Observatorium – Against the flow
My first encounter with the work of Paolo Parisi took place in 2000 at the Palazzo Fichera in Catania. At the time, I was strangely moved by the converging trails of clay smeared on the walls with the finger, curved and jagged lines various distances apart but never actually touching. Intuitively, one could recognise this as a form of “descriptive geography”, even if the reference to maps with contour lines was not immediately apparent owing to the lack of other indicators. Rather, this appeared to be more about being close to the “earth”, which in Catania is tangible in a very particular way. Catania , the artist’s town of birth, lies at the foot of Mount Etna , the volcano whose lava flows have on several occasions engulfed the town and destroyed it. By the same token, the volcano has imparted its energy to the town: as vitally eruptive as it is destructive. The characteristic grey hue of the volcanic ash, which coats the facades of the baroque town, conveys a peculiar kind of “serene melancholia”. The omnipresence of the vivid grey lava ash, which is made up of many different tiny crystals – speckles of red glass, pure black, bluish grey tints – expresses this town’s singular “earthiness”. The deep, glossy blue of the sea is a response to the velvety, lugubrious grey of the palaces and churches. This is the coast, where Odysseus escaped the Cyclops Polyphemus – whose parting shot was to hurl huge basalt rocks at the hero fleeing with his companions in their ships, rocks that are still to be seen at Acireale. Here the sea, resonant with the sensations of ancient stories and gripping natural events, is a narrow, deep trench in which the waters of then northern and southern Mediterranean , Europe and Africa intermingle. The strait between Scylla and Charybdis is notorious amongst seafarers for its treacherous currents, which, since ancient times, have rendered navigation difficult. Fire emanating from the bowels of the earth, the ground that quakes time and again, the rain of ash that every now and then threatens to asphyxiate the town, the deep colouring of the sea and its complex cross-currents –these are all primary experiences of the people of this region, and ones that directly impact on the oeuvre of Paolo Parisi. These elementary experiences appear to call for a descriptive geography that explicitly addresses the senses.
Maps are abstract “pictures”– the transfer of real proportions, modified in scale and material, that an informed reader can apply to reality. But you also get descriptions of landscapes in paintings, pictures of all kinds and songs, such as those depicted by the Aborigines of Australia. In their representations, the latter show “dream paths” complete with tracks of animals, plants and bodies of water as well as other phenomena of note along a stretch of country, as seen from man’s perspective; these depictions by and large originally consisted of pictures on the ground and made use of pigment that was scattered directly onto the stamped-earth floor. In this context, maps are narratives about a geographical region, visualised concurrently. By picturing particular paths and territories, the beholder can decipher the accumulated information as an unfolding narrative. Paul Klee at times saw his drawings as the result of “taking a line for a walk”, whereby the line – at points that were noteworthy and significant – would halt and make elaborate digressions before continuing on its way. Paolo Parisi’s work, ”Come raggiungere la vetta (da un interno)”, 1993, shows just such a walk – this time of his index finger – which led him all the way around the exhibition room of the gallery. This desire to take in everything, combined with the extreme discretion of the “artistic stance”, engages and captivates the beholder. The tension thus created is quite as powerful as the efficiency of the delicate cobweb that stretches between blades of grass and twigs.
The very fact that Paolo Parisi calls this exhibition “Observatorium – Against the flow” shows that he has, in many respects, remained true to his source idea and to his provenance. He has been living and working in Florence for along time, where he also teaches, yet his Sicilian origins continue to inform his work. The observatory of the title, a place for star, sky, sea and earth-gazing at the foot of Etna, is both essential and self-evident. The eternal vigil and keen ear, sensitive to all the whims of the giant “living” mountain, have led to an awareness of the earth that knows all there is to know about the immediacy of catastrophe. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, inundations and floods – the elements collide here with all their force and pose a continual threat to the population. Observatories, here, take the form of small towers poking out above the roofline, already raised up off the ground, arrayed rather like the slender, tall masts of the swordfish fishing boats working the Straits of Messina. Minimalist lookout platforms for the navigators, who steer their craft toward the fish, rise up on fragile-looking, virtually non existent wire-rope webs, while the harpooners step out on similarly precarious constructions far beyond the bows to bring the hunt to a conclusion. The painterly artistic act as positioned in a similarly prominent and precarious situation is not only to be understood emblematically, but as an actual condition from which observations of the small scale and chance nature of the earth in close-up could be construed in more general and abstract terms. The fact that the movement can be a passive drift in the current’s flow, yet still signify a struggle against the flow, expresses the combative aspect of the artistic strategy.
