THE RIGOUR OF PAINTING a conversation with Vincenzo Scolamiero By Anthony Molino
Published October 2019 in the art journal ARACNE
(…) Anthony Molino: Vincenzo, visiting your studio one is struck by the dissemination and omnipresence of natural objects, dare I call them ‘finds’: small branches, nests, leaves dotted everywhere, objects that to some extent seem to define the environment in which you work. More than anything, I was struck by your paintbrushes, handmade by you, constructed using small lengths of wood and other materials. Leaving aside any technical considerations, it’s as if the moment of painting, the passage of colour from hand to support, has to be mediated in some way by nature; as if you need to re-appropriate one of its elements and allow it to function as an offshoot capable of releasing a pictorial gesture…
Vincenzo Scolamiero: An artist’s studio is a space for the soul, a privileged place where thought fuses with the heart, with emotions, with the reflections that we carry with us on a daily basis. I couldn’t paint, work, in an aseptic, minimal, technical space. I couldn’t do it, not because one can’t in general, but because my way of being, my way of feeling the world that surrounds us wouldn’t allow it.
I need to surround myself with little objects, forms, corners in the studio that resemble still lifes, or mini installations, perhaps; surfaces filled with the most disparate and minute things. It allows me to feel contact around me, a connection, with the simplicity of things, with poetry. I construct a world around myself, composed of the most minimal of objects, as you rightly observed, things with no particular charm if analysed individually. Twigs, fragments of plaster, stones, bird’s nests, tufts of grass, clods of earth, old cutlery scattered here and there, two candlesticks of the kind you find in country churches; and then more bricks, scraps of rusty metal… A world composed of things with no apparent value, no sense, but bonded together by the fact that, in another stage of their existence, in another dimension, they’re all residues of something that once was. This possibility of relocating them, of reifying them in a different context, that of a painter’s studio, in order to give them a new existence, fascinates me.
The possibility that, from an observation of minimal reality, one can reach towards a maximum of emotional enchantment, is, perhaps, one of the secrets of creating poetry. I have always, and constantly, found myself making poetry through observing the marvels hidden in the simplest of things. Sometimes it’s a branch with a few dry leaves lying in a doorway, a reed bent and rolled like a crown of thorns, set slantwise on a sheet of paper, a simple bunch of now-dry grapes. All have such a strength of poetic communication that I find myself surprised and moved… In fact, everything you’ve seen and noticed in my studio is a fundamental part of me, of my poetic, of my painting.
They’re catalysing objects, let’s say. Not simply posed models, but motifs, with sense. I’m not interested in reproducing them. I’m not a still life painter. I’m not – as someone once wrote – a painter of nature. I’m not searching for the lightness of a falling leaf. What I’m searching for – although perhaps you’ll have more questions, where I can answer more precisely – is a language laden with poetic sense, a language that can communicate emotions, states of soul, enchantment. A moment of breath (Uno stadio del respiro), In every simple act (In ogni semplice fare), Only shadows (Soltanto ombre), From the slant shadow (Della declinante ombra) are titles of cycles of painting that I carry forward. They evoke a need for high communication that speaks of the dimension of being human and of the path, of the transit, of the passages that we complete with our existence.
A.M. A distinct lyrical sensibility comes through in your reply, where you insist on wanting to “create poetry” with your painting. You’ll remember that, during my visit to your studio, I got the impression that your art somehow aspired to a form of painted haiku. It seems obvious to me that the essential lyricism of so much oriental art, Japanese in particular, with its constant references to nature, would find space in your creations. And yet, to my great surprise, I found that you seemed surprised by this comment of mine. Have you, by chance, been able to think about that? And let me ask you: what do you mean by create poetry with painting? We’ll talk later about how you’ve measured yourself with music in your more recent works. However, from your reflections one can intuit that, in your opinion, poetry is the highest form of art to which painting can, or must, aspire, or at least contaminate itself with in order to enrich itself…
V.S. Poetry on a par with painting is the place of the evoked, of the not said, of the descent into the depths where human communication becomes metaphor, suggestion. The place of oxymoron, of rhythm, of the veil of maya that hides in order to reveal. Words in poetry are like the clots of colour in painting and the syllables, twisted like dry twigs, that create multiple paths, infinite paths of going and returning in space and in time…
My veils of colour move like clouds without end, vast, profound; they move dense masses, fluids, in order to create a tension of depth. The painter, the poet, is searching for a harmony with the world, a modulated synchrony of spaces stretched obstinately towards the construction of a syntax, of a law of communication that can leave you feeling dizzy: a sense of alarm, a sign of strength and of loss, in the moment of meeting with the human. Today my references are Rainer Maria Rilke and Hölderlin, but also Kavafis, Celan, Solinas, Ungaretti, Montale and contemporaries like Anedda, De Angelis, Sicari… They are constant points of reference, travelling companions, in whom I find echoes, fundamental resonance. With them the word becomes dense, rich with moving depth, complex, composed.
