ONLY AUTODIDACTS ARE FREE: The art of Alexandre Frangioni

by Christian Viveros-Fauné

The list of scientists, artists, and innovators who have taught themselves is long and distinguished. Among their company are Leonardo da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Frida Kahlo, and Machado de Assis, Brazil’s greatest literary figure—a novelist, poet, playwright, and short-story writer who found the time and energy to teach himself French, English, German, and Greek despite not having spent a single day at university. William Blake, another eminent automath, spelled out the strength of the self-educated in a typically unconventional poem: autodidacts live, he wrote, as if “nature has no outline but imagination has.”

So it is with the Brazilian artist Alexandre Frangioni, a mostly self-taught artist who was formally educated as a Chemical Engineer at São Paulo’s Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie. After working in the pharmaceutical industry for more than three decades, the future creative turned from science to art, taking up painting as a way of disconnecting from his nine-to-five routine. “I was looking for an activity to dedicate myself to after retirement,” he told one interviewer in 2017, “and found an easy way to manage my time and space with painting. In addition, it was directly related to drawing, which I have enjoyed since I was very young.”

Initially, Frangioni took up figurative oil painting as a way of reimagining life a new. Predictably, emotions and the psychological states associated with color theory were the first impulses he tapped into. Eventually, under the tutelage of an artist friend, the installation artist João Carlos de Souza, he moved away from making figurative pictures and toward artworks that connect discursively with larger cultural ideas.

Ironically, these ideas dovetailed with his professional training. To paraphrase the artist: if he started out by cultivating non-rational impulses to arrive at his early oils, he soon found himself relying on more complex “intentions” to engineer the forms, effects, and, ultimately, the vision he would later harness for his decidedly conceptual artworks.

This process of “inversion,” as Frangioni describes it, started when he began documenting his paintings through photographs. That process kicked off an engagement with photography as a medium. In short order, that study generated an embrace of collage. These and other early laboratory-like explorations, in their turn, led to the artist establishing a set of complex procedures through which he filtered a number of increasingly intellectual concerns. Around 2015, when Frangioni made the move to finally ditch his day job, he found himself making artworks that appeared to resemble, if not directly reference, classic conceptualist artworks made in Brazil during the era of military dictatorship.

However inadvertently, Frangioni put himself in a situation familiar to many of history’s notable autodidacts. Instead of reinventing the wheel, he found himself hard at work realigning or putting a new spin on it. Only after his 2015 breakout show at the Museu de Arte de Blumenau in southern Brazil did the artist fully grasp the scope of his achievement. Like a gifted footballer reinventing the moves of Garrincha and Pelé he found he had reformulated Brazil’s legacy of conceptual art through several bodies of two and three-dimensional works. On closer inspection, he also appeared to have rewritten, or at least reinterpreted, various chapters in the history of the ready-made—as seen, for instance, in the oeuvres of European and American proto-conceptualists like Marcel Duchamp, Joan Brossa, and Claes Oldenburg.

“The only reference I had when I made my first currency works was that of Cildo Meireles ‘Who killed Herzog?’; that is, the Cruzeiro notes he stamped with that text,” Frangioni says when asked about his connection to the creator of Insertions Into Ideological Circuits 2: Banknote Project (1970). “I had yet to see Meireles’ ‘Zero Cruzeiros’ banknotes, which I encountered in person in Sã o Paulo in 2018, three years before I made my show “Moedas” at the Blumenau.” An exhibition that featured several bodies of work that use currency as a medium—among them Brazilian, British, and U.S. banknotes and his first cofrinhos, or piggy banks — “Moedas” proved to be Frangioni’s debut as a latter-day Brazilian conceptualist. It was also, paradoxically, his declaration of independence. As he told this writer with regard to Meireles’ potential influence: “I should say my particular use of currency as a medium was very different”

Like Meireles’ artworks, Frangioni’s pieces are often described as “philosophical objects” or “thoughts made material.” They demonstrate strong links to crucial historical approaches to conceptual art—such as those attending Duchamp’s ready-mades and Brossa’s “object poems.” But if Meireles developed his variegated Insertions into Ideological Circuits to propagate subversive slogans and explore the notion of circulation—they employ banknotes and other objects tied to systems of circulation like bottle deposit systems—Frangioni’s intentions run to the fundamentally philosophical. Not satisfied with political critique or with merely questioning the role of capital, his use of various types of currencies principally explore how time and memory affect past and present value, as well as how those objects transform material goods throughout history.

