Argàno Brigante, A couple of things i know about Zucchi, or: a papalagi out and about in our mad, mad world, catalogo della mostra / exhibition catalogue, Silvana Editoriale, Fondazione Durini, Milano.
1. ‘A MAN CROSSING THE NIGHT OF CIVILIZATION’
Andrea Zucchi is one of those people who are usually described as “still waters that run deep”. Seemingly calm, reflective, quiet, (in terms of being quiet, he’s quiet, there’s no denying that), Zucchi observes. He does a lot of observing.
It’s as if he had to store lots of data in his little head – also referred to as zucca [swede], nomen omen. Being rather chock-full of strange thoughts, as we will very soon see, this is anything other than an empty vessel whose data take quite a while to be fully elaborated, whizzed around, mixed up, put back together again, and then finally spat out like the end result of some crazy, weird calculation, like in one of those old calculators from ages ago. And so we get Afghan women posing in front of the Frank Gehry buildings, Shaolin monks in Arizona, kangaroos in the desert, Shinto priests at Cape Canaveral, Papua New Guineans in Valencia, Chinese people at Saint Peters, rhinoceri in Brasilia, and then ritual dances, irregular poses, meditations, enlightenments, boogie-woogie, atomic mushrooms clouds, astronauts, cosmonauts, time travellers, travellers, pharaohs, revolutionaries, utopians, solipsists, athletes (anti-gravitational athletes, it goes without saying), followers of bodhisattva, San Sebastianists, wild animals, and many, many bizarre oddities of nature and science: hornbills, proboscis monkeys, giant fish, octopi, acari, zebra, seals, foetuses….
It is all mixed up wildly and unconditionally in the paintings of Andrea Zucchi, like in the head of a savage with the passion for ethnology that you find lurking about in the world today: perhaps the famous Un ètnologue dans le métro by Marc Augè, or rather more suitably, the vision conjured up by good old Papalagi – do you remember? – as the Western man was indeed called by the Samoan tribal chief Tuiavii of Tiavea, who visited “our world” and wrote a report somewhere between the truth and the ridiculous, in which the bizarre, mental things that are an integral part of our way of life, and that seem “normal” to us nowadays, became extraordinary parodies of what our so-called modern , or super-modern civilization has been reduced to; where nowadays however even the bizarre, the weird, the alien, the “different”, the exotic, the hybrid and the multicultural are in reality swallowed up, metabolized and digested – and finally absorbed – by super-modernity. Deep down therefore, Zucchi’s view on the world is the vision of a sort of enlightened soul, of a solitary, half cross-eyed madman who, because of being cross-eyed, seems to have by now become the only one to truly see, and who therefore finds himself looking at everything that falls in front of his eyes, and then chucking it back out again as if to say, “Look, this is how I see it. You try to look at it through my eyes, and you will see what a great, crazy mix of cobbled-together nonsense we have got used to living in”.
Zucchi’s is the highest, as in the most recent, peak in that process of wonderment which, to say it with the words of Lautréamont, was represented by the fortuitous encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table from the Surrealist period and the first discovery of the unconscious onwards.
Nowadays, the umbrella has however given way to an atomic mushroom cloud, the sewing machine to one of those immense, absurd playthings in iron, glass and steel that are represented by the so-called architectures of today – of a Calatrava, a Gehry, or a Niemeyer – great playthings for adults especially created to amaze and fascinate the savage who has been silently pushed down into the depths of our souls. Meanwhile the operating table is nothing other than the epidermis of which our mad, mad, mad world is made up.
And as Marco Vallora wrote in one of the first, but also the most beautiful texts written about the artist, above all of this floats “thisSaint- Exupéry atmosphere, like a man crossing the dark night of civilization. As if it all took place inside an aeroplane, castrated of its functional mobility, the aeroplane blocked and disarmed by the painting, held for compassion’s sake in the hangar of the Memory”, where “Noah’s Ark has been transformed into the cabin of an aeroplane, and modernity lends its glass window to the vision”.
2. ESOTERICISM AND BACK
Coming back to us however, Andrea Zucchi shouldn’t have become a painter. Or rather, not only that. If we believe what the artist said in an old interview with Alessandro Riva about ten years ago, “It has always been my dream to be an artist, a painter, although connected with other things…first I wanted to be a revolutionary, then a saint…having failed on both fronts, I went back to painting”.
In reality, for a while he was in danger of being nothing else except Zucchi, or rather being the entrepreneur, like his father, which is already quite something!
Yes, he should have worked in the company with his father – at least him, my God!
And instead he didn’t.
