Forces of Attraction: Fernando do Campo's I Always Hear You Before I See You

Praxis, New York, January 12- Febuary 6, 2017

In a series of lectures delivered at the University of California, Irvine in 2007, Elizabeth Grosz seeks to demystify the artistic 'impulse'. At the center of her analysis is a reference to Charles Darwin. Sexual selection, she argues, is a force essential to aesthetics.

Not to be conflated with natural selection, sexual selection concerns the processes by which organisms compete for copulation. In contest for desirable suitors, animals play at seduction in games of aesthetic expression. We might observe such activity in the courtship and ritual of birds. In song, colourful display, dance and erotic ceremony, birds exhibit a range of dramatic behaviour superfluous to the demands of survival. Here, Grosz contends, lies ground for the emergence of art.

Throughout the course of his career, Fernando do Campo has simultaneously sustained two exploratory practices: one in painterly abstraction, the other in birdwatching. In a recent solo exhibition, I Always Hear You Before I See You at Praxis (New York), the two are brought together in six diptychs produced after a lengthy process of cross-continental fieldwork.

do Campo has long held something of an artist-muse relationship with birds. In 2015, a series of paintings paid homage to the colonial history of the house sparrow. Other recent projects describe the Anthropocene from a bird’s perspective, or relations between sparrows and Barnett Newman. In this latest liaison, the engagement is especially intimate. Each painting acts as a monument. The subject: a bird the artist has failed to perceive in the field. Through a series of impassioned textual exclamations, painted in acrylic on canvas, do Campo hails these absent figures. When You Called I Knew I Didn’t Know You, You Are My New Infatuation, and I Had Not Realized That I Had Not Perceived Him. A cogent expression of lack.

From where did do Campo arrive at this obsession? What possesses him to send love messages to birds? What urgent perspectives does such activity bring to the discipline of art? What discourses might an engagement with birdwatching be tied to?

While in residence in New York City in 2014, do Campo staged a birdwatching tour of Central Park. Approximately ten artists were led into the foray. As we roamed with binoculars in hand, I was quickly impressed by the efficacy through which a ‘sighting’ could wrest a sense of encounter. Perhaps most surprising was not the volume or diversity of birds but, the realization that these animals had appeared to me, without my actively searching for them—all but invisible. do Campo had drawn us into a dérive. Lost among a network of trees, my coordinates for spatial cognition appeared augmented. Here, I came to think, is a milieu which—in my everyday experience of the city—I ordinarily fail to notice.

do Campo lays claim to this psychogeography. Bird watching is a game of perception. Its objectives jolt the pedestrian away from predictable paths and, in doing so, reveal the ideological frame from which spatial perspectives are conditioned. However, as he often describes, birds reveal another political circumstance. In the distinction between native and introduced species, a colonial trace is apparent. First brought to the New World in waves of European migration, introduced species have radically complicated the field upon which birds compete. Where intruders survive, indigenous populations are violently displaced. And, as birds clash in a continued contest for territory, one must also regard the human history with which the struggle coincides.

But—what has this got to do with painting? While bird watching might be tied to certain historical legacies of art, walking and politics, what does it have to say about the image? Furthermore, if psychogeography is integral to our understanding, why does the artist not claim this as the work? Is the dérive not enough? Are the paintings unnecessary? Or have we simply got it wrong?

In grids, linear patterns, washes and color fields, each painting possesses a distinct visual motif. At the center of the project is an interplay of text and image. And, where sentimental statements float in a variety of graphic letters, the works are universally tied to a logic of representation through titles that correspond to particular species of bird. Spotted Turtle-Dove, Red-Tailed Hawk, Pacific Baza or Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoo. Each panel, it seems, is a stand-in. A substitute for a particular actor.

In determining why do Campo develops these proxies it may help to remember that, while birdwatching is characterized by observation, its proponents regularly produce a wealth of material outcomes. In lists, journals, reports, and photographs, experience is routinely translated into evidence. This proclivity for testimony, we might agree, is embedded in the project. However, where such documentation ordinarily attests to that which happens, do Campo affirms the things that have failed to happen. A testament to lost opportunity, near miss, or—lingering desire.

For Grosz, the artistic impulse is libidinally driven. It is not born of a conceptual framework, nor is it uniquely human. Rather, the arts emerge from an animal ancestry. Generated by an abundance or excess of sexual energy, art materialises in extravagant, unnecessary, and exuberant behaviours that exceed requirements for survival.

Conceived in this way, art and birdwatching present certain parallels. Birdwatching, like art, belongs to a field of cultural practices sustained by collective jouissance. Where Freudians might speak of such formulations in terms of sublimation, Grosz presents a view more compelling than that. Libidinal energy is objectified in the products of creative enterprise. And whether through the performance of birds or gestures of painting, we encounter in them Forces of Attraction. It is only natural that we should want to be seduced.


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webCalifornia gull.jpg

Fernando do Campo, California Gull, acrylic on canvas, 2016, 44" x 60", courtesy of the artist and Praxis Gallery, New York. 

Vered Snear

Web-Red-tailed Hawk (Pale Male).jpg

Fernando do Campo, Red Tailed Hawk, acrylic on canvas, 2016, 44" x 60", courtesy of the artist and Praxis Gallery, New York.

Vered Snear

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Fernando do Campo, Install shot, acrylic on canvas, 2016, 44" x 60", courtesy of the artist and Praxis Gallery, New York.

Vered Snear

web-Pacific Baza.jpg

Fernando do Campo, Pacific Baza, acrylic on canvas, 2016, 44" x 60", courtesy of the artist and Praxis Gallery, New York.

Vered Snear

Aaron Cooper is an interdiscipinary artist working across sculpture, photography and text. His work often engages narratives concerning contested sites and objects. Aaron has recieved support from the Australia Council for the Arts,  American Australian Association and American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia. Recent projects have been developed for The Kitchen (NY), Proteus Gowanus (NY), Sierra Nevada College (NV), among others. Aaron currently teaches at Parsons, The New School and is editor at Unbag, a Brooklyn based publishing platform.