Laocoon is the earliest known example of a work showing the heavenward gaze of a person who is suffering and seeking deliverance from a god or gods. The work is highly ironic as Laocoon is a just man being unjustly harmed by the very gods from whom he unwittingly seeks rescue. That type of heavenward gaze, nonetheless, became a staple for western artists depicting Christian martyrs who submitted to unjust pain and persecution while calling on a just God to provide salvation in a new life. We see Brazilian artist Gustavo Prado revisiting this gaze in his work at Galerie Richard on Manhattan’s Lower East Side while also questioning the extent to which artistic means and messages have often intersected at a level of dominant culture and economic expectations.

The Buddha observed a major insight into psychological or emotional pain. If you feel pain and then desire the pain to go away, the pain will increase (if you desire to sustain pleasure, you will vitiate that pleasure). Tolerable pain, which will go away naturally, can be aggravated into serious and chronic pain through the human will. Furthermore, we often feel the emotional pain we are experiencing should not even be happening and we employ psychological methods which make the pain worse and longer lasting. We, paradoxically, get a painful response to pain while seeking palliation; we allow pain to perpetuate and aggravate pain. We treat pain as if it never should have happened, but it would be much better to just let it happen and let it disappear.

The heavenly gaze of Christian martyrs means that the martyr has submitted to pain, is not trying anything to save himself from it, and is waiting for and open to divine balm, in the form of a new life. Indeed, the heavenly gaze of martyrs may be in regard to a final, ultimate pain, similar to the excruciating pain of Jesus, for which there is no remedy to be found in the human will, but which expiates through divine intercession. When Paul wrote that Jesus expiated our sins, he was not referring to a magical ritual, but to a process of transformation and overcoming through the acceptance of pain which cannot be overcome through our own choosing.

So Prado presents his martyrs using Legos. First, this can be interpreted as a type of protest against artists who require massive amounts of money and material to produce work, as well as extensive logistical efforts to transport their work, as a way to confer gravitas to it (think of Richard Serra, for instance). Prado wishes to create art which can be assembled from materials in virtually any location he might travel to. Legos are a universal toy and, as such, become perfect as a means to replicate art in any locale. Every material also, however, carries a message with it. To use Legos to represent suffering could be an attempt to intimate the intense joy underlying and masked by suffering, the joy available once one goes through or conquers suffering or a childlike approach to suffering which might allow one mastery of it. A cynic could even suggest the Legos might represent a childish belief that God does not want us to suffer and will gladly intercede. Prado, therefore, falls into the pop art tradition that challenges whether a significant message has to be delivered with academically accepted, expensive or even pretentious materials.

By radically changing the material through which the martyrs are presented, Prado could also be inviting a radical reassessment of how these martyrs and suffering have been used in the history of art. In heavily Catholic Brazil, these martyrs are literally iconic and are to be admired, worshiped and prayed to. The images almost serve a magical function. By stripping the martyrs of any pretense, Prado invites a closer look at suffering beyond allegory and magic. These materials are accessible – these martyrs are no longer so divorced from us, we are no longer so divorced from their experience. The message of suffering and how it must be borne now becomes available through art to all of us in an inexpensive and readily accessible form. We, conceivably, could make these pieces ourselves.

Included in the show are also various sculptures created with mirrors. Again, Prado chooses to use materials accessible to everyone, which can be bought anywhere, so that his art can be assembled anywhere. He divorces himself, to as great an extent as possible, from the economic factors often needed to create and transport large-scale works, keenly aware that art and economics have been in bed together in the art world for too long and to too little beneficial consequence. Jean-Luc Richard explained to me that Prado also enjoys allowing folks to see themselves distorted and reversed, perhaps undermining one’s expectations that the mirror should provide predictable visual feedback and providing a more provocative view of oneself.

These mirrors also allow folks to view the natural world differently as Prado has sometimes placed his sculptures in trees to represent the possibility of expansion and growth while he once placed mirrors under palm trees to allow a type of reversed perspective. He has used mirrors to reveal unique aspects of an outdoor Calder sculpture and at a music festival to redirect attention to the crowd as the real subject of the event. Yet, the pieces can also stand in for the proliferation of surveillance systems in our lives. Indeed, Jean-Luc Richard explained to me that Prado likes to place his mirror sculptures in collectors’ apartments in unexpected, out of the way places.

The mirror sculptures, to me, represent an over-reliance on a process involving a scrutiny of the observable to get at the unobservable, or the limits of this process. We create our metaphors and symbols through the process of capturing and processing light, but, ultimately, we have to go beyond metaphors and symbols and engage in a more hidden inner reality of our motives, emotions, desires and cognitive processes to rise as human beings. I think the martyrs and mirrors are actually connected in this show. The martyrs turn their gazes away from themselves, heavenward, away from the mirror. Yet, Prado seems optimistic about the mirror, believing that with its proper use it can yield new perspectives and even invite greater self-examination.