Basel

Nicola de Maria

Kunsthalle Basel

When in the title of one of his paintings (O Alberi proteggete questa mostra: Sono uno di voi, 1982) Nicola De Maria implores the trees to stand watch over his exhibition because he is, after all, one of their own, we are not dealing with gushing, pantheistic coquetry but with a leitmotiflike expression of De Maria’s artistic credo. His creative impulse is rooted in his childhood and adolescent memories of his southern Italian origins, memories of a world of light, color, and tenderness. In his paintings he conjures up those rare moments of original sensibility to which children seem so much more naturally prone than adults, creative moments when things begin to speak, actualizing themselves anew and renewed as if in an epiphany, revealing and unveiling their essence. De Maria’s conjurations are akin to secular devotional objects, giving perceptible, sensible form to our deeper yearnings and inviting empathetic participation; the intellectual, analytic component recedes far into the background in his work, comprising not its theme but only a means toward it. His pictures are concerned not with the hawking of naive clichés about truth and beauty in nature, but with the mystery of creation and of the human act of making meaning.

De Maria’s theme of the figure of the painter or artist is also to be understood in this context: in his work he situates himself as a traveler in the world and between worlds, as a “little” creator who, in his search for his original home, for the home of the world lying hidden within himself, is forced to wander the earth forever, seeking, really, nothing more than the familiar. This traveler’s suitcase contains only the painter’s tools—only through painting can he reinvent, recreate a vision of his goal. Yet each of these paintings represents but an approximation, for while the traveler feels an inner certainty which breeds a heightened sensitivity, he must also abandon himself to a contemplative aimlessness. Experiencing the constant metamorphosis of natural conditions—the color modulation in a cloud brushed by sunbeam, or the fragrance of a flower in a suddenly shifting breeze—he approaches these phenomena with great care: the picture demands painting and repainting until the intensity of the moment is realized and the feeling has become color and form. And so it is that O Alberi . . . retains an impastoed white center, ringed by a frame of scribbled little trees—the calligraphic essence of trees—which raises the white uncertainty to the level of a picture within a picture. Superimpositions become visible which finally realize the phenomenon, layer by layer, as a sensible presence.

Technique, format, and even questions of style retreat in the face of this larger intention. De Maria employs classical painting methods, appropriating them entirely to the requirements of his expressive intentions. A large-format oil painting has no greater significance than a barely palm-sized drawing on paper or a transitory mural executed solely for the duration of an exhibition. All things can coexist atop as well as beside one another, so long as they are permeated with the “Respiro mondiale” (Breath of the world), to borrow the title of a blue wall painting structured in resonance with the rhythm of breath. This coexistence results in intense, overwhelming shows, each one adapted to its space; in De Maria’s exhibitions the sensual presence of the individual work always stands in relationship to the works around it. An environment evolves whose ambience spellbinds the viewer. Created by a certain “Nicola,” who believes he has “three hands, the better to paint with” (“Sono Nicola: Ho tre mani per dipingere meglio”), hands that are always reaching for “what has never been seen” (“Mai visto”), these paintings demand absolute self-abandonment. They are love and they desire love, and that is a high and necessary demand in our cold times, a demand that De Maria makes of himself in a most remarkable way—all the more so in that he proceeds without a trace of ironic distance andenvelops his inmost self (surely no less vulnerable than anyone else’s) in nothing more than the gentle metaphor of the painter.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.