He tried; we can’t say that he didn’t try. For eight or nine years he even went to the office every morning! But it took a great tug-of-war in the family. “My father had four sons, he’s a businessman and none of us followed in his footsteps, so for that reason, since I’m the youngest, I was a bit like his last chance…” said Andrea in that old interview.
So, persisting, the young Zucchi enrolled at university (philosophy, thanks to which he was then able to find titles for his paintings such as: “Dilemma sull’inutilità della commutazione”, [Dilemma on the futility of alteration], “Considerazioni di un impolitico” [Considerations of an non-politician“, “Agnizione periferica” [Peripheral recognition], “Pascolo d’impermanenza” [Pasturage of impermanence], “Discesa
dell’archetipo umano nel mondo sub-lunare” [Descent of the human archetype into the sublunar world], “Accelerazione di sistemi ad
acqua nella caverna, ovvero l’enigma dei molti” [Acceleration of water systems in the cavern, or the enigma of many], and so on; and also “Senza titolo” [Untitled], since in order to give such simple titles, of the lowest level of paratextual science, you really do have to have studied!). At almost at the same time he therefore enrolled in philosophy at the State University, and on an illustration course
(which he then abandoned just like that, however without ever abandoning his youthful passion for illustration and comic strip art. “Before falling in love with painting, as a teenager I totally fell in love with comic strips, especially the sci-fi fantasy and superhero ones: the Fantastic Four, Captain America, and Conan… I literally devoured them, until I discovered avant-garde art, from Dadaism to Surrealism, which became my second great love”). Finally – listen to this! – he joined an esoteric sect.
Evidently, only in this way did he feel that he had shielded himself to put up with even the mere idea of going to the office every morning.
The truth is that, at the height of the Eighties, while the rest of us were going around, some of us racking our brains about politics, some of us still throwing the odd long-overdue Molotov, some of us writing noir novelettes, some of us went jumping around at parties to the rhythm of Righeira or the Gruppo italiano, some of us were already studying to be teachers, and some of us were already doing what we would be keep on doing in life – pretending to say intelligent things to attract the ladies, and all the while commenting on football matches, well not that unusual young man, not him. He joined an esoteric sect. It has to be said, perhaps nowadays he’s a bit embarrassed about it, but seeing as he wanted me to write his biography, and it’s in my nature to be a bit of a gossip, well, unlucky for him, but now I’m going to tell you all about it properly.
“As a little boy, I was Catholic, just like everyone else”, he said in that interview.
“Then I became atheist. Yet I was fascinated by the idea that, through a transformation of the perception, also through the use of drugs, you could experiment with a kind of different consciousness, which also altered your idea of the world. For this reason, from there I started reading essays on the expansion of consciousness, linked to the Sixties and Seventies subculture …then I joined an esoteric group.” It was, he says, “a Gnostic school, a Rosicrucian group, with very strict lifestyle rules…no drinking, and smoking, no drugs, watching television was discouraged…I found out about them from a poster that I had seen on the street, I got in contact with them, they sent me a course in various instalments…then after six months you could choose if you wanted to join them. I joined the group and I stayed with it for five years”. An experience that Zucchi has in reality never denied, and which in some way has had an influence, if not directly on his painting, then certainly on his way of seeing the world (and of then introducing this into the painting).
3. SCIENCE FICTION OF THE ARCHAIC.
Zucchi really did do some strange paintings in that period after all. Here’s what he says about the first ones. “When I was still at school, one was a sort of black Hindu dangling in the air in a landscape that was a bit sci-fi fantasy…then in another one there was an Egyptian head with a trail of souls and a hammer and sickle…I mixed a few things together…” (You’ll be saying, more or less exactly what he’s doing these days and you won’t be completely wrong there). Then again, in the full-blown esoteric period, a painting with “the solar system that was developing like a mandala. There was this great big sun, and these tiny little planets…the visual impact was a group of circles which then had these mandalic figures inside them…”
The truth is that at the same time as he was having these philosophical-esoteric experiences, the young Zucchi was devouring the history of art.
“At the very beginning I was really interested in the first Abstractism… Kandinski, Mondrian… also because I was very interested in theosophist teachings, and Abstractism has a strong element of that…and yet however my sensitivity is very realist and so for that reason…after Abstractism, what I got most involved in was (apart from ancient painting) on the one hand the metaphysical, and on the other symbolism… De Chirico, Savinio, a bit of Carrà and Morandi for what they did with metaphysical, then a bit of Sironi…and for symbolism Gustave Moreau, Redon, some of Khnopff, and a few minors…” Meanwhile, however, he also garnered an excellent historical knowledge of the well-known Avant-garde movements. As we have seen, he also started to paint at the same time. He is a self-taught painter, as he also proudly defends himself.
