"CRISTINA BARROSO ... a map painted of soul", by Michel Nungesser

The titles of her solo exhibitions speak for themselves: “Change of Place,” “Secret Mapping,” “Novas Terras,” “Maps to Somewhere Else,” “Map to Nowhere,”, “Worlds,” “Locating,” “Urban Network,” “Quest for the Universe,” and most recently “Beyond tomorrow-claiming: Landscapes of uncertainties”. The works are about movement and travelling, cities and countries, continents and cosmos, maps and plans, the new and unknown, about exploring and orientation. Cristina Barroso is an artist and at home in many places. She lives in a state of continuous transition and makes it fruitful for her art. She was born in 1958 in São Paulo – a million-person metropolis in South America, the economic motor of a country – Brazil – with the dimensions of a continent. Yet Barroso’s experience of the city, as a middle class child, protected by walls as signs of social segregation, was one of limitations. When her parents moved away she only wanted one thing, she remembers, “to get away from home”.[i] Her first return to a boarding school was a failure. Only once she had spent a year in Chicago with her uncle to learn English could she return, now 19 years old, to take part in the life of “her” city.

In 1978 Barroso studied philosophy and history at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale; from 1980 to 1983 painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She worked as a proof reader at the Lapis Press, a publishing house owned by Sam Francis. There she was impressed by, among others, the work of Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In the 1980s she had studios in San Francisco, São Paulo, Milan and Berlin. From 1992 to 1994 she received a full stipend from the Helmut Baumann Fund in Göppingen and moved to Stuttgart. Barroso has enjoyed numerous stays as guest artist and participant in workshops: from 1997 to 2000 at the Aktionsforum Praterinsel in Munich, in 1999 Center of the Arts in Jerusalem, 1999-2000 Villa Waldberta in Feldafing, 2013 Marma Art Projects in Berlin, and the House of Bavarian Agriculture in Herrsching on the Ammersee. Province and city, center and suburb come and go – but what is the significance of these differences in the era of the continuous exchange and free-flowing data stream?

Nonetheless Cristina Barroso has experienced real changes of location, not virtual ones, driven on by the curiosity characteristic of many “Sampas,” as the people of São Paulo are called, dwellers in an immigrant city par excellence. After completing her studies in the USA and a longer stay in Italy, Arte Povera, the Transavanguardia or Arte Cifra and in particular the work of the painter Dadamaino (1930-2004) made lasting impressions on her, and her work began to be recognized in West Berlin. In that city at the end of the 1980s there was a great interest in art from Brazil, encouraged by, among others, Barroso’s gallerist at the time, Rudolf Schoen, as well as the Interessenverband Berliner Kunsthändler (Association of Berlin Art Dealers), and, for many years by the Staatlichen Kunsthalle Berlin (Public Art Gallery Berlin) – represented by the German-Brazilian Cultural Association.[ii] Early on Cristina Barroso decided to pursue painting that does not only take place on an empty canvas and is produced by the tracing of a brush, but she has often worked on various surfaces, for example, invitation cards for other artist’s shows (as enlarged color prints), train and plane tickets and, in particular, land and sky maps of all kinds, transferred with dyed templates and plastic sheets by means of application of colors on canvas in order to reach suggestive layers with particular contours, grids and spaces, in part by the application of sand, salt, shellac, asphalt or wax. This objectifying process becomes a figurative principle, in which planning and chance, rational consideration and emotional access are held in balance.

In 1990 Barroso’s painting (mostly acrylic or mixed media on canvas) was characterized above all by abstract but structured and lively colored backgrounds, in front of which there are sketchy objects and drawings, archaic and quotidian, geometric and architectural: ladders, pyramids, circles and oval shapes, all kinds of vessels but also vegetative forms. These open, painterly, grounded symbols on top of the painted-over invitation cards from openings juxtapose the textual and image fragments which remain as visible, elaborated, associative elements. In the course of time, Barroso came increasingly to place the issue of human ordering systems at the center of her work. These are expressed in numbers, geometric bodies, grids, networks and all kinds of markings as they are used in cartography. A person who travels often, who is on the road, and who lives between cultures, knows the fascination of maps and atlases, of city plans and globes which attempt to present the coordinate systems of our existence in place and time, but which never exactly correlate with reality and always signal a demand for power and control.[iii]
Paintings such as “Network” and “Satellites,” both from 1992, are early examples for the use of signs that point to the terrestrial but also planetary territories. Barroso often places star constellations on the plans of cities, for example in “Munich” (1998), or combines map structures with those of magnet fields or fingerprints. The artist realized these connections in two “Kunst-am-Bau” (“art-in-architecture”) projects from 1997 and 1998. For the Bayrische Landesvermessungsamt (Bavarian National Survey Office) in Munich she produced the five-part work “Magnetfelder” (“Magnet Fields”), which is hung in the stairwell over five floors. Her second, four-part work, with the general title “Schaltzentrale” (“Control Center”) is in the Police Headquarters in South Neuperlach, also in Munich. This work features pictures painted on the maps of four Munich city boroughs, “Gehirn” (“Brain”), “Baum” (“Tree”), “Fingerabdruck” (“Fingerprint”) and “Netz” (“Net”).

In some of her works the maps are replaced by aerial photos of large cities, usually her hometown of São Paulo, which extend like an endlessly spread out, architectural mountain range, counteracted by the superimposition of other structures, as in the works “Constructed City” from 2001 and “Urbanes Licht” (“Urbane Light”) from 2003.

