Pedro Cabrita Reis

Year and place of birth: 1956, Lisbon, Portugal Location: Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal was still a fascist country when Cabrita Reis was born in 1956. Information about contemporary art was scarce and opportunities for international travel almost non-existent. Even as a young teenager, Cabrita Reis created oil paintings that, for him, were situated between Van Gogh and Surrealism. He studied at the local fine arts school until he turned seventeen and then served in the army as a volunteer. At this time, he was also a member of a far-left group. Four years after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, Reis abandoned his political activism. When he left Portugal for the United States in 1983, it was only his second trip abroad (having visited London during the previous decade). In New York, he encountered Minimalism and German Neo-Expressionism. The latter style was also prevalent in Portugal at the time. Cabrita Reis worked as a teacher at a lyceum until winning a lucrative artistic commission in 1985, at which point he became a full-time artist.

Cabrita Reis made dark, abstract paintings until the late 1980s. He applied the paint in thick layers, often using his bare hands, and occasionally added objects to the canvases. Cabrita Reis saw his paintings as being exclusively about matter and never as representational. The need to express himself with greater physicality and an even deeper sense of materiality steadily grew over time. In the late 1980s, he therefore worked more with hammer and nails than with brushes and paint. In the early 1990s, Cabrita Reis created a new vocabulary with the house as its theme. He worked with doors, tables, walls, stairs and architectural fragments. The artist saw the home-building as a core human activity that separates people from nature. People appropriate the world, and thus their reality, through houses. During this period, Cabrita Reis initially used industrial materials such as plaster, neon lights, glass, steel girders and bricks. He subjected them to building processes. His sculptures and installations leant towards architecture, while his paintings flirted with sculpture. Yet the artist strongly resists the term ‘architecture’ in connection with his work. In his view, architecture is about collectiveness and the regulation of social tensions. Cabrita Reis’ sees his work as being closer to the notion of ‘construction’. The only approach he accepts is architecture as building, and through which philosophy, poetry and anthropology converge.

Cabrita Reis considers his sculptures and installations (which are often based on his own height), and the space he visually appropriates, to be ‘extended painting’. Through his chosen materials and how he treats them – neon lamps and fixtures being particularly noteworthy – Cabrita Reis continues to operate within the field of painting. As such, he reflects on essential aspects of the medium, such as transparency, opacity, light and even silence. The artist introduces another dimension into his work through the use of reclaimed materials, namely the “memory of a previous existence and function”. Cabrita Reis says: “Only the memory of what was sharpens our view of what is and what will be.” The artist is principally and most widely known for his spatial interventions. He makes the basic structure for many of his large installations in his Lisbon studio. The finishing is always done in situ using local materials. Cabrita Reis’ installations are sometimes compared to contemporary ruins, as we know them from suburban landscapes. Although most of his works have an explicitly built character, the artist stresses that he is first and foremost a painter: “It is as a painter that I relate to the world.” And he adds that the foundation of all his work is drawing.

In 2012, Cabrita Reis won the Flemish Government Architect’s prize in the category ‘commissioned art’ with his wall of remembrance entitled ‘Looking at Silence’, a meditative construction for the Kortrijk crematorium. He also has a permanent installation entitled ‘The Passage of the Hours’ (2004) in Antwerp’s Middelheim sculpture park.

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