After a period of savage mixing of themes with dark tones, in which a certain element of Bacon in his manner was mixed up with images derived from sci-fi fantasy and hints of early pulp and Grand Guignol (the slaughtered dead, hanging flesh, blood, sexual symbols and so on. “My first works”, he would say in another interview, “were a shaken-up cocktail of Bacon, De Chirico, Mannerist painting and sci-fi fantasy comic strip”), Zucchi finally held his first proper personal show. It was 1993, the place was the studio Pollice, in Milan, a small but very chic room in a little lane that runs behind Corso Magenta, lent by a friend, who deals with art illumination on a grand scale (he’s now considered one of the best in his field). Acting as his mediator and dealer he had an old friend, Bruno Grossetti, heir of the Grossettis of the Galleria dell’Annunciata, who nevertheless further down the line would no longer be able to follow him, having a totally different artistic line; but he was useful in this phase of the artist’s first public outing. It was indeed Grossetti, who in fact kept on at Alessandro Riva – the two had known each other since school days – to go and view the paintings of this young painter because Grossetti was convinced that the critic would “really really like them”. From that point onwards in fact a companionship would grow between Zucchi and Riva that at the time of writing still hasn’t faded.
The paintings of the first show were a step forward in this work of mixing different elements, where a rediscovered compositional harmony and improved technical confidence was however added. “Zucchi came onto the scene in 1993, with a series of paintings that I still consider to be memorable”, Riva would later write. “Highly precise paintings, designed with a compass and set square, where a figuration that mixed Twentieth century and Realist-Socialist influences with touches of Bacon was captured within a pre-digital grid, constructed with a stencil, which were daubed with highly unusual writings – Dante-esque terzine and Brigadist slogans. Inside those paintings, the ghosts of our collective past and our most private fears alternated, in a scenario that was halfway between sci-fi fantasy film and the metropolitan nightmare… Zucchi stayed on that vein until 1995, accentuating the amazing character of the subjects, yet mellowing the composition with a more classical painting, with softer, more smudged lines, revisited magic realism, where the line penetrating the surface of the painting had lost its rigidity, gaining fluidity and levity”. Marco Vallora, who was called upon to write the text for his next show, actually in 1995 at the Grossetti gallery, was to describe the paintings of that period as penetrated by a sense “not of the ancient, but of the old, the non-modern. Something that can also very well become a sort of inverted sci-fi fantasy, a science-fiction of the archaic”, where this “antique coté, as we shall call it, paramythological, iconological at the least, is made to react with our frantic world nowadays, with mobile phones, aeroplanes, delays, weights to keep us in shape “, yet as a whole painted with a dry, warm, indeed slightly antiquated technique: “different to his first paintings, more hacked about, more oneiric, more encombrés as the French would say”, “full of visual noise, of the screaming larvae a là Bacon” – “clinical paintings”, which almost represent “a breaking of the oneiric waters” – in these most recent ones “water is instead contained, held in by an imaginary window, and it is the beauty of this damp, but impermeable material, beaded with drops of water – slightly crepuscular”. And on everything, “that vaguely mineral torpor of the colour, that earth colour that reaches as far as the sky, a climate of pewter and pegamoid”, and in pictorial terms, “an absorbed paste. This is because the painter doesn’t usually prepare the canvases and the dried jute devours the pigment, yet it remains in this semblance of a fresco, or saltpetre, despite the brilliant, twilight lucre of the forms”, with “certain muffled atmospheres, a touch suffocated, prevented from speaking”; atmosphere that makes this critic think of certain authors from the Thirties and Forties: Carena, Cavalli, Guidi the first, Donghi, or others, such as Baccio Maria Bacci, “minor Florentine and Twentieth Century masters of Margherita Sarfatti’s era, who already seemed to be retro, whom Soffici and Rosai looked at enough, but who had a very enviable testimony of techniques”. Enough to extract a unique definition for Zucchi from the critic, although all in all fitting enough , above all for the paintings of that period: “a painter of the Forties but also of today”, or even, “a painter of magic Realism but also of today”.
4. MEMORIES OF THE DIGITAL ERA
All of it is however mixed up with that strange technique of post-Surrealist montage that still marks him out today: mappa mundi and apes, newborns and Buddha, buffalo and masks, all shaken up and meshed together by the painter-shaman.
