On September 4, 2017, Lucas Arruda arrived at the Gare de Lille Europe from London, where his first exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery had just opened a few days prior. He didn’t know what exactly to expect: he had done very little research about Lens. He hoped, for a start, that this residency would allow him to take a step back and help him process two years of intense work in São Paulo, his native city, where he lives and works. Arruda grew up in the Vila Madalena neighborhood of the Pinheiros district. His parents met through the socialist Workers’ Party, founded in 1980. Arruda remembers once being rocked to sleep by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as “Lula,” the party’s founder, who later became the president of Brazil. He spent his childhood in a fertile political and cultural context. From an early age, he was sent to an arts-based nursery school; art would remain an important part of his education. As a child, he drew profusely, “strangely violent’” sketches that were never fully resolved. He aligned page after page to create a fictional epic, in which armies clashed with one another.
Around age sixteen, he began painting, seeking a way to channel his attention and find a kind of focus. “Frida Kahlo depicts herself with an arrow in her head— I was like that at the time,” he says. He tried to create intimate paintings, but found the results too illustrative or narrative. Seduced by the work of Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, he tried his hand at portraiture. Were these self-portraits ? He doesn’t remember. But he came to understand that painting could be an escape from daily life, “cathartic, even when it is not figurative.” The human figure soon disappeared from his work. From there, he progressed quickly. Exhibited in Brazil by the Mendes Wood gallery, he soon found an audience interested in his bright, spellbinding paintings. “I thought that the grey light of northern France, such as it had been described to me, might have an influence on my work, that it might inspire a more mental, emotional dimension to my work.” A posteriori, he explains: “the colors and the light that I found here were actually a reflection of my state of mind. You can feel it in the works I created in Lens. This is less color in this body of work.”
In Lens, Arruda lost track of time. Each day resembled the previous, and the next, in the light and the rhythm of the city. For the artist, it was an almost transcendental experience. “The solitude and the atmosphere here expanded certain ideas, certain feelings, in me. It was a very rich, introspective time.” Seasons succeeded one another, and he experienced the first real winter of his life: “I saw snow for the first time. It was wonderful. I went out into the garden, soak in this atmosphere. Everything was silent, padded, sounds seemed slowed, carried in a bubble. That feeling brought me back to my work: I wanted to capture that.”
Arruda didn’t seek inspiration in the landscapes of the mining basin. But the relationship of the local population to the earth affected him. “My work is strongly, symbolically tied to the earth.”
When he paints, standing upright, he begins by establishing a horizon line, the only structural element of his paintings, which he then “diffuses, to create a passage.”
“Light is at the core of my work, creating movement. It’s light that guides my painting, that gives it its intensity, and that ends up creating neither abstract nor figurative spaces.” The modest Arruda expresses in his painting what animates him, in a new, poetic, “romantic” language, he adds with a smile. “I want my work to speak for itself,” he says. A unique silence, a unique sky, the humility and innocence of his works are evocative and soothing. Their small, intimate formats allow him to control the light, to maintain an equilibrium. “Landscapes want to extend beyond the limits.” He brings them back to a human scale.
“The solitude and the atmosphere here expanded certain ideas, certain feelings, in me. It was a very rich, introspective time. I saw snow for the first time. It was wonderful. I went out into the garden, soak in this atmosphere. Everything was silent, padded, sounds seemed slowed, carried in a bubble. That feeling brought me back to my work: I wanted to capture that.”
When asked how he decides a work is completed, he replies: “when I am able to see myself in it, then I can’t see any more.” A painting is finished once it reflects his state of mind. And again, it has to do with light: “Sometimes I begin with a lot of light and the works darkens progressively. Sometimes it’s the opposite.” Despite this introspective bent, he wants his work to find a place in a collective consciousness: “When I paint, I feel that I’m part of a moment, of a story. I carefully consider every gesture and try at all times to respect the past, the artists who preceded me. What I do is only possible because modernism took place.”