15 MAY 2004, Page 72

Telling a story

John McEwen

Ana Maria Pacheco Brighton Museum and Art Gallery rr wo exhibitions in one by Ana Maria 1 Pacheco is the main event at this year's Brighton Festival, which finishes on 23 May. Excluding her paintings and combining old and recent work, the Festival features a spectacular new figurative tableau, 'The Land of No Return' (until 3 October), and two new sets of prints — 'A Modern Bestiary' and 'Solomon and Sheba' (until 27 June, then touring) — which extend the wit, invention and colour of her range. The prints are the result of a collaboration with the poets George Szirtes and Ruth Fainlight and are also available as reproductions alongside the poems in two limited-edition books.

Pacheco has lived and worked here for 30 years but the marked idiosyncrasy of her art is explained by her Brazilian background. She was born in 1943 in the inland province of Goias, where the Catholicism of her upbringing survived in symbiosis with other beliefs and rituals, some local, others African. Fear of the old Inquisition still lingered and her mother's father, a Baptist minister in Rio, had disappeared in horrifying circumstances. This was combined with a traditional classical education, later replaced in Brazil by the pragmatic American model.

Her parents — her father had been brought up Catholic, her mother Protestant — were not doctrinaire but Ana Maria's schooling was Catholic. What impressed her most were the processions, especially the one on Good Friday which culminated in the exposure of a wooden sculpture of the dead Christ in a coffin. She never forgot the cathartic effect of this object, which convinced her that the most vital aspect of sculpture was 'physical presence'. One result is that she has no puritan qualms about dramatisation.

Pacheco studied music and fine art at two universities simultaneously, reaching concert standard as a pianist; but eventually she chose to sculpt. Her training as a pianist was an invaluable self-discipline, Even today she can work on a sculpture for 15 hours at a stretch; and music remains central to her life. She came to England to study at the Slade and has stayed ever since, an influential teacher as well as an artistic force. As a colonial European she regards this as a return, 'completing the puzzle' of her heredity.

Pacheco was brought up in a culture where story-telling was a living art; and in a pre-television age, when participation was the social norm. She has also benefited from an education which inspired all the finest Western art, including the work of Picasso and the other modern masters, but now survives only vestigially. This allows her fully to exploit the Renaissance tradition, while her knowledge of Brazil — she quotes Jose Saramago: 'Brazil is fertile with cruelty and diamonds' and her axial position between the old and the new give her a peculiarly acute understanding of the violence, alienation and rootlessness of the contemporary world. So story-telling is intrinsic to her art. Identity, violence and the journey are insistent subjects. Behaviour is inseparable from classical myth and legend. And her imagery derives as much from television and photojournalism as from history.

Pacheco is a brilliant, ceaselessly inventive printmaker but she is most famous for her wooden tableaux. Each tells a story, mysterious and usually threatening, involving a number of quasi-natural, carved and painted figures. As a realistic twist she adds onyx eyes and acrylic teeth. 'The Land of No Return' is her most mysterious and technically ambitious and accomplished to date. The figures are more animated, the disparate groups more harmoniously choreographed, in what can only he described as a virtuoso display of carving. The room is dark, the lighting integral to the drama of the scene, in which a ghostly girl in white is caught in a moment of apparent indecision between two totally contrasting groups: a trio of cloaked and kneeling women playing some ritualistic game; and a trio of brawling, stark naked, larger-than-life men.

What does it mean? Pacheco's titles are designed to suggest rather than to impose meaning. Just as she interprets rather than illustrates Szirtes's and Fainlight's poetry, so she prefers visitors to spin their own yarns. For example, it could be a metaphor of her own artistic predicament, suspended between the old grounded world of humanist certainty and the current upsurge of terror and fanaticism. One thing is certain. Compared with the larks, crudities and banalities of most of the fashionable stuff trading as art, seeing her exhibition is like dining at Le Grand Velour after McDonald's.