Presenting as a conventional gallery show, Hugo Canoilas’s exhibition “Buoyant” revealed itself upon closer inspection to be a fascinating experimental investigation into perception—specifically, the perception of nature. It was also a hypothesis on new forms of coexistence, of the kind that Chus Martínez, in her 2020 essay “The Invention Is Nature,” discerns in the similarities between nature and process-based art.
Born in Lisbon in 1977 and now resident in Vienna for roughly a decade, Canoilas makes work that is smart and brimming with energy: Legacy imagemaking practices enjoy a new lease on life, as reenactments salvage discarded artistic idioms and spaces become theatrical. His installations, paintings, videos, and performances are surprising in their themes as much as in their technique, which is always sumptuous, unorthodox, and distinguished by a cool composure. Nature has long played a role, as has language. Thus between 2013 and 2018 he made dinosaur pictures measuring up to twenty-five by almost fifty feet, based on paleontological drawings by Czech book illustrator Zdeneˇk Burian (1905–1981); created text pieces that hearkened back to the performances of the Zagreb, Croatia–based Grupa šestorice autora (Group of Six Artists) around Mladen Stilinovic´ in the 1970s; and repurposed clutter that he painted in solid colors and transplanted into the urban environment. Then, in 2016, installations that played out on the gallery floor became prominent: found objects drowning in a layer of lemon-yellow silicone.
The floor also served Canoilas as canvas in “On the Extremes of Good and Evil,” the 2020–21 exhibition held at Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien in Vienna after the artist won the Kapsch Contemporary Art Prize (for which I was a juror). There, he poured acrylic paint over wall-to-wall carpeting the color of a blue whale, laid out felt-fabric islands, and scattered translucent jellyfish made of colored glass. Visitors were invited to take a stroll on the horizontal painting and, if they were lucky, to observe performers dressed in dog costumes. Animals and what they make of the world were key; Canoilas likes to paint on his knees in order to get a firsthand experience of what it’s like to see the world through, say, a dog’s eyes.
“Buoyant” featured new paintings and glass objects dedicated to a habitat shrouded in mystery: the deep sea, whose darkness no ray of sunlight pierces. Robots dive down to the bottom to gather data on its creatures; though we’re aware of their existence, we know almost nothing about them—yet. To make paintings such as Arthropoda, 2021, or Black Eye, 2021, the artist moves the canvas back and forth between the wall and the floor. The wall is where he draws; on the floor, liquid acrylic rapidly bonds with the support medium, leaving no room for subsequent edits. The glass sculptures on the floor are likewise hardened liquids. Titled Pleiades and Andromeda, both 2020, they sparkle with an allure laced with pure evil. Finally, in the gallery’s basement showroom, Canoilas installed a spectacular twenty-three-foot-wide curtain with depictions of female octopuses birthing their young in the artificial glare of spotlights.
We’re living in a new geological era, Canoilas says, and so we need to develop new forms of empathy for the natural world. After all—and here he emphatically agrees with Martínez—humans are not the only living beings who make and look at art.
Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.