Lygia Pape’s retrospective “The Skin of ALL” spans the late Brazilian artist’s five-decade career, homing in on her varied methods of abstraction and the evolving sociopolitical context from which they emerged. Pape employed angular shapes or intersecting lines not as geometric vehicles for transcendence or purity, but as modes of responding to the patterns that structured her surroundings. Attention to wood’s natural grain, for instance, instigated her woodcuts of the 1950s and ’60s, while the negative space between bodies was made tangible in Divisor (Divider), 1968/1983. The exhibition’s title was lifted from Pape’s writing on the latter performance, which consisted of a large white fabric with dozens of slits for heads to poke through so that a sea of people could walk as a separate-but-connected whole.
Many of Pape’s seemingly formal interactions with the world around her were undergirded by the military dictatorship that controlled her country from 1964 to 1985. She subtly engaged this oppression in her work, including in writing and poetry—an aspect of her practice highlighted here by excerpts from the artist’s philosophical reflections and longstanding correspondence with fellow Neo-Concretist Hélio Oiticica. After being imprisoned and tortured in solitary confinement in 1973, she tempered the more readily discernible critique in her text works but continued to utilize abstraction for its tacitly political capacity while also experimenting with sculpture and Super-8 and 16-mm film throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Eat me: A gula ou a luxúria? (Eat me: gluttony or lust?), 1976—a particularly striking short film projected on a screen suspended from the ceiling—cuts between close-ups of two mouths that fondle, spit out, and swallow part of a popsicle and other fragmented objects. Alternately vulgar and seductive, familiar and strange, these tight shots of pink lips evoke the cultural cannibalism integral to Brazilian modernism while also deftly condemning the military regime’s insidious violence as a kind of consumption of its own people.