I think of Rilke’s Alcestis, where Admetus screams “he shouted like his mother shouted at his birth”; and Rilke again, with his Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes., a work that prompted the title of the cycle of paintings From the slanting shadow in my last personal show in Rome’s Carlo Bilotti Museum. The ‘slanting shadow’ is Eurydice. It’s about how her faint “who?” affects the reader’s flesh in a surgical and ferocious manner in the moment when God sends her back to Hades – on account of Orpheus having turned his head, contravening the order to not look back… And again, of Hyperion’s Song of Destiny by Hölderlin, with the fall of the mortals from cliff to cliff “year after year down into the Unknown”. Art, great art, always speaks of the same things, of life, of love, of death… This proposition by Mario de Micheli, read at the beginning of my artistic path, marked me indelibly. It’s in these anthropologically foundational contents that I’ve always sought to mirror myself, avoiding anecdotal narration, the search for languages as an end in itself, projecting myself towards existential paths that could be forms of liturgy, a mirror of existence.
That’s why painting is no different from writing poetry and, in a haiku, composition metaphor and paradox resonate as in the striking of a moment. It’s true, I was surprised by your comment on the consonance between the works you observed in my studio and the composition of a haiku. I’d never reflected on the possibility of a synchrony with that brief, magnetic composition, with its capacity for exactness and profundity. This affinity with Oriental culture and some suggestions of it in my way of painting are clear to me, although never truly sought after or explored.
The simplicity of the world of small things, lived with moving participation, the grasping in the minimum a maximum of density of sense, are by now concepts linked more to a collective awareness, to a kind of soul of the world, rather than simplistically referable to a mere belonging to the Oriental world. However, placing haiku poetry alongside my painting is something absolutely new, perhaps correct, and will undoubtedly provide important food for thought. And you’re probably right. It’s more that in a haiku, and in the exactness of a moment, you get an image of painting, with its times linked to a reading of the immediate and the presence of a gaze that grasps the moment, and only subsequently opens to other profundities, in order to enter into space and to stop time.
A.M. Recently you collaborated with the composer Silvia Colasanti, together producing a very singular artist’s book – in only seven copies, if I remember correctly! – entitled Every thing to every thing has said farewell, which repeats the same title of a book by the poet Valentino Zeichen, who died recently. Your collaboration with Colasanti has also been taken to recent Spoleto Festivals. While inviting you to tell the story of how this collaboration developed, I’d also like you to explain the genesis and the development of a project that led you, a painter, to transpose elements of music onto canvas. Specifically, by its very nature, music is fleeting, ephemeral. It reaches our ears while it disperses in time, in a flow of notes that follow each other only to dissolve, at the same time generating a dimension where memory and waiting interweave, leaving us suspended and, as one might say, “traversed”. Meanwhile, as you’ve already mentioned, painting is stationary, fixed, marked. In a certain sense it ends up challenging Time. What can you tell me about this experiment, where the painter – and painting – literally measures itself with music?
V.S. My relationship with music has distant origins and profound motives. Distant origins because, from my earliest steps, I felt the need to bind myself artistically to this complex, complete and so extremely fascinating world. Profound origins in searching with painting to reconstruct the emotional and sensitive field that music plays a large part in restoring, in a direct, exact, unequivocal way, with no possible misunderstandings; emotional and moving pathways that are also composed of study, technique and practice.