“It is not even that he tips the primordial broth of his own oneiric tale onto the canvas. He picks out, pastes and cuts up. He creates a montage”, again wrote Vallora. “I’m attracted”, the artist would later write in one of those short, unedited texts that is not purely by chance entitled in self-irony, Autodafé, “by the connections of incongruent elements, by the mass of contradictions that are piled up and laid down over each other without getting mixed up”. Vallora compared the strange beasts and weird characters that populated Zucchi’s paintings in this period – and that Riva called, a touch literally, “The Colonizers” (the very same who would, in one way or another, always accompany him throughout his artistic history, and at the end of the day are still the protagonists of his paintings today) -, let’s say, to that ostrich “which passes through a Buñuel as if it were nothing strange”. “So”, explained Vallora, “I’d like to know how to describe Zucchi’s surrealism like that, no oneiric rubbish, no floppy objects in a Dalì style. The force of the estrangement of things, cohesive in a strange mute concerto. Simply the encounter between realities that have no wish to communicate with one another, but are fine as they are, together: they make mental painting”.
“They are fragments of reality that I associate artificially and that are wilfully not related to one another, if not every now and again because of subtle, arbitrary analogies”, the artist said in another interview, given to Ivan Quaroni in 2004. “Being attracted by a multitude of options between which I neither know nor wish to choose, I inevitably have to contrive connections between incongruent elements, in this way amassing a series of contradictions that pile up over one another without getting mixed up together. If this creates an estranging effect, it is probably the reflection of my confusion in the face of the many impulses to which I feel that I am being subjected. For me, painting is partly an attempt to halt this form of multiple vision, whether external or internal, filter it, solidify it and in this way make it partially intelligible, by means of a fictitious formal order.”
Yet after 1995 his painting once again changed key. Although still retaining that “combinatorial” rhythm with a post-Surrealist or post-Dada flavour, which had marked him out from the beginning, his style – the style that Vallora liked so much, making him “a painter of the Forties but also of today” – rapidly changed pace.
“After two years of silence and solitary toil within the confines of the studio”, Alessandro Riva wrote in “Arte” during those years, “Zucchi has now come back out again, as if to a new life, with a series of paintings that have left that slightly retro “archaic science fiction patina behind”, as Vallora defined it , that his previous works had for a swift, gestural kind of painting, composed of an elementary palette, whittled right down to the essentials, which lets the raw texture of the canvas peep through here and there”.
A more liberal, less disenchanted style of painting, often consisting of few well-measured touches, and an all in all limited palette, which the artist evidently required to leave the excessive attention to detail and realism of his previous paintings behind him.
This would be confirmed by Alberto Fiz, who curated his third personal show, Configurazioni d’impermanenza [Configurations of impermanence], once again in Milan at the Spazio Consolo, in 1998 and who would speak of a “style of painting that is made up of enigmas without solutions, of anagrams without meanings, of quite intriguing literary and visual games”, in the face of which we are finally “exonerated from comprehending” and invited to let ourselves “be influenced by the bewilderment of the vision”, but which has slowly lost that narrative aspect that was previously “still prevailing, with several descriptive gratifications”, for a style of painting that is more gestural and light-hearted.
“Zucchi has successfully managed to liberate himself of the inferiority complexes that he had about painting in order to move into a highly personal magmatic, chaotic universe where, as Max Ernst wrote, the role of the painter is that of marking out the contours and projecting what he sees in himself there. All without forgetting that we are entering the realm of absolute artificiality, in the face of a style of painting which moves transversely through recent and past styles creating continuous interference in the vision. Often, in fact, a style of painting which, at least in terms of form, adheres to the canons of Expressionism is contrasted with a compositional set-up with Surrealist character and you can see noticeable traces of
Giorgio De Chirico, Mario Sironi, Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon in his works. Nevertheless, the phase of reference has been overtaken by artistic study that has the objective of creating a new syntax using a dictionary of signs that, by now, belong to our cultural baggage”, and in which you can find references to De Chirico and technology, Prada bags and ancient ruins, all mixed up together in “a contaminated universe where it is a hard task to distinguish the latest truth of the ego from the encrypted, subliminal messages that are transmitted every day by consumerist and post-technological society.”
