Thou Shalt Not Be Found Out
Denis Diderot’s “Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient” (Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, 1749) is a classic among writings on aesthetics. It is a fundamental reference work for considerations about twentieth-century painting, and indeed many copies tend to be rather creased and dog-eared.
What makes it so important is that it legitimizes negative approaches, from a “monstre” point of view (even when the term is used in the sense of “extraordinary”). Quite apart from Diderot’s intentions – though possibly not entirely, considering how he starts his essay – having to use the supposedly “imperfect” subject as our point of reference or view means we can approach the subject with a minimum of understanding. It means we can reappraise some positions about the object – which in this case is of course painting. I repeated all this to myself before starting to write about the artistic experience of Paolo Parisi, an artist who has been painting with great resolve for about fifteen years.
We well know how the use of materials has little relevance in the general context of modern and contemporary art. And yet every time the word “painting” is written or pronounced, we perceive an undeniable sense of indeterminacy, as though it were by definition a “monstre” word. My personal sense of vulnerability and inadequacy was brought on, however, by reading Gerhard Richter’s writings and interviews in the Italian edition of The Daily Practice of Painting (2003). A statement he made on 18 May 1985may help clarify these opening words: “When I make an abstract painting (but the problem is much the same in other cases) I never know in advance what it will look like while I am working on it, what I want to obtain and what I will do to obtain this. So painting is a blind, almost desperate effort, like that of an abandoned, vulnerable person in a baffling environment. A person with all the tools, the materials, and the capabilities – a person who feels the pressing need to create something useful – though not a house or a chair – in the vague hope of finding an appropriate and professional method, getting something effective and meaningful out of it. So I am as blind as nature, which does what it can, depending on the conditions that help or hinder it. From this point of view, anything is possible in my paintings. Any form added intentionally will change the painting, but it will not be “wrong”. All is well then, so why do I sometimes spend a whole week adding things? What is it that I do in accordance with my own will? What picture and what of? ”As one of the greatest practitioners, Richter gave us numerous and exceedingly shrewd replies on the meaning of painting even when asking questions.
I, for my part, have found my own good justification for using Diderot’s Letter when writing about Paolo Parisi. To satisfy my own con-science I have been through Diderot’s essay again. And, almost as though it were a propitiatory rite, I tackled the work in the original, as if the French and the practical “collection folio” from Gallimard could once again rekindle the mystery and fascination. Diderot adds a verse from Virgil as an epigraph to his letter:“possunt, nec posse videntur”. My knowledge of Latin is rather rusty but something in the quotation did not sound quite right. So I took a Fondazione Valla edition of the Aeneid and slavishly perused: “possunt, quia posse videntur.” “They can because they think they can” or, to maintain the allusion that is certainly implicit in the verb “videor”,“they can because they appear, seem – are seen – to be able to”.
How come the handy Gallimard edition included a mistaken reading of Virgil’s verse? Or was it Diderot himself who replaced the causal con-junction “quia”(because) with a negative one – “nec”(neither, not even, but not …)? So I looked up the Italian edition to see where the imperfection came from. This edition faithfully quoted the first but with the addition of a nice little note which explained that Diderot had almost certainly trans-formed “quia” into “nec” precisely so that he could be understood by the blind: “they can, even though they appear not to be able to”.
My short lived Spitzer-style philological adventure was over. Perhaps it was just the hidden fruit of previous readings, the echoes of other works on aesthetics concerning the Letter, or simply what happens when we venture off into a language that is not our own (or into the original …) and we appear to see with other eyes. And yet it is fascinating to think of Diderot as a double dreamt about by Jorge Luis Borges. A writer who was arrested in 1749 precisely because of his Letter on the Blind(even though he took care to publish it anonymously) and who had possibly taken the trouble to rewrite the Aeneid for “those who can see”. “They can because they appear to be able to”. “They can but do not appear to be able to. ”The discrepancy between the two statements, which the writer invites us to examine, looks very much like a blind effort, but full of potential developments – and indeed one of them perfectly “reveals” the artistic career of Paolo Parisi.
