. It demonstrates that the search for origins leads to the multiplication and entanglement of narratives.
PRESENCES / ABSENCES | Michael Asbury
Going through Villani’s prolix production, we understand the meaning of certain references and how the artist weaves them into the materialization of his work. One realizes that it is not so much a question of the reiteration of these sources as of a distinction between their articulation.
An important clue in understanding this complexity arises in the series of white bed sheets, Varal de Emoções (Emotions clothesline), that the artist produced over a period of six years beginning around 1998-99. Bringing together a series of individual works (around sixty) within a single installation, Villani’s Varal is an array that threads the singular with the general, art historical instances with personal life, and is then left to dry, not quite ironed out yet, still wet, fluid enough for diverse interpretations and speculations to be extrapolated from.
Having lived in France for almost two decades, Villani had been interested for some time in engaging craft men and women working within what could loosely be described as parallel economies: workers, usually in developing countries, who complement their income through their creative skills. Probing different channels, sheer chance led him into contact with a group of women working in embroidery workshops at a Psychiatric Hospital in Marilia, his own home town.
Villani then acquired vintage linen and hemp bed sheets – the type usually associated with the late 19th century French peasantry, two narrow stripes of fabric made on scanty looms and sewn together – in second-hand markets in Paris. He would then send them to be embroidered by the women in the workshop in Marilia. His raw material is therefore the fabric with which we envelop our most intimate moments, our dreams and nightmares, where we discharge our fears and traumas, where we experience the extremes of pain and pleasure, life and death.
The association with these women – who suffered diverse forms of trauma, such as the loss of their children or partners. The work thus directly incorporated an anonymous process of mourning – wether by accident or intention, the embroidered sheets often refer to themes related to presence and absence  – while evoking in passing the specific processes that characterize the embroideries of Bispo do Rosário and José Leonilson.
Dual, Varal de Emoções quite literally sews together affective territories two by two: the ‘crafts’ and the ‘fine arts’, the historical and the contemporary, but also the artist’s original and adopted homes. In a process of coming and going that replicates the movement of the stitching needle, the sheets describe the artist’s journey, from Brazil to France, while their physical displacement, being bought in Paris and sent to Marilia, closes the full circle.
The trajectory undertaken by Villani’s sheets also replicates the bygone European bourgeoisie habit of sending fine linen to be washed and dried under the tropical sun. If this extravagant transnational process is preserved, the difference in Villani’s case, not even the blistering tropical sun can do away with the specter of those who have slept in them, and that these white bedsheets come back men more charged with color and dreams.
 The embroidery process itself marks both the front and the back, bestowing a double character – positive/negative – to the work. This doubling of the self appears in some of the sheets, but in none so clear as in the Twins, overt reference to a celebrated work by the Brazilian painter Guignard, in which two young girls are depicted wearing identical dresses. Yet in Villani’s depiction the twins are absent, only their empty dresses being depicted. They are therefore more than the self-divided, they are division and loss.
COLLAGES (Emanations) | Michael Asbury
This series use ancient handwritten documents, mostly notary deeds, as support. The written documents themselves date from between mid 18th to the early 20th centuries. But what interests Villani here is not precisely the content of the pages per se, but their inherent qualities: the hand writing used as a backdrop noise, the rag paper chosen for its absorbent nature.
A relationship clearly builds up between the backdrop and the first plane which goes far beyond simple colors and textures. The notion of time shifts, of going back and forward simultaneously in his references, is materialized here – accompanying the disjunction of our eyesight, obliged to slide in and out of focus depending on which element of the work we consider, colored forms or text.
The collection of odds and ends so dear to the artist is here juxtaposed with his equally obsessive collection of forms. Villani creates silhouettes with scissors whose lyrical contours conceal sophisticated spatial structures. The cutouts are soaked in oil paint – to the point that they become an entirely painterly form, losing their collage aspect and becoming pictorial figures – and then glued onto the manuscripts.
The painting plays here a primordial role, and becomes the element of embodiment. Pivot of the duality of temporalities, it is the active ingredient of the multiplier effect that the work has on us. The challenge of this series lies in the union of these incongruous materials, rag paper and oil paint. The absorbent quality of the support allows the oil to escape from the paint – a dissociation of the pictorial layer which in turn leads to the transformation of the paper. A process of effusion, of contamination, of transubstantiation is thus initiated.
