Nino Longobardi

NINO LONGOBARDI IS A NEAPOLITAN ARTIST who lives and works in Naples. That is something more than a simple statement of fact; it is practically an implicit declaration of poetics, but one that should not be misunderstood as a reference to folklore or to some pictorial vernacular. Naples is one paradigm for how it is possible to live today—in the twenty-first century, not in the past—literally “under the volcano” and always on the brink of catastrophe. Those artists, like Longobardi, who adopt this city as the context, subject, and object of their work, produce an art that, while clearly tied to place, is closer to a “glocal” (global + local) concept than to one that is simply ethnic. The Neapolitan character is the product of a culture as stratified, complex, and various as any that sprang from the imagination of Philip K. Dick.

Such cultural stratification is immediately recognizable in the work of Longobardi, who mainly uses the traditional means of painting and sculpture. In Il Coro (The chorus), 1998, sixty-four variously modeled skulls placed on as many shelves evoke the cult of the dead so familiar to the city. But certain works—in brown tempera on cardboard or canvas—depicting figures, torsos, and skeletons with affixed objects (a bone, a cross, a knife) also speak of a love of the organic reminiscent of Joseph Beuys, who, significantly, was a regular visitor to Naples. And with their rapid sequences of outlines, three large tondos (all untitled, 1999) accentuate a quasi-Futuristic sense of motion in the manner of Balla, or, better yet, of Anton Giulio Bragaglia, the Futurist photographer of figures in motion. Over everything hovers a sense of shadow, of something just out of sight that constantly accompanies you and puts you in touch with a parallel world. This is a world whose proximity, in Naples, one feels almost on the skin; Longobardi restores it to us without melancholy or romanticism by means of a common symbol like the skull or by evoking the idea of a “double” with the shadowy contour he often draws in pencil beside the more substantial body defined by tempera or oil paint. Such painting is still able to render a mystery—something quite different from ambiguity, a vital element in much photography—without being mysterious. Everything is painted-therefore constructed rather than “ready-made,” in accord with a baroque stratagem of wonder and amazement.

Perhaps this subtlety of construction, this fantastic machinery the artist has set in motion, has matured now and can be grasped better than in his work from the '80s, the heyday of the transavanguardia. (Longobardi was included in the 1982 exhibition that “consecrated” the movement, “Aspects of Italian Art Now: An American Perspective,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.) Our historical distance from that period makes possible an analytical sobriety that was unthinkable at the time, wrapped up as we were in our enthusiasm for the rediscovered pleasure of painting. Today Longobardi continues to paint—that is, to affirm the necessity to act and the validity of an expressive tool beyond its momentary success. This might seem normal and natural for the American public; in the country where Longobardi works it is anything but. Here painting is almost a mortal illness.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.