Giulio Paolini

Christian Stein Gallery

Giulio Paolini’s works in this show of pieces from 1981 to 1983 seem to be devised to suggest the void that lurks behind every pretext of meaning; they are carefully composed to celebrate the vanity of their existence. The multiplicity of phenomena that comprise the work display a mannerism that evokes a lack of meaning, a void, outside history. In the act of criticizing myth Paolini continually revives it; in pointing out illusion he produces delusion—scenes and figures which allegorically embody the concept of the autonomy of form independent from history. Art inspired by this concept exists on a razor’s edge. Its critique of esthetic illusion may be so radical as to create, through a negative mode, new figures of time and of space; but it can degenerate into mere decoration of the void, an apology for the uselessness of historical gestures, executed in the name of a relativism established by formalist theories of language.

In other words, ornamental “good taste” is a pitfall for work concerned with the autonomy of form. And certain of Paolini’s pieces here suffer from excessive dependence on formal balance (although they are perfect from the point of view of logical rigor). In other pieces, however, his reflections on art and on esthetic illusion stem from a radical intransigence. Considering both these tendencies one can walk through the gallery as though it were an Italianate garden carried to extremes; nature has vanished, leaving behind the frame which ought to have contained it. This frame gives rise to form—a system of art; the work here is equivalent to those sculptures and scenic fantasies that in the garden tradition act as commentaries on nature, indicating that natural beauty is insufficient and that the meaning sought in the garden is bound up with illusion, mirage.

Two works in particular, L’origine della pittura (The origin of painting, 1983) and Cythère, 1982, exemplify this antinatural ist and antiexpressionist concept. L’origine della pittura negates material color and the subjective expression of the painter. Color is present, but Paolini uses it in the “negative”—in a nonvisible space at the back of the elements shown. A violet/red is painted on the backs of a classical plaster cast and its base. The red is also painted on a small canvas which leans against the statue, its painted side in, and on the crossbars of a large empty stretcher frame which functions as a window, sealing off a corner of the room and separating the elements of the work from the viewer. Only by ducking through this frame can one actually see the color, otherwise hidden. But if one does this one loses the mirage of color which is diffused from the back of the component parts through light and reflection, like a shadow of color on the supporting wall.

This work, constituting a questioning of the reality of painting, would seem to pose intentional illusion as the last refuge of art today. At a time when cultural memory reduces every artistic act to a formula it is not color but the desire for color that is considered esthetic; art is basically brought into a utopian state of being. At the same time the theoretical problem raised by the piece is also one of the space of painting, of being able to say “painting is here.” One cannot delimit the space of painting in this work, just as desire, which coincideshere with (collective) desire for art, has no recognizable limits either.

Cythère has the same theoretical basis as L’origine della pittura, but it is less theatrical and more direct. The glass that covers a framed photograph of a seascape is damaged. It is of the shatter-proof variety used in cars, and it has cracked in a sunburst pattern without fracturing; the sunburst has a central position and becomes a new image between the observer and the sea image behind it. On the floor in front of the photograph lie the shattered fragments of a plaster classical cast. The title of the work is an integral part of it, alluding to Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère (Embarkation for Cythera, 1717–19). The reference functions as a rhetorical fictionalization of the problem of the hero and of a benevolent nature.

From the late Renaissance and Mannerist era to the 19th century the image of Cythera, the island of Venus, was an alternative to that of the island of Reason. In Watteau’s painting the subjects of the esthetic and erotic illusion are arranged theatrically in three planes: first, the garden, with couples in conversation; then the river bank, next to the boat surrounded by winged cupids; finally the mysterious, distant landscape over the water. The point of arrival and departure is ambiguous: where is Cythera, in which of these spheres? Paolini pushes the illusion even further, presenting the image of open sea and seeking to push it beyond the border that confines it—the glass. The glass, then, is smashed, but it remains intact, though desire leaves its trace. And in this trace, as if it were the foam that precedes the appearance of Venus from the water, modern beauty is renewed.

What do L’Origine della pittura and Cythère propose in terms of painting today? First, they deny the individualist myth of creation, arguing that painting today is defined neither by technique nor by style, but rather by linguistic hypothesis. And they revive the conception of the image as sacred—here, sacred because inaccessible. Our feelings of illusion and delusion in the wake of its inaccessibility form a new image, but form it outside painting, in a sort of theatrical representation of the failure of figurative effort. Venus, in other words, exists only in the negative.

Luciana Rogozinski

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.