The root of the term synecdoche means "to take a part of" and "to understand." It is commonly used to describe a figure of speech, or a filmic device that uses a part as a stand-in for a whole. This linguistic strategy is employed in many of Nuno de Campos' paintings, with the parts being the female torso and hands. In the "Rub" series of paintings, a third element, a blue plastic jar of Vicks VapoRub, is also included. But what is the nature of the "whole" that these parts refer to?
Throughout his career, de Campos has targeted an area of the female body above the knees and below the shoulders, rendering the abbreviated portraits in exquisite detail in tempera on panel. Each painting takes months, dwelling on elaborate patterned clothing, subtle skin tones, and minor changes in hand gesture. Throughout, he scrupulously avoids the whole. Is this woman as mother, or woman as lover? The answer is elusive, because he doesn't want to separate the one from the other, nor allow himself to be pegged Oedipal. She is seen as simply female, though that too becomes slightly ambiguous since the arms are muscled and manly, the hands ropy with veins.
rub #6 tempera on mdf, 13 x 13", 2003
In conjunction with an ambiguity of identity for his subject, he maintains an ambiguity within his own gaze aimed at her: he is a man, he is a child, she is objectified, she is deified. Yet she is always strong, thick-limbed, active and capable, not willowy or seductive. So he is a boy, looking up to his mother, awestruck; or he is a man, looking at a solid partner, impressed, yet as an equal. That could be a strategy to legitimize an incestuous Oedipal liaison, respecting one's mother as a woman, without ever revealing her identity, perhaps even to oneself. Through child's eyes this woman is powerful yet safe, without the power of a seductress, who could take control of the man, and manipulate him as she wished - an ideal salve to fears of losing independence, paradoxically tied to the deepest dependent security.
An avid reader of contemporary psychology, de Campos has placed in her hands what is termed an "associative object," something that, in the words of psychologist Christopher Bollas "seems to elicit within us not so much a memory as an inner psychic constellation laden with images, feelings, and bodily acuities." The jar of Vicks VapoRub fits the definition snugly - it is so sensually specific, it has a smell, a texture, and an intimate tactile quality, that it sends the man spinning back into the sick boy's body, as the mother approaches and gently caresses his chests with the ointment, healing, relieving and loving him.
This is a thematic concentration on time, the time of memory, the recollection of the past in a moment that may be present, as you see your girlfriend or wife absently pick up a jar and you are sent spinning back to your distant sickbed like Proust, or it may be the actual memory that is depicted in the painting. Again, there is no visual evidence included that is conclusive. The dress is deliberately dated, it is from another era, but cleverly chosen to be either the actual article worn by a mother thirty years ago, or a hip vintage fashion statement picked by a modern woman. The jar itself is like a Brillo box, a timeless classic found on the shelf in the same signature color and shape as it has in memory. The imagery works in conjunction with the deliberate and drawn out painting process, which focuses the viewer's eye on time, the time taken to slowly create an image of such detail, and it stands in stark contrast to the brief moment of the gesture. Here de Campos draws on the filmic association of synecdoche, this close cropped shot utilizes the cinematographic strategy of drawing attention to a key element by focusing the camera and therefore the viewer on one visual element, heightening its importance and symbolic value, the role it has to play in the progression of the film's narrative.
For the artist, the paintings are tiny grabs from a film that does not exist as a whole, but only as a series of film stills that capture a few moments as hand gestures and body language change. This is not painting inspired by photography, only a rare and unusual photograph would limit itself to such a view of its subject. This is a crucial point that differentiates de Campos' painting from the vast majority of representational painting. Though he uses photography as his source material, he is not engaged in a dialogue with it as a medium. By engaging with film, which negates the process of still image making by flicking stills by so quickly that they only register as part of a larger movement or narrative, de Campos focuses his painting not on representation but on time and memory. The extreme opposition of the fraction of a second that each still image he paints to the time he spends painting it brings the focus to the value of that moment, of any moment that is both formative and elusive. His portraits do not play the traditional role of capturing an individual in a moment, immortalizing them, but rather in freezing the seeds of memory, and the flashes of coincidence that draw us back into the past.
By de-emphasizing the identity of the female form, the ostensible subject of the painting, and placing in her hands an object which she will use to administer care, the attention actually migrates out of the painting to the subject of the unseen woman's gaze. Like the Mona Lisa, we must wonder, what is this woman looking at? We are given such sumptuous detail to examine that we know the eyes trained on her are riveted, and as a result whoever she is looking at is complemented and enlarged by her presence. It seems we are seeing a depiction of that unseen subject, in essence a self-portrait that uses the contents of the painting, objects of love, desire, and memory as elements of psychic texture for himself.
Tim and Frantiska Gilman-Sevcic