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Stories of light and colour. The painting of Giuseppe Gonella

Pietro C. Marani 2013

A boy touches a sheet of paper or draws on a grassy lawn or brushes the surface of water, bent forward like a modern-day Narcissus in a Caravaggio painting. His fleeting beauty is not what is revealed to him when he looks into the water. He feels dissatisfied. Indeed, frightened by something, by a discovery that will change the course of his day or his very life. His face looks worried, the shadow of his hand is drawn on the blank sheet of paper. A foreboding, perhaps. He hid here, behind the arches of a rusty iron bridge or beside a subway in an area where people don’t normally pass by or perhaps by the sides of a bridge where cigarettes are thrown or where young people leave their beer bottles behind or where they take drugs. The water – and I reckon it really is water – flows slowly. Maybe there’s rubbish too that’s floating along. But just as the water flows by, so does life. This, though, is a split second, a flight, a flash of sun and light before real life sucks him back in forever with its whirls and eddies in a dizzying voyage into the unknown. Now, though, he’s only fourteen or fifteen and he’s discovering for the first time ever something that’s bothering him. It’s not love, nor sex but something that intrigues him and that fascinates him but that now he seems to be refusing since he’s scared of it (once again let’s think of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard). Whatever message will he have found on that sheet of paper or that floating piece of plastic? A message that hails from a life that flows below the surface, like an underground river? Yet this is the story that we are told by the great, most beautiful painting by Giuseppe Gonella A place behind the buried rivers (2013) and we know neither the end nor the fate of this boy who, like many others painted by him, appears to be embarking on life from the streets, keeping bad company in desolate suburbs of American or Asian metropolises or in the solitude of a basketball pitch or a field where, by chance, someone had left something on the ground, like in Found Trail. Adolescents who get lost in a globalised world, swirling and threatening, like the boy in Gas station or the boy who draws on the ground in Self made man or, yet again, the boy depicted as a bully in Thunder clap. These are not “rent boys” of Pasolini fame. They’re wearing T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops bought at Alcott or Zara. They inhabit the outskirts of rich cities, in middle-class areas. They use I-pads and cell phones even though they’re not doing so well at school. All of these “portraits” – like snapshots taken by a webcam by mistake (added to the ones taken of the bad boys); like those heart-rending snapshots of the man and woman sitting down and kissing (are they perhaps the parents of some of those boys?), in Il filo delle ore (2012) – look as if they were in a wind beaten scenario like in some part of America devastated by a tornado. They make up a sort of contemporary “Spoon River compendium” and the scenes might be Cape Cod, Miami or Los Angeles if it were not for the quality of the light and the colours that would point to a rather more Mediterranean setting. More like the Còte d’Azur than Forte dei Marmi. This is where the training of the artist comes in to be more than merely handy: the light and the reflections absorbed in Venice, while studying glass and mosaics, reflected in the water, provide a starting point from when we may analyse the artist’s culture and artistic vision. An artistic vision that has fed from chromatic relationships and from a sense of light that, having re-experienced and reabsorbed the most recent trends in contemporary art, has enabled him to return to figurative art with a material and a technique that is completely new and wholly coherent with the apprehensions of the world of youth (and not only) that the painter is examining and representing. Nevertheless, in these new paintings by Giuseppe Gonella, there is – fortunately – neither any pleasure to be felt in the depiction of internal discomfort nor recourseto any miniaturist (although he would be more than able to do it) or anachronistic painting that would create ghosts and nightmares for the psyche or post-Surrealist hallucinations. His style is fresh and free. The air can still be breathed in even though it is swept through with the wind which blows things away and drags them into a continuous and disorderly flow. There is, though, not even a question of there being a “new wild guy”. His visual culture and his sensitivity do not allow for this particular label (nor, perhaps, for any other sort of label) and his pictorial technique could not appear more different from the heavy and violent one employed by the “new wild guys”. Neither is his an inventory of contemporary stupidities nor is it a sort of destabilisation of vision as in the fashion of Sigmar Polke with contaminations between “high” and “low” culture (as defined by Robert Storr). The “portrait of a chair” that almost infuses Gonella (in Evidence of time, 2013) with Matisse-like undertones is thus significant just as it is in The Vegan with the Arcimboldo-like transformation of the character into what he is eating. Lastly, his denial of the figurative element (photographically evoked in parts, then cut, or scraped away or almost entirely cancelled) obtained by fragments of flat colour combined haphazardly (just as a crazed mosaic artist would do) or in strips or bands of colour layered over one another does not evoke the informal abstractions of Gerhard Richter. They do, however, suggest the tears and lacerations of Mimmo Rotella or a badly-done and scuffed colour photocopy – caused by used up cartridges, as can be seen in the small portrait Tentativo di fuga. This is due to the fact that Gonella, while remaining faithful to figurativity, strives also to manipulate it. Thus, yet again, he reveals the artist’s link between popular culture and the image of the “ego” this time not only publicised by photography and cinema but also by cell phones and the web. If it were not for the heart-rending melancholy that these young adolescents as well as older figures in his “stories” provoke in the viewer and for the intrinsic beauty of the video-like cuts of the images – full of intensity and freshness in colour and material – we would perhaps be able to define Gonella’s painting as a real sort of web painting, a fresco of modern-day “mal de vivre”, elevated into painting or a video window on the world that neither Google or Amazon will ever be able to offer. This is because it is a question of an “interior” world, a world of primordial sensations, of mental photographic stills transferred into a new harrowing data bank of the contemporary world, made with instruments that, as has forever been, have been those of the painter: light, colour and the painter’s mind.