Music, like poetry and painting, needs to construct praxes, like liturgies, in order to express itself in a complete and significant way. The relationship between painting and music is complex, as you so rightly suggest. The two arts move with different, opposite dynamics. But extremes often meet, they reconnect in order to create new solutions. And this happens with these two arts. Music lives in a space and time that is diametrically opposed to that of painting. With music, time is expansive, it’s not grasped in the immediate. It develops in a succession of moments, grasped at birth and addressed to the senses. The idea we have of a musical composition as a whole is imaginary and provided by memory. We can’t possess it in a real sense. Space is provided by the chords, the intervals, the melodic lines.
In painting we grasp a work instantly, as a whole, in its entirety, and it’s hard to separate ourselves from the vision of that whole. The global vision of a painting is real. Only subsequently can we enter into the space of the painting and section it, in order to grasp its more minimal, more intimate, technical aspects, in order to form an idea of the time of its execution and of its formal solutions. Not only different senses, but also different ways of placing ourselves with respect to their fruition, two worlds with, however, many points of contact and that constantly stimulate profound and fertile encounters, like the story of these languages that have been passed down to us.
My encounter with Silvia Colasanti, one of the most renowned composers at an international level, occurred in 2016. Silvia and I immediately understood each other profoundly regarding the way we envisage our artistic paths, based on an idea that marries contemporary art with the deep roots of tradition. In 2017, as a composer, she asked me to handle the realisation of a cover and images that could accompany an important work that she’d been commissioned to produce for the 60th Spoleto Festival. It was a requiem, entitled They will clasp a comet in their fists (Stringeranno nei pugni una cometa). A lay hymn (canto) in honour of the victims of the earthquake in central Italy. The requiem envisaged, as an important organic element in the orchestra, a deeply sweet and melancholy part for bandoneon which, in the premier in Spoleto’s Piazza Duomo, would be performed by the well-known jazz musician Richard Galliano.
I thought of developing paintings directly onto the pages of the score of her work, asking Silvia for pages that would only contain indications for the orchestral instruments but no musical notes. Later, after painting some areas of the pages I asked the author to complete the image by adding the notes of the requiem, superimposing them onto my paintings. Thus, my paintings and the author’s autographed notes alternated on the same page. In other words, it was a four-handed work, where notes and text were an integral part of the images, a work based on listening to and observing the work of both of us together.
The painting on those pages is characterised by large white waves of painting, a glazing sensitive to every minimal gesture of the wrist, which develop on an absolute Indian-ink black, a profound, abysmal space. The waves spread out with a rhythm, at times harmonic and at times abruptly interrupted. And, in the original idea, they followed both the idea of the musical development of the requiem – in particular the bellows of a bandoneon – as well as suggesting the graphic profile of a seismograph registering the movement of the earth in telluric waves charged with terror and melancholy. The image chosen for the cover/frontispiece, among the many that I’d elaborated, was a crown of vine leaves in the form of a crown of thorns, where the sacred image transforms into a lay idea, and the crown becomes a comet or garland of flowers, linking itself to the title of the work.
With Silvia Colasanti there was then an additional, intense collaboration: I’m referring to the realization of a book-art work based on a string quartet that she composed for Casa Ricordi in 2017. Entitled Every thing to every thing has said farewell, the title of the quartet derived – as you rightly pointed out – from a homonymous collection of poems by Valentino Zeichen, published by Fazi in 2000. The book/art work was produced in unique examples on top-quality paper and hand-printed in Bodoni script by the editor Piero Varroni for Rome’s artist book publishers, Eos Edizioni. Only seven copies were printed, each different from the other in the rendering of the painting. This, too, was a four-handed work, with my paintings reproduced in acrylic inks and colour (each page unique for each of the seven copies of the book/art work measuring 50cm by 140 cm and bound in accordion form inside the cover). I subsequently designed the pentagram for the quartet and, on the pentagram, superimposed on the painting, Silvia wrote her notes, choosing details from her score on the basis of the painting. Consequently, the experience in this second collaboration was also resolved in a synesthetic process that saw both authors involved.
Let me conclude by saying: music, more than the other arts, has the ability – besides penetrating immediately and striking the most intimate essence of its listener – of constructing forms in the purest of spaces, mental iconographies, prolonged spaces without interruption, perceptible as fantasmatic images, abysmal visions with architectures, trajectories, convolutions, scraps and delightful evocations. This is the path and the bond with music that most closely belongs to me: to search, through listening to it, for the emotions and suggestions produced by its plastic and visionary power, with closed eyes, following it in its infinite, broad, dilated spaces.
