Earlier this year, the walls of PRISM gallery in West Hollywood were painted a deep red—as were the floors, ceilings, stairway, banisters, and even the front desk. Big yellow plastic teardrops (with faces) defied gravity by dripping upward from the floor. And in a small curtained area, a digital projection of gooey psychedelic shapes and careening cartoon heads overwhelmed the dim room. “It’s like entering our minds,” says Otávio Pandolfo, one of the artists behind the exhibition. “You can find hidden things. You can poke around. You can fly.”
Otávio, 38, and his identical twin, Gustavo Pandolfo, have been creating these kinds of dreamlike scenarios for almost two decades. Working under the moniker Os Gêmeos (Portuguese for “the twins”), the pair got their start as graffiti artists in the late 1980s, illicitly peopling the streets of their native São Paulo with fantastical yellow figures that throw rocks, wear fish, spray paint, and float through space. The singular look of their work, a fusion of folk tradition and graffitist mischief, quickly drew the attention of Brazilian museums and galleries. By the late ’90s, cultural institutions outside Brazil came calling as well.
The brothers’ art had taken a three-dimensional turn in 2005, with a carnival- esque display of figurative sculptures, dioramas, and hacked-together instruments crafted from old organs and shoeshine boxes, at the now-defunct Deitch Projects in New York. And last year, they created a towering instrumental piece—complete with working drum kit—for the survey “Art in the Streets” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “When we were kids, we built installations in our parents’ house,” Otávio remembers. “We would change the environment by arranging and rearranging our toys. It’s what we’ve always done.”
Even as they continue to produce artworks for the street—focusing primarily on (legal) commissions, such as a building-size mural for London’s Tate Modern in 2008—the Pandolfos resist the label “street artists.” “Graffiti is just one tool for us,” explains Gustavo. “There is music and dance and the elements of Brazilian culture.”
“They’re coming from a tradition of graffiti,” adds Pedro Alonzo, an adjunct curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, “but their real talent is the way in which they absorb and synthesize culture—rural traditions, Brazilian traditions. Folk art is huge. And there’s an ingenuity that isn’t textbook based, as well as a lot of improvisation. That is very Brazilian.” Alonzo is now organizing the twins’ first solo museum show in the United States, which will open at the ICA in August.
The world that Os Gêmeos draw from is certainly broad. Some paintings evoke hand-colored Brazilian vernacular photography, even as they reference ’80s hip-hop. One immersive installation at PRISM included a hidden hall of mirrors that echoed pieces by Yayoi Kusama. And while their iconography is filled with cartoonish whimsy, it also channels Latin American surrealism, as figures dissolve and slip into otherworldly dimensions. “There’s a sense of escape, there’s poetry, there’s a rock in the window,” says Gustavo. “It’s a little bit of everything.”
Carolina A. Miranda is a freelance writer in New York and a regular contributor to WNYC. She blogs at C-Monster.net.