‘Stories of light and colour. The painting of Giuseppe Gonella’ originally published in Giuseppe Gonella ‘Involved’ (Bonelli Arte, 2013) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Involved’, Galleria Giovanni Bonelli, Milan, IT. Copyright © 2013 Pietro C. Marani.


Pietro C. Marani, Full Professor in History of Modern Art in the School of Design at the Politecnico in Milan. He is author of thirty books and more than three hundred essays, articles and scientific writings devoted to the art and the architecture of Italian Renaissance, translated in eight languages. He has been Co-director of the restoration campaign of the Leonardo’s Last Supper and Deputy-director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. He is President of the Ente Raccolta Vinciana (Milan, founded 1904), and Member of the National Committee for the publication of Leonardo’s Work (Rome, founded 1903). He has been curator of many exhibitions in Milan (Palazzo Reale, Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca di Brera), Florence (Casa Buonarroti), Rome (Musei Capitolini), Venice (Palazzo Grassi), Parigi (Musée du Louvre), Montreal (Musée des Beaux Arts), Torino (Venaria Reale), New York (Metropolitan Museum), Tokyo ( Metropolitan Art Museum). Among his interests are the contemporary art and art criticism.

Giuseppe Gonella. Involved

Carlo Sala 2013

A youth stands before closed shutters, face shadowed and unrecognisable, holding a sheet of paper which is slowly burning. This highly enigmatic figure is at the centre of the painting Er by Giuseppe Gonella. The artist’s intention is to present us with an allegory for artistic research, wherein everything burns quickly as it is continually assailed by new doubts. The subject of Er is setting alight a metaphorical testament1, which, like all artworks, condenses the successes and failures of a journey made up of experiments, changed ideas and tensions, driven by constantly evolving emotional and intellectual needs. Er embodies the essential characteristics of Gonella’s artwork, which does not seek a clear narrative, but rather bring together characters, objects and places which are visionary, timeless and transfigured, and which at times seem to lack any evident coherence. Different levels of reading are united on the canvas through narrative elements that can be extrapolated or interpolated; they inspire powerful triggers to pass beyond the figurative epidermis. What is the girl crouching in the field looking for? Who is hidden in the tent beneath the leaden skies? Who is the young protagonist? These and other questions immediately spring to mind. Gonella does not seek to create forms of conventional narratives, rather he deliberately leaves the plots incomplete. These are scenes which invite the viewer to put themselves in that situation - to become involved, as the title of the exhibition suggests - in order to discover, invent and perceive the thoughts and motives which reverberate deep beneath the formal surface. Whilst displaying remarkable formal qualities, Gonella’s works never offer a purely objective representation.The iconic aspects, such as figures and elements of landscape, alternate with great flashes of colour and abstract surfaces. These unite different painting techniques and move the composition towards an evocative, rather than simply descriptive, meaning. As such his painting is part of the current vein of research that seeks to give a new meaning to figurative work through a strong adherence to topical issues with an original and personal stylistic matrix. The origins of this work come from many sources, but a key element is the powerful trigger of fragments of visual memory. In the act of painting these are affirmed until they come to fit the original compositional design. He draws on a personal archive made up of snatches of reality, memories and evocations, but also appropriates pre-existing images that, through the painting process, become subjectively deformed, overturning their initial functions and meanings. The same thing can be seen in some of the work of the Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen, where they are used simply as a pretext for changing a certain posture or suggestion. The artist’s imagery is also made up of images that come from outside art history: these are derived from mass market magazines or from the Internet, where he also finds simple vernacular photographs. Whilst painters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could find “modern life” by painting in plein air or from direct observation of the beating heart of the city, there is nowadays a second and complementary type of daily life which passes through the unpredictable tangle of the web. Look, for example at the central figure in the painting Walking at home, caught in the typical pose of one taking a photo of themselves to publish on social networks. Here we can clearly see the short circuit the painter creates