One of Parisi’s first outstanding series of painting works consisted of maps. Maps of the Peloponnese and then of Italian territories, which the artist traced out with his fingers in clay on canvas or, in 2000 (Palazzo Fichera, Catania), on the walls of an entire room. The artist’s hand – and obviously his fingers too – romantically played a role that, even if not essential, was certainly evident in twentieth-century art. One need only think of Picasso, and even of Kandinsky’s handprints (1926) now in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or of Marcel Duchamp, the “finest blacksmith” of contemporary art.
In the 1960s came works such as Identity Painting(1968) by Gina Pane, whose fingerprints form an unrecognizable though not false (in other words, legally identical) self-portrait, and “Uovo con impronta” (Egg with Print) (1960) by Piero Manzoni, with his left and right thumbprints on hard-boiled eggs. It was Piero Manzoni, who can be considered as a model especially for some of Parisi’s more recent works, who at the time wrote that he could not understand those artists who were at pains to fill up the canvas, smothering it with shapes and colors rather than considering the surface of the painting as a container to be emptied in order to explore its open significance.
As for the maps, here too we range from the analytical and temporal rarefaction of On Kawara to Alighiero Boetti’s tapestries and Gilbert &George’s street signs, right through to Franz Ackermann. A whole multitude of papers, atlases, signs and symbols that appear as a troubled reconstruction of the symbolic and cultural networks of our urban landscape.
Parisi’s geographical maps, however, are concerned with an idea and a possible representation of a place or, in more general terms, of a landscape. Going back to Manzoni’s statements, the artist does away with the indicatory meaning of the map and, using his fingers, he explores a particular region or territory. In the Catania installation, “Come raggiungere la vetta (da un interno)” / [How to Reach the Top (From an Interior)] – created with oil painting in place of clay for the Lenbachhaus exhibition – the artist drew a geographical map of the area around Etna on the walls of the gallery. A view of the volcano actually looms up outside the gallery windows, and the Sicilian landscape and environs of the city are dominated by its presence. Parisi has also shifted the balustrade of the balcony into the room, almost as if to give extra force to the vision from inside. By using his fingers to trace lines and trails of clay along the walls, he introduces a gesture – an “other sense”– rather than the encumbrance of a personal sign (fingerprints).
In his Additions (Additions to the Letter on the Blind),which he wrote34 years later, Diderot once again comes to the rescue, quoting an interesting phenomenon: “An artist who has fully understood the theory of art and who, in practice, surrenders it to no one, once told me he feels how round pinions are, using touch rather than sight. He gently rolls them between his thumb and forefinger and thus feels the roughness that his eyes would never have seen.”
We can therefore try to see Parisi’s installation as a subtle and complex visual circuit. The map traced out by hand is of course a simulacrum of the land around the volcano. The lines of clay reveal a personal obsession but not the indication of an identity. The room acts more or less like a very special camera in which everything you see is reversed on the inside. This optical effect is emphasized by having the balustrade on the inside, and the window that gives onto the real volcano is no longer a vanishing point or a horizon but rather a starting point or even, in the new Munich installation, a sort of “deaf” memory – and indeed the windows here are colored.
Beneath this apparently straightforward visual mechanism, the artist proceeds with rejects and replacements: touch in place of “sight”, inside in place of outside, a silent map as the ultimate model for an essentially mental geography. It is as though the deficiencies and surrogates of ordinary vision – “a blind” effort – could expand and bring new life to the content of landscape painting. Possunt, nec posse videntur.
Since 2000/2001, Paolo Parisi has been painting a series of monochrome pictures called “Inversi” or “provisional monochromes” in Saretto Cincinelli’s fitting definition. They have been shown in a solo exhibition at the Aller Art Verein in Bludenz and in a group exhibition: Leggerezza. Ein Blick auf zeit-genössische Kunst in Italien, Lenbachhaus, Munich.
“Even though at first glance it may appear to show an absolute, unitary monochrome aspect, Paolo Parisi’s recent work adopts and, one might say, incorporates two forms of time, two different chronologies. A white canvas disrupted by the memory of previous mappings is covered by a vertiginous vision of a very different sign: a consistent color that covers all previous traces, cancelling them out. What was sign and color remains as no more than thickness, a congealed lump that appears to wrinkle the skin of the painting”(Saretto Cincinelli).
