Hugo Canoilas – On the extremes of good and evil

Entering the underground floor of the Mumok in Vienna, one has the impression of having turned into a small miniature inserted into the familiar, albeit unexplored, world of the winner of the Kapsch Contemporary Art Prize 2020 | 2021 Hugo Canoilas. It is a complex interaction system within the hermetic installation that shows in front of our eyes: the invigilator asks to be careful, as the way into the room is allowed to one person at a time. That’s because of Covid regulations, but “On the extremes of good and evil” drops you into a long and rectangular space where a giant tarpaulin with sapphire shades has been unrolled inside, leaving an unsteady feeling of danger.

As you stroll around this fabric promontory, wondering if the soles of your shoes will leave a mark on the fabric, glass and wool sculptures with abstract and singular shapes catch your eye. It all seems to evoke discordant worlds: it gives the impression of being inside a painting that has been horizontally flipped, where we unexpectedly have access to; while it connects us to a marine, mysterious scenario, through marine shades and surfaces . The artist invites to split our personality into new identities, converting us from a arty visitor into a pioneering explorer of ocean floors – in the forgotten depths whose existence is difficult to rationalise or conceive for our simpleton imagery. The sprawling figures, made out of glass and wool, are reminiscent of crustaceans belonging to an oceanic panorama of incalculable depth, stretching out from this picturesque scenery, and multifaceted shapes, as if they were islands expanding across the entire soft fabric floor.

All these materials have a double function: while they become marine animals to our eye, they reflect that world – ours – as immaculate to the human being that was then affected and turned into a landfill of waste materials. These are all dispersed in space, absorbing Covid’s reality of isolated islands. That’s what the artist calls in his recent interview for Mumok a “path to comprehending cultural abstraction”, gained by the painter through the world of art and nature: conceived during lockdown, the artist states the pandemic has influenced its work, “contaminating” it – welcoming the visitor who’s now trained to maintain social distances (for the survival of species) into Canoilas’s biosphere – enchanting and intimidating, organic and technical.

The themes that the Portuguese painter incorporates are deeply interconnected: the environmental crisis and pollution, the gap between rich and poor populations accentuated by the Covid-19 crisis, re-emerge from this terrestrial view, where the painter invites a treatment (egalitarian and prudent) towards nature and its inhabitants – those “extremes of good and bad” that end up existing together. BECOMING DOG carves out this empathic approach and assimilates it entirely into the performance: this time, there are actors, but disguised as dogs, analysing the relationship between humans and animals.

Here, Canoilas combines painting with installation and performative strategies, adapting the painting to the perception of current socio-political developments: trying to provide a critical vision of the anthropocentric world, he invites the viewer to deal with the social sphere from an empathic perspective, forging an holistic universe that involves humanoids and the rest of creation, with no distinctions or hierarchies. The Portuguese artist claims this has something similar to “a spoiled beauty”, or “that morning feeling”: and it is fascinating as in the obviousness of ” defective ” beauty that we find abysmal food for thought.

This article has been published on the art magazine Segnonline