A.M. I would like to conclude this rich and intense excursus around your work by quoting a reflection by the American art historian Kirk Varnedoe, director of the MOMA from 1988 to 2001, who, in his magnificent book, Pictures of Nothing (a book that I don’t believe has been translated into Italian, which brings together a series of six lectures he gave in 2003 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington) where he writes as follows:
“An uninterrupted line, for example, between the work entitled Excavation by de Kooning from 1950 and his Untitled IV from 1984 contradicts any notion that history can be constructed by packaging it in a neat and ordered manner, or that abstraction is a sequence of innovations handed over like a baton in a relay race from one artist to another. On the contrary, it reinforces the idea that abstraction is a research that can cover the entire arc of a life and motivate an artist through to old age… It’s a pragmatic practice that defends the borders between abstraction and representation, and not some theoretical purity of strange lines that can be drawn vigorously… We can’t understand de Kooning’s career – his Woman series, his first figurations, his recurring thrust towards a corporeal art in his sculpture from the 1970s – without understanding that the border between abstraction and representation is not something sacred, but rather something ephemeral, changeable and transgressive.”
As I read these words of Varnedoe, I can’t help think of your work, where the tension between figuration and abstraction – as with Raciti, for that matter – seem to be happily and constantly sustained without aiming at pleasing or seductive resolutions. In the light of these reflections from Varnedoe, can you comment on this tension, which seems to be to be a distinctive and lasting feature of your work, from the very beginning?
V.S. Dear Anthony, I’ll answer you by beginning with another quotation, from Francis Bacon, which, like an exergue, contains and evokes all the subsequent text: “The image I’m searching for is like a tightrope walker on a stretched wire that separates the figurative culture from the abstract one.” This proposition contains the key for reading all my work.
I’ve always sought to construct a hybrid image that can unite the strong, propulsive and dramatic feeling of our inner and unformed instincts, with the exact definition of an objective image and with the sensibility, at times of enervating delicacy, of an almost calligraphic, limpid modus operandi. My painting always sets out from clearly defined images, from models that I display in space, like still lifes, and these are the objects in my studio that, like some kind of flea market, surround me.
When working there’s always the pretext of a figurative and objective observation of space, of things, of the spirit that permeates the reason and feeling of making in order to create metaphoric, fluid, contradictory images. Hybrid images, images that can always, always lead back to a formal and never abstract definition, against all evidence.
I well remember how I was left perplexed when, only a few years ago, a dear, very well-respected artist friend, chatting in my studio, defined my painting as abstract. Until that moment I’d never realised how my work could lend itself to such a misunderstanding. My friend and I had a long discussion in which I explained my reasons as to why I consider myself a fully figurative painter and how my painting might often actually be addressed to a search for trompe l’oeil effects; effects at times truly achieved on the surface. I didn’t entirely convince my friend, but that discussion allowed me to reflect with great care on the precarious balancing act that my work ran between abstraction and figuration.
Your reference to de Kooning with that quotation caught me by surprise. I don’t know how, but I forgot to mention that giant of the 20th century in one of my previous replies. In fact, de Kooning was another highly important reference point for me, with his obsessive, never placated search for structure, search for still points, for exactness of image in the chaos between abstraction and figuration. I’m not sure if, finally, I want to quote a comment about my painting by the art historian Gabriele Simongini where, in the text of the presentation of my personal show, which closed a few months ago, in Rome’s Carlo Bilotti Museum, he wrote as follows:
“What Scolamiero is searching for is ‘another’ nature, immersed in an almost amniotic dimension that often becomes umbratile and visionary. His are ‘hybrid icons’ with forms in transit towards the mystery, fluid, evolving, capable of annulling any distinction between abstractionism and figuration.” (G. Simongini, exhibition catalogue From the slant shadow, Ed. De Luca, Rome, Italy 2019)
I believe these words of Simongini, better than others, can link us to Varnedoe’s invaluable reflections in order to answer your fundamental question and close – worthily, I hope – this conversation of ours.