The Metaphysics of Time
Text by Roberto Pinto
The first time I saw a show by Francesco Lauretta was at the Care of space (when it was still in Cusano Milanino), where the artist had installed a single large work composed of almost 10,000 toy soldiers made of wax and modeling clay, all evidently pregnant. A work capable of making a contact between the extremes of life and death, male and female in a simple, direct way, thanks to its interesting formal guise, close to the installations of Antony Gormley1 or the works the Chapman brothers were to make several years later. In his recent solo show at the Carbone gallery in Turin, along with some paintings Lauretta showed ten videos, in a projection that in a certain sense constituted a show in itself, autonomous, complex, with reasoning on art and sex, mafia and religion. These are just two examples of how Lauretta has proven that he knows how to work in different media with absolute nonchalance and ability.
Nevertheless — and this show is tangible evidence – his work focuses, to an increasing extent, on painting, which has become both its fulcrum and its motor. One is prompted to ask why he makes use of this ancient, difficult technique, to wonder why an artist like Francesco Lauretta gets his hands dirty, strives to find the right balance of an image, loses time using brushes and paints to reconstruct images that already exist, that already have a real consistency in the photographs that are the starting points for his paintings. The answer isn’t easy to find and cannot be one simple phrase. Yet we can state that these paintings are not exactly equal to the photographs; they differ from them in terms of framing and the use of color. We can also add (and this, perhaps, is already a full explanation) that Francesco Lauretta uses this technique for the pleasure of painting, the desire to see the image he has in his mind take form. And image that obviously changes in the progress of the work itself, until it achieves that equilibrium that permits the artist to say: “yes, that painting is really finished”. But as always we will have to try to approach reality from different directions, hoping that in the meantime that nucleus of deep truth hasn’t already fled, far from the place we are trying to catch it.
Let’s try starting with a few facts: these paintings share a common starting point, that of the photographs each of us keeps in his or her home. Fragments of reality, of families, of our past; the most common way— and one that may remain characteristic of the 20th century — to give a recognizable (and at times standardized) visage to memories, to give physical form to our identity, or at least a part of it. Photos that mix a bit of melancholy sadness with the comfort of self-recognition, not just through the images that depict us, but also through the people, things, rituals, environments, moments that belong to our past, that are familiar to us. Visions that have their own richness, but which are greatly enlarged in the process of the painting — just as happens with memories of childhood — and rendered precious — as only the passing of time can do — by that slow manual work through which the photos take on a much stronger communicative capacity, a emblematic quality that can be shared by those who would otherwise be excluded.
To go beyond, to take images and re-manipulate them with a slow, empirical method, can also be seen as the method applied by the artist to trigger a process of refinement of the gaze, a “cleaning” of the image. The entire work of painted transcription is simply a continuous elaboration: addition of details, in certain parts of the painting, and subtraction of information in other parts. Emphasizing and canceling, the paint forces a process of analysis and simplification of reality. And it is precisely for these reasons that, in a case like that of Francesco Lauretta, we can talk about a technique that, in turn, becomes a further instrument of knowledge. The aim of the artist, however, is never that of recovering the concept of realism. We can deduce this with just a superficial analysis of the colors used in his paintings: exaggerated, saturated hues; offspring of digital culture, but also of the warm Mediterranean light; influenced by Pop Art but also by folk iconography. Therefore his work appears as a “non-realistic” process of description of experienced reality.
