While thinking light-heartedly of Cole Porter’s song with its witty lyrics of containment, we might imagine that the art produced by Velasco Vitali is about the questioning of liberty and space, expressed by the free flow of self-governance. It is probably why we find the counterintuitive painting and sculpture motifs of the city, buildings extra muros and urban townscapes, as well as wandering canines are among the most frequently addressed subject matter in his art over the last twenty years. By analogy to the human the city mongrel is, perhaps—when left to its own devices—the ultimate flaneur par excellence, free to roam around and sniff out its own olfactory world until capturedand impounded. But while this may be a rather tangential insight with which to beginan essay on the extensive and artistically diverse practices of Velasco Vitali, it bringsto mind the fact that it is not only the human population that masters and inhabits andadapts to the modern environment of the urban space. Also it reminds the attentiveviewer that the incremental forces of nature—given an opportunity—easily recolonize thecity spaces and ground themselves in the labyrinthine crevices and secretive corners of the common polis. In Vitali’s present exhibition the installation incorporates many of these urban-into-landscape concerns. It is a journey through the extended gallery space intentionally constructed by the artist as an imagined and projected labyrinth, and poses an array of different questions and emotive reflections to the passage of the viewer. Ariadne’s thread is signified by the paintings, sculptures, and drawings the viewer encounters along the way. This said the literature related to the labyrinth as psychical metaphor is copious in scope, and as viewers we are immediately reminded of Jorge Luis Borges and his “There is no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.” In consequence the labyrinth or maze stands in not only as a material and philosophical reality within the exhibition, but is also a psychological referent concerning the development of a personal aesthetic identity. Yet in putting these greater philosophical and psychological considerations aside for the moment, we also find that the aesthetic impulses of Velasco Vitali have always in some way been engaged with urban roots and archaic origins (unearthing), and with the pictorial (revealing) role that various cities and poleis have played within the development of his own Italian culture and in the greater world beyond. This is the reason that as you enter along the narrow passageway into the exhibition the first image you see is a small canal section drawing of Venice called Velasco-Jacopo de’ Barbari, Veduta di Venezia, created by Vitali after the Venetian Renaissance painter and renowned printmaker. Venice stands in this instance for the historical and universal city par excellence, since that city like many others exists as both a living presence and as a palimpsest, a place of current enactments and a complex site of residual traces. The emotive power of today’s urban cities (‘ghost’ cities apart) is their constant state of re-inscription, transient aspects that are asserted before being displaced and overwritten. Cities always possess simultaneous realities, architectural confinement and stricture, and at the same time they are inured with a hidden sense of liberal or indifferent anonymity. Historical cities as distinct from modern cities are often labyrinthine places of atmospheric tension and immersion, a blend of Apollonian order and an opposing undercurrent of Dionysian abandonment. And it is a feeling for the binary sense of spatial claustrophobia and an aspiring emotional freedom that are the dominant sensory characteristics presented by Vitali’s art expressed and installed in this exhibition. Each room in the exhibition represents a chamber of differentiated affective stages, visualised examples of transitory moments of passing pictorial consciousness. Yet like the famed mythological labyrinth of the Cretan Minotaur, we (as Theseus) journey towards the centre or questing point only to realize that we have to return travelling back by the same route whence we came. We must retrace our steps and re-visualize again the already seen but no longer such as when we first encountered it. Therefore not surprisingly the labyrinth has a complex symbolic aspect that is commonly found in the uncertain realm of our dreams. As we pass through our hypnagogic and hypnopompic slumbers we enter and return from labyrinth of our unconscious, an alternative reality to consciousness and what we assume to be the supposed realities of the waking world. The first room of the exhibition initiates matters and makes the thematic trajectory of visual enquiry self-evident. But what one immediately realizes is that Vitali evokes two aspects at the same time, the formal processes of actual making are fused directly with the intended referents to subject matter that become the subsequent title or meaning expressed by the work. For example in the small paintings Inizio (Beginning, 2015) and Labirinto (Labyrinth, 2015), the distinction is made clear by the former whose brushwork is sketchy with thinly applied paint, whereas the facture is saturated wet in wet and intensified in the latter painting. Both images hover between abstraction and figuration, and the gestured brush marks themselves are used to further the intended labyrinthine references, “I am a figurative painter who loathes the adjective and thinks that painting is capable of expressing a sentiment more closely linked to dreams.” And yet at the same time the vivid use of colour in these paintings reveals that his labyrinth is going to be no dark chamber or Plato’s cave, and it is the contrariness of the artist’s approach that challenges the viewer’s presuppositions of what they usually imagine to be the reality of a maze-like complex. A purposeful ambiguity is further heightened in the other small painting examples in the room, called Reti (Networks, 2015) and Parking (2015), where again the paintings emphasise the processes of their material making, but in this instance a greater stress is placed on the formal dialectical relationship between frame and image. The dislocated sense of the square images to the larger rectangular frame that surrounds them, intimates the displaced state of mind as we might imagine projected thoughts in a labyrinthine setting. The image contents themselves