Toti Scialoja

Galleria L'Isola

In 1982 Toti Scialoja’s work was known for the way he dealt with surface, using subtle washes of watercolor, fluid but veiled whites, and progressive erasures to convey an intimate, private, nearly hidden emotionality. That same year, in Madrid, he saw Goya’s devastating paintings in the Quinta del Sordo. Now he seems to have absorbed Goya’s furious, dark gesture—antinaturalistic and derived from the baroque, but pushed toward decomposition through its almost excessive lucidity and obsessive, searing truth. It would not be inappropriate to use the word “enlightenment,” in its prophetic sense, in discussing Scialoja’s recent paintings. One might also speak of physical impact—the type that suggests rupture and realignment in an artist’s work.

Scialoja has abandoned the delicate dimensions of his veiled washes. His brushstroke has become more corporeal, his surfaces more agitated by dense, frenetic impasto; among the media he now uses is sand. The weave of the canvas may disappear beneath the paint, and color may come through in its place: golden flashes of light seem to kindle from within themselves browns and russets, violets and greens. The gesture is more or less continuous, running over the surface in wide belts or flaring up in furious stains, clustering densely and then flowing outward in unchecked rhythms until it fades away. This is a theatrical style, moody and frenzied.

In Scialoja’s “Impronte” (Impressions) series from 1957–68, the symbolic passage of time was suggested by succeeding bands of color. Scialoja was drawing on his experience in New York in the mid ’50s, when he came in contact with action painting. The “Impronte” works have a continuous, pulsating tempo: following Jackson Pollock’s example, Scialoja was expressing a cohesion between painting and existence, between the time of a work’s execution and its finished state. But he felt more of a desire than Pollock did to control his “writing,” and used a stamp to press paint onto the canvas as a tool to set up a repetitive, progressive development of action from left to right, and from dense to evanescent color. In later works the sense of time was more conceptualized; the strips of color may have been restrained in their emotionality, but they achieved a sort of musicality, a suggestive sense of rhythm.

In these new works, however, time emerges from the wrinkled, uneven surfaces to become an obsession. For Scialoja as for Goya, history is reduced to the present moment. The earlier work’s fluid calm, measured by pauses and silences, has gone, to be replaced by a mad furor of events which vanish in the desperate brevity of the immediate. The tragic times Goya saw seem to vibrate again in these tumultuous canvases. They are not a revival of action painting,but a critical evaluation of the present in which the act of painting becomes a testimonial to the transitory.

Scialoja has abandoned the nostalgia that permeated his delicate watercolors of the ’70s. He has found his way out of the impasse those works represented, with their limiting repetitions of chromatic progressions enclosed within precise, confining systems. The new paintings constitute a positive but critical reappropriation of energy. They are a product of Scialoja’s maturity. Each conveys the uniqueness of the unrepeatable gesture without superfluousness, without rhetoric or mannerism, but in a way that clearly states the rationale of the work, its inner necessity. The surfaces do not portray events, but, in the absolute, elementary rhythm of a living tempo, they constitute painting’s palpable essence.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.