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"Fica um pouco de seu queixo no queixo da sua filha. A bit of your chin remains in the chin of your daughter." Alex Flemming is both quoting Brazilian poet Carlos Drumond de Andrade and explaining the nature of his work. Stretched out behind him is a series of massive canvases - blinding white mummies on backgrounds so brilliantly colored that they throb with a strange kind of life.

In the artist's 1990 one-man show in the United States, it was clear that the processions of mummies arranged about the gallery walls were inter-related. But there were other almost subliminal links as well. In fact, the mummies were set against backgrounds constructed of multiple, fragmentary repetitions of elements from other paintings in the gallery. What first appeared to be an obsessive calligraphy pulsating in the background of one of the larger works became, on closer examination, a detail of the elaborate sarcophagus from a nearby painting. A head from another work could be found, sideways, in a different corner. Every inch of every canvas was the offspring of some other work in the series.

Flemming's paintings are produced by combining large, handcut paper stencils and acrylic paints. While the central figures for each work are formed by painting over freshly cut, hard edged stencils, the backgrounds begin with the weakened, softer-edged stencils from earlier works. His "images thus change and grow older with repeated service until finally they are no longer of use," Boston Globe art critic Mary Sherman observers. As a result, the technique itself forms a part of the artist's message.

"Everything will end, and that is precisely what is reflected in these works," the artists says. Ironically, he has selected some of the most enduring, mythical images from the history of man to make his point. Perhaps his most telling series is a group of Greek gods, drawn from the pediments of the Parthenon and other familiar sources. Juxtaposed with their recumbent forms are larger than life photographs of the human regulars of Brazil's famed beaches.

"The gods of Greek antiquity are gone. The sculptures themselves are going. Their arms, hands, and part of their legs have been knocked off. And of course, the models themselves have been dead for at least 2,000 years. It is no different today. In a very short time, the adonises at the beach will be 30 and fat," Flemming declares. In some of his earlier works, the human figures were designed to fade over time, just as the builds of his youthful models were metamorphosing into middle-aged fat.

"The Greek God Series is very representative of today's Brazil," he asserts. "With its fascination with the beach and the physical beauty of youth." Flemming's work has embraced Brazilian folklore as well. After returning from a sajourn in New York where he worked at the Pratt Art Institute under a Fullbright Foundation grant, he did a series of mermaids and water goddesses drawn from his nation's mythology.

Still, he feels no need to utilize specifically Brazilian imagery. "Brazil is a country with many strong cultures," he says. "I am Brazilian, but I am also a European. I spent many years of my life there. That is part of my culture. But Brazil also has strong and important African culture. And the Japanese. Brazil is international. I am international."

While Flemming's choice of subject matter may range well beyond the twentieth century and the shore of Brazil, his palate is quite another matter. While his use of color is not broad, Flemming's masterful combinations of primary and secondary colors, along with white, result in works that are almost as incandescent at a carnival parade. The intense whites he frequently employs to define the central figure boldly declare their subject's heritage in the old-master graphic tradition. "I like white," he says, "it is a color that has been unfairly dismissed by modern painters."

Flemming's color effects are enhanced through mixes of ground mica, which the artists prepares himself. "In the United States, you can just go down to the point store and buy metallic colors. You can't do this in Brazil, which is perhaps for the best because it gives me more control over the effect," he observers.

By and large, Flemming does not use preparatory sketches. "You must know exactly where you are going and how you're going to get there as you layer the stencils and choose your colors. If you don't know where you're going, your composition will not be a success."

Flemmings control of composition and color were in born. He never formally studied art. Instead, he studied politics. "My family hoped that I would become a diplomat," he says. "So I was trained as an international economist. You won't see any of my training in my work, "he asserts.

What is plainly evident in Flemming's work in a fascination with the remnants of the classical past. While many of his contemporaries skewer the works of Spanish and Portuguese masters in their artistic explorations, Flemming draws on decidedly different sources for his inspiration. His cost of his recent works are based on woodcut illustrations from treatises by early unknown European scientists.

Prints from books of Italian researcher Ulysses Aldrovandi, who had determined the African elephant came into being because of diseases unique to that continent, inspired a group of renaissance freaks and monsters. Illustrations from the work of the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, founder of the Vatican Museum's Egyptian collection, inspired Flemming's series of mummies. Kircher published a history of Egypt based on a faulty attempt an unraveling ancient hieroglyphics. Both men spent their lives pursuing hypotheses that modern science regards as simply ridiculous.

But today's world is not without its follies. One of Kircher's illustrations is almost eerily reminiscent of an astronaut - which fits well with the artist's reason for choosing Kircher's books as a source. "Kircher was wrong," he observes, "and so was Eric Von Danken with his ancient astronauts."

The mythologies of the past form the surface of Flemming's work, yet their philosophical background reflects an urban mythology more suitable in form and content for a twentieth century audience. As Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos noted in his commentary on Flemming's most recent work, "It is possible, in deconstructing a myth, to reconstruct it."

The objects that inspired de Campos' observations, eighteen metallic-blue minotaurs (mummified bull's heads st atop Doric columns and installed at the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo in September 1990), have long since lost their ability to inspire terror. The once feared beast is now little more than an urban curiosity. In fact, on closer examination, the columns on which the minotaurs are mounted turn out to be upended garbage cans disguised by a layer of white paint. But the image of the minotaur is still a powerful one. As critic Leonor Amarante noted, the unearthly blue heads "seduce, fascinate, repulse, paralyze, hypnotize the spectator."

And judging by the reactions of passers-by, that is exactly what the minotaurs did - evoking responses from playful embraces by teenagers to screams of terror by a small child. "The entrance to the Museum is on Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo's Fifth Avenue. Half a million people every day saw the heads as they were driving by," the artist exalts. He has worked hard to reach audiences who would not normally visit an art museum. For a 1989 show, Flemming paneled the interiors of two large truck trailers with his works and, over a period of ten days, took them to ten of the city's neighborhoods. The response was tremendous. Thousands of people, many of whom had never been to a museum, climbed into the trucks to see his work. The traveling exhibition's centerpiece, a group of toppled Egyptian obelisks, is now in Sao Paulo's Museum of Contemporary Art.

His work is also represented in the collection of Lisbon's noted Calouste Culbenkian Foundation, where he held a one-man shoe in 1988. Indeed, his resume of one-man exhibitions stretches well beyond the boundaries of Brazil. He has exhibited in Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Berlin, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

As his exposure grows worldwide, Flemming's reconstructed mythologies are gaining increasing recognition and, the artist hopes, provoking introspection. "Man grows by comprehending his trajectory. He needs to transcend his own myths - the things which he has himself made and from which he then seeks liberty. It is a process of evolution and I believe in this - I believe in man."

Mitchell Snow, a native of Boulder City, Nevada, now lives in Washington, D.C. He has written on environmental law for both U.S. government agencies and trade associations and is currently researching a book on the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
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Title Annotation:Alex Flemming
Author:Snow, Mitchell
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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