seem to deny an immediate sense of comprehension and block our passage into greater spatial depth. The painting Reti has palpable and pronounced fatty red jail bar verticals, and Parking has a figurative-abstract green centre field of loosely imagined trees appearing above a line of parked cars. The dog sculpture called Arco (Arch, 2010) is precariously perched on the integrated stool as its socle, on which we see a mongrel hound that we are familiar with from earlier Vitali canine incarnations. But again the configuration and title Arco (Arch) reflects the idea of an intended interactivity between form and function, since its location in the first cell of the installation hints at a portal or point of entry that is classically associated with the arch as an architectural form. And its fabrication using large gauge iron wiring, while it also visually suggests the idea of skinned or venous anatomy, brings the sculpture into direct relation with the work entitled Arterie (Artery), a large size ink on paper drawing of a cityscape. While the city to body analogy is obvious, superimposed across the surface of Arterie are the same large gauge iron wires placed in multi-directional compositional groupings. In a witty sense these clutches of straightened wires are reminiscent of handfuls of wire spaghetti, but they also reveal the frequently allusive boundary between wall work and sculpture (in this particular instance an accumulated relief) that runs through much of Vitali’s artistic practice. And this notion of a greater allusion also characterises the square painting entitled Controparti (Counterparts) and the landscape format Controluci (Backlighting, 2015), both present informal references to the raised or aerial cityscape views for which the artist is well known.
But whereas in the first painting the execution is flat and matt in terms of its soft biscuit colour with stabbed brush marks of white paint application, the painting Controluci has a layered and succulent and highly textured use of paint application and brushstrokes.
The final inclusion in the first room is a small yet thickly painted vertical that the artist has called simply Smoke (2015), and may well be another intended witty trope or inference of contextual obfuscation. Since the Italian derived and commonly used word for these generic opaque effects in painting is called sfumato (from the verb ‘sfumare’) which means ‘to tone down’, or literally ‘to evaporate like smoke’. If the first room sets the direction a narrow passage leads into the next chamber of the exhibition. And as you enter you immediately confront the luminous metal-enamelled table sculpture called Acqua (Water). Emerging from and apparently resting on the surface of the water, reminiscent as it were of some post-deluge event, are numerous dogs dispersed in various animal postures. Vitali’s ability to capture the different expressive dispositions and body language of these animals is something quite remarkable. The canines are sitting or languidly resting and sleeping, with each small mongrel canine having a closely observed character pose uniquely its own. The fact that it is presented in a horizontal table format and not as a wall work relief only heightens the sense of immediate presence by stressing the viewer’s elevated aerial viewpoint looking down onto the luminous surface. Yet we know that packs of dogs present a strange mixture of personal anxiety and benign presence in the mind of Velasco Vitali, since he previously described an experience of packs of wild dogs that are known to roam across parts of Sicily where he has a second house and studio. Dogs while often sentinels can of course just as quickly turn into aggressive guardians, and placed as here within a labyrinth they remind the viewer perhaps of prescient underworld, guarded famously by the triple headed ‘hellhound’ or portal ‘watchdog’ called Cerberus. This said dogs can also represent states of faithfulness and are often attendant upon human suffering and distress, and remind the present writer of Piero di Cosimo’s delightful mythological subject ‘The Death of Procris, A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph’ (c. 1495), a familiar work in the National Gallery in London.19 This di Cosimo painting by the renowned and somewhat eccentric Italian Renaissance artist also places dogs in an immediate proximity to watery landscape, with a seated animal shown in loyal attendance upon a mythical Ovidian narrative. This second room also contains eight smaller drawing reliefs called Tensioni (Tensions, 2015) that carry forward the already mentioned sense of pictorial anxiety previously inferred by the artist. These varied cityscape and landscape settings have extended and soldered wire constructions superimposed on the different images executed in ink, pencil, ballpoint drawing or watercolour. In a certain sense the constructions form a compositional dialectic, that is to say they augment and/or contest that which is initially depicted in the various drawings. They augment in the sense that they reaffirm the three-dimensionality visually implied by the two-dimensional drawing, and at the same time re-emphasise the forms and shapes composed as to the cityscape viewpoints that have been drawn by the artist. This is particularly evident in the colour complementary wire constructions in Tensioni, 1,3,4 and in Tensioni 6. Yet contrariwise in the informal townscape-to-landscapes the sculptural relief elements often contest the informal poetics and present a challenge or counterpoint to their subject matter. For example the abstract-figurative Tensioni 2, we find a particular assertive interplay of line, geometry, and screened masking. While in Tensioni 5, the soldered matrix has an expressive yet contrary tension that challenges the ominous and dark forest setting depicted beyond. In the watercolour Tensioni 8, a hound dog is shown simply stretching its limbs, while the superimposed wire box-like construction attests to the expressed and contained tensions that are brought about by the simple act of an animal stretching. These titled Tensioni as the word implies act as tentative pictorial harbingers of larger themes in works that are be developed further in the rooms that follow. The large grey and highly textured painting that complements the table sculpture, centrally located in the room immediately in front of it, shares the same formal rectangular construction and is entitled M3 (Velasca).
