A conversation with Gil Heitor Cortesão

18 March 2018Arsalan Mohamed
A conversation with Gil Heitor Cortesão

The Portuguese painter and proponent of reverse-glass painting, Gil Heitor Cortesão returns to Carbon 12 this month for his fourth solo show at the gallery, Umbra. In this collection of new and recent works, Cortesão builds on his long-standing investigations that explore the possibilities within delineated spaces, regarding them from interior or exterior vantage points.

Using fragments of archival imagery, culled from vintage magazines and books, Cortesão’s work creates an eerie sense of silence and stillness, inviting the viewer to engage with his work slowly, experiencing small, gradual revelations. Cortesão typically uses a reverse-glass painting technique, which allows him to add layers, literal and metarphorical, to his work, that add to the sense of dislocation and mystery. Ahead of his exhibition, I spoke to him about paint, reverse glass, stillness, silence and Joy Division…


Can we begin by discussing your frame of mind, when you worked on the works in the new ‘Umbra’ exhibition?

The series is comprised of several smaller series inside the series. There are two works called ‘Umbra’. Then there are three small paintings, which are room interiors. Then there’s another series, called ‘Passages’. So, there are several things inside ‘Umbra. I wanted to show works with differences, some are more subtle and others not so subtle. There is a common atmosphere, in terms of colours - they are a bit subdued, in comparison to my older paintings. They have a lot to do with the things I have been working on over the last few years, like, exploring the idea of spaces, landscapes or interior, that function like thresholds or frontiers. Some are visible and some are invisible, between the inside and outside of a space. For instance, ‘Passage 3’ functions like a diptych with the landscape having separation from one [part of the] landscape to another. It has to do with the idea of movement, through invisible frontiers. All of these things, I think, are present in this series. There’s a sense of boundaries, limits, frontiers and thresholds.


Your works have long been exploring this liminal space, between boundaries, looking outwards and looking inwards. Could you tell me why this perspective compels you so much?

Yes, it has a lot to do with the kind of work I do, the experience of painting for me. I work with plexiglass, making reverse-paintings, so there is always this sense of reversibility. What I see and what I show, between the materialities of the painting, is always like working with a threshold, being in a threshold between an image that is immediate and one that becomes apparent. The choice of images is important too, the places you see from the outside and inside. 


Yes, as far as the actual imagery itself goes, you have a tendency to source photographs from the 1960s and 1970s, where there is a certain aesthetic – retro, washed-out colours, vintage rooms with appropriately dated furniture, and so on. What draws you to that style?

I think there is something that attracts me to these images, yes, there’s a sort of temperature in the images. The colours, you see with the techniques they used in the 1960s in film, they have a very peculiar colour that attracts me. It is linked also with this idea that it is something I haven’t experienced directly. I was born in 1967 – so they relate to the spaces I lived in when I was very young. So, it’s unknown, as I wasn’t there, but paradoxically, it is very familiar. I think that is one of the reasons I am so interested in this imagery. Then, also, it’s an aesthetic choice for me. Nowadays, everything seems very pristine, in terms of the images you see in magazines and books. They are very high resolution, but lack atmosphere.


Works like ‘Circular Pool’ really radiate with these strange colours

That started from a black and white photograph from the 1950s. I had to imagine the colours for it. Sometimes, I start with a black and white image that become more or less colourful during the process. In these works, I explore the small differences between the different shades in colours. It is something that happens in most of these recent works.  


Do you have a clear idea how a painting will end up when you start work on it? Or do you allow for improvisation and accidents along the way?

Sometimes, it is clear to me how a painting will work out, other times not so much. I want to keep space for accidents in the process. Sometimes things will change a lot, other times, they will seem more linear. Some of the works I like the most, went through a lot of changes and things didn’t end up as I predicted. They evolved.

Overall, while this show doesn’t really have one narrative – the choice of title, ‘Umbra’, for instance, Latin for ‘shadow’ has other meanings, such as something a little ghostly, perhaps - that is a common characteristic in a lot of these recent works. Kourosh [Nouri, Carbon 12] and I, we chose the paintings and agreed to have this common ground of a wintery atmosphere, the grey colours and so on. There are two or three works that move a little away from that theme, but that’s mainly it. 


I really love ‘Passage 1’, it reminds me of a Joy Division song for some reason, ‘Shadowplay’…

Ha, that’s an honour! Yes, they are one of my favourites too. This painting was one of the first I did for the show, it was actually a little difficult, as it moves between one colour and another. This one seems more spontaneous than it actually was, with the paint, the drippings and so on. What seems to be the last thing I did – the white paint across the middle – that was in fact, the first mark I made. That was actually the first gesture on the glass. I start with photographs and then before starting the painting, I am projecting what will happen with the painting, I don’t want to make a copy of the photo, that would be boring. I wasn’t sure if it was actually going to function at the end, it wasn’t a very linear process. 

Umbra opens at Carbon 12 on Galleries Night, 19 March, as part of Art Week at Alserkal Avenue.