Mimmo Paladino

Two things were most striking in this extensive retrospective bringing together nearly thirty years of Mimmo Paladino’s work. The first was the prevalence in his work of the epic mode over anything subjective or individualist—his affinity with the primordial, archaic, totemic phases of civilization. These distant origins, however, appear continuously in the present, and Paladino points toward them by means of fragmentary, enigmatic presences. The second observation had more to do with Paladino’s technical means as an artist who often combines painting with relief elements: While all the projecting components (masks, small papier-mâché or terra-cotta craters, sticks, various found objects such as umbrellas or bicycles), relate centrifugally to the canvas, they are all subsumed within the formal domain of the surface. Despite magmatic, “barbarian,” at times disturbing contents, the end result is thus one of surprisingly classical moderation.

Silenzioso, mi ritiro a dipingere un quadro (Silently, I withdraw to paint a canvas), 1977, amounts to a declaration of poetics, and it was no accident that this was the first work one encountered in the show. It deals with a return to the pleasures of painting, seen as a sort of scandal during the reign of cold Conceptualism—the return marked by the Transavanguardia and the various other neo-expressionist tendencies of the ’80s. Since then, the artist has remained true to that early title. All Paladino’s works are, in their own way, “silent,” radiating a tacit agreement with the world and with things. Clearly this agreement has been achieved at great effort: through meditation, through concentration on the work and its difficult dilemmas. But it is a silent accord, an archaic, immemorial harmony. In Paladino’s work, inspiration derived from past art—pre-Roman sculpture, for instance—is simply a matter of borrowed iconography or erudite quotation. Paladino is a true master at reconciling sensibility and intellect, as demonstrated in those works that are harmonized by a sort of minimalist abstraction (a tendency present in the artist’s development from the very beginning). This exhibition contained two such examples, executed on an enormous scale: Geometria A (Geometry A), 2000, and the installation Senza titolo (Untitled), 1988, shown at that year’s Venice Biennale.

Naturally, as in any retrospective, there are certain weak points; for example, the small bronze sculptures, installed at the very end of the exhibition, added little to the overall sense of Paladino’s work. But three small paintings, all entitled Architettura (Architecture), 2000, show the artist at his best. In these pieces, signs, ciphers, and elusive images are drawn on reliefs shaped from cardboard; Cubo-Futurism and Constructivism and their roots (from Picasso to Boccioni to Tatlin) are revisited with great intellectual acuity, along with the inventive freedom we expect of Paladino. One could say basically the same thing about Senza titolo, 1988, a stupendous diptych whose left panel bears an abstract-geometric, almost heraldic design reminiscent of a playing card and whose right half contains enigmatic figures evocative of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). This dimension of dynamic rather than static formal equilibrium is present in all Paladino’s work, but an untitled, large-scale work from 1999 is exemplary. This canvas’s disturbing apotropaic power is achieved through contrasts between yellow-gold and black, where abstract stains, graffiti, and figures come together in a classically balanced, almost Renaissance spatial layout.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.