It also uses the geometry of a loosely sketched surface grid—vertical and horizontal striations applied while wet perhaps with the ferrule or the handle end of the brush—that engages rather wittily with modernist presumptions of the grid, and perhaps also an allusion to the painter’s traditional use of the velo as it was once commonly known. The painting makes specific reference to Torre Velasca in central Milan near the Duomo, a Milanese tower-like structure that was built in the 1950s. It was conceived along the lines of local Medieval Lombard fortress architecture, an allusion made evident in pictorializing use of an allusion to overhanging machicolation. For Velasco Vitali it personally symbolises—as he has amusingly observed in a conversation with the current author—through gendered syntax ‘my feminine side’. But far more significantly is that it carries forward the concerns that this artist has developed about his creativity and pictorial invention in the urban space, “I therefore felt the need to arrive at the point where the city I was observing became something more for me. At the end of this process I would like to be able to invent them.” This statement articulates Vitali’s ideas concerning what he calls his personal vision of cities, “The deconstructing of some of these visions came about so successfully as to give birth to what look like invented places, and this is an aspect I like very much, when reality, by itself, arrives at the threshold of dreams.” Hence the cityscape subject matter in his paintings is increasingly about a fusion of reality and personal visions, a threshold reality that is imaginatively redistilled in the conscious mind.
In the third and fourth rooms we pass on to another aspect of the artist’s psyche, and the overall installation focuses on intensely expressive paintings and various forms of verdant expression. In room three the emphasis reveals a strong move again towards issues of paint facture and associative if sometimes ambiguous conceptual relationships. In a midsize painting Asparagus (2015), composed of two joined panels, the emphasis is placed on the abstracted surface where the heavy oil to pigment material densities are stressed.
There is a sense of optical wetness in which we see child’s toy figures as surfers skating the surface of what is a painted wall work. Yet in another, perhaps, even accidental way, the surface of this painting has strange visual echoes of the water surface of the dog table relief Acqua in the previous room. At the same time the colour tones of this painting further the general aqueous feel of the painting, which nonetheless stands in apparent contradistinction to the artist’s chosen title—save perhaps for its organic simile and use of colour. But this painting as in Skate-the-Pink (2015), which also includes the surfer or skateboarder figures, plays also with the elastic boundaries of painting and drawing, if only in respect of the materially rivulet-like skate tracks that run across the surface of both paintings. This has the visual effect of the imaginative mark making reminiscent of fingers running across the surface of the painting and creates a matrix of facture while echoing the gestural linearity of a drawing. In fact the all over effect of the wandering polysemous lines is somewhat reminiscent to the present author of earlier Brice Marden paintings, works that also play visually with the interface between painting surfaces and drawing. Yet there is a fatty paint and palpable succulence to the Vitali surfaces, and this clearly distinguishes it from the dry and flat imagery of the American master. In both paintings, however, there is the suggestion and Vitali’s use of ambiguous viewpoints suggesting an aerial bird’s eye viewpoint or optical mapping. The latter is self-evident in what we might initially consider to be an abstract smaller painting called Greenday (2015), where the surfer-skater figures as seen directly from above. Thickly applied the paint picks up on the previously alluded to material densities, but added to this there is a certain fluvial aspect to many of these paintings, and Greenday will again find material and subsequent echoes in a painting such as Fluxus (Fluid, 2015) in the room that follows. In fact wider fluvial aspects (magma perhaps) are also intimated in painting called Volcano (2015), a painting that depicts an allusion to a labyrinthine structure placed with in grey ashen (and presumably) post-eruption landscape. However, the larger works in this room largely changes the emotional tone of the space. For example the large two meter vertical Picnic (2015) is a development of the small painting called Parking, showing the same treeline and red outline of parked cars in the lower foreground space. In Bosco (Wood, 2015), a glazed pen and ink drawing we find our familiar friends the canines, an integrated matrice within a dense and seemingly impenetrable woodland setting. Composed with a severely compressed density of image and with