The Dual Discipline of the Observer
Paolo Parisi’s art consists of a double discipline: his own and that of his painting. The rules of art, and of painting in particular – and in his case we are talking of landscape painting – are those of modern humanism, which is scientific and psychological, and those of modernism, which initially meant the rules of abstraction and conceptualism, and then those of minimalism. Following on from this history, the contemporary artist can now make use of occurrences that concern the sphere of experience and life. More than on the grammar of signs and on the universe of formal values (also in a gestaltic and analytical, or at least idealistic sense), the artist works on reality and on horizontality, on a language which is that of the body and of the flesh. He works on the scatological encumbrance of matter, introducing disquieting information and a different level of time. In Parisi’s work one can in fact find references to the poetics of action painting and of informal art. He practices art as a mental matter and as a historicized process, and yet he brings to the surface latent energies and driving forces that no analytical discipline could ever reduce to a mere flat structure of signs and graphemes. In other words, Parisi’s works may be paintings, sculptures or installations but they are also experiences of formlessness, the modes of which have been exhaustively examined by Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois. They are also exercises that keep alive the great modernist school of abstraction and minimalism, reaffirming and perfecting it. While the Self also comes to the fore as the place of corporeality, and not just as a theatre of values, the practice of painting is not simply based on models and figures of modern or modernism, adopting a deconstructionist or quotationist stance. Like others of his generation, Parisi cannot but bear in mind that every application of language cannot exist outside his own body or that of others. There is no painting that originates without being phenomenologically conditioned by the life of matter and flesh. There is no color or brushstroke that can be formally sublimated while neglecting its material existence.
Conceived of and experienced as language, with all its laws and codes, art is a form of mental architecture, which is culturally and historically proven. It is a formal system of partly symbolic interaction with the outside world. But it has been and still is more than that. It has always confronted the system that rises up vertically and horizontally around the ego, and within the confines of its own world, with a language capable of plunging into and emerging from the unsaid words of the text. In the wild: disquieting world of sensations and impulses, in the base materiality of things and remnants. On the one hand, there is the language of art, which is a system of construction and relationships, a universe of support scaffolding, of long and well-designed walkways – shapes artistically suspended above the irrepressible advance of life, models built with thoroughness and precision around the body of the author. On the other hand, there is the language of art as a platform of sensations and a field of forces. As in the case of Bacon who, in Deleuze’s view, makes invisible forces visible, and who neither buries figurative art nor exorcises formlessness. Or, like Pollock who, as Green Burg wrote, managed to create a truly violent and traumatizing art while totally dominating its stylistic form. In this case, art is the discipline of dépense and exhaustion, which would control the scream and nervous shock, the discipline of someone who has neither had to castrate his emotions nor transform his impulses into another sign. A form of reverse entropy. Trauma and force change the sign, but they remain active from both the phenomenological and ontological point of view. This is why they have the quality and (scatological) value of perturbation. As I see it, the discreet and perverse fascination of Paolo Parisi’s painting comes from the fact that he works on this dual ridge – or on different levels – juggling sensations and models, rules and upheavals, forces and. This is why we can sense that something new comes out of these works. It is the current supersession of the old North-South, East-West dialectic. In other words, human and inhuman, or form and content, psychological and biological. Even though it continues to be some-thing totally different from the world of life that of art is the event-sentence of language, of the body, and of nature.
In art too, the rules and codes of our own language help manage our instruments and perceptions, and the exterior or interior reality that is observed, avoiding any ingenuousness or vain idealism. But they also help to impose discipline upon the latent forces of Self, isolating and controlling those impulses and sensations that interact with and modify formal language. Here, the forces do not alter the control systems and measurements, the quantities or qualities of the signs and volumes, or of the thicknesses and colors. On the other hand, when the discipline neither castrates the Self nor abstracts itself from reality, the forces of both inside and out act upon the language, intervening intensely in degree and kind upon the signs, the density of material, the colors, and on the geometrical grid and proportions, in a cause-effect relationship in which everything is mastered. A landscape trans-formed in accordance with the language of forms and signs, with a dual nature and discipline, receives information of another measurement and intensity from the Self, and this information acts as a force at the figurative and sculptural level. Latent forces and sensations come into play, and are subject to the rules of language while modifying its structure in terms of value. When we look at a painting, we see a grid, a series of lines, relationships and proportions, yet sometimes the matter has a consistency and a form that frees itself from the surface and tends to make itself felt physically. When this happens, we are not just looking at a mental thing, for we are subjected to the fascination and appeal of the colored material and its colors. We feel the sensation and perceive its force, the intensity and degree at the visual, tactile and haptic level. Colors are complex values, and the way they appear depends on many aspects of our expectations and our involuntary memory. These may be cultural, psychological, linguistic, situational and environmental. A sculpture may be an impracticable form that occupies space, like a natural shape or something made by man or, on the contrary, it may become a habitat, an extension of our eye and brain. We may spend time in it contemplating and observing the world as though we were on a mountaintop, behind a panoptical tower, or at the center of a three-dimensional map.
