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On the Eternal Return


A moment everybody knows and has experienced before: when our head slowly sinks into water until our eyes are at the water level, the gaze is divided and we literally float between two worlds. Below, the silence of the sea, and above, all the here and now of the world, the wind causing the waves to ripple, sunshine, light. Giuseppe Gonella calls the painting that captures this moment Under the Skin of the Sea, and it sums the theme of the exhibition: De aeterno reditu, on the eternal return.

Water is the origin of all life, and therefore it is significant that under that skin, life pulsates in the form of fluorescent particles, microorganisms that represent the beginnings of evolution, while at the same time, in the far distance in this world, the island Pontikonisi emerges from the water, probably the model for Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.

The big, fundamental themes of time, life, death, and new beginnings that Gonella addresses in all his paintings are the contextual reference that holds the exhibition together and unifies it. His point of departure is the mural painted directly onto the largest wall of the gallery, showing a monumental landscape of ruins: collapsed columns, centuries-old witnesses that have already seen all the pictures of the life narrative that is displayed in the paintings. They will also accompany those paintings that this life narrative will have in store until its end. Two small canvases are framed by the mural: the Guardian of the Sun, a small yellow bird that appears repeatedly in the paintings, is juxtaposed with the Guardian of the Night, a sinister reposing faceless figure, enwrapped in a distorted chessboard-pattern. It is no surprise that Giuseppe Gonella refers to the chessboard, which is also a paraphrase of society, games where life and death is at stake, to symbolize the darkness of the night. Such contrasts like the ones evoked by Under the Skin of the Sea can frequently be found in the dialogue of the paintings. Each of these contrasts invites us to explore the field of tension created by it. Here a nursing mother, symbol of life-giving force, but also a kind of cyber creature, there the hint of the mythical creature Ouroboros that is self-sufficient: “The past bites everything in the future into its tail.”

In another painting, Reassuring Horizons, a figure dressed in a transparent rain cape walks through a destitute end-of-time landscape, while in Sunny Side Up several people, paradisiacally naked, are grouped around a huge tree trunk. Like DNA, neon-colored tracers run through the paintings, evoking memories and emotions. Sometimes bright plains grow out of these lines, fragments of color that together form the ground on which Gonella usually just intimates figurative elements. The humans in his paintings are rarely executed completely, rather, they are often depicted overlapping themselves, transparent, like in the two paintings In the Same Breath #1 and #2, as if they were not really present, but rather about to move between times.

Most of Giuseppe Gonella’s paintings bring together several moments, like snapshots that are elusive in terms of their temporality. This interplay between finiteness and infinity adds to the contested field of contrasts in terms of content an apocalyptic dimension. Acting for the beholder, the jester in Portrait of the Court Jester Gonella – Tribute to Jean Fouquet exposes himself to the immense impact of the paintings, and his terror is clearly visible in his pale face. Just like in Mente Locale, Gonella does not suggest that things will come to a good end, and it is not easy to face up to that. But there is some small comfort: his paintings show some kind of survival, even though it doesn’t seem to be the survival of humankind. We yearn to be back under water, Under the Skin of the Sea, in the dreamy silence and its colorful, pulsating particles from which life evolves, in the hope that evolution may take a different path, so that the peaceful paradisiacal vision, which Giuseppe Gonella can also paint, may prevail.

Translated by Wilhelm Werthern

‘On the Eternal Return’ originally was written in the occasion of the exhibition ‘De Aeterno Reditu’, Egbert Baquè contemporary, Berlin, DE. Copyright © 2014 Helge Baumgarten.