56 HENRY is pleased to announce Used Cloth, a solo exhibition by Ana Prata, on view from October 27, 2023 through December 10, 2023, at 56 Henry Street.
A little group of things (Tutti Frutti)
by Paz Monge
A bowl of colorful fruit, pots, speculative flower arrangements, miscellaneous groupings of abstract objects, vases with skinny flowers: these are just some of the items populating Used Cloth, an exhibition at 56 Henry by Brazilian-born painter Ana Prata. It is within their simplicity and small scale that these still life works evoke a masterful activation of curiosity and playfulness, not often associated with the genre.
Generally speaking, a work of art that depicts collections of objects is called a “still life.” This genre popularized in the 17th century in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands, shifted the focus towards an emphasis on the home and personal belongings, food, and domestic scenery—essentially the mundane— brought by an increase of urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society. Still life paintings containing floral subject matter were especially popular in the early 1600s, as their inherent symbolism of life or growth, and precise craftsmanship catered to a more refined audience. This genre has evolved with new currents of art history, reemerging and reinventing itself through European modernist masters such as Giorgio Morandi (b.1890, Bologna, Italy; d. 1964, Bologna, Italy) or finding a delicate balance between flatness and abstraction in Leyly Matine-Daftary’s (b. 1937, Tehran, Iran; d.2007, Paris, France) thick yet graceful impasto still lifes of the 1970s, right before the Iranian Revolution. In a similar aesthetic vein, Ana Prata’s work reformulates not only the precision of a still life painting, but also the sentiment within it.
Used Cloth stems from Prata’s unpredictable artistic nature. The stillness of the genre is lost in her methodology, as she produces all of her paintings simultaneously; jumping from composition to composition and embracing the flux in the execution. The title of the exhibition originates from the literal meaning of “painted canvas” as a used piece of cloth. Her innovative approach to oil on canvas often involves a whimsical manipulation of materials, which creates a dynamic interplay between form, content, and materiality. By experimenting with textures, drips, and impasto techniques, Prata encourages viewers to contemplate the relationship between the physicality of the medium and the conceptual content of the artwork – precisely creating and activating a used cloth. The subject matter of Prata’s paintings also features used cloths, as the dirty, kitschy, patterned rags which are vaguely represented in the works as floral table covers or printed pieces of cloth—very common in Prata’s Brazil—used to clean countertops, dry the dishes, and decorate kitchen interiors. Expressing herself in compositions that are particular yet universal, Ana Prata’s Used Cloth posits a reflection on domestic space, and invites idiosyncratic readings of her intriguing pictorial simplicity.
The family of works presented in Used Cloth resemble a group of distant cousins, all who look vaguely alike, but have small, significant variations to their compositions. Prata’s imaginary and visual alphabet of related objects translates into colorful silhouettes of fruits, shapes, flowers, and tables over funky, colorful, patterns or flashy, monochrome tones. Works such as All Fruits (2023), combine the playful tension and delicate color palette typical of Prata’s work. As one of the larger works in the exhibition, All Fruits embodies a stylistic contradiction key to Prata’s oeuvre. On one side, she positions a colorful object of dense impasto polka dots, resembling candied fruit or unbloomed flower buds. The thick yellow underlining flattens the subject, masterfully contouring it to emphasize its joyful presence. Next to this tutti frutti-like flower arrangement, Prata includes a plain beige vase, echoing Morandi’s still life objects of the 1930s. Her unique tabletop universe is delicately framed by a spiral border – an ornament purposely placed to unbalance the whole composition. The underpainting of All Fruits finally brings it all together, through a hazy and romantic scheme of pastel tones resembling an early dawn palette.
In contrast to the classical still lifes, Prata offers a refreshing departure from meticulous depictions of inanimate objects using the small scale of her work to offer a platform for mystery and speculation. Clown Flower 1 (2023) positions a small-scale still life within a striped cloth canvas. Prata’s vibrant and child-like miniature figuration produces curiosity, usually associated with the cognitive nature of meddling or marveling at small objects. The artist explains how something so miniscule, which requires a more examined double-take of the regular human eye, creates an aura of preciousness, like a treasure. This provocation of in-depth contemplation encourages a sense of wonder around the work and invites viewers to question what it actually means to look closely.