In this joyful subversion of the in-between cultivated by Villani, as one material acquires the qualities of the other, a new element dependent on both appears: the emanations of oil. These works deal with this area of contamination, the enrichment of both the original support and the cutouts with clean edges and colors by a spontaneous flow generated by their union. As the aura around the cutouts unfolds, as the diaphanous silhouettes expand beyond the surface the scissors, assigned them, a new temporal space – the future – is encompassed.
This is Villani’s poetic vision: to establish a collaboration with a medium that evades his absolute control.
COLLAGES (Fragments) | Michael Asbury
This series bears a certain resemblance to other works by Villani. Its repetition of forms has the same sequential quality as the paintings. Sometimes these collages play an anchoring role for the Architectures. In other cases, the presence of a grid on which the artist, by affixing forms, interrupts the motif and generates dynamic relationships, recalls earlier experiments, such as the black and white paintings of the 1980s. Both reminders and forerunners of other series, these works occupy a unique place in the artist’s work, because of the treatment of the medium, its (im)materiality.
Les collages sont construits à partir de “fragments” d’un seul matériau, le papier, ordonnés pour produire des variations de transparence. L’aspect formel de ces travaux monochromatiques provient de la superposition des découpes, soit à la jonction des plans collés, soit par la volontaire accumulation de couches. Ils sont ainsi conçus pour mieux s’exprimer en transparence, à contre-jour, la lumière filtrant à travers le film en papier, révélant l’image.
The collages are built from “fragments” of a single material, a thin, transluscent paper, ordered to produce variations in transparency. The formal aspect of these monochromatic works comes from the superimposition of the cutouts, either by the junction of the glued planes, or by the voluntary accumulation of layers. They are thus conceived to better express themselves in transparency, backlight, the light filtering through the paper, revealing the image.
Conversely, the photographic reproduction of these works resembles its negative, as the artist lays them on a dark background in order to bring out their structure. The more translucent segments thus appear darker in the photographs. This curious fact is telling. This series appears both as a reflection, a template, an announcement of the forms to come in Villani’s production, and as a critical and poetic reflection on the historical heritage from which he came.
The juxtaposition of imposing scale with delicate material that characterizes this series recalls the notion of sensitive geometry developed by the critic Roberto Pontual to define the Latin American sensibility that emerged from the legacy of 20th constructivism. However, it avoids any echo of the heroism associated with “constructivist design”.
Villani’s Fragments are thus fragile constructions, based on a solid conviction.
COLLAGES (Photographs) | Michael Asbury
What we notice at first glance while looking at the images Villani has taken hold of, is the coherence of his creative process. If memory is one of the artist’s raw materials, it is logical that he should incorporate photographs into his work.
One also noticies that despite the time that has passed, or the geographical distance, they seem strangely intimate.
Cultural affinities do not necessarily stem from common origins; moreover, in Villani’s work, origins always seem elusive, even when he invokes them. Disconnected from their descendants, these photographs of ancestors are quite forgotten stories. By recovering them, Villani makes them vectors of collective memory, linking the individual to the plural, building a bridge between the subjective and the shared. His interventions underline their erased character, but above all transform these images into works of art: into singular events.
Through cutouts soaked in oil paint, he roses faded cheeks, offers a playmate to a lonely child, surrounds the bride and groom with stars or threatening clouds.
This approach draws its meaning from an intersection of references marked by dislocation; Villani then adopts, in a doubling of the series, a strategy consisting in playing with scale to better underline the chronological distance that separates us from the characters. By transposing the small originals into large-scale reproductions, the physical weight of the works – as in his Bilboquets – becomes a formative element; as if the hinges supporting the monumental photo frames were struggling to retain the weight of the History that leans against them.
Some images are reproduced several times; exhibited side by side, they gain a kinetic quality, as if they were frames of a film. Significantly, knowing that his presence is as ephemeral as theirs, Villani blurs the dates, intermingles his portraits with those of others already gone, in the certainty of a future that will necessarily level them.
The paradox of proximity and distance thus reappears, propelling us into a temporal tunnel where the poesy of displacement – as in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland – allows for the discovery of oneself through the chance encounter of the Other.