Work is never finished, Helena Almeida’s first U.S. solo museum exhibition, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through September 4, is an excellent introduction and deep dive into her body art. For 20 years, the well-known Portuguese artist has captured lightly performative gestures and poses for the camera, producing unique prints in monochrome gray and black or blue, sometimes with red painted on like an illustration. Her self-portraits are always taken in the same corner of her Lisbon studio, and all of the prints are body-sized or bigger.
A curatorial decision that seems at first a curious one reveals Almeida’s face in none of the pictures, just curly hair, twisted torso and black dress, and legs and fingers. It ends up being a masterful decision that enlightens the artist’s work as if to say: do not focus on the artist’s persona, as so many face-forward portraits do, but on body language, negative space, line, and shape. Almeida’s body portraits are appreciated as formalist compositions. For example, a series of eight square-format prints (Untitled, 2003) show Almeida contorting on the floor, looking like a morphology of figurative abstraction. She is not without humor or humanity, in such works as O Abraço (The Embrace), 2006, a hug with her husband that bonds the two forms in lumpy union, while one of the images in her Voar (To Fly), 2001, arms like an airplane, has her face crashed to the ground. The serial or slowly progressive nature of Almeida’s work makes it best seen in sum, as in this exhibition.