2009 - Chiara Canali

"In conversation", a conversation between Chiara Canali and Enrico Lombardi, Ravenna 2009
A conversation between Chiara Canali and Enrico Lombardi

C.C. Dear Enrico, your life as an artist seems to be driven by an unreserved loyalty to the pictorial language, meant not as a representation medium, but as founding grammar of a knowledge based on a universe of ritual signs. The path to such awareness, both theoretical, intellectual, real and factual, has been trying and hard, as the amount of aphorisms and thoughts contained in your “Notebooks”, which have always been hand in hand with your work, prove it, as well as the several series of paintings which have been the subjects of your one-man shows. The choice, only apparently simple, of painting and of all the mediums involved, such as eye, hand, brush and colour, has always implied, and it is part of it by its own nature, of a meta-linguistic consideration on the meaning of painting and where the work of art can be placed on the national and international art scene which has aroused a debate, first on figurative instances and then on abstract ones, up to the ‘80s, ‘90s and onwards, when we have witnessed a so-called comeback of the “New Figuration”, in alternative to more non-pictorial aspects, still resisting in contemporary art (such as post, neo-conceptual and neo-manual.) As you wrote in the presentation of Document for 5 artists back in 1993, your work lies in between two opposite extremes: “the theoretical-operative apex of the scientist (cold and detached) that has recently grown stronger in reaction to the big wave of the Transavanguardia (so gutsy and expressive) and the endless abstract-figurative mediocrity which, immune from any history and any change, laps as a petrol wave the spaces of creativity, conquering larger and larger shady spaces” 1 .
You started as an abstract painter (as the first series of work from the ‘80s recalls) but, after having lengthily practised the art of painting, you have landed to a language of pure architectures within a motionless, closed-in, un-inhabited world, a still world void of the breath of time. For this double predisposition, abstract and spiritual on the one hand, and geometric and figural (and not figurative) on the other, along with the constant subversive strength of a language investigation, your research has been often misunderstood by critics and people who work in the art business, whereas it has been welcomed and fully comprehended by philosophers and writers such as Rocco Ronchi, Carlo Sini, or Claudio Spadoni as well as Alessandro Riva. Enrico Lombardi’s work nowadays, wrongly read as an anachronistic and primitive figurative representation, and lost in the messy melting pot of the Italian art scene of the end of the Century, stands out as autonomous and independent, heroic and brave, with no emulators or followers, embracing the weapons of the estrangement, the misunderstanding and the paradox.
Painting is for you, Enrico, “the conscious exercise of the visual relationship between men and world”, communication of the image, creation of an ex-novo world, knowledge that bears meaning... what else is painting for you?

E.L. I feel as if I’ve already said everything of what painting is for me in my several writings, among which you’ve taken the quotations contained in this conversation. Let me try, this time, to express myself differently. For me painting is the broken glass of childhood which cuts the hands of the disenchanted adult; the time when the footprint passes towards its immortality and we hesitate in front of the clearness of the absurd. It is a prayer whispered from edges and corners. It is the utopia and the atopy. It is the silence, the penitence, the renunciation, the prayer, the orgasm, the meditation, the darkness and the light of the mind, the catharsis of time, the happiness and the fatigue, arthritis, liturgical Eros, phatic space. Painting is the nail that scratches the blackboard of our memory. The only destiny of my gaze. It is a door left cracked open and from that crack the sweet and sour juice of our memory leaks. It is the rainbow of the hands. The only rainy day. The last loyal act in the final entropy of any language and any destiny. Painting is meaning and testimony. Absolute threshold.