The relationship between time and memory, in fact, plays a leading role in Frangioni’s recent production, especially as it relates to personal and collective experience. In interviews the artist has spoken about the ability of some of his artworks to keep alive, in the manner of emblems or totems, the memories of economic hyperinflation in 1980s Brazil—a time when social and political instability in that country was at its peak. “I lived through the 1980s in Brazil and our currency lost 80% of its value every month,” he said to this writer in one conversation. “People got paid one day and forty eight hours later the same money was so devalued it literally could not put food on the table.”

If, as with Brossa, the motor driving Frangioni’s art is visual metonymy, the rhetorical trope that substitutes the name or a part of something for the thing meant, then his use of that device routinely surpasses the expectations associated with most signs and symbols. By concentrating on largely familiar but misunderstood emblems— including coins, bills, flags, and stamps—the artist underscores both their prosaic nature and the danger produced by their frequent swings and fluctuations. Symbols like these are firmly embedded in the collective imagination, sometimes to a perilous degree. To work with them, never mind call them into question, is to manipulate some of the least examined, most combustible assumptions amassed by human culture across the ages.

Works like Frangioni’s steel and acrylic Cofres, or safes, and the discrete objects and installations he has serialized under the title Exodus fundamentally operate like abbreviated sculptures. One such work, “Cofre #1253 – Pião” (2017), is an imagist poem in three dimensions: it contains a single spinning wooden top and oodles of string inside a see-through acrylic lockbox. Like his Exodus works, it’s nearly blithe in its concision.

Exodus I, the first work in the artist’s now celebrated series, was conceptualized but not exhibited as originally planned at the Museu de Arte de Blumenau: the institution refused to compromise the museum walls. An installation of 500 coin-encrusted cofrinhos, which the artist fabricated using lenticular 3D printing, it was designed to array its individual parts into two meandering queues. What it illustrated conceptually was nothing less than the social phenomenon of capital flight: money escapes through one mouse hole in Brazilian reals and returns through another in U.S. dollars.

Frangioni’s attitude to knotty ideas that can be difficult to conceptualize can be effectively summarized in a phrase: he casts complex ideas in efficaciously simple visual nutshells. The fact that he prefers to make his objects and installations clear rather than obscure comes in handy when using advanced technologies and engineering. Take his work Leminiscata (2019). A series of wall-mounted cofrinhos organized as an infinity symbol of varying width, it mobilizes a term derived from algebraic geometry to represent a fundamental act of exchange — “the relationship people have to money.” Put in the artist’s words: “Sometimes we live through periods where we have more money and other times less; but we are always chasing it cyclically, repetitively, from generation to generation.”

Another recent work QR Code II (2017) reprises the artist’s unspoken mantra of providing access to complex concepts or histories, but this time in computer code. Created for the Museu de Arte de Ribeirão Preto (MARP), Frangioni fabricated this giant 3D version of the square emblem familiar to mall shoppers around the globe from boards made from pink peroba, a native Brazilian hardwood. The code’s unexpected virtual reveal is Dittingly immanent: once activated the symbol led viewers to a website that presented the history of the museum’s building, as well as images of its construction and building details.

The repetition of ideas in the visual arts—among them symbols, codes, icons, and artistic traditions— usually has the aim of reinforcing standard meanings. In Alexandre Frangioni’s hands, though, they routinely propose readings that lead to robustly original views of familiar signs. Which begs the question, how does this artist consistently manage to see the world with fresh eyes? I propose a well-documented conclusion: only autodidacts are free.

Christian Viveros-Fauné, Brooklyn, 2021