Copyright 1987 The New York Times Company 

The New York Times


December 9, 1987, Wednesday, Late City Final Edition


SECTION: Section C; Page 24, Column 3; Cultural Desk

'Utopia Versus Reality' In Brazil's Art Biennal


By MARLISE SIMONS, Special to the New York Times

Every two years, Sao Paulo, like its two European counterparts, Venice and Kassel, West Germany, organizes a momentous forum to review current modern art.

This year's Biennal art exhibition, which closes Sunday, includes the work of 400 artists from 53 nations, and this vast congeries is energized by sessions of video art, film, debates, Minimalist music and theater troupes.

Its theme is ''Utopia Versus Reality,'' and critics have widely disagreed on whether the show has illustrated this and used it effectively to reveal new relationships in the activities of the artists.

The Biennal curator, Sheila Leirner, says the answer is beside the point. ''We wanted a strategy to get work that would lead to discussion and reflection,'' Miss Leirner said, adding that it would be impossible for one theme to accommodate a show of this size, above all in a forum where most of the work is not chosen through a single, well-knit vision but by national commissioners.

Miss Leirner and her colleagues at the exhibition, however, felt they needed to present the two contrasting notions. ''At the last Biennal we saw a lot of nihilism, a lot of artists who had put aside the meaning of objects, myths and beliefs,'' she said. ''They were repeating past styles or just focusing on appearance. But we are also seeing a search for new values, a new utopia.''


A Central Emblem

The exhibition, by most accounts, is immensely eclectic, both in quality and style. For some, there are several magnificent, dominating figures. Among them is one by Anselm Kiefer, the West German whose huge and darkly impastoed paintings are counted among the most compelling works here. His sculpture, a silver palette with large and fragile-looking wings of lead, hovers like an inspired emblem over the central gallery.

Below, in the manner of an Elizabethan theater, three curving galleries are visible at once. For the visitor, this underlines the sense of being at a show, and it also points up the difficulty of arranging such varied works.

''We have a mixture of what we want and what we got,'' said Miss Leirner. ''But in this enormous space we can afford to show the mediocre, the bad and the grandiose. We think the mixture provides energy and counterpoint.''

Contrasts are created in the sequence of the display, which sometimes moves suddenly from restrained European work to Latin American baroque. Grouping the paintings and objects to make a point became possible only in recent years, when the organizers, against the wishes of some governments, broke with the traditional format of presenting exhibits by country. Now, many sculptors seem to have benefited by being placed in spacious outer galleries with windows where they interact with the park and the city's skyline. A great many artists have rooms to themselves.


Three Miles of Art

Inevitably, this giant exhibition, involving a three-mile walk, elicits superlatives. One is that it offers undoubtedly the widest array of new Latin American art available anywhere. Many of the artists are young and their work has not reached American or European shows. The strong Brazilian group includes elegant glass and steel sculptures by Ana Maria Tavares. A centerpiece of the show is made by Tunga, who draped two tons of steel wool into woman's hair.

Colombia sent Oscar Munoz's touching ''Shower Curtain'' paintings, which create the illusion of elderly bodies moving behind plastic. The most exuberant work from this region is widely held to be that of Gustavo Nakle, a Uruguyan. He creates a sensuous and grotesque labyrinth out of ''Last Judgment,'' ''Baths'' and ''Paradise (of the Riff-raff),'' where animals fuse with humans and humans with plants. His life-size figures of polyester resin are as deformed, comic and licentious as the creatures of Bosch's ''Garden of Earthly Delights.'' But the shapes and bright colors seem to come directly from Latin American folk art.


Some Common Themes

National traits or clear tendencies have been hard to find because of the enormous size of the Biennal. There are links to nature, to industry, to religion, to the fantastic.

But a few strands seem to run through the show. One appears as a renewed attempt to demystify art and to scorn it as a precious commodity. David Mach, a Scotsman who builds ''temporary works'' from mass-produced objects, molded 10 tons of surplus magazines into a swirling heap attached to a tractor. Four members of the Boyle family from Britain occupy a large wall with their ''Studies of the Surface of the Earth,'' full-scale fiberglass reproductions of sections of a pavement, a gutter, a garden path, a patch of mud.

A prominent separate exhibit is dedicated to 74 works and ''ready-mades'' by Marcel Duchamp, one of the first artists to challenge the role and the shape of art forms early this century. The work is part of the private collection of Arturo Schwarz, an Italian, and forms the first significant show of Duchamp's work in Latin America.


The Role of Ritual

Another strand in the show, though not grouped as such, is the ritual. It comes in many forms and may be touching on the utopia part of the show's theme. Sissel Tolaas from Norway built a large, haunting temple of metal plates, its floor covered with charcoal. In its center, a pool of oil serves as a black mirror. Marta Palau from Mexico formed a spiritual ''Place for Shamans'' from a circle of pillars covered with bark paper and joined by blocks of corn husks.

Two of the four United States participants also appear to fit here. Robert Stackhose's ''Ruby Birth'' has a large red serpent being born from a latticework sculpture that from afar seems shaped like a Toltec pyramid. Michael Singer from New York made a ''Ritual Gate'' from delicately balanced pieces of wood and stone.

One of the most forceful and acclaimed works in this vein is Barbara Steinman's silver and marble shrine to the disappeared. It strikes a strong chord in a continent where almost every nation has a roster of victims of political violence. It is all the stronger because Miss Steinman does not accuse or moralize. At the entrance, she simply carved these words by Hannah Arendt: ''The radicalism of measures to treat people as if they had never existed and to make them disappear is frequently not apparent at first glance.''


GRAPHIC: Photo of Sheila Leirner (NYT/Marlise Simons)