An undeniable nostalgia pervades the work of Marta Penter. The word nostalgia, here, could not be more accurate. From the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (suffering), the term is related to the pain caused by the unrealized longing to return home. Metaphorically, we may relate this home to our homeland, family, or even to our past, distant or recent – hence the commonplace association between the words nostalgia and fond remembrance. In a poetic license, we may as well think of this home as a suspended moment, as fragments of memories, be they individual or collective, or also as debris from fantasies and projections. Mnemonic passages of pleasure and a certain reverie which we often try to retrieve. It is in that moment in time that the images created by Marta Penter move about.
With an academic background in Psychology, the artist has dedicated, in heartfelt and tenacious manner, to visual arts since the beginning of the 90ies. At that time, she decided to heed the genuine call that followed her since childhood, when she felt uplifted at the thought of what she could do with the amazing 24 or 36-color pen boxes that lured schoolchildren then. With the help from experienced professors, she started to unveil the pictorial techniques and possibilities of pastel, watercolor and oil paints. And, aware of the pleasure such experience provided her, she also perceived that this was her best means of self-expression. Gradually, an understandable lack of confidence started to give room to the conviction that she would never be able to quit the contact with those materials, procedures and, most of all, all of her anxieties, which found a poignant way to be manifested within the artistic process. Ever since, having taken up a very professional attitude, Marta has imposed herself a Spartan work regimen. In her daily routine, she indulges herself with moments to think and work through these issues, bringing together aspects of the art field and the experience acquired in the psychological sphere. Her pictures have emerged from this introspective plunge, aiming at establishing a complicity with the spectator, wishing him to be an active participant in the construction of images, a partner with whom it is possible to share secrets, moments of joy, intimacy.
Since the earliest works by Marta, this is an outstanding feature, although in a contained way. It is the case of the series Memórias (2001), in which the artist represents artifacts with an expressive symbolic charge in closed and dim lit environments, at which she insists on throwing light, literal and conceptually. In these spaces full with lyricism and nostalgias, postcards, photos, notes, typewriters, old photo cameras, chairs, boxes and, mainly, suitcases, feature a silent familiarity, remitting the observer to a wish for traveling, even if it is across time. Only in one of these paintings there is the presence of a human figure; in all others, they are first introduced by the elements and relations suggested, also due to the colors used, at times either remitting us to masculine and feminie times.
In the following series, Cruzamento de Tempos (2004), the involvement of the observer is primordial. Formally, if on the one hand the human figure is made evident, on the other, the colors disappear, allowing for the black-and-white and its nuances to take over. The use of this apparently small-sized palette justifies itself because, in the first place, to Marta’s view, memory comes in black and white, and secondly, because in this way she puts in an intentional and immediate analogy with her referent: old photographs sorted out from other people’s albums. The thorough selection of the matrix images underwent both the enchantment before frankly unusual situations and the personal identification with moments, expressions or attitudes of the photographed ones: aspects that Marta wished to explore in painting, without ever denying the reference to photography and its fascinating capacity of prolonging a moment that effectively existed. In the works of the series, the illusionist treatment prevails, as based on a neat drawing with a hyper-realistic bias. Moreover, it is worth noting that, in some foregoing aquarelles, Marta made a point in teasing the observer with doubt, by reproducing photos in a trustworthy way, although regardful of the original size and the usual finish applied.
In 2004, when the paradigmatic set in Cruzamento de Tempos came out, enrapture was caused, notably, by the scale change. From minute aquarelles, Marta took a leap into huge canvas. We are talking here about surfaces around 130 centimeters tall and 180, 200, 220 centimeters long. For someone who, up to then, had turned mostly towards small and average size formats, the transformation was dramatic. The goal of the artist was to arouse in the spectator a sensation of updatedness, as though it were possible to bring that past documented in the photo into the present. By resizing the images, nearly equaling their dimensions to human proportions, Marta undoubtedly promoted such review and intersection of times, shuffling more immediate perceptions.
However, in conceptual terms, as already stressed by Maria Amélia Bulhões on her work, it is interesting to note how the artist establishes connections between visual languages, discussing hybrid aspects of image and revalidating painting in contemporary times. At this point, it is indispensable to point out Marta´s artistic affiliation or, at least, her major manifested reference: the magnificent work by the German Gerhard Richter (1932). One of the most important names in international contemporary art, Richter became famous, among others, for his Photo Paintings, idyllic images of people, landscapes, indoor and still-life art pieces, uplifted in an unusual and hardly definable time. With remarkable technical accuracy, the works by Richter surprisingly gather abstraction and illusionism, painting and photography, and call attention to the way the latter enrich our perception not only of the past, but also of everyday life.
The poetics of Marta seeks something similar. In Cruzamento de Tempos, her paintings are twice engulfing: for their size and the amazement caused due to enlarged photography cutouts; tiny details that, in the original image, could be secondary, yet gain further amplitude and relevance by the interpretation of the artist. In these pieces, she scrutinizes from small scenes in which she picks out episodes generally common to familiar life situations – as beach holiday photos, family feasts, school classes –, to fractions that allow to infer profiles and individual aspects, which allow to go beyond superficiality and reach closer to the essence. The detail of the perfectly groomed young ladies and their planned poses before the camera reveals much about them, just as, in other pictures, the record of spontaneous gestures or the evident discomfort also collaborates with the construction of probable personalities. By electing these fragments, Marta has certainly drawn on the knowledge from her background in Psychology. Yet, we must confess that it is equally difficult not “to see” in these images, be it related to expressions and grimaces lived by daily situations, with friends and family, be it figuring what would furnish out or enhance the meaning of the scenes.
