Nettie Burnett’s gallery-atelier

It’s half past ten in the morning and I’m wandering the streets of Caminha, while I wait for the promised clams to arrive at the market’s seafood restaurant. The perpendicular and crisscrossed streets near the ramparts still seem to be waking up, despite the late hour. The quietness is only interrupted, once in a while, by the sudden noise of the “Zés Pereiras” that march to the rhythm of the gigantic drums, appearing and disappearing, here and there, when least expected. Already in the square, you can see some stalls set up with traditional handkerchief simulacrum products or with festive sweets (I was about to buy a bag packed with rings, fried in olive oil, just because they reminded me of a sweet my mother used to make in my childhood and that she had learned from a neighbor from the Alentejo).
At the corner of Rua Dr. Luciano e Silva, nº 7, I come across a shop window that catches my attention. In the lower half of the window, unusual objects are carefully exposed and in the upper part, the glass displays a floral landscape in brown tones, in panoramic format, printed on an adherent film. To my surprise, I see that the door is open and I enter in what seems to me to be the harbinger of an unexpected discovery. As soon as I entered, still hesitating, I bumped into a youthful-looking woman with flowing clothes and a headband (Nettie Burnett) sitting at a table at the end of the gallery. I ask if I may come in, and Nettie immediately offers me a cup of coffee. I find the artist immersed in her daily life, with notebooks and other objects and materials on the table, accompanied by pleasant music coming from what sounds like a small radio set, something like that. At a certain point, just as the conversation was flowing, Nettie rushes to lower the volume of her voice in the air. I begin by slowly appreciating each object-work, from those perched in the window on the left, barely two or three steps down. The interior of the gallery is spacious and well cared for, and one realizes that it functions at the same time as an atelier, with a “backstage” space at the end, a darker corner, already beyond the large table where Nettie was at my entrance. The preview of the so-called “backstage” sharpens my curiosity and desire to understand the senses that this apparently well-structured gallery-atelier offers. Seeing me interested in the small book sculptures that I begin to observe in detail, the artist approaches me and explains the Book of Job, with inscriptions, in the form of a white-on-white decal, similar to the effect of Braille. The inscriptions are excerpts from the Bible, in English, she explains to me. I am fascinated by the way she handles the book, in a horizontal format, especially because the cover has a metallic look, but at the same time, it seems to mold easily, as if it were made of plasticine, allowing to open and close the book with a certain dexterity. I feel an immense desire to handle the object myself, but the built-in principle that works of art should not be touched inhibits me. Later on, repeating the use of the same material in other works and still fascinated by the way Nettie explains the meaning of each piece as she handles it, I can’t resist asking her to try it. I am delighted with the feel and malleability of the material. Nettie reveals to me that it is lead, the material she repeatedly uses in her sculptural works, and whose unique qualities she has discovered, at once flexible and heavy – meanwhile, she places a small piece in my hands that unexpectedly feels much heavier than it looks.