spatially overlapping forms it intentionally denies depth, it is somewhat reminiscent of the qualities and juxtaposed scale variations and vertically stacked figure proximities found earlier in late Medieval and Early Renaissance Italian traditions of painting and manuscript composition. The labyrinth or maze and themes of entrapment returns in the painting Trappola (Snare, 2015), where this paradoxically bright and translucent painting also depicts spindle-like woodland trees overlaid with delicately painted netting. The snare shown in the image is not unlike the so-called mist nets commonly used to snare birds in Lombardy, something that the artist Vitali is no doubt well aware of in his native environment. In room four the use of colour is heightened and extended, becoming less a labyrinth and more a personal hortus conclusus, with mid-size and large oil paintings entitled My Garden (2015) and Home (2015). The former while bordering on abstraction might be called a labyrinth landscape of sorts, since a sketchy lion or cat is represented in the left side of the landscape and pseudo-spectral black allusive figure forms appear to negotiate their way through an imaginary and compacted environment. The painting Home is an effervescent and effusive celebration where a yellow copse or effusive shrub forms its highly expressive and centralised motif. In composition terms though large in scale it has some of the image to frame issues (in this case image to canvas size) we first experienced in the smaller scale paintings such as Reti and Parking in the initial room. A cross reference that is further extended by the pen and ink, and biro drawing, with iron wire relief, called Cani Blu (Blue Dogs, 2014). A drawing reiterating similar cityscape motifs and the now familiar dog imagery already discussed. In entering the last room of the exhibition the viewer is made aware fully of the counterpoint or recitative aspects that we have witnessed evolving throughout the installation.
Velasco Vitali has lucidly expressed how he sees his practice and approach to the presentation of his art “…Every object is designed for this purpose, to generate surprise, contradiction, questions, an approach to the work and, in reality, to an oneiric dimension. For me too, it is becoming a circular process, one that forces me to go back and come to terms with my roots and reconciles at the same time with my dreams by offering a space of conquest for the next ones...” This statement is the clue and insight made fully clear in the final room of installation, as we confront the large labyrinth painting called In the Beginning (2015) that immediately references the first room paintings called Inizio (Beginning) and Labirinto in colour, form, and composition. And as both viewer and artist we have shared in the presentational journey together made clear in Noi Due (We Two, 2014), a cityscape work that is reminiscent of his M9 (2008) and its related series, suggesting that the building depicted is most likely yet another Milan derived motif. Yet the artist’s wider concern with issues and questions of circularity are often accused as being a form of theatricality, “the aspect of staging my works is very important,” but this should not be misunderstood. The metaphor of dreams (already alluded to) is the clue in the daily round of circularity that is of sleep and consciousness, for the oneiric journey is never quite the same, just as the contents of a dream cannot ever be exactly repeated. It may well also be why the circular ‘tondo’ with a female head, and called Butterfliesflowers concludes the installation by being placed in the last room, a contemporary Atropos with her scissors affixed and ready to cut away the thread of the life journey we have travelled. For circularity as here intended while it has an undoubted sense of repetition, is as the philosopher Kierkegaard long ago intimated “…repetition so-called is recollected forwards…” and not a simple recollection as a mere backwards reconstruction of the past. A fascination with circularity is not only Classical, it is particularly Italian in other respects at the same time, and has long been part of the national psyche of Italy. Whether we are speaking of the repeated historical cycles of historian and thinker Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), or the ‘circularity’ propounded by Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), the anti-fascist philosopher who revivified the thought of Vico in the modern age, and asserted the spiritual necessity the aesthetic ideas of life and circularity. The theme could hardly be more Italian and Velasco Vitali makes it self-evident in this installation, since as you return through the exhibition you see yet again the works and thoughts re-presented anew by the artist. The works will not have changed, but hopefully you own reaction and sensibility in seeing them again will have evolved as a result of your perambulated passage through the gallery made labyrinth.