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Walking Home


In his recent film Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov creates parallels between the fate of the artworks from the collections of the Museé du Louvre during the German occupation of the second world war and the story of the voyage of a - presumably modern - container ship loaded with artworks. In the film we can hear the voice of the Russian director in a series of phone calls with the captain of the ship as it is pummelled by waves and risks sinking, creating an emotional atmosphere suspended between terror and the sublime. The man steering the ship faces the decision to throw his precious cargo overboard to lighten the vessel in order to save his life. As the minutes tick by, the situation takes on the air of an epic struggle, where the ship becomes an arc containing the entire culture of Europe built on centuries-old values. Inspired by this film, the painting Outlying (2015-2016), by Giuseppe Gonella, portrays a voyage which captures the same expressive pathos.

At the heart of the painting is a porthole, through which we can glimpse a seascape where the spray of water thrown up by a storm helps create a vibrant pictorial composition. In stylistic terms, it is interesting to note that this is part of a recent series of works where the artist has abandoned his usual acrylics in favour of oil on canvas. Despite the fact that this change of technique necessitates the use of slower brushstrokes, the final result we see in the work is painted with a pounding rhythm that is all the more vibrant in its depiction of a tempestuous sea. The artist has returned to a technique that he had not used for many years in order to search for new challenges to the gesture of painting, which in this case is manifested through full-bodied masses of material, very different from the tonal brushstrokes so dear to the Venetian tradition he grew up in.

The virtuoso results we saw in previous cycles were elaborated through refined anatomical elements. Here they are substituted by a tension produced by the material, which contributes to the construction of a figuration that tends towards expressionism. In the painting we can see the figure of a woman with an undefined appearance. This finds its formal equilibrium through a number of patches of yellow colour that seem to engulf her in the whirling motion that spreads across the canvas. There is no point in seeking the precise identity of the veiled woman (nor should we fall into the simplistic associations with the stories of migrants we are bombarded with every day by mass media), because the artist rejects any kind of journalistic description.
In contrast to the approach we see on television or in social media, which generate ephemeral images destined to be rapidly consumed, his approach to painting seeks to deal with the themes in absolute terms in order to treat them like genuine contemporary allegories, far from any kind of subordinate relationship with reality. What the painting captures so well is not therefore the story of just one woman, or a specific population, but rather the challenge intrinsic to all voyages towards salvation and the desire for liberty that is central to the human experience throughout the ages.

Even more undecipherable is the symbolic scenario that we see in the triptych Fatamorgana (2015), which elaborates a subjective and dream-like transposition of natural landscapes. The first canvas, on the left of the work, presents us with a post-apocalyptic, dystopian landscape: zoomorphic figures emerge from the slime, salamanders that become a virtuoso compositional element, as their forms become one with the flow of the brushstrokes which bring the chromatic spiral to life. On the other hand, the trunk in the foreground brings to mind the admirable balance between naturalism and symbolism which adorned works such as L‘angelo della vita (1894-1895) by the Italian painter Giovanni Segantini. The uncertain horizon makes the context even more undefined, a mirage that is fascinating and disquieting at the same time. Continuing the reading of the work, we cannot overlook the way the central canvas constantly elaborates the rotary movement of the forms, from which an impassive angelic figure emerges. The placid detachment of the figure seems even more evident in the lush description of the hands, which instinctively move to protect the belly, in a pose that recalls the still rather rigid and statuary Madonnas painted between the Gothic period and the Renaissance. The juxtaposition between the chaotic surroundings and the indifference of the woman makes the figure seem even more mysterious, making it impossible to understand her true nature and the work in its entirety. This takes us to a dimension with an indefinable geography, beyond time and loaded with symbols. It generates an unsettling sensation in the viewer, suspended in opposing states of fear and fascination.

The element that unites many of Gonella’s works is the reference to fragments of memory and fleeting visions, translated in painting through the desire to keep a distance from a strictly mimetic vision. This is precisely what we see in the painting A Hair‘s Breadth Far from the Ultraviolet Garden (2015). Here the visual reminiscence of the strolling of a contemporary flâneur is imaginatively re-elaborated in the painting. The gaze rests on the interior of a garden, made inaccessible by a fence that seems to be mingling in some parts with a mysterious vegetation with un-natural colours, making it into a place with an arcane air.

