I lived in the country once. There it seemed during the cold winter nights, the night skies had the ability to uncannily change, to transform themselves at once from awe-inspiring to suddenly terrifying. The night sky could invert itself; its infinite space of possibility could begin to seem an oppressive weight. The constellations and galaxies and unending darkness – those million points of light – could somehow change and begin to feel like a million nerve endings. When the cold quiet stillness of the winter nights becomes an oppressive silence, and in the summer, when the hum of the cicadas becomes a deafening roar, then for many it is time to leave, and the promise of life begins beyond the boundaries of what is known.
The recurring story of departures, of more perfect worlds left behind, of the inexorable tug of the new and the unknown, and of a longing for home, is as old as the story of the Garden of Eden. The movement and change in our lives distracts us and entertains us but also leaves us with a sense that our lives are provisional, improvised and lacking in connection and rootedness. This dysphoria may be a characteristic of the modernist age, where rootlessness and dislocation are a common condition.
Joe Lima’s work is informed by the anxiety of dislocation. He speaks of his desire to articulate in a traditional method a contemporary experience of the world – a “contemporary uneasiness.” His characteristic images of isolated figures in great spaces remind me of the morphology of night skies, whose vast emptiness often turns to a spectre of impending suffocation.
The Azores has been a place of departures for centuries. It is the place of origin for a diaspora of emigrants to Canada, the United States and Brazil. For Lima, born on the island of São Miguel, but raised in the southwestern Ontario community of Woodstock, the Azores was a magical place, the source of his mother’s stories both folkloric and true. His mother’s stories made a great impression on him. As a painter and graphic artist, Lima took over the role of storyteller from his mother. His frescos, oil paintings and woodcuts, are influenced by her stories and his series of fresco portraits are based on characters from the Azores. His work today continues to draw on those characters from religious parades and festivals.
Lima’s process of art making begins with his collection of photographic and video images. From these images he creates collages, which then begins a process of distancing and abstracting. First he photographs the collages and then draws the rephotographed image on the wood. Separating himself further from the original image he draws only the white areas of the photographed collage. Carving out the light areas, the negative spaces, he further removes himself from the image. The drawing and the hand carving is carried in the wood block, communicating the physical process of the image’s creation. He then inks the board. There is often no printing. For Lima, the woodblock alone can be the work, permitting the viewer to share in the manual process of the image’s making. Printing for Lima can be anticlimactic.
When I imagine the Azores, I think of a cluster of small islands sprinkled amongst the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean and I imagine how the experience of the ocean enveloping the archipelago would shape my life. The heavens, when seen from the Azores, must feel like a celestial reflection – as though each verdant island was a star in the Atlantic Ocean. When I see Joe Lima’s figures, I see them living under that same celestial dome, alternatingly awe-inspiring and terrible. In these paintings and wood engravings, everyday is a titanic struggle of earth and sky.
Gordon Hatt, 2013