The artist Artur Silva works in a cracker box studio upstairs in the Harrison Center for the Arts on Delaware Street. The room is awash in images: on canvas and paper, the covers of magazines, cardboard boxes and candy wrappers.
"I collect images," Silva says. "That's what I do."
We're looking at a recent work called "Empirical Demise," a photographic collage of images that extend like wings from the spine of a man dressed as a Roman soldier, whom Silva photographed while on a trip to Rome. Those wings contain a phantasmagoric array of images of modern stuff - from an Eames chair to sneakers - supported on a pedestal of bright, brassy tubes of red lipstick. Emblazoned on the Roman soldier's breastplate is a big, blingy dollar sign.
"It's about making connections," Silva says. "For the person who buys the iPod but has no idea where aluminum comes from."
Silva has been creating these colorfully elaborate collages for some time now. In their intricacy and seeming symmetry, they can appear like Technicolor Rorschach blots, a kind of imagery that invites broad interpretation. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that what, at first, looks symmetrical is actually loaded with discreet details. You realize that, rather than a Rorshach test, what you're seeing is more akin to a page of text. Viewed from a distance, or with near-sighted eyes, it looks like a generality. But get closer, even squint a little, and a veritable hive of juxtapositions that lead, in turn, to ideas reveals itself.
"The whole work should be read like a book," Silva says. "To me, my art has to talk about something. It has to talk about what's in my mind. My art is about everything - all the women that I've loved. All of the losses that I've suffered. All of my experiences in capitalism. It's about beauty and the ugliest parts of it all. This current work, that I've been doing for a few years, talks explicitly about capitalism and how individuals experience capitalism in unique ways."
But there is nothing doctrinaire about Silva's take on capitalism. When he uses the C word, he isn't merely referring to an economic system. For Silva, what may have started as a way of understanding the transactions involved in productivity, supply and demand has turned into something even larger, a cultural phenomenon of which all of us necessarily partake.
"Capitalism is how we structure ourselves," says Silva, who was born in Brazil. "I grew up under a dictatorship that was put in place because of a fear of Communism taking over South America. I should mention it was put in place by the U.S. So I grew up under that system, and when it collapsed and changed over I was just beginning to have an understanding that there was a world beyond my family. It was in those young years I saw how this focus on a free market was impacting people. That definitely put a mark in me as far as how I observe the dynamics of socioeconomics and how that impacts a community, a country."
What works and what doesn't
Silva was born in Belo Horizonte City, a densely populated metropolis of over 3.5 million people in southeast Brazil. Translated as "beautiful horizon," Belo Horizonte enjoys a hilly topography and is surrounded by mountains. Silva lived there until he was 21. His father was a businessman and his mother a practicing Jehovah's Witness. Asked when he decided to become an artist, Silva replies, "It wasn't a decision, so I don't know when.
"When I look back, I can see that I was doing things and interested in things that most of the other kids were not. I was very isolated. I could not relate to many of the other children."
Silva remembers being fascinated by ice. "Brazil [has] very hot, warm weather. I would make molds and fill up containers with water and make these blocks, then drill through them and make cars out of ice. You're already thinking about detachment and ephemeral process. Figuring out what works and what doesn't. I think that my practice as an artist has a lot to do with curiosity, a lot to do with being an inquisitive person."
Since his dad was in sales, Silva also found himself drawn to a kid's version of commerce and what it takes to make a person want something. "I created a little shop and sold magazines out of my mom's house. I tried to market it with kids in the area. I was always trading things."
Silva was 10 years old when the military junta that had held power in Brazil for 21 years came to an end in 1985. "The thing with any system that collapses like that - it doesn't go away right away." To this day, Silva says, the police on the streets are still called "military police."
"Brazil," he says, "is a place of contradictions. There are so many things that seem free and there are so many restrictions." Late one night, on a recent trip to his hometown, Silva was on a city bus with just one other passenger. As usual, Silva was taking photographs. When the ticket-taker saw what Silva was doing, he demanded that Silva hand over his camera and film. Silva refused and the situation became heated. The bus stopped. Silva and the ticket-taker stepped onto the street. "There was almost a fight," before a policeman intervened.
"You couldn't have a place that looks like Brazil, and has that kind of weather," Silva laughs, "and have everything else be fine. It would not be fair to the rest of the world."