Cube-like architectural models call to mind sculptures consisting of layered sheets of cardboard or ceramic tiles and representing a rational counter-image to the Mappe Geografiche, whose outlines are more the result of feelings and intuition. Right angles and a clear arrangement on tables or pedestals, or as sculptures on the ground, present a straightforward layout of the interior and the exterior. While this rational order – an incontrovertibly essential element in the oeuvre of Paolo Parisi – developed into sculptures from the mid-1990s, from the year 2000 onwards Parisi increasingly used planes of colour in his painting, which immediately reveal a potential for change. By applying various layers of oil-based paints, superimposed by layers of water-soluble pigments, relief-like structures of pastosen paint are generated while the lower layers of the oil-based paint also permeate the top layer, a living and dynamic process by which one can tell that the painting has not yet come to rest, but continues to remain subject to mutation. It becomes apparent that the natural phenomena of the “breathing mountain” touched on earlier have become incorporated into the painting as primary experiences. Thus, the alteration of perception becomes a prime-moving principle in Paolo Parisi’s painted oeuvre. This alteration comes as a result of a variety of strategies. Incidental daylight can be transformed into a different colour by changing the tint in the glazing, such that everything in the room acquires this new and different hue; the eye then begins to adapt to it and the altered state becomes the norm, while everything else in this complementarity of colours seeks a new spectrum of shades and a new equilibrium. The presentation of paintings in a setting that is absolutely uniform in terms of the choice of colour – floor, walls and ceiling – again challenges the beholder to probe the limits of representation and of the picture (this work has been created afresh for the exhibition in the Lenbachhaus).More recent works, made using layers of ordinary brown corrugated cardboard, become cubes the size of an intimate room, a Studiolo, its exterior right-angled in shape, its interior by contrast organically hollowed out with narrow openings affording views of the outside. This, too, brings about a transformation of the Euclidean cubic space, which is offset by the orthogonality of the surrounding architecture and the curved, cave-like shape of the interior which is proportionate to the body. The interface of the inner darkness with the bright light of the surroundings occurs in narrow apertures that afford partial views of the world outside. In these fields of vision, Paolo Parisi shows dark, cloud-like patches that direct the gaze to a blank space, a nothing. Extending the interior towards the exterior by means of a variety of conduits, which appear to emit sound as well as colour, is a further attempt to open painting up to the potential of expansion. This can come together as ebbing and flowing marks on the wall, which evoke the echo of a collision and leave behind an indeterminacy of form, such that there is no way of defining them conceptually any further, other than by means of the words: “light or dark marks on a dark or light coloured wall. ”The mark – executed here without using colour – is, as it were, the primal scream of painting; for Leonardo da Vinci, “la macchia” signified the form that exhibited the greatest potentiality, namely, where the beholding eye perceives a rapid sequence of different images emerging from the amorphous shape. Note that what is creating the images is not the picture, but the spirit looking through the beholding eye. The spirit is in a position to evoke the images that are closest to the beholder and the most intrusive. Painting, in that sense, serves as a trigger or catalyst. Thus, a strong sense of transience informs Paolo Parisi’s painting. It takes the shape of a narrative from a standpoint that has witnessed and accepted change and movement; indeed, it seeks to recognise the constant and the unchanging within these changes and movements.
© 2006, Helmut Friedel / All rights reserved / The Author and Edizioni Periferia, Luzern, Poschiavo (CH)