C.C.  From what you are saying we can state that painting contains a system of values strictly connected to life experience. In this way we could consider painting as a sequence of “conventions”, as the ensemble of the heterogeneous practices which imply a complex relationship between life and the actualization of conventions. But many are the ways such conventions can be understood: the first one is that of the recognized and actualized conventions2, not as norms and rules habitually followed. Visual arts are in fact based on the presupposition that an objective vision of the world is possible and that painting represents bi-dimensionally what the tri-dimensional world is3. By means of an articulated and appropriate use of forms, figures and colors, of geometric techniques such as the perspective, the painter invents a satisfying, mimetic and realistic image of the world. The second one is that of conventions we believe they exist but are partially altered4. With the avant-gardes of the XX Century, painting can still be figurative but it is no longer interested in reproducing the “outside world” as much as in making other effects visible, for instance, the oneiric world of the artist as in De Chirico, or the different relationship between painting and language. Foucault sees in the art of Magritte, elements even more revolutionary than in the abstractionism of Klee or Kandinsky. Only apparently far away these three artists have in common, according to the philosopher, the fact that they have broken the hierarchical existing system in art between reality, representation and meaning. Magritte, in particular, has engaged himself in “meticulously, cruelly separating the graphic element from the plastic one and if they are to be found overlaying in the same painting, as a title and its image, it is provided that the enounced contested the explicit identity of the figure and the name we are ready to give it5.
Lastly there’s a third possibility which consists in the explicit refusal of the conventions. In painting the figure is no longer of interest. There is no longer a direct identification between the world as it appears and the pictorial forms. Therefore we reach the several declinations of abstract painting, from Malevič supremacism, to abstract expressionism, from minimal art to conceptual art, opening to the idea of a “painting for painting”. If we exclude the first category before mentioned (in fact as Federico Leoni says, “any considerations on Enrico Lombardi’s painting must move from the ascertainment that only accidentally, only apparently his painting is figurative”6), I believe your painting Enrico, lies in between the two last definitions: on the one hand we can recognize the need to evoke an architectonic landscape, which more than to the mimesis of the outside world, it refers to the principles of the perspective illusion, from Beato Angelico to Piero della Francesca, up to the plastic values of Carrà and Morandi, on the other hand any external rule and convention is denied to state that the only reality of the place represented is purely linguistic and can reach formal results which recall abstraction. Conventions, in this way, do not make a normative system to which one has to adapt strictly, but more or less general reference patterns artists can refer to accordingly. We can, therefore, state that your making art offers an enlightening and scientific look on reality. In this case, painting is science inasmuch it is a theory founded on mathematical proofs. By inverting the perspectives we could read in this definition of painting as “theory” almost a statement of  conceptual art.

E.L. If we are interested in looking at the superficial alchemy of my painting  (its “aesthetics), we could say that it seems a desperate attempt of synthesis of all the “conventions” you have listed, by
overcoming them with a single gesture which include them all and destroy them all in what they stand for: the poisoning and ambiguous fruit of a terrifying and paradoxical mixture of the solutions adopted  by abstraction, traditional figuration and conceptualism. My painting is substantially “abstract” in its composition; fundamentally “figurative” in its oneiric-mnemonic-nominal part and wholly “conceptual” in its philosophical and reflective vocation. Someone gives to my modus operandi in its actual context the quality of being new and original (if we consider that being “new” is probably the most qualifying paradigm of modern and contemporary art, then, this idea would make my work absolutely modern!). But I’ve always believed, as I’ve often written, that I am constantly a non modern painter, totally disinterested in the problematic about the “new”, the “original” and most of all  of the “modern”.  I think of painting as an original gesture for the undifferentiated things of the world and the language to emerge, to become visible. I believe, like most of the contemporary philosophy does, but not only, that men are frightened beings living in a place substantially foreign to them and in order to bear such a condition (“…horror, the horror” Captain Kurtz ends his sublime and miserable life with in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and in Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola) they only have the language with which to put in order, word-wise, that parallel world they live in.
Men have only language and are only language (even the body is, in spite of its own evidence!). My painting doesn’t want to say or represent anything, but testify only the original act of separation between world and word (or image), the threshold through which things appear in the language and set themselves in the world word-wise ordered. Its tension is due to the attempt to keep unmodified, as much as possible, the terrible echo of what was there before, of that beyond (of things and world) which language has torn them from (things) with a constitutive act of the human being as such. And it is this perturbation, this uneasiness (or great definitive quietness) that my images create in who carefully looks at them, feelings that are not born from the use of those tricky visual effects so dear to Escher, but born from the echo of what got lost of the truth of the world in its passage to the truth of the language. This is the “absolute threshold” I talk about, not only for my painting, but for all non-illustrative paintings. Therefore for me the act of painting isn’t “conventional” at all (both in the case that such a “convention” is accepted, refused or questioned), but the founding act of the visible, the threshold, the border or by citing a very famous painting by Courbet “l’origine du mond”. This is why my places belong more to ethics than aesthetics.