Among the subjects addressed by the artist we also see pertinent cultural references, for example in the work Baal (2015). This is inspired by the Bertolt Brecht play, which tells the tale of the dissolute life of the young man who gives his name to the piece. Not unlike the director Volker Schlöndorff, whose Baal was played by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1970, Gonella makes the contemporary bohème into a hero, or rather an anti-hero. The painted figure, with his suspended and dreamy expression, echoes Brecht’s approach to shading the character with a touch of autobiography, or, if nothing else, with empathy. While Gonella does tend to elaborate the scene in absolute terms in order to make it a universal experience, every figure that emerges from his canvases is nonetheless a piece of himself, to some degree. In this way the young poet, that Gonella has unconsciously associated himself with, turns his melancholic gaze towards the floor and is surrounded by a fluttering mass of colour that seems to express the unavoidable nature of events.

In Portrait of the Court Jester Gonella - Tribute to Jean Fouquet (2014) there seems to be a touch of irony in referring to a historical figure who shares the artist’s name. However this work explores a curious subject addressed in a 15th century painting of the tale of a court jester described in many literary sources as the protagonist of numerous novellas. In Gonella’s work the figure is brought up to date with the appearance of a contemporary young man, caught in an unconcerned, un-natural and highly theatrical pose. We have seen that many of his works contain a dimension of complicity with his subjects, but the artist is also capable of producing self-portraits, such as Self-portrait - Milky Haze (2015). Here, his own image is shown within a vortex of material and colour, which has been the most emblematic aspect of his painting for many years, used as a way of expressing the eternal tension that underlies the human condition.

A more placid atmosphere can be seen in his female portraits in the series Yonder (2014-2016), where each portrait is an opportunity for exploring form. The figure in the paintings is always the same, head and shoulders portrayed in a series of different poses. There are significant stylistic variations to test a different way of deconstructing the form, or to develop abstract colour fields. These amalgamations of materials are taken to the breaking point, which we see in the most successful paintings, where there is a cancelation of the physiognomy of the face through the overlaying of an image that is divorced from the scene. In these works we can clearly see how the artist does not just transfigure the real world through memory, but also appropriates pre-existing images, or, as we see in Walking Home (2014-2016), he takes this even further, simulating the specific mimetic malfunctions created by digital errors. The painting shows a cat’s rear legs suspended in the foreground, the front of the cat is not to be seen. Gradually we are able to discern three incomplete human figures among the touches of colour. However, these shreds of bodies do not have the drama we see in the anatomy of Géricault or Goya, because they use the formal expedient of an optical and intangible deformation. The painterly gesture of Gonella seem to be reproducing a visual glitch, thus generating these glacial bodies, lacking any kind of carnal nature, which leads us to reflections on the problems of language itself. The impersonal condition of this flesh is juxtaposed in the construction of the artwork by the exuberance with which the oil paint is used. At times the brush is abandoned in favour of anything that comes to hand that can be used to work on these material surfaces and create the crumpling that at times recalls the frottages of the surrealist Max Ernst, and the sense of the unknown he wanted to create. As a result, there is a dialogue between two forms of chance in the same painting. The first is typical of today’s digital culture, the second is entirely object-based, analogical and part of modernity.

In considering the entire body of recent works by the artist, we can see how the true power of Giuseppe Gonella’s figurative painting comes from his ability to represent the anxieties, fears and aspirations of contemporary humanity, without resorting to a realistic narration. Rather he challenges the canvas with splashes of colour and material to make an existential content emerge, seeking evocations that are both intimate and universal.

Translated by Simonetta Caporale

‘Walking Home’ originally was written in the occasion of the exhibition ‘Walking Home’, Magic Beans, Berlin, DE. Copyright © 2016 Carlo Sala.


Carlo Sala is an art critic and curator working for various art magazines. As a member of Fondazione Fabbri’s Scientific Board he curates the modern and contemporary photography festival F4 / un’idea di Fotografia and the Francesco Fabri Contemporary Art Prize focused on emerging and International art. In 2010 he curated – together with Nico Stringa – the Venice Pavillion for the 12 International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennial. He collaborates with public exhibition venues and private galleries; he wrote essays for about thirty publications edited by among others Allemandi, Marsilio, Mimesis and Skira.