Barroso uses numbers and maps as essential picture elements in her work and thus stands in a broad tradition of contemporary art. She participated in the 1996 show in Stuttgart, “Magie der Zahl” (“The Magic of Numbers”)[iv] which showed the importance of the language of numbers as a universal language for art since the inception of the modern period, above all in the digital and global age. This is also her impulse to bring maps into the game: “In postmodern times, with all truths suspect, artists have found in cartography a rich vein of concepts and imagery to mine.”[v] Katharine Harmon, whose work focuses on U.S. American art, has written in her book The Map as Art has written. This author begins her timeline with Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists, but truly strikes pay dirt in the contemporary period. “Map-making as a whole is enhanced as each artist makes a mark on a bigger map, calling out, I AM HERE.”[vi] Barroso, too, seeks to find her own identity, her own location in this world in which individual people often feel lost: “If I put a street map next to a celestial map, then I become conscious of the dimensions of our planet. This grounds me and also allows me to see the span of my life in a new light.”[vii] Scientific investigation is driven forward by measurement, based on numbers, tables, relationships, counts and numbers, and productive of abstract orders and schematic images. Cartography serves to control nature and the drawing of boundaries, seen from above, flattens. Maps set standards and are, at the same time, temporary and tied to special interests. They age quickly, become history, and witnesses to history. But they not only function but demonstrate their own aesthetics and excite fantasy. Here is Cristina Barroso’s jumping off point; she conducts her own topography, of an artistic, emotional, personal nature, as the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom, a long-time friend of Barroso, has sensitively described in the poem dedicated to her:
Grids, shading, scale, the constraint
of coordinates, words of magic
for the world as a thing.
But I go with my living earth
of rivers and marshes, bends and willows,
which I compose in my image.
When I retrace them I leave my seal,
a map painted
of soul.[viii]
The maps that Cristina Barroso uses are related to places that she knows, that were a part of her life (postcards or tickets are also relicts of a lived life). She paints them over them so that streets, rivers, cities or airports (such as the 2015 painting “Flughäfen” (“Airports”) are pushed into the background or only appear as fragments, become poetic signs and are put into the context of other elements. Even in those cases where the image carrier can still be seen to be a schoolroom map, as in “Brazil Global” (2015), a new sort of mapping comes into being with a dancing, artistic continental shift. Exact contours and pathways are softened in Barroso’s pictures, names become illegible, borders fade out or are retained, as in “Country” (2008), beginning with a finger print, fictional characters create a land of dreams, a land of wishes. Often luminous colors dominate, as in “Flughäfen” (“Airports”), and “From Here to There” (both from 2015), as an expression of intensive feeling. An artistic sounding board comes into being, where the one-dimensional, ostensibly objective perspective is confronted with one saturated with emotions and subjective – not a product of simple mobility, but an overspending of vital energy via painting and overpainting, a translation into the medium of art.
Already in the 1990s Barroso began painting pasteboard land, water and celestial maps on cardboard boxes. These then made the transition into three dimensional cubes and, more recently, she has formed megacities as collages from aerial pictures on syrofoam balls (“Cities,” “Cidades,” both from 2011), which, similar to chemical models, show urban connections. Or she uses painted and collaged strips of paper and cables to create constructions (such as the series “Roads to Everywhere”) which look more like caricatures of models – products of chaos, undigested fast food from excessive, permanent interconnectedness. Sound, too, plays a role, as in “Zeitzeichen” (“Time Signs”) from 2015 with loudspeakers on a globe, which symbolizes the simultaneity of experiences and suggests a continuously transforming space-time structure. “Zeitzeichen II” (“Time Signs II”) stretches out like a spider’s web in blue painted-over newspaper photos and photos of earler encouters between Cristina Barroso and Ben Patterson is a homage to the Fluxus movement, from which Barroso has allowed certain elements, playful and spontaneous, trans cultural and stretching across borders to influence her work.
[i] Cf. Ronald Grätz (ed), Minhasp. Mein São Paulo / Minha São Paulo / My São Paulo, Stuttgart: Edition Esefeld & Traub, 2013, p. 261.
[ii] Cf. Exhibition catalogue from Brasil Art. Berliner Galerien zeigen brasilianische Kunst, Berlin: Deutsch-Brasilianische Kulturelle Vereinigung 1990; exhibition catalogue José Roberto Aguilar - Cristina Barroso - Rubens Oestroem, Galerie Rudolf Schoen, Berlin, 1990.          
[iii] Regarding the siginificance of this theme cf. in particular the article by Karin Stempel, “Von der Strenge der Wissenschaft und über die Kunst der Kartographie”, in exhibition catalogue. Cristina Barroso, Wechmar: Kunstverlag Gotha, 1994, pp. 29-33.
[iv] Cf. show catalogue. Karin von Maur ed.), Magie der Zahl in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Verlag, 1996, p. 122.             
[v] Katherine Harmon, The Map as Art. Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008, p. 9.
[vi] Ibid, p. 16.
[vii] Quoted from Monika Unkelbach, “Die Nomadin. Die brasilianische Künstlerin Cristina Barroso”, in: Interkultur Stuttgart, October 2015, p. 20.
[viii] Cees Nooteboom, “Kartographie”, in: exhibition catalogue Cristina Barros. Koordinatennullpunkt, [Wechmar: Kunstverlag Gotha 1996, p. 5-8, here p. 8.