It is a “style of painting that faces the themes of our immediate present and future head on, no longer with reverential fears”, again wrote Riva. “The (classical) genre of landscape becomes in this way a pretext for showing us the nightmare (or the farce) of the cloning factory with either Dolly the sheep or the Siamese twins, it doesn’t matter which, as narrating voices, portrait (or maternity) are represented by a little Japanese girl with an inexpressive air who shows our camera-eyes her tamagotchi-baby, human figure is replaced by that of a mountain-climber found frozen to death between the ice-caps – a macabre skeleton still dressed in climbing gear, just as Ötzi, the mummy of the Similaun row, was dressed for the mountains, like some sort of dirty relic, between Italy and Austria. In this way, Zucchi seems to tell us, with an essential stylistic cypher that bears Neo-Cubist and Neo-Expressionist echoes in its DNA and memories of the digital era, the obsessions on which the press, the TV, and our own consciousness seem to voraciously and untiringly feed every day”.
5. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF NATURE
A new cycle, a new change: the arrival of the turn of the century and of the millenium in fact found Zucchi taken with a new pictorial approach: less confusion, greater compositional strictness, and a stylistic unity that distanced him from Expressionist temptations, without however any longer bringing him back to that “non-modern” patina of his paintings of ’95. Alongside the great combinatorial tableaux, what you could describe as the zoological series of first rhinoceri (“Studi di contaminazione neoplastica dei rinoceronti” [Studies of Neo-Plastic contamination of rhinoceri] in 1999 and then “polar paintings” started.
“Does exoticism still exist?”, asked Marco Meneguzzo (who curated the “polar painting” show at Annovi, in 2002), pondering the reason for this continual moving of the fulcrum of the attention, first on elements that were combined chaotically with one another and then on images that were apparently and blatantly “different”, indeed “exotic”, lifted from the drifts of the Western world. “Does exoticism still exist?” Meneguzzo therefore asked. “Looking at the latest cycles of
Andrea Zucchi the answer would appear to be yes, seeing as how it was all about savannas with rhinoceri and now, polar landscapes…
… and yet, if it was only the “distant” subject that determined the exotic, this feeling would be used up by one piece, rejected and cancelled from the horizon of our minds and senses by a precise knowledge of the planet, procured from millions of documentary images, the vanguard of millions of tourists. Yet it isn’t the Polar ice-caps or the flatlands of Africa that create the sensation of the exotic, that is, of the “extraordinary”. It is the presence of the painting. The painting has becoming “exotic” beyond each subject, purely for the fact that it is (still) being used. It is the instrument and practice of painting, the knowing that a painter who acts (almost) like those of five hundred years ago exists that renders what we feel is absolutely near if drawn with any other medium seem mysterious, fabulous and distant “.
“In this latest cycle”, wrote Riva on the subject of the rhinoceri paintings, “Zucchi has started off from an idea, we could say from an invention, the idea of a world that doesn’t exist unless in the hyper-uranium of our memory as children who read some unlikely teaching book with a naturalistic background, or as spectators of some parascientific television documentary on animal life. The world of rhinoceri is in fact as unreal, as fictional – if I may use the term – as may exist within (our) universe.
His work thus becomes pure formal research, pure conceptual reasoning, deprived of any interference of content or trendy cult misunderstanding“.
In 2003, Mimmo Di Marzio would decipher the different “souls” of Zucchi’s exotic combinatorial “new line” using a parapsychoanalytical approach.
“Within the poetry that often sees art rise up in cold witness to a reality that keeps getting more mixed-up and confused with fiction, and anyhow filtered by linguistic models that are nowadays genetically mutated by the media, Zucchi brings about a further dramatic, perceptive shift, producing an apparently realistic representation but which, on the narrative level, manifests itself according to an analogical language typical of dreams. All of the images thus take on a symbolic value, although according to the irrational codices of the collective unconscious. So it is – and perhaps above all – for the naturalistic elements that recur so frequently in his works. With the iconography of nature, even in his most extreme characters, the artist in fact seems to want to hold a closed and I would say almost archetypal dialogue. But his figuration is at the same time absolutely unnatural, almost as if the artist intends to transfigure, but not deny, the reality with the painting”. Also by “cooling” the image, by matching it with “pieces” of abstract painting that remind us of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism. “And so”, explained Mimmo di Marzio, “the other soul of the artist (meaning the Mondrian in Zucchi) feels the unstoppable urge to control – to not lose control – in a scientific work of rationalizing the sensitive world, in order to uselessly reduce it to geometry and distant reminiscence of Abstraction “.
6. A STRANGE PERCEPTIVE DISTURBANCE
It must be pointed out that it was indeed with these new cycles of works, from the rhinoceri onwards (the reference to Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, is in fact anything but casual), that, via images that came mainly from studies of animals, landscapes, exotic “far-off lands” (the savanna for the rhinoceri, the Pole in the polar paintings) that were less chaotic therefore in their general composition with respect to previous paintings, Zucchi accentuated that displacement of the image which, right from his early paintings