Luciano Bartolini

Galerie Montenay

Characterized by bold black, red, white, or yellow monochrome surfaces punctuated with torn paper, spattered paint, gold leaf, and horizontal color bands, the collage paintings in Luciano Bartolini’s “Emblematische Blumen” (Emblematic flowers, 1989–90) series, command the gallery space with their iconic presences.

For the most part, the “emblems” are high on the canvas; if they were lower, the effect would be decorative, but the balancing act between color and gravity in these paintings charges the hovering shapes with visual tension. There are echoes of Byzantine mosaics and gold leafed miniatures, traces of Nepalese prayer banners and Indian deities, and a structural nod at early Renaissance painting in the stately symmetry of the compositions and their implicit vanishing points. All of this is brought together within the matrix of action painting and the abstract spirituality of Bartolini’s explosive brushwork and enamel drips.

As he explains, the mix is less a function of art than of experiences lived, dreamed, and remembered. The Eastern elements made their way into his work after his travels to Nepal and India in the mid 1970s; in the years that followed, he observed, absorbed, and transformed sources ranging from Cretan frescoes, Egyptian reliefs, and medieval manuscripts, not only into paintings and gallery installations, but also into a parallel stream of multimedia, multilingual artist’s books.

Like his imagery, Bartolini’s style is essentially cumulative. From early conceptual pieces in Kleenex and cardboard, the artist moved to installations of similarly modest materials, evoking dream images and mythological themes. In the early ’80s he turned to painting and developed a vocabulary of archetypal forms that included labyrinths, tantric motifs, and a mysterious pseudo-alphabet of angular shapes. Subsequently, around 1983, during a stay in Berlin, he shifted into a more expressionistic mode, with agitated brushwork and murky colors that lacked both the refinement and the suggestive quality of his earlier work.

With the “Emblematische Blumen,” understatement is all. The subtlety of the formal means only intensifies the paintings’ impact. The same is true of five small, untitled triptychs; working with a similar repertoire of oil, enamel, rice paper, and block prints, pasted onto sheets of black sandpaper, Bartolini plays the archetypal triptych form off the spontaneity of his technique, the imprecision of his symmetry, and the improbability of his materials. Like the alchemist, he succeeds in transforming works of minor scale into major statements.

In an age of appropriation, Bartolini’s undemonstrative syncretism has an impressive air of conviction about it. By physically tearing, gluing, masking, and overpainting his bits and pieces of the past, he integrates them into a present that is not strictly an artistic one. Rather than imitating, he has internalized; rather than seeking eternity, he has aspired to timelessness; rather than creating a commentary on his relationship to other cultures and other times, he has rejoined them in creation. In this way, these abstract altarpieces move a long way toward universality.

Miriam Rosen