Prata’s material choice of painting onto a striped lined canvas brings her playful irreverence to the tame and risk-free aesthetic of this genre. Yet, works such as Band (2022) or From Night to Day (2023) honor the genre by infusing it with vibrant colors, a geometric visual vocabulary, and a contemporary twist. While paying homage to traditional subject matter, these works push the material boundaries of still life through their generously applied and layered gesso-like texture, dynamically articulating a fresh perspective that both respects and reinterprets their aesthetic predecessors.
As a disruptive element to Prata’s small scaled suite of paintings, Used Cloth features Close to me (2023), an altered screen with a life-size still life, including signature elements of Prata’s previous works: vases, flowers, oblique geometric shapes. Her inclusion of these furnishing elements, displaying relatable and approachable motifs, establishes a key parallel to Prata’s artistic intentions. Folding screens in Asian decorative art history functioned both as a type of furnishing and as decoration, by dividing large open spaces into more intimate and private areas. It is through the function of the object itself that Prata draws attention to the intimacy and everydayness of the still life subject matter. Based on composition, the types of objects displayed, and negative space of Close to me (2023), there is a casual yet calculated intention to invite a voyeuristic viewer into the domestic space, as if they were peeking through a window, comically defying the alluring privacy function of a screen.
Yellow Still Life (2023), As shown in graph (2023) and Relatives (2023) exude a sense of dreamlike wonder that is combined with the contrasting hues of traditional still life, ultimately making them thoroughly comprehensive examples of Prata’s intricate, vital brushwork. Through their use of space, the works convey a stronger tension in scale play: the first two artworks being a miniature monochrome child-like doodle and a close up of a multi patterned tropical fruit bowl. Relatives (2023) subtly diverts from this description with its simple, flat-painted abstract composition set against an oddly expressive underpainting and enigmatic sultana flower-covered background. These works in particular reference Prata’s earlier aesthetic styles, borrowing some nostalgia from her own practice.
Ana Prata's work is a breath of fresh air within the genre of still life, reinvigorating a centuries-old tradition through her lens of playful intimacy. Her captivating approach transforms seemingly mundane memorabilia into an exploration of the human experience filled with aesthetic contradiction— it is poetic and free, although it has a signature style and structure. Used Cloth challenges the notion that a still life must be static. Instead, it infuses it with movement and emotion; simultaneity remains a reigning factor across her artistic process. By incorporating surreal or abstract elements, she transcends the boundaries of reality, inviting viewers to engage with the objects on a deeper, more personal level. In doing so, this suite of paintings probes the contemporary still life genre, showing us that even the most ordinary subjects can be vessels for emotional connection and longing.
When addressing her own body of work, Prata mentions how paintings grow to be very close to her, easily identifying most of them from memory by name and subject matter. As a result of this devoted connection to her work, Prata’s physical and figurative treatment of the canvas creates a palpable sense of wonder. Understanding painting as a tactile language of material transfiguration can be equally as exciting as demanding. The artist celebrates this challenge through her universal vocabulary of relatable domesticity with a certain naïviety, by reaffirming to herself and the viewer that a still life painting does not have to be constrained after all.
Ana Prata (b. 1980, Sete Lagoas) lives and works in São Paulo. She earned a degree in Visual Arts from the University of São Paulo. She was included in the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo – Affective Affinities in São Paulo (2018) and has been the subject of solo exhibitions at SESC Pompéia, São Paulo (2022); Galería Travesía Cuatro, Mexico City (2022) Madrid (2020) Guadalajara (2020); Galeria Millan, São Paulo (2021); Tobias Mueller Modern Art, Zurich (2020); Auroras, São Paulo (2019); Isla Flotante, Buenos Aires (2019, 2023); Pippy Houldsworth, London (2016), Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo (2012), among others. Her work has been included in group exhibitions at institutions such as the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo; Caixa Cultural (Rio de Janeiro, 2017); Instituto Figueiredo Ferraz (Ribeirão Preto, 2015); SESC_Videobrasil (São Paulo, 2011 and 2013); Instituto Tomie Ohtake (São Paulo, 2011); Instituto Moreira Salles (Rio de Janeiro, 2013). Prata’s work is in international collections including The Pinault Collection, Paris; Jorge Pérez, Miami; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo; and Instituto Figueiredo Ferraz, Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo.