Felipe Rezende: Long is the Road | Jack Bell Gallery

Taking a midweek day off always makes me feel a bit delinquent. At leisure to do fun stuff - in my case, that usually means going to galleries - while most of the people around me are at work. As it happens, the world of work is the guiding subject of this impressive exhibition, though the world of its paintings is far distant from the Mayfair gallery that hosts them.

Felipe Rezende is an artist of unusual sensitivity who lives in Salvador, Brazil. He paints people at work, people with hard, physical jobs: takeaway drivers with massive backpacks, muscle-bound baseball-capped mechanics, middle-aged nurses in scrubs. He paints on the most workaday fabric imaginable: truck tarpaulins, distressed to provide a more textured surface for the artist’s oil paint.

Felipe Rezende - De norte a sul das ausências (2021)

None of these rough-and-ready canvases are large, and their frameless borders are frayed and jagged; as if they’re reused offcuts, tropical arte povera. Rezende’s compositions are deliberately incomplete and spare: in the example above, De norte a sul das ausências (2021), our mechanic’s head and legs are simply left out; we only know what the subject does for a living by the artist’s addition of a sign, a tyre and a car hood elsewhere in the painting.

The greyish, gloomy background gives us the impression of obscuring clouds, from which our figures emerge. I say Rezende is sensitive because he treats his these figures with scrupulous respect, carefully picking out sinews on their well-worked arms, giving them a shared expression of resolute dignity, though their faces are always downcast, facing their work. They’re almost palpably human.

Felipe Rezende - Boi Amarelo (2022)

The title of the painting above, Boi Amarelo (2022), translates as Yellow Ox. Maybe it’s the name of the restaurant where the protagonist works. Wearing a bikini top, she scrapes food on a hotplate, her great hand foreshortened as it points out at us. Her hair, like the bisected beast elsewhere on the painting, is bright yellow. The canvas bulges with stitching and pockets; the woman’s brawny shoulders bulge, too. She looks almost meditative, despite how uncomfortable she must be, working over a hot stove all day. I looked at this powerful woman for a long time.

“I construct arrangements that inhabit the interstices between the surreal and testimony, fiction and reality,” says Rezende in his note accompanying the show. He undersells himself, in my opinion. His figures seemed real to me - so real, they’ll be difficult to forget.

Felipe Rezende: Long is the Road is at Jack Bell Gallery (London). 08 - 30 September 2022