Parisi’s provisional monochromes – in theory and thus, according to the etymology of the word “theory”, for those who see – bring us back to the so-called “interminable disquisition” on painting. If we take for granted or consider paid in full our debt to monochrome as the origin of this inter-minable disquisition on painting, then this disquisition might appear to be what it is in relation to an “object that is present but concealed, an object that comes but then takes leave and is inaccessible”(Michel Serres). Both in terms of consistency with the chronology of his work and for their particular qualities, Parisi’s monochromes make it possible to enter the disquisition with enthusiasm and with no fear of attrition (or what was otherwise referred to at the dawn of psychoanalysis as a “lowering of the nervous level”).
In the “maps”, touch replaced the distance imposed by sight, while in the monochromes this process once again became a Cartesian measurement. With his practical, geometrical mind, Descartes described a blind man’s vision as being on the distant but “tactile” tip of his stick. In a certain sense, seeing is a remote tactile experience. Parisi’s “reds”, “yellows”, and “greens” are not second-hand quotations of whites and blacks, or of whites with folds or cuts, and they do not aim to achieve complex optical effects. If we look at these works carefully, we can imagine that we too have an oculate stick –one that can see with its own eyes. The almost monochrome surface conceals a path, a previous geography. The process of superimposition is not just a technical matter but involves two different moments which gives us access to a hidden meaning. A double meaning. What is tangible and visible is organized and measured by a single optical representation, or rather, presentation. Parisi’s provisional monochromes actually refer back to the inadequacy of the discipline called “history of art” with its interpretative ambiguity and polisemy.
Nevertheless, we are not dealing here with inadequate interpretations or objections but with those essential, possibly physiological mechanisms that regulate sight. The French terminology of aesthetics contains some rather bold subtleties to express the concept of “placing” and “posing”: mise enabîme, mise à jour, mise au point …These do not exist in other languages. To get straight to the point, we might simply say “focusing”. We screw up our eyes to focus better on a before and an after, as a geologist or an archaeologist might do.
Parisi’s procedure is one that unfolds in leaps, digressions and even deviations and yet, to use the words of Diderot, it contains a “deaf order”– a plan. A furrow one can follow more with one’s fingers than with one’s eyes. The layers of color on these traces in relief take us beyond the romantic idea that one can describe the topography of a place only after having seen its ruins and remains. The difference between the layer of monochrome and what one can perceive, or what resists beneath the surface, presupposes a new angle of observation: seeing something that absents itself and, in the end, remains inaccessible.
Conceptually, the artist uses his works to observe the meaning of painting from a different angle, though without forfeiting the sensuality of the image. Actually, as far as concepts are concerned, all we have are the elementary mechanisms of displacement, superimposition and, above all, a constant “as if”: as if one were blind, as if one were deaf. A “monstre” position, as we were saying. The rest – and that means most of it – is a generous and even sensual offering to the eyes of the observer. Recent paintings, such as “U.s.a.eu.a.a.a. – cadmium yellow” and “U.s.a.eu.a.a.a. – black” of 2004, endorse this particular invitation to contemplation. Once again we have a single color transferred to the canvas with fingerprints and oil paint. The landscape and view are focused on through the use of a sort of grating, an imperfect grid. Even so, Parisi abandons the self-referentialism of Modernist language, for he uses the grid as an instrument to contemplate a land-scape which is now purely imaginary.
The grid is an observation instrument. It is used for focusing closer, while the spectator (and the artist himself) waits for things to fall into place by themselves. The image has no character or reflective function of its own. It does not return anything but acts as a sort of litmus paper. Possunt, quia posse videntur.
Paolo Parisi has also revealed his propensity for the means and models of vision we see in his three-dimensional “Observatorium” works. These are observatories, or pavilions, that remind one of the architectural structures that became fashionable during the nineteenth century for admiring views. Observatorium was made by emptying out piled-up layers of corrugated card-board. It resembles a bartizan and contains slits – windows related to the space it defines. Opposite the windows there are large wall paintings which can be seen from inside the observatory: large black holes or colored islands (in the installation at Quarter, Florence, 2004) or, as in this case, simply “a wing of white wall”.
“We are all criminals, we who watch. We are all Peeping Toms. And we follow the Eleventh Commandment: ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Found out”. (Alfred Hitchcock)
© 2006, Giovanni Iovane; Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München; Edizioni Periferia, Luzern