Throughout his adolescence, Silva found himself drawn to museums and galleries. "I would go by myself. My friends would say, 'Are you kidding?'" By the time he turned 21, he knew that New York City was his destination. Although he spoke virtually no English and had little by way of a plan, he made the leap and found himself in Manhattan. "It's nice to be so naïve," he says now. "Wonderful, really. I wish I could go back to thinking less strategically about things."
Although Silva had his share of hard times, was even homeless for a while, he loved his new home. "New York is not really what the rest of the United States is like. You feel so entitled there. You feel that you belong. It makes you feel at home right away."
He worked a stream of odd jobs and developed his art at night. "I was interested in a very deep stream of ideas that came from the unconscious. Full of symbolism, related to psychological things. I think my work still has some of that."
At the time he was drawn to the work of a number of artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Vito Acconci, Helio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles and what he calls "a love-hate relationship with Warhol." Silva remained in New York for almost five years. The scene there taught him to think of art as an interdisciplinary practice. "Art is on TV right now. Art is magazines. Art doesn't have to have a product. That really expanded my horizons as far as what to utilize in my process and as a final product."
But the daily grind of living in New York was also beginning to take a toll. Silva felt stressed to the point of carrying a taser for self-defense. "My therapist cursed the hell out of me for it."
When the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, happened, Silva decided it was time for a change. His partner at the time, Jeanette Bogren, had family in Indianapolis and the couple moved here later that fall.
At first the move didn't agree with Silva. "It was more a shock to me coming to Indianapolis from New York than it was coming to New York from Brazil." He went through a period of depression. But then his work began taking off. Indianapolis became Silva's base. "I like this place so much. I will always look at Indianapolis as a turning point. Whatever the shape of my future is, Indianapolis became home to me."
It didn't take long for Silva to establish himself in the city's burgeoning visual arts scene. Not only did he bring a fresh eye, but, he points out, his timing was good. Bart Peterson was mayor and the city was enjoying a newfound interest in cultural policy. "There was a buzz," Silva says, which he and many of his fellow artists benefited from. Silva received a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council and found a variety of venues and platforms for his work. This continues, with public art installations on the Washington Bridge in White River State Park and, more recently, on Massachusetts Avenue by the Dean Johnson Gallery.
But Silva feels the city's cultural momentum has stalled. The city lacks a critical mass of people interested in acquiring contemporary art on the one hand, and has yet to become an arts destination for out-of-town visitors on the other. "You have artists here who are doing good work, but if they only do good work here, it will never be seen."
Silva has made a point of branching out. In the past year he has shown work in Chicago, New York and Memphis, and had shows in Brazil and the Netherlands. A one-man show will open soon in Portland, Ore.
If Silva is most recently identified with his Photoshopped collages and installations, his work takes many forms - from self-referential videos to his Claes Oldenburg-like Chinese take-out box in White River State Park. "I don't think in straight lines," he says. "I am compassionate, angry, a terrible person at times, hurtful, narcissistic and a good person, too. All of these things. Ideas come to me and I find the necessary means to accomplish them."
Silva's readiness to adopt different strategies to express himself may also be a way of trying to grow an audience, breaking down barriers between pop culture and fine art. "I feel like a lot of people are left out. I talk about art being a language ... This language has been developed to communicate with a certain group of people. I don't know if it's education or personal interest, but it takes work. It's a dialog between artists and curators and scholars and the people who collect art. There are some works that break out of that dynamic. But take an average middle American and place them in a gallery in New York and chances are they either won't be interested, or they'll feel left out."
But whatever form his art takes, Silva believes in making what he does as true to his own experience as possible. "Art has to be something that matters to you, otherwise why should it matter to other people? Within this very personal revival of experiences and situations in my life there is a large thematic set of ideas that relates to just about everyone on the planet, which is how do we experience capitalism? How is that experience different from another person's? Those are my interests. It's less pointing fingers and more a true attempt at understanding."
Silva's latest project will be a happening, a public party to celebrate Carnaval, the blast of music and dancing Brazilians enjoy at this time every year. Silva is working with DJ Kyle Long, an aficionado of Brazilian rhythms, most notably samba, a kind of music that, like American blues, came up from Brazilian society's lowest classes to express something essential about the identity of an entire country. The event takes place Saturday, Feb. 21 at the Upper Room in Broad Ripple.
Silva says friends sometimes ask him how to dance the samba. But he doesn't know what to tell them - he's never taken a dance lesson. Silva smiles, as delighted as he is perplexed. "It comes through you. It's here and your body just knows what to do."