in relation to the original image: the calm and reassuring nature of the gesture is dematerialised by a formal and emotional pruning of the figure. As such, unpredictable atmospheres are created from seemingly straightforward transpositions, elaborating the poetics of the artist.Modern-day society is tangled up with an excess of information, stimuli and images - Gillo Dorfles spoke of this in Horror pleni2. A consequence of this is the need for some artists to reexamine or re-experience the present also in a more completely introspective dimension. This is exactly what Massimiliano Gioni sought to highlight in his Encyclopaedic Palace at the Venice Biennale with the inclusion of Andrè Breton’s emblematic death mask: the closed eyes of the poet lead us to an interior dimension which passes beyond and cancels out the transience of mere appearance. Gonella does not let himself be overpowered by the insistence on hyper-realism which visually saturates our society. If we wished to create a bold parallel (bearing in mind the artist’s background in Venice), we could perceive an intellectual affinity with Tintoretto. The antique teachings of the Venetian Mannerist can be seen in the use of rapid brush strokes, dense with an eloquent chromatism, and above all in the inventive freedom of the scenes, creating numerous levels of reading and ultimately twisting the normal sense of construction of the scene. As has already been noted, this tangling of images and chromatic surfaces seeks to transmit suggestions which the viewer can make their own and explore through their openness to a plurality of interpretations. Each pictorial micro-cosmos encloses within it contrasting emotions, such as anxiety, hope or uncertainty, and is a pretext for discussing the human condition. The painting Shelter shows an improvised refuge, perhaps the outcome of a sudden flight to seek out an anachronistic and romantic realm. This is a painting which, whilst nonetheless filled with doubts, seems to be a perfect response to No place left to hide- a distinctly dystopian work from 2012 which uses cold and disquieting tones to testify to the impossibility of finding earthly and emotional shelter. In Shelter we are plunged into a suspended and unreal atmosphere. This is accentuated through the technique used, which combines numerous painting approaches: there is a figurative element which leaves space for a large abstract field, worked with the rapid use of pallet knife, but there is also a white area created with a slash of paint which becomes a pause in the frenetic rhythm of the colour, thus creating a silent and reflective tone.Uncertainty and anxiety dwell in Gonella’s works, but there is also the vitality and audacity of figures projected into the future with vibrating chromatic touches. The essence of his painting is the staging of situations which, whilst they overturn reality in compositional terms, are faithful expressions of the composite and profound aspect of humanity in relation to a frenetic and constantly changing present.

1. Definition used by Giuseppe Gonella during an interview in his Berlin studio, August 2013.
2. Gillo Dorfles, Horror Pleni. La (in) civiltà del rumore, Rome, Castelvecchi, 2008

"Giuseppe Gonella. Involved" originally published in Giuseppe Gonella ‘Involved’ (Bonelli Arte, 2013) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Involved’, Galleria Giovanni Bonelli, Milan, IT. Copyright © 2013 Carlo Sala.


Carlo Sala is an art critic and curator working for various art magazines. As a member of Fondazione Fabbri’s Scientific Board he curates the modern and contemporary photography festival F4 / un’idea di Fotografia and the Francesco Fabri Contemporary Art Prize focused on emerging and International art. In 2010 he curated – together with Nico Stringa – the Venice Pavillion for the 12 International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennial. He collaborates with public exhibition venues and private galleries; he wrote essays for about thirty publications edited by among others Allemandi, Marsilio, Mimesis and Skira.

Painting for voyers

Daniele Capra 2013

Paintings are fundamentally two-dimensional artworks, historically determined by the need to bring representations of reality on a surface. Of course, the last fifty years have brought us extreme examples that have taken artworks to conceptually defy the traditionally allocated space, such as the works of Alberto Burri or Lucio Fontana. As is universally recognized, it is a painting’s height and width that determine the space allotted to the visual content of the artwork: that is to say, the canvass is a finite, regular surface, and what is not included within it does not contribute to the making of the artwork. The lenses of photographic devices can alter the visual angle, and thus the possibility of seeing with greater or lesser detail, but the visual angle of the human eye has its own inalterable characteristics.