C.C. The paintings which are part of this show called The shadow time belong to two series very dear to you: the Orti conclusi (Hortus conclusus-Enclosed gardens), frontal images of silent gardens and  motionless fountains, soaked in the memory of Piero della Francesca and a sense of primordial origin, and the Stanze (Rooms), imaginary and geometric cities inspired by the Italian art of the XXI and XXII Century and modern geometric abstraction. If we had to sum up the ethical meaning of your work in macro categories I could certainly state that two are the main suggestions: firstly the theme of silence, repeated obsessively in the titles of some of your shows (In the city of silence, The silent cry, The places of silence) and which has been well studied and investigated by several critical extracts: “the silence of solitude, the silence of the last breath, or maybe not, just slightly under the sign of provisionality, of doubt” (Marco Goldin, Pitture, Electa, Milano 1996); “Silence dominates this condition certainly similar to that of the dream. Both, maybe by chance or because of a special miracle, give us back inaccessible memories, a different time without which diurnal life would be much more miserable and our houses infinitely more temporary” (Silvia Lagorio, Memorie (Memories), Meldola 2002).
Secondly, the theme of the shadow, from which the title of this show  has been taken, is another crucial theme in Lombardi’s poetics: the “shadow” meant both as a spatial and temporal category. In the VII book of the Republic by  Plato, Skia (Plato’s shadow) says something which sounds more or less like: “in his time you are not an artist if you don’t speak the language of the shadow”. From Plinius’ myth on the origin of philosophy and astronomy the idea that painting was born from the trace that includes the shadow seems to come from. In this genesis the painter comes almost in second place because the shadow does everything on its own in the process of making the world. Nevertheless, in art history, we witness a complete removal and deletion of shadows. One of the reasons could be of a metaphysical kind because shadows are disquieting images, dangerous ones, hide-outs or incomprehensible duplications of figures. But maybe the reason is a lot simpler: it is simply more difficult to turn shadows into images. Furthermore the effects of a shadow have a great impact both on the light and the geometry of the work of art. A shadow somewhere changes sensibly the amount of light reflected by a certain area. The painter must, therefore, carefully calculate how much darker a certain area in the painting has to be, in order for the relationship between the different lights to be balanced enough to suggest a natural chiaroscuro. On top of the difficulty of measuring light there’s a further difficulty, a geometric one: shadows allude to lights indicating the place of their origin. In the image the physical lines of the light must be projected so that the spatial balance between the source of light, the object making the shadow and the figure of the shadow on a screen or on the ground is re-established. In this way the problem of the shadow is also the problem of the perspective. Enrico Lombardi’s painting is to be found exactly in the attempt to overcome the limitations imposed by the transferred shadow, to create a magic of the shadow which recalls the purest forms of Masaccio’s painting. Light and shadow have no correspondences with reality but take different paths: buildings and architectures are often transparent to the shadows or vice-versa, some other times we can find shadows coming from no material bodies contained in the scene. Somehow, as for Masaccio in his painting San Pietro che guarisce con la sua ombra (Saint Peter who heals with his shadow), Lombardi here gives us shadows not required by the spatiality of the image. They are shadows reflecting magically, they are bi-dimensional traces projected onto buildings and architectures, crossing them and leaving them unaffected by the light or they slide over bodies giving us back the enigma of the vision. The development of the shadow in your work, Enrico, shows an obsession far well beyond the conventionality of the light, the geometry and the perspective, to become a play on probable and improbable shadows, a distortion which tricks the visual system of whom is looking. Maybe it is duty of the onlooker to try to see and perceive behind the shadows the concrete essence of the abstractedly and geometrically given  figures. Is this another attempt to outline a limit between world and word, a threshold between reality and language? Does the deepest meaning of The shadow time lie in this?

E.L. I believe it is absolutely useless to trace a threshold between reality and language, since our only reality is the language. Nevertheless, that improbable threshold, which no cultures have been able to find anywhere and maybe got lost in the abyss of time, have got to be somewhere, if from its crack, once in a while, the icy and anguished wind of the origin blows!? I like to think of my painting as made of the same substance of that lost threshold, and my images like ghosts or casts of that world from before erased by names. Certainly … the shadow, in my work, can hint to the darkness of this part while satisfying its plainest aesthetical duty, that of weaving its abstract composition onto the more figural one. The shadow is one of the main themes of my work and in each painting it has its own autonomous and independent growth from the plausible appearance of the figure. It is itself figure of something which contradicts the figure itself, calling it into question, making it ambiguous and elusive up to dissolve into the acid of the paradox. Maybe, the shadow in my work is the figurative expression of the paradox or the apparition of thin air. It satisfies however the hard work of demolishing any principle of reality and therefore the possibility itself of any realism. In my series Hortus conclusus (Enclosed gardens) it has become an invasive and devouring embroidery which sometimes makes the correct retina reconstruction of the image difficult. In the other series Rooms it is the geometric-abstract weave, implicit in any composition, that overlapping the construction of the place represented, makes it improbable. The world is for sure devoured by shadows which help, at the same time, to reveal it, to make it visible. “… who speaks of shadows / is telling the truth” Celan was foretelling in one of his great poems. You see, from Plato to Celan, up to Lombardi, the telling of the shadow is an unbroken story.

