New York

Omar Galliani

Arnold Herstand & Company

After the almost dizzying pace of activity during the last few years, the current New York art season is providing a welcome period of stock-taking. Look around: abstraction is on the rise; derivative neo-Expressionism is certainly on the wane; and there is the continued fascination with figuration, particularly in painting. The proliferation of styles in Europe in the ’20s offers the only parallel to the current stylistic diversity in figurative painting. However, the subsequent course of modern art has added a somewhat new element to today’s situation that differentiates it from the past. That element is self-consciousness.

The making of art in these art-wary times is so often discussed in terms of strategies, and the artworks themselves described as the products of certain calculated devices. The paintings of Omar Galliani are an excellent case in point. Galliani is a 30-year-old Italian artist who lives and works in Montecchio Emilia and Urbino. Although he began doing conceptual photopieces, Galliani’s interest is painting, and he chooses to work within the grandiose figurative tradition of the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque. His paintings are suffused with references to Greek and Roman mythology, and his nudes and draped figures are definitely in the idealized classicist mode. At first glance, it is impossible not to speculate about Galliani’s possible sources (Michelangelo, Correggio, and Parmigianino all come to mind); but in Galliani’s case the now-popular game of “name-that-source” is very much beside the point. To my eye, Galliani’s intention is not the self-conscious display of art-historical quotation; rather, he is quite serious about his chosen means of representation, which, by the passion of his imagination, he succeeds in making viable in (and relevant to) the ’80s.

Hardly a literal interpreter of this tradition, Galliani directly addresses the mystical undercurrents that flow broadly under the veneer of contemporary culture. Dealing with universal themes, he infuses his imagery with poetic urgency. In La Punizione (Punishment, 1984) Galliani presents an unforgettable scene of divine retribution. Its agent is a golden youth who holds a fiery red staff with which he has set on flame a boat from which a group of cowering figures is trying to flee. This scene takes place against a sky filled with billowing clouds of smoke. In true classical fashion, everything about this composition, from the individual gestures to the colors used, is symbolic. It is also very suggestive; although we do not know the exact reason for the punishment, we are moved by the figures’ obvious pain and fear.

A talented and persuasive draftsman, Galliani loads his figures with strong psychological presence. In the central figure in La Punizione there is an anatomical split between the upper torso and the legs: his legs are disproportionately short, and one of them looks masculine and the other feminine. By injecting a note of androgyny Galliani makes this figure’s appearance disconcerting. He does this not to shock, however, but to pique our curiosity and to encourage us to enter his enlightened plane of discourse.

Ronny Cohen