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Review: Juliao Sarmento at Christopher Grimes Gallery

March 20, 2009 | 11:00 am

Woman, Plant, Stone Grey and Cream Fifteen recent drawings by Julião Sarmento are cool, elegant, cerebral and remote. The cerebral part is not surprising, because drawings register artistic thought. The remoteness, however, is odd, because drawing is also usually a means for thought’s most direct and unencumbered expression. But Sarmento turns the tables.

For quite some time, the Lisbon-born artist has been doing something similar with his painting, in which dense graphite images emerge from thick impasto in a reversal of the normal sequence. At Christopher Grimes Gallery, drawings large and, somewhat less successfully, small engage in a laborious process of revelation and concealment.

Sarmento begins with a heavy sheet of paper, usually with at least one ragged edge that underscores its materiality. The sheet gets squared off at the margins with pencil lines and masking tape, since removed; they contain the visual field, except where the water-based enamel paint applied to the surface drips down over the bottom edge.

Those color fields — usually indigo, rust or dark gray — are washed in lighter tones of white or cream. Out of that rich, loamy pictorial soil grow three types of images: thickly rendered graphite drawings or black-and-white photographs of a lily, amaryllis, orchid or other plant; architectural renderings, whether a floor plan or a facade; and female bodies (all are faceless). If the woman’s hands are shown, she may cup a breast, cover her pudenda or let them simply hang at her side.

Like his paintings, Sarmento’s drawings have an internalized, almost claustrophobic feeling, in which the work of art is a sensuous, poignant and self-contained universe where anything is possible — except escape. The larger drawings may be more successful because, paradoxically, they are less cluttered. Their openness serves to make the limits imposed by the sheet all the more perturbing.

-- Christopher Knight

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through April 4. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: Julião Sarmento's  "Woman, Plant, Stone Grey and Cream" (2008/2009), water-based enamel, collage and graphite on paper. Credit: Christopher Grimes Gallery