New York

Gianni Dessì

Salvatore Ala

It’s perhaps best to understand Gianni Dessì’s expressionism by way of that of the Germans, not to make invidious comparisons but to realize the softer, more tenuous character of the Italian version. One feels as if one is dealing with national traits; if stroke conveys tempo, there is certainly a different sense of time in Dessì’s painting than in, let’s say, that of Baselitz. He achieves nothing harsh, nothing really aggressive, even when he tears the center out of a painting—to create a collage effect, but also as if to symbolize entry into an inner world. And his work is almost always centrally focused, another way of minimizing violence and creating order. There are noneof Baselitz’s dislocations, none of his attempts to refute the concentric and the grid patterns that Rudolf Arnheim tells us determine space in Western painting. (Find an esthetic norm and an artist will violate it.)

What finally matters in Dessì’s work is not the symbols he tries so hard to create out of lyrically abstract forms and sketchy figural elements, but the poetry of time he evokes through movement, especially the delicate play of color as well as the more obviously animated touch. The sense of mercurial time in his vista and vista-type pictures matters more than any inhabitant of nature that might lurk in the scene. Dessì is a member of a loosely knit Roman group called Artemisia, after the puritanical goddess of hunting. He apparently conceives his canvas cuts as emblematic of the violence of hunting, and certainly the animal or animallike heads that appear in such works as Sospeso (Suspended) have the look of trophies, or of haunting memories. But the victim dimension of Dessì’s creatures doesn’t come through too clearly; rather, it is as though they were entranced on some Calypso island. This air of elementary enchantment hovers over Dessì’s pictures, making them engaging. The question is whether they are anything more—whether they do realize Dessì’s honorable, age-old ambition of showing “the relation between the body and the universe.” I don’t think the relationship is actually all that elusive, which is why I prefer the less mysterious, more vigorously punctuated pictures, which work like exclamation marks rather than conversational lacunae, full of echoes.

Donald Kuspit