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Stories of light and colour. The painting of Giuseppe Gonella

Pietro C. Marani 2013

A boy touches a sheet of paper or draws on a grassy lawn or brushes the surface of water, bent forward like a modern-day Narcissus in a Caravaggio painting. His fleeting beauty is not what is revealed to him when he looks into the water. He feels dissatisfied. Indeed, frightened by something, by a discovery that will change the course of his day or his very life. His face looks worried, the shadow of his hand is drawn on the blank sheet of paper. A foreboding, perhaps. He hid here, behind the arches of a rusty iron bridge or beside a subway in an area where people don’t normally pass by or perhaps by the sides of a bridge where cigarettes are thrown or where young people leave their beer bottles behind or where they take drugs. The water – and I reckon it really is water – flows slowly. Maybe there’s rubbish too that’s floating along. But just as the water flows by, so does life. This, though, is a split second, a flight, a flash of sun and light before real life sucks him back in forever with its whirls and eddies in a dizzying voyage into the unknown. Now, though, he’s only fourteen or fifteen and he’s discovering for the first time ever something that’s bothering him. It’s not love, nor sex but something that intrigues him and that fascinates him but that now he seems to be refusing since he’s scared of it (once again let’s think of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard). Whatever message will he have found on that sheet of paper or that floating piece of plastic? A message that hails from a life that flows below the surface, like an underground river? Yet this is the story that we are told by the great, most beautiful painting by Giuseppe Gonella A place behind the buried rivers (2013) and we know neither the end nor the fate of this boy who, like many others painted by him, appears to be embarking on life from the streets, keeping bad company in desolate suburbs of American or Asian metropolises or in the solitude of a basketball pitch or a field where, by chance, someone had left something on the ground, like in Found Trail. Adolescents who get lost in a globalised world, swirling and threatening, like the boy in Gas station or the boy who draws on the ground in Self made man or, yet again, the boy depicted as a bully in Thunder clap. These are not “rent boys” of Pasolini fame. They’re wearing T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops bought at Alcott or Zara. They inhabit the outskirts of rich cities, in middle-class areas. They use I-pads and cell phones even though they’re not doing so well at school. All of these “portraits” – like snapshots taken by a webcam by mistake (added to the ones taken of the bad boys); like those heart-rending snapshots of the man and woman sitting down and kissing (are they perhaps the parents of some of those boys?), in Il filo delle ore (2012) – look as if they were in a wind beaten scenario like in some part of America devastated by a tornado. They make up a sort of contemporary “Spoon River compendium” and the scenes might be Cape Cod, Miami or Los Angeles if it were not for the quality of the light and the colours that would point to a rather more Mediterranean setting. More like the Còte d’Azur than Forte dei Marmi. This is where the training of the artist comes in to be more than merely handy: the light and the reflections absorbed in Venice, while studying glass and mosaics, reflected in the water, provide a starting point from when we may analyse the artist’s culture and artistic vision. An artistic vision that has fed from chromatic relationships and from a sense of light that, having re-experienced and reabsorbed the most recent trends in contemporary art, has enabled him to return to figurative art with a material and a technique that is completely new and wholly coherent with the apprehensions of the world of youth (and not only) that the painter is examining and representing. Nevertheless, in these new paintings by Giuseppe Gonella, there is – fortunately – neither any pleasure to be felt in the depiction of internal discomfort nor recourseto any miniaturist (although he would be more than able to do it) or anachronistic painting that would create ghosts and nightmares for the psyche or post-Surrealist hallucinations. His style is fresh and free. The air can still be breathed in even though it is swept through with the wind which blows things away and drags them into a continuous and disorderly flow. There is, though, not even a question of there being a “new wild guy”. His visual culture and his sensitivity do not allow for this particular label (nor, perhaps, for any other sort of label) and his pictorial technique could not appear more different from the heavy and violent one employed by the “new wild guys”. Neither is his an inventory of contemporary stupidities nor is it a sort of destabilisation of vision as in the fashion of Sigmar Polke with contaminations between “high” and “low” culture (as defined by Robert Storr). The “portrait of a chair” that almost infuses Gonella (in Evidence of time, 2013) with Matisse-like undertones is thus significant just as it is in The Vegan with the Arcimboldo-like transformation of the character into what he is eating. Lastly, his denial of the figurative element (photographically evoked in parts, then cut, or scraped away or almost entirely cancelled) obtained by fragments of flat colour combined haphazardly (just as a crazed mosaic artist would do) or in strips or bands of colour layered over one another does not evoke the informal abstractions of Gerhard Richter. They do, however, suggest the tears and lacerations of Mimmo Rotella or a badly-done and scuffed colour photocopy – caused by used up cartridges, as can be seen in the small portrait Tentativo di fuga. This is due to the fact that Gonella, while remaining faithful to figurativity, strives also to manipulate it. Thus, yet again, he reveals the artist’s link between popular culture and the image of the “ego” this time not only publicised by photography and cinema but also by cell phones and the web. If it were not for the heart-rending melancholy that these young adolescents as well as older figures in his “stories” provoke in the viewer and for the intrinsic beauty of the video-like cuts of the images – full of intensity and freshness in colour and material – we would perhaps be able to define Gonella’s painting as a real sort of web painting, a fresco of modern-day “mal de vivre”, elevated into painting or a video window on the world that neither Google or Amazon will ever be able to offer. This is because it is a question of an “interior” world, a world of primordial sensations, of mental photographic stills transferred into a new harrowing data bank of the contemporary world, made with instruments that, as has forever been, have been those of the painter: light, colour and the painter’s mind.

‘Stories of light and colour. The painting of Giuseppe Gonella’ originally published in Giuseppe Gonella ‘Involved’ (Bonelli Arte, 2013) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Involved’, Galleria Giovanni Bonelli, Milan, IT. Copyright © 2013 Pietro C. Marani.


Pietro C. Marani, Full Professor in History of Modern Art in the School of Design at the Politecnico in Milan. He is author of thirty books and more than three hundred essays, articles and scientific writings devoted to the art and the architecture of Italian Renaissance, translated in eight languages. He has been Co-director of the restoration campaign of the Leonardo’s Last Supper and Deputy-director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. He is President of the Ente Raccolta Vinciana (Milan, founded 1904), and Member of the National Committee for the publication of Leonardo’s Work (Rome, founded 1903). He has been curator of many exhibitions in Milan (Palazzo Reale, Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca di Brera), Florence (Casa Buonarroti), Rome (Musei Capitolini), Venice (Palazzo Grassi), Parigi (Musée du Louvre), Montreal (Musée des Beaux Arts), Torino (Venaria Reale), New York (Metropolitan Museum), Tokyo ( Metropolitan Art Museum). Among his interests are the contemporary art and art criticism.