Paolo Parisi moves around inside these worlds: in the historicized world of modern and post-modern forms, and in the cultural and psychological world of Self. The object he turns his attention to is the landscape: a complex notion, and a subject and genre of wide-ranging significance. The landscape may be a formal category of the history of modern and post-modern art, a physical experience, a sentimental vision, re-imagination or involuntary memory. An abstract measure or a precise sensation, a map or a sentimental image, a surface of signs, or a universe of sensations. This type of duality and of double-helix-type unraveling means that Paolo Parisi approaches the analysis and verification of landscape (viewed as notions and experience, drawing and outline) not just as painting but also as sculpture: his optical perceptions and cartographic observations are transferred onto the plane, and the redrawn images of the plane are then dissected and poured into their own axonometric projection. Everything is stratified in the operation of spreading and drawing, coloring and projecting. Without realizing this or, on the contrary, intuiting it, the spectator relives the layers, landscapes, and operations either together or singly. He or she goes back through the experience in form and practice. The work of art is therefore not only an experience but the model of an experience of vision: the discipline addresses the spectator – that which is other than Self. And what is addressed in front of or within the spectator is also an image of the contemplated world, and the undisciplined world of sensations.
Over the years, he has never merely worked the surface of the canvas, the paper or the wall, for he has also strayed off towards three-dimensional supports and structures, passing from sculpture to architecture. As a result, his language adopts modern and post-modern terms, working on historicized materials and attitudes, personal experiences, intuitions and subjective memories. Works are often installations and, in a sort of mise en abîme of the instruments and content, the spectator, observer and contemplator may fall victim to a game of philosophical, sentimental, optical and symbolic experiences. He is transformed into a fold of the landscape itself, as though through the art of painting and sculpture the landscape and its horizon could assimilate the physical and emotional presence of the observer, turning him into a trace or a fold, a threshold or surface. The artist normal requires an ecstatic, and not just aesthetic reaction in the spectator, for it is he who gives meaning to the work as a whole or in its individual parts, activating one or more levels, meanings and relationships, and it is he who can lose himself in these sensations and destructure himself in his perceptions. In a nutshell, the work may to a greater or lesser extent be warm or cold, mute or talkative, silent or noisy, flat and opaque or transparent and deep, near or far, outside the visual field or at its center. It may be surface or volume. But it is always one and the other thing, even at the same time or dialectically. This controlled construction of a process, in which relevance is also a value and the code is a diagram of forces, shows us that following the rules – at least as they have been historically established in certain environments and in certain ages – has never been able to stem the flow of awareness and the latent forces that are brought to bear when the artist works with matter and color. For example, the work of pictorial stratification and drying, and bringing sculpture out front as an architectural device designed for the scale of human vision: this is an operation that demands the almost miraculous conformation brought about by the artist’s gesture and experience, and is always capable of making the representation of a landscape objective and yet also poetic.
So all the objective elements – including cartography, photographic perspective and architectural relief – are used by the artist as a non-arbitrary point of departure and yet they are also open and fluid, pervertible and alienable. Through experience and the artistic process, this leads to new and unforeseeable images, which shape the point of view of art as the only possible approach for grasping external reality through sight, while also keeping alive a gnosiological and phenomenal relationship which is still needed for the reality of feelings and sight, for Self and for the image itself.
The artist has given the title Observatorium to a series of sculpture-architectures. The term recalls the panopticum, and this explains the mechanism created by the artist. At the center of the area there is a habitable shape – an actual observatory – which invites the spectator to go in and be at the center of a landscape of large and medium-format pictorial works hung on the walls. Here the image is created by being veiled or unveiled, with the color – some-times applied directly with the fingers – either added or removed. At other times the material may be accumulated until it becomes so thick that it trans-forms the surface into a bas-relief, and thus the painting into sculpture. The “Inversi” series – in which the traditional foreground-background relation-ship is inverted and imaginary views appear from underneath the monochrome coloring – are accompanied by others entitled “Casa dell’arte (RGB)”. These are monochrome paintings made using dies impressed on the canvas, and large canvases, “on top of and next to each other” (giving the Italian acronym U.s.a.eu.a.a.a.), obtained by transferring a single color (in the form of fingerprints and oil colors) in place of the three tones usually used for photographic reproductions.
The paintings, which are created with deep, brilliant, acid colors, with blacks and greys, greens, pink and cadmium yellow, are held together by a single schema: the habitable sculpture-observatory at the center, which is made of layers of cardboard and from which part has been cut out and removed to create the space inside. This interior comes from a design that is linked to the outer space and to the various points of view of the landscape, in order to create a geography of visual relationships, thus building up a series of observatory-telescopes.
