“Latitudine Napoli New York”

Galleria Lucio Amelio

New York—art, business, entertainment center—can be considered the navel of the Western world. We outside the city observe it with curiosity, but not always with a precise awareness of what is going on there. As diffused through the mass media, New York seems to be a place where everything happens in midtown between 11 A.M. and 5 P.M., where anything whatsoever can be found in the shop windows of Fifth Avenue, where all the art is shown only in certain galleries and museums. Likewise Naples is always characterized as in a picture postcard—Vesuvius, the sea, pizza. . . . The stereotyped images of a place are slow to die. But if the granite of the island of Manhattan has nothing in common with the magmatic, friable subsoil of the Neapolitan region, both cities have an underground identity, a hidden, seething energy.

The latitude on which both Naples and New York sit is not only geographic; it is an ideal, invisible parallel connecting two places that lie at the eve of the apocalypse. Such, at least, is the idea underlying this show of three American and three Italian artists: James Brown, Ronnie Cutrone, Keith Haring, Nino Longobardi, Mimmo Paladino, and Ernesto Tatafiore. The juxtaposition is an interesting one, for the six artists, beyond their obvious cultural differences, show many commonalities in their visual linkings of instances of contemporary turmoil, their sophisticated awareness of the media they employ, and their intelligent attention to content.

Brown and Longobardi both showed paintings of heads; self-portraits, masks, or idols fill the entire space of their canvases with demanding presence. Brown uses broad, flat, smooth brushstrokes, and notwithstanding the smeared paint, his images are rigorous, almost ascetic. The large face here, with its slit eyes, flat and allusive in their fixity, has an assertive aura. Longobardi’s seething colors, with objects applied directly to the canvas in an overwhelmingly Baroque chiaroscuro vortex, lie at the other extreme. His Autoritratto Terremoto (Earthquake self-portrait, 1980) is a vertiginous mix of dense oils; the face, with its turbulent surface, is mutilated and ravaged. Brown’s “American” face, while it may show grotesque swellings, alien horns, and an animalistic grimace, is closed off behind a silent, impenetrable surface; Longobardi’s “Neapolitan” countenance declares itself openly—this is an earthquake-devastated, fractured face upon which lights and shadows dance a macabre tarantella, tears and blood intermingling in the stench of decomposition. Longobardi shows us Naples at its most visceral, not forgetting the pomp of the Baroque, but linking it to a daily life of everyday tragedy.

The ground of Cutrone’s Neapolitan Hot Cross, 1982, is a yellow and red flag; burned through it is the shape of a cross. The flag seems more reminiscent of the carnival like rituals of Naples soccer fans than of Christianity. It is a recognizable but decontextualized icon, one that intentionally minimizes the primary meaning of the symbol Cutrone imposes on it. In fact, his juxtaposition of a parade banner with a burning cross results not in an intensification of the meaning of the Christian symbol but in an impoverishment of it, a reduction of its number of referents. Yet the image comes alive in ironical terms. It is as though Cutrone has ridiculed ancient Neapolitan nobility, banalizing a heraldic sign to make it the standard of the new misery which triumphs in the streets. The crosses in Paladino’s work, on the other hand, partake of more composed, if obscure, narrative schemes. An accumulation of signs does not clarify but rather renders more difficult any attempt to decode. Serpent, long hand, skeletal body, intersecting diagonals and horizontals—these are the decipherable forms in Oro (Cuore di Russia) (Gold [heart of Russia], 1983), a composition that juxtaposes human, animal, and geometric elements. The mysterious nature of the painting feeds on the coexistence of these symbols, derived from a medieval primitivism in equal step with anthropology; there are no univocal interpretations, but rather a visual synthesis of opposites. Paladino’s narrative complexity creates his most recognizable sign, his personal style, out of these contradictions.

Finally, Tatafiore and Haring offer two similar methods of narration: both use detached but abutting sheets, sections that together make up the complete story. Tatafiore’s narratives are often related to the French Revolution, mixed with psychoanalytical and literary elements, but here an obviously Neapolitan landscape forms the “banal” backdrop for a tale of another type. The forms have the flat frontality of children’s-book illustrations; the space is without points of reference and the levels of narration intersect without ever truly merging. Similarly Haring narrates a long story on 30 sheets of paper; here, his usual imagery has a Mediterranean feeling. Details of a televisual nativity are linked to orgiastic celebrations reminiscent of Pompeii. The connecting thread remains Haring’s “radiant child” image, but his inspiration seems to stem from his syntony with the Neapolitan atmosphere, dense with sensual humor and with a religiosity mixed with paganism. The black figures are silhouetted against an absolutely two-dimensional white background; this is a long comic without words, the energy of the automatic sign merging in perfect synthesis with a literary and visual imagination.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.