C.C. You talk in your answer of a “figurative expression of the paradox”. Rocco Ronchi back in 2003 had already spoken with extreme wittiness of this when he said that “the paradox brings back abruptly to the foreground the threshold that everything has to cross in order to become visible and be classified by speech”7. Paradox is fulfilled both in the composition of the work of art itself, where empty or otherwise overly-built places are in opposition to plain and geometric scans, denouncing the impossibility to represent space and the ambiguity of time; and in the chromatic choice of a color strongly anti-naturalistic, both sought-out and ambiguous, an ultraviolet, an ultra-red which look unreal, unnatural and illusory.
According to Gille Deleuze the paradox of meaning is essentially the infinite subdivision (past-future and never present) and the nomad distribution (as a repartition in an open, never closed space). In any case paradox travels in two directions at the same time, forbidding a plain and simple identification of the gaze.

E. L. I still don’t know why the destiny of my language has inexorably taken me to the paradox as the form through which I express myself. Maybe, right from the start there’s a psychological reason with roots in the remote perceptions of childhood and in something which happened back then and left an inescapable trace I can’t get away from and which constantly takes me back in its whirlpool. Maybe there is a deep existential reason, since the category to which the sinister light all human existence seems to be enlightened by, is that of the absurd. Maybe I’m simply in love with the intellectual risk of producing images which have no other reason than that of being void of any and that, implicitly subvert any possible, easy understanding. Maybe it’s because I hate all pre-packaged categories, the thoughts already thought by someone else, the soft and suffocating cages of stereotyped words, common places, the rhetoric of imposed forms, in short all the stage technique of the power through language. Maybe paradox is the only possible form of expression of free thinking. Maybe it’s because I feel in paradox the same passage Heidegger felt in abandonment: that possibility to perceive something of the world without men, of the world beyond language, as space of the necessity and the undifferentiated. Maybe because paradox enables me to turn everything up-side-down, throwing it in a blinding problematic light. All of this and more. But, apart from that, it is simply because I think, I feel and live myself as a paradox. An individual and an artist spread over a time deeply paradoxical and incomprehensible. Maybe the human-being is a paradox, life itself is, time as we think of it, for sure my colors are, my compositions and constructions are as well as my words and my unhappy relationship with the art world . Everything is a paradox.

C.C. Your concept denotes a double paradox, visual and temporal which interests an investigation on images and language. The visual paradox is the apparition: an image appears  interrupting the familiar path of the representation of things. But now Enrico, I’d like to speak more of the time paradox which influences your work and could be contained in the concept of symptom so stigmatized by Didi-Huberman8. The paradox of time is anachronism: a symptom never comes at the right time, it always comes taking you off guard. What the symptom-time interrupts is the flow of chronological history but somehow it ends by giving strength to what it counteracts, becoming therefore a sort of history subconscious. Beato Angelico himself, who is a constant reference in your painting was anachronistic if compared to his immediate contemporaries, to the painters of his time.
In Beato Angelico’s work we often see the weaving of three times: the frame in trompe-l’oeil which recalls a “modern” camouflage; the function of the color which presupposes the notion of the figure and at last the final unlikeness of the painted panel. Likewise, Enrico, we feel in your work an out-of-time likeness between the Renaissance frescoes and the abstract colored surfaces by Malevič and Rothko. The painting becomes an editing of heterogeneous times which form anachronisms. I believe that the matrix of what you say about time and history can be compared to the dynamics and complexity of the anachronistic editing.

E.L. The word “anachronism” so much mistreated in the last decades, so unfairly and wrongly abused to stigmatize the particular attitude of some painters to look at the past as the only possible way to gain back values and techniques not unavailable in Modernity, does not involve me in the least. I find it, used like this, banal and emptied of its true content. I think of my work as the most radical expression of being contemporary, far from the schemes imposed by ideologies and the market: it is the elaboration of a ruled and aware language which capsize all categories and use them all, with deep roots wrapped around what has been defined as “tradition”. A great painting must, as I’ve already said elsewhere, have the courage of being always in-actual and within itself must dig a niche perfectly anachronistic as a way out from a time, violently imposed and measured by others. If this is what you mean, then yes, my painting is absolutely in-actual, timeless and anachronistic. In the light of its desperate fate of being misinterpreted and misunderstood, my painting is revolutionary and subversive, since it has grown within itself, far from all known aesthetical categories and all accepted and coded languages in the art system and the critique. It is a “silent cry” at the service of vocation, grace and truth. A hiss of meaning that some precious ears have been able to capture in spite of the noise which swallows us and get us lost. Beato Angelico, Morandi, Piero Della Francesca, Rothko, Sassetta, Carrà, Malevic, Donghi, Casorati, Giotto, Duccio … are outside any written history … they are in my every gesture. They are the only contemporaries I know. Without them my solitude would be unbearable.

Translation by Angela Lombardi