In the meantime, I’m staring at another small book with a lead cover. I’m intrigued by the inside, made of paper shrink-wrapped in the shape of an accordion and which, stretched out, shows a music score without notation. Nettie had already begun to tell me her life story as we talked, telling me that she was born in Portugal, where she lived until she was eleven when she moved to England. Her parents were English, but at the time they lived in Portugal. At some point, they decided it was time for their children to go to the UK to attend English schools. Nettie begrudgingly explains that she went to a religious boarding school at the age of eleven. It was in the UK that she studied Fine Arts, but she had also studied piano. She says that she had a good ear and musical memory, imitating the pieces the teacher exemplified. It was then that the teacher began to impose the discipline of reading the music score, leading Nettie to lose her enjoyment of piano study. The reed that hit her fingers with each mistake accentuated the perception that the rigor of the score had definitely ended her taste for playing. Sharing this memory, the artist explains the concept and the title of the work, printed on the lead cover: “Difficulty”. The lines of the book’s staves – staves without notes – are achieved with the help of a small magnifying glass (also on display) with which Nettie obtains the effect of the sunburnt paper. “It’s a very time-consuming process,” he comments. The paper, the lead, and the sun come together in an object made (or made of) nature that thus gives body to music, both divined in potency and orphaned of matter, waiting to be realized. Nettie’s mute staff leads me to Beuys’ deaf piano, to the work Infiltration for Piano, from 1966. Clad in felt and wool, with a red cross sewn into the fabric, the artist’s grand piano, when presented gagged, contains a lively tension, added to the sense of urgency that the cross superimposes upon it. As with Nettie’s book of empty staves, both objects give expression to a suspended vocation, an impediment to “making music. Thinking of art as praxis, Nettie’s and Beuys’ art, as far as the particular works in question are concerned, also seems to dwell on the difficulties (or almost impossibilities) of its making. The Beuysian concept of every man as an artist may perhaps be invoked in this regard, not only as an apology for the subversion of the status of the artist as a genius, whose work is distinguished from ordinary artifacts by its aura but above all because of the recognition that art belongs to human nature, as an activity in potency according to which each individual simply manifests himself as such. Alongside the radical differences, and Beuys’ evident political stance, anchored in the derision and deconstruction of authority (Beuys, 2010), it occurs to me to think, along with Difficulty, or Beuys’ deaf piano, the perhaps essentialist character that led to the aforementioned works, partially motivated by the search for an understanding of the praxis of art, based on the understanding of the potentialities (or impossibilities) of the making of any objects of expression. Mysteriously, Nettie told me that the book of empty staves was not yet finished. Would the empty staves ever lead to the potential action of music making? Inhibited from realizing that power in the present time, would Nettie’s book be suspended from its character as a completed work? In approximation to the material and transforming potential of nature – lead, paper, the effects of sunlight…- one could admit that in Nettie’s work, the passage of (slow) time is one of the equations that link her art to nature.
The artist continues chatting, as we visit each work, talking about her personal Portuguese-English identity. She recalls a time when, as a child in English school, she was forced to sing a hymn about some “beautiful hills”. Her voice refused to sing that passage, Nettie recalls, because it gave her an infinite feeling of nostalgia, taking her back to the beautiful hills and landscapes of her childhood in Portugal. In the UK she studied Fine Arts, got married, had children, got divorced, and returned to Portugal in 2001, currently living in Moledo do Minho. In between, he talks about friends and acquaintances from abroad who chose to live in Portugal, some of whom bought houses in the area. She mentions some Americans who have come to Portugal to escape Trump’s America.

Nettie continues to unfurl the conversation as we comment on the pieces on display. A dandelion inside a wood and glass box, a structure hanging from the ceiling with a set of circles joined by a greenish fishing rope and that Nettie found nearby in the trash (assumed as a work of art, without any intervention), two meters made of parallelepiped-shaped wood (used in traditional commerce), sticks of various shapes found on the beach of Moledo and over which the artist added some minimal intervention (for example, lines obtained through the technique of using the magnifying glass and the sun – solar driftwood, an old wooden box with rusty nails and the like, old pieces of wood with nails… I remember of the Júlio Pomar and Cabrita Reis exhibition: Das pequenas coisas, at the Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar, in 2017. About the objects found by each of the artists and reinstated in a joint exhibition context, one can read:

…the artistic gesture shows itself in the most elementary acts of selecting, composing and associating the materials gathered from the surrounding context or reality, giving them new life and attributing meanings to them. Thus, artists talk about small things and big gestures – the artistic gestures, attribution of meaning to the simplest things – as if it were possible for them, through an alchemical act, to turn stone into gold.(Matos, 2017, pp. 15-16)

Continuing to derive from the conversation about the found pieces of wood, and subsequently more or less intervened, I also associated Nettie’s practice with Alberto Carneiro’s work. I tell her about two exhibitions that had particularly impressed me, one at the Santo Tirso Factory, the artist’s birthplace and where a large part of his booty is kept, and another at Serralves. Alberto Carneiro’s unique way of carving tree trunks, or combining wood with glass (I particularly remember a series of olive trees, with trunks with their feet down and leaves scattered on glass bases), had amazed my son, who was four years old at the time. When his father explained to him that the name of the person who had done it was Alberto Carneiro, he corrected him, claiming that the “sculptor” was he was used to collect, in winter, wood that had been returned to the beach (of Moledo) and to calling it “sculpture”, instructed by his father. Besides, already at home, he was used to see the found pieces being displayed on top of the furniture, along with other decorative objects. Catarina Rosendo sums up the meaning of nature in Carneiro’s work:

…on the one hand, the relationship of the artist’s body with the body of nature in a becoming-sculpture; on the other hand, the constant search for convergence between the double meaning of nature as an immediate entity, which is there without the direct intervention of the human being, and a produced entity, which results from a work culture essential and instrumental to the survival and leisure of individuals.(Rosendo, 2022, p. 94)