For this reason the dimension of an artwork establishes a (bi)univocal relationship with the viewer: beyond the subjective assessment on the content of an artwork and it aesthetic value, the dimensions of what we are seeing are relevant in terms of painting, since the relationship between our visual angle and the artwork cannot be modified. Whilst an image – in terms of its status as a mental construct, or as an idea – does not necessarily require dimensions, the artwork must inevitably possess a physical dimension. This is because it is the result of a process whereby it is supposed to be observed by a person through their own eyes. This clearly affects one of its formal characteristics, that is, its composition: the logic governing the disposition of its different elements. Quite simply, some artworks are intended to be small, and others require a larger surface to interact with the viewer because they are intended to impress themselves upon a larger part of the retina. Height and width are also of fundamental importance, as they determine the visual strategy: with a vertical work we see the white space at the sides, while a horizontal one allows for margins above and below it. This formally inescapable modality is a static one: an artwork is determined from its very conception by the compositional choices of the artist, independently from its content and possible rethinking, since its surface is immutable and unique.

Giuseppe Gonella does not conform to such a process: he creates his works by painting on large rolls of canvass and then later cuts out the portions that constitute clusters of meaning thanks to their psychic energy, visual intensity and rhythm. The artist works by adding up and constituting compelling syntagms, to then start editing in a process which is similar to that of cinema editing, when different takes of a scene are put together. Gonella thus applies to canvass the technique which is defined in the dictionary as “the technical operation of selecting and combining longer or shorter segments of developed film according to different criteria of selection and sequencing” (Pietro Montani describing «film editing» in the Encyclopaedia of Cinema published in 2004, by Istituto Treccani). It basically consists of creating a different sequence of the visual flow and rearranging the elements that have followed one another on the surface, in an additive form, so as to create a structure. Gonnella chooses the frame, that is the dimensions of the canvass and its orientation, thus determining its content and as a consequence the elements which are to be outside the picture, to be excluded. In this way the structure, made up of a cluster of both figurative and aniconic elements acquires the desired compositional thickness, as well as rhythm and, inevitably, meaning. The artist’s approach is thus dynamic and non-academic, as it isn’t constructed in a linear, orderly manner, but rather through parataxis and accumulation. The smallest semantic units (a sign, a picture, an object) are juxtaposed with no pause between them, in an approach which uses aggregation and also has clear elements of chance. Its final cut, however, assures its formal cohesion, through a process of revision and rethinking. It is as if a piece of literature came from the sum of elements gathered by sampling from a dictionary. More than anything, it is as if the grammar that functionally supports each element of a sentence had been abolished and yet the sentences were perfectly understandable for the reader, who can only devote themselves to a careful work of scanning the artwork.

Gonella’s art is a pure form of painting, pouring out without design through the work carried out directly on the canvass. Nevermore so than here does the thought coincide with the execution and develop essentially in the course of the making, in the hours spent experimenting and working tentatively to then cut out and ponder on the aspects that don’t fit. The surface is covered by the continuous quivering of the elements that can be seen in realistic detail, in the primordial, gestural and dense brush stroke, in the aniconic plot. It is a whirlwind of details enveloping the viewer, further fuelled by the continuous agitation between figurative elements and aniconic parts. What emerges is a climactic executional vigour, and an imaginative tension which is at the same time erotic and a source of anxiety, for its thrilling magnetism, capable of making the viewer a voyeur unable to resist his own scopophilia. Pleased and aroused like one of the biblical old men watching and coveting Susan bathing.

‘Painting for vouyer’ originally published in Giuseppe Gonella ‘Involved’ (Bonelli Arte, 2013) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Involved’, Galleria Giovanni Bonelli, Milan, IT. Copyright © 2013 Daniele Capra.


Daniele Capra (born in 1976) is a Venice based independent curator and journalist.
He curated over seventy shows in Italy, France, Czech Republic, Croatia, Albania, Germany, Israel. He collaborated with institutions as Casa Cavazzini Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Udine, National Gallery of Arts of Tirana, Dena Foundation in Paris, Ca’ Pesaro International Museum of Modern Art of Venice, Fondazione Galleria Civica of Trento, City of Milan, Dada Museum in Haifa, Tina-B Contemporary Art Festival in Prague, Zoology and Comparative Anatomy Museum of Bolonia and Dolomiti Contemporanee. He worked as a curator of Onufri Prize at National Gallery of Tirana, Young European Artist Trieste Contemporanea Award. He wrote over three-hundred articles on magazine and newspaper. He is editor of Artribune, Venezie Post and Espresso Group newspapers.