The spectator needs to be placed at the center of an intimate space in which they can once again choose how and where to look out all around, or beyond their own horizon, in accordance with a more polycentric and fluid phenomenology, both fragmentary and relative. This means that the land-scape is structured in the form of horizon and detail, foreshortening and framing, creating a more complex and sophisticated form of experience. It is similar in a way to the one needed for interpreting the pictures, in which the process of construction and the various stages involved are located between the spectator’s eye and the image, between the plane and the surface, the point and the map. Everything therefore rotates around the relation-ship between the painting/picture and the spectator’s vision/perception: art is not only the way a space asserts itself, but also and especially the tool and the means for producing the time required for vision and interpretation. It extends observation and the overall layout, the analysis of the place and its means of representation, and prolongs contemplation of the plane and perception of its actual substance. This is a time that is measured by the depth of the image and the pictorial surface, by the dramatic intensity and the age of the material. It is what lets one approach the horizon through perspective, and it is the mise en scène of the picture and its spatial qualities, measured out and sensed in fragments, in details and close-ups, shifting from the center of gravity of sculpture to the eccentricity of installation.
An Artificial Paradise
Paolo Parisi created a work when an installation was specially designed in late2004 for the new Quarter contemporary-art center in Florence, which at the time was presenting an audio work by John Duncan. To make it, he brought together different languages and specificities: architecture, painting, sculpture, sound installation, language and various performative events operated upon the spectators, involving them at various levels in the discovery of a landscape. A mixture of natural sublimity and artificial paradise. Three observatories made of cut-out recycled cardboard with the outlines taken from a series of geographical observations were installed in the large hall of the Florentine venue. These Observatories, which were open to and could be used by the public, had water pipes coming from them. They were organically stretched out on the ground to simulate a vegetal proliferation – a forest, with an intricate tangle of the landscape as natural as it was artificial. The pattern of colored pipes organically spread out in space was a rhizome structure. The allusion was to a generative characteristic of organic, natural and cultural processes which are typical of our age. The rhizome has been theorized by Deleuze and Guattari, who have made it a powerful image of our contemporaneity. Networks, rhizomes, forests and cobwebs also allude to processes of visibility and types of relationships. And indeed the three observatories did not just act as telescopes. They were phonic and audio systems, distributing sounds and voices, absorbing rustlings, capturing noises and broadcasting whirrs and words, texts and shouts, in such a way as to give spectators a taste of their own experience in everyday public spaces, in a street or in a square. In this case, however, the place was transformed into a city-square theatre on a dramatic or comic occasion. The spectators could share sounds, energies, images and words with others far away from them. The sculpture thus became an elaborate system for communication and observation, and for perception and reproduction, while the space was transformed from a container into a place of experiences and relationships. It became a public place for experimenting with sharing an environment with a structure and the logic that was both rhizomatic and organic, virtual and phenomenological.
A metaphor of public and private space, of communicative streaming and cognitive processes, of the urban social dimension and that of the psychic underground, Parisi’s installation artistically restored some of the typical ways in which contemporary practices are generated and experienced at the various levels of reality and imagination. The composition of sounds and voices created for the occasion by John Duncan had reduced to no more thana sonorous morass and to a magmatic fluid or jumble, a whole series of high and low terms – slang, upper-class and lower-class language – which almost led to a Lacan-type lalangue, a rustle of sound waves with their own plastic and pictorial consistency as well as different intensities and speeds. The large walls of the area had also been modified by a monumental painting that transformed the optical perception of the space itself. Great blotches in monochrome tones opened up other spaces and realities on the surface of the space, transforming the horizon in terms of size and scope. This trans-formation made the perception of time completely different, stretching out the curve in parallel and yet in opposite directions: one towards the microcosm, the other towards the macrocosm. Nebulae, pollens, haematomas, perforations, black holes and viruses: these were the images that the spectators saw. Figures of immensity or, on the contrary, pictures of a biological and bacteriological world which surfaced on the vertical plane of the visual horizon, created by means of a horizontal pouring. The pictorial gesture is reproduced in another direction by altering the scale, but the ratio between large and small stays the same. We are faced with magnitudes that are incommensurable with our world: the cosmos and molecular nature. In this case, painting and sculpture evoke our molecular world, that of atoms, and the immense cosmos, destructuring the space of life and returning it in far more complex forms within a landscape that is or can be lived in a number of dimensions. Because both Self and what is other than Self – and thus painting too – take life from countless dimensions and timespans.
© 2006, Sergio Risaliti, in “Observatorium – Gegen den Strom”, ex. catalogue, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München, Published by Edizioni Periferia, Luzern, 2006