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Text by Steven Biller
If you have ever watched a movie as the film became tangled in its projector, when one flickering frame tried hopelessly to advance to the next, you can begin to understand the perspective from which Alessandro Papetti approaches his canvases. While artists typically strive to capture a moment, or the essence or reduction of one, Papetti aims for that elusive black strip between frames -- a millisecond he parlays into an effect akin to that awkward suspension of motion: quick, frenetic brushstrokes that reflect his perceptions in expressionist and impossibly contemplative fashion.
His paintings eschew or, more accurately, transcend the still-life perspective. The balance between chaos and calm draws us into a blip of his experience -- human figures in water, abandoned interiors and ateliers, docked ships, industrial sites, and perplexing portraits. He coaxes us to interpret -- “Is that young boy laughing or screaming?” -- but leaves conclusions to us. “I try not to tell a story when painting,” he says. “It is normal for the spectator to see what he wants, or is able, to see. We love what is already ours. Sometimes art merely underscores this fact of belonging. However, I believe that in most cases, the less we know about something, the more we perceive it for what it really is.”
Born in 1958 and raised in a typical middle-class family in Milan, where he continues to live and work, self-taught Papetti asserts a decidedly autobiographical vision. “The fact that [Milan] is not among Italy’s most beautiful art cities can be an advantage,” he intones. “There are traces of a cultural and artistic past, but not all that many, or at least not so concentrated as to make you lose a conscious relationship with the contemporary scene.”
Papetti’s Acqua paintings, especially the nocturnal examples, tap a childhood memory: “We went to bathe by night in summer,” he says. “The sea was black. Swimming under water, in silence and total darkness, was as exciting as it was frightening. I always expected to encounter a deep-sea monster with shiny eyes.”
Inspiring other Acqua paintings were Rembrandt’s Bathing Woman for its relationship between water, female figure, and fluidity, and Krzysrtof Kieslowsky’s Film Blue. “For four or five years, I had an intuition about paintings of water that I did not yet know how to concretize,” he says. “Seeking Film Blue once more unblocked the situation. Kieslowsky used the scenes where Binoche swims in a pool by night as moments of suspension with respect to the narration ... a suspension like the black strip between frames in a movie reel.”
In his Reperti (Findings) series, Papetti’s precision detail punctuates intense analytical study of interiors of ateliers and factories; yet instinct and emotion rule his execution of the pictures. After the Reperti paintings, he shifted to industrial themes, paintings he exhibited in a solo show at Musei Civici di Villa Manzoni in Lecco in 1996.
Regardless of subject, all of his paintings allow time to inch forward through a whirlpool of energy and shimmering light. “It’s like the movie reel -- a sequence of frames, of movements, and an illusion that everything flows.”
Indeed, Papetti, inside 20 years of painting, has developed a wildly distinct style that gained him selection to the “Italian Factory” group show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. The exhibition placed him in the company of other artists who, according to curator Alessandro Riva, work with “an approach whose epicenter … is primarily the re-appropriation of profoundly and radically Italian techniques, outlooks and materials.”
Critics sometimes compare him to Alberto Giacometti (existentialism) and Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (violent energy), but Papetti gives nary a thought to such reappropriation. However, he calls Giacometti “a great father.” He practically stalked Giacometti biographer James Lord in an effort to photograph him for a portrait. Papetti showed the oil on canvas, Ritratto di James Lord (190cm x 200cm), in a 1997 solo exhibition at Galleria Comunale d’Arte in Cesena.
Lord, in turn, published an anecdote about the experience in his book Plausible Portraits of James Lord (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). A photograph of the portrait hardly prepared Lord to confront the lifesized painting. “The initial reaction was shock,” Lord wrote. “Quite simply I felt overwhelmed by the mercurial bravura of the brushwork, which seemed an inextricable turmoil of disorder, the artist himself alien to the violence of his creativity. … Alarm appears to have seized my features, because the phenomenon before me had become the ghost of a model made believable by the frenzy of the artist, and the hand upon the thigh but a specimen floating in the dubious preservative of paint. In all, it’s not a picture that’s easy to turn away from.”
Critical evaluation of Papetti’s oil paintings calls for consideration of the existentialism that permeates his work. “The present is elusive,” he says. “As soon as it’s here, it’s already in the past.” He and Giacometti evidently share a world view or -- as Paul Nizon described in Diskurs in der Enge (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1990) -- a metaphor for the human individual as “a scrap of humanity struggling for life in the tide of time.”
Since 1985, Papetti has frequently painted from a high-angle perspective, as if looking down on his human subjects -- a wonderfully vertiginous and dramatic effect -- because “everything is part of everything,” he says. “There is no portrait of someone specific, and that’s all there is to it. There is the person in a given space in that moment.”
Emotion saturates all of his paintings, even pictures of inanimate subjects. Papetti’s ships, for example, might be his most striking and imposing works. “The strength, the fragility, and their illusory lightness” affect his perspective.
Papetti takes numerous pictures of all his subjects and works with models when painting nudes. “Photography is a means to create a bond between the motif and myself, and I am fascinated by the way it almost always succeeds in amazing me,” he says. “What I paint, on the basis of these pictures, is yet another matter.”
Steven Biller is editor in chief and art writer for Palm Springs Life, Palm Desert Magazine, and Pebble Beach: The Magazine. He adapted this text from his essay in Alessandro Papetti: Blue, the catalogue for the artist’s exhibition at Buschlen Mowatt Galleries in Vancouver, B.C.