Rocco Ronchi, La pittura di Enrico Lombardi - tre aggettivi, in Le ultime lacrime
di Bisanzio, exhibition catalogue, Forlì 2003
Lombardi’s painting is unclassifiable. His works—obsessive and ritualistic—attract the gaze of critics just enough to give them the bitter experience of finding themselves unable to make a judgment. It is hard to imagine a painting more lonely than this: entirely given over to the recounting, to the creation of a common place, almost “pedagogical” in its intentions and, at the same time, so radically intransitive, so gloomily conscious of its nature as a “dead letter,” destined to traverse time like the ruin of a world that has never been. In fact there are two ways of being unclassifiable. The first, and simplest, consists in defying the given categories, by occupying, for example, the hard-to-define boundary that separates figure from abstraction, narration from concept, the visible from the invisible. It is a minor, extremely ironic way of being unclassifiable, that mocks the expectations of the observer, disappointing them and turning them on their head. In this case, however, the categories of established knowledge are still firmly presupposed, otherwise the game of turning things upside down would not even be noticed. Here the escare is only apparent. One flirts with critical knowledge and its habitual taxonomies, but one certainly does not risk isolation or rejection given that it is precisely operations of this kind that permitthe theory of art to check its own elasticity and its own capacity for comprehension. The second way of being unclassifiable is far more complex and not at all ironic. And this is Lombardi’s way. To explain it we can refer to the well-known dichotomy between normal science and revolutionary sciente discussed by the epistemologist Thomas Kuhn in several famous essays. In fact Lombardi’s painting is not simply an anomalous phenomenon that requires an adjustment of the habitual schemes of thinking about art, their refinement and improvement. Lombardi’s painting is a critical phenomenon. That is to say it requires, in keeping with the etymological root of this word, a krisis, a decision that affects the “paradigm” itself, i.e. that set of non-thematic beliefs which are taken for granted and form the backdrop to any “normal” interpretation. So if his painting is unclassifiable it is precisely because it brings into question the presuppositions of classification, to the point of undermining them. The problem with Lombardi’s work is no longer, therefore, whether it is “figure” or “abstraction,” “tradition” or “experimentation,”etc., but asking: what is figure, what is abstraction, what is tradition, what is innovation…? What sense do these contrasts have, in the end? In short the ball is back in the court of thought, which now finds itself faced with a choice. Either it accepts the challenge and tackles the questions raised by this paradigmatic painting, or it steps back, contenting itself with an equivocal assimilation of this experience to something that only resembles it. It is not possible to imagine a more uncomfor table situation for a contemporary artist. Art criticism and, through it, aesthetic theory are in fact so accustomed to laying down the law for modern artistic creation (the critic as the true artist…) that they are caught completely off balance by a kind of painting that thinks and, above all, makes you think in a different way from how one is “supposed” to think.
In Lombardi’s painting paradox has the function of awakening the gaze from its dogmatic slumber. Hypnotized by things, trained in the school of the word, the gaze in fact easily falls prey to idolatry. This consists in believing in the reality of the world just as the order of discourse presents it. In believing that the world is made up of things that the word names, the scientist classifies and the painter paints. That the principle of identity reigns supreme. Paradox on the other hand brings brutally back into the foreground the threshold that everything, in order to appear and to be classified by discourse, has had to cross. The outside of the landscape,for example, in order to become what it is, an exterior, has had to demarcate itself from the inside, which, in its turn, has become what it is, an interior, through its divergence from that other which it is not and which can be guessed at on the other side of the wall… Hence we have to suppose as the common origin of this dual becoming (becoming exterior/becoming interior) a moment of supreme indecision, in which the two terms that are separated in becoming are paradoxically held together: a neutral threshold, neither interior nor exterior, neither inside nor outside, an abstract place of pure passage, that does not pass, characterized by a “stasis” that is not rest but pre-explosive imminence. Thus there are two ways of representing the world. The first, and simplest, that of false realism, consists in arriving when the game is over, in assuming things as they are constituted by and in discourse, and in replicating them, in the absurd hope that this duplicate of the word can add some kind of emotional value to reality. It matters little if one indulges in surrealistic montages, the world goes on being represented only as it has become. The second, far more difficult but infinitely more fascinating way, consisté in trying to restore things to their margin of fluctuation, in showing in the meanings laid down and codified by the order of discourse the past that these, to come into existence, never cease to leave behind them: the exterior of the interior, the outside of the inside, the imbalance of symmetry. The world is now represented not as it has become, but on the threshold of its becoming. Thus a cold shiver runs through the representation like the one that you experience when, coming across a reflective surface by chance, you do not immediately recognize yourself in the image you see in it: disquieting duplication of the Self in which the Self, for the duration of an instant, suddenly comes back as Other, an ambiguous reflection which shows just how precarious was the identity assured by the order of discourse.
There is nothing original about the procedure by which Lombardi reminds us of this abstract threshold in the figure. If the word “contemporaneity” has any meaning in painting, it has it only in so far as it refers to the persistence of a tension that has animated the work of the painter from Fayyum to Fra Angelico, from Lascaux to Malevich. Contemporaneity signifies eternal return of the same. The same is this desubstantialized threshold which, in spite of any presumed evolutionary or involutionary history of art, is repeated in a different way in its infinite expressions. In an exemplary essay, Georges Didi-Huberman has shown this in relation to the Annunciations of the 15th century. Mutatis mutandis, the problem that a devout Christian painter had to face is the same as the one tackled by the painting of the secular Lombardi. In the case of the 15th-century painter, it was a question of recollecting the paradox of an unrepresentable eternity that at a literally “inconceivable” point penetrates the unsullied flesh of the Mother and takes on a form. One of the most frequent solutions was the one that we find practiced systematically by Lombardi and that only the total ignorance of the art critic could classify as the painting of impossibile or, worse still, “fantastic” works of architecture. But the perspective that opens onto a bolted door in Domenico Veneziano’s Annunciation, the one that in Piero, at the end of a vertiginous colonnade, converges on a wall of veined marble, all the ambiguities of a space of which, in one of Ghirlandaio’s Annunciations, it is not possible to tell whether it is internal or external, and the centered columns that in Fra Angelico separate and connect the Angel and Mary are not amusing paradoxes of perception in the manner of Escher. They are exercises of memory whose object is an event that has no place in the order of discourse. It has no place there because it lays its foundations, keeping one step back. As if the unrepresentable threshold which, remaining intact, is crossed once and for all by the word of the archangel could only be shown from perverted thresholds, from absurd windows and from doors that, on the inside, open onto what should, according to common sense, be outside. Of that abstract threshold, these empirical thresholds, worked by dissimilarity, are not the representation, but the trace and the simulacrum. Of course for Lombardi it is not a question of the mystery of the Incarnation. His cultural universe is a different one, even if, at times, we are tempted to interpret those cypresses and those houses as sorrowful icons of the absence, in our “time of suffering,” of the Angel and the Mother. However, difference does not jeopardize repetition; on the contrari it verifies it. It is still the abstract threshold, eternally virgin because it cannot be grasped by concept and, nevertheless, fertile with all possible visibility—everything comes in fact from Her— that obsesses Lombardi’s painting, that explains its origin, its monotony, its cruel renunciations.