After commenting on the wooden works, we moved on to a paper sculpture (produced in a factory on the way out of Viana, after the bridge) evocative of a Brugmansia – “a beautiful but toxic flower,” Nettie explains. Both focus our attention on the opposite side of the shop window, on the wall where large canvases hang, framed at the top and bottom with a golden plaque. Nettie talks about her interest in nature: “I like nature more than drawing people. Once a friend asked me to draw her daughter’s portrait. But I didn’t like the experience.” Consulting Susie Hodge’s A Brief History of Modern Art (2019), one can read in this regard:

Nature is an universal subject, being portrayed by artists of all cultures. Rather than realistic, the presentation of nature is traditionally decorative or symbolic. However, in the late 19th century it began to appear in a more objective way when the realists and impressionists painted en plein air – surrounded by nature and in the open air. Later, various Post-Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists, and Fauvists continued to explore nature as a predominant theme (…). At the same time, with the expansion of urban society, the natural world became more and more weakened and many artists began to represent it more, using it as an object, subject, and even as a material… (Hodge, 2019, p. 166)

In Nettie’s art, precisely, different approaches to the theme of nature are combined, from representation through drawing to the frequent use of lead and the technique of “writing” with sunlight filtered through the magnifying glass, as well as the simple manipulation, or even appropriation, of objects found on the beach, such as pieces of wood, ropes, etc.
Her preferred object of representation, according to her, are withered flowers. Making an analogy with what happens to the body, namely the face, of women when wrinkles start to appear, the artist argues that aging has its own beauty, just like withered flowers, and wrinkles are nothing more than the expression of “senescence”, the term used to designate the process of maturation and the passage of time. To illustrate the concept, Nettie calls to mind the Japanese practice of concertinaing the porcelain tea cup, when it breaks, by gluing the shards together. The ligaments are given a golden hue, indicating that the practice of recomposition ennobles the object rather than disqualifying it. Nettie carries this same symbolic effect and meaning to her canvases, where on the pencil drawings of flowers, subtle and fine golden lines are perceived. The golden bars that frame the top and bottom of the canvases are, according to the artist, a discovery she adopted when she realized that they not only solved the problem of weight that the canvases need, but that they also make it possible to roll and transport them easily.
Behind the table that marks the limit of the gallery at the back, I am still allowed to move forward and realize that this is an archive space where other works are kept and that this space is a kind of backstage, although not closed. On a chair I see some of the artist’s personal objects, making me think that this place is, in a way, an extension of her home, or at least a “personal and possessive space” (almost intimate), in the manner of Goffman (1971). Nettie adds that she is usually in the atelier every day, leaving it only when she needs.
Before my visit was over, I still looked through the drawings, of various sizes and in the form of postcards, sketches, or bookends, carefully arranged in a series of drawers of a wooden dresser – “Printed on the Árvore Cooperative and on which I then make small interventions,” Nettie explains. One set of drawings inside an envelope appeals to me in particular. It is a small collection of landscapes drawn during a trip between Lisbon and Porto, the artist tells me. Talking about her intimate relationship with nature, she emphasizes her habit of walking through the Camarido wood and shows me a beautiful drawing where the pine trees from bottom to top can be seen, with their arched tops embracing each other.
Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted by the deafening sound of the “Zés Pereiras”, outside, who parade again at full speed, punctuating the end of my passage through the number 7 of that street. I look at the clock and say goodbye, with the promise of returning. The feeling of discovery, like someone entering a wonder room, accompanies me.

Text and images: Helena Pires

Published on 14-09-2022


Beuys, J. (2010). Cada homem um artista. 7 Nós. (Transl. Júlio do Carmo Gomes)

Goffman, E. (1971). The territories of the self. Relations in public, microstudies of the public order. Basic Books (28-61).

Hodge, S. (2019). Breve história da arte moderna. Gustavo Gili.

Matos, S. A. (2017). Das pequenas coisas e dos grandes gestos. Júlio Pomar, Cabrita Reis. Das pequenas coisas. Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar/Sistema solar Crl. (Documenta). [Catálogo]
Rosendo, S. (março 2022). Alberto Carneiro. Umbigo. Umbigo Edições.

More info about Nettie Burnett


LOCAL: Viana do Castelo

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