On the issue, the art historian Ernst Gombrich tells us that the main psychological investment of the images lies on two planes: recognition and remembrance. The former would stress the memory aspect of the mind, which makes us know how to identify what we see or experience. The latter, in turn, would be linked to the capturing of the visible by means of sensorial functions. From such understanding, Gombrich proposes the expression “role of the spectator”, assigning it with the perceptive acts by which the observer, while perceiving and understanding an image, makes it effectively exist. It means to say that there is no accidental look; visual perception would work as some kind of system that is based on our previous knowledge of the world and its images. By activating it, the spectator of the image would also fill in the “non-represented”, the gaps of representation. And this is often the case with the works by Marta. In Memória VII (Cruzamento de Tempos series), for instance, we are invited to imagine what the faces of three female characters would be like, all of them sitting down and each one featuring different gestures, hands, feet and leg positions, the body as a whole. And not only are we capable to guess their facial expressions, but also the type of their character and personality. Would they be granddaughter, grandmother and mother? We may likewise ask ourselves many questions by looking at Memória IV. Would the seven faceless ladies, sitting side by side, legs and arms crossed, be laughing, mocking, or tense and upset by the presence of the photographer? From our particular experiences, we are once again compelled to fill out this gap, being our relation to the piece more or less intense according to the sense they make to us. Thus, at the same time as we reinforce the effects of the image, that we make it truly exist, it also reinvents us. And that is where the nodal part of the fascination we have for the imagistic universe resides.
In her more recent works, of the series Ao pé do olhar, Marta started from self-produced photographs. The characters are young women, looking between 18 and 25 years of age. Almost all of them blunt to be sharing confessions, secrets, moments of leisure and intimacy. They share these experiences among them, and also do it with us. We feel that we can hear their whispering, giggling, feel the freshness that strokes their skin... In most of the works, we cannot see their faces; if much, suggested profiles. This absence of a defined face, of a specific identity, even if it were fictional, invites us to project whatever face onto these figures, including our own. Once again, thus, we build an image and are by it built.
The formal treatment applied, on its turn, derives from Cruzamento dos Tempos: the unusual cutouts, the large dimensions and the use of black and white were preserved, which assigns the compositions a retro look, by using also certain epoch accessories. An extra feature, however, lies in the framing proposed: the photos were generally taken from the floor plan up. Such angle was worked out by Marta for the first time in the set of aquarelles belonging to the same series, exhibited in Portugal last year, and unedited in Brazil. As the title itself suggests, the images play all the time with a look that is taken from the feet up the body, ipsis litteris. Exploring large paper surfaces, the artist reveals scenes with groups, emphasizing body expressions and attesting the manifested conception of “body language”.
The adolescents represented by her did pose, but not in the sense of an orchestrated or defined movement. Being friends, they were asked to interact in natural fashion, trying to forget that Marta was there, documenting the most fortuitous situations. Spontaneity prevailed, and this is what seduces us in an undeniable way. Amidst plain sandals and v-shaped skirts, the heat that raises from the contrasts between lights and shadows, these young ladies are depicted in cheerful joy, indifferent to the photographer whose point is to record the movement of their legs, the swing of their skirts, the intimacy of their panties. They might be chatting, or even laughing about something, watching the waves break on the seashore. Passages that have nothing sensorial or spectacular to them. There is no narrative, any story being told. Except for the record of a peaceful fugacious moment that the spectator, transformed into a voyeur, sees.
Similar aspects arise from the painting of Ao pé do olhar. And, at the same time as they ravish us, by their nimbleness and grace, they tease us to inquire about what a feminine world that would be. In the present days, of precocious erotizing and banalization, not only of sexuality but also of affective relations, would there be space for this kind of intimacy and familiarity? In a most genuine way, Marta Penter wants to believe so.
Her personal process of conquering maturity has been retrieved, along with the growing up of her two daughters and reflecting upon becoming a woman that arose from the motivation to the series. The plot Marta discusses lies beyond the pictures and, however, it is through them that we are able to catch a glimpse of what it is about. The artist is aware of that and takes the conflict as theme. Like a young woman who examines her body in front of the mirror, as in the only painting in which the face appears more definitely, Marta also questions herself. Maybe one of the questions is how her neat and ravishing representations of constructed happiness can take us to reality, can “give us back” to daily life. Will they meet their emerging goal of reminding us that complicity is giving oneself away, that intimacy is a conquest? Maybe the black and white, here, teases and potentializes such reverie, as it provides us not with a feeling of a past that stares at us, but of an uplifted time, of joy and delight, that might be awaiting us and, and thus also, enigmatically nostalgic.
Paula Ramos is a journalist, researcher and a Ph.D. in Visual Arts, with emphasis on History, Art Theory and Criticism (UFRGS).