There is also another aspect of the painting of Francesco Lauretta that calls for reflection, and is probably the one Francesco would have used first: what he defines as the “heaviness” of the painting. Naturally this is a heaviness that is the result of a laborious process, but we could define it as being “formal” as well as “physical”. There is one very cumbersome burden we cannot, in fact, overlook: that inevitable and equally weighty bulk imposed by tradition, and the unavoidable comparison with it. The history of art, here in Italy, has an even greater specific weight than elsewhere. In the Bel Paese it is nearly impossible to paint with nonchalance or carelessness (at least for conscientious artists), overlooking the long, rich past of this discipline. A heaviness that, in other senses, can be seen as compensation for the lightness of all the images of consumption that crowd every space and every moment of our lives. It is also the weight of memory, which as we were saying is our identity, but at the same time deprives of the freedom to break out of a rut already traced. This is certainly not an unconscious desire for restoration of the past, nor is it a nostalgic search for lost time, an allusion to some golden age that has come to a definitive end: you can be absolutely contemporary while grappling with an ancient language and selecting our recent past as subject matter. Perhaps, to simplify things, we can say that Francesco Lauretta talks about heaviness because — to paraphrase the beginning of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos2 — “I think I may have more things to say about heaviness”. And just as all Calvino’s work represented a progressive removal of the weight3 of things, the path of Lauretta can be defined as a continuous re-burdening of that world of images that seems to exist in a parallel universe, out of touch with the heaviness of everyday life.
His historical and geographical roots are also heavy, and while they may at times be ignored, they are never erased or denied. Personal memories and places crossed with appropriate irony and a refined critical stance. Sicily, loved (and hated) as one loves (and hates) one’s own father and mother. But also a Sicily sought and displayed as a wider metaphor for the human condition in general (at least in the more affluent countries), a place in which one attempts to keep up with the speed of technological and cultural change and, at the same time, to clutch, struggling, at traditions and rituals (or, mutatis mutandis, to invent new ones, like the Celtic roots or the Po River divinities of the separatist Lega Nord) that make us feel safe, members of a community, wrapped in “our” tradition, sheltered by it from the global economy that is trying to overwhelm us. Francesco Lauretta looks at Sicily but maybe he sees us, while we look at our image reflected in the mirror. He looks at the speed of time present and compares it with that of his work that marks the passage of each single instant through a physical, bodily appropriation of reality.
There is one last element (which could also form the premise for all these thoughts) we should consider: the evident narrative vocation of all Francesco Lauretta’s works, his videos or installations, but also very explicitly visible in his recent paintings. To tell a story is to share that particular experience (it doesn’t matter if it was invented or actually lived), to make it accessible to others. Lauretta’s stories come from his life but, at the same time, they represent interruptions of everyday existence, due to their ability to amaze us. Looking at his paintings we are dismayed by those masses of persons and colors captured in magical moments, out of the ordinary, the moments of holidays. In the same way, we are surprised and fascinated by the formal richness, the colors of the decoration of the staircase that forms the backdrop for the harangue of Don Peppino in Abracadabra.
Le metafisiche is the title of the exhibition, but perhaps we should step back from the images of De Chirico and his continuous attempt to make his painting still and lifeless, shifting the representation into another dimension, higher than reality. Life itself contains the metaphysics Lauretta refers to in the title. Running into an elegant, unabashedly feminine statue like that of St. Vito in the church of Santa Annunziata in Ispica (painted in Lontano da ogni giorno) is a metaphysical experience. So is the little angel girl of La patetica seen against the view of Ispica, between the transcendent and the spectacular, like the hand of an adult that passes that technological device and is placed there to bring that mystical flight down to earth. Perhaps what Lauretta has in common with the historic metaphysical movement is an element of irony, but he fills it with vitality and kneads it together with the passage of time. There is the world, which can no longer be kept outside the frame. It’s no coincidence that the last of the paintings, Dolce, the artist has made for this show depicts a funeral, that of his grandfather, who bore the same name, Francesco Lauretta. Death takes the stage, the paradigm of interruption of that eternal present of the metaphysical paintings, but also of the repetition of everyday gestures, so much the focus of artists in recent years. It is time, with its heaviness, that bursts into the scene, the true deus ex machina of the whole show. Time holds sway over these paintings as it does over our life, even when it has been temporarily abandoned, metaphysically suspended.
1 I’m thinking of Field, a work shown by Gormley in 1991 at Ujawoski Castle Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
2 Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard Univ Press, March 1988.
3 Idem, “(…) more often than not mine has been an operation of removal of weight; I have tried to remove weight from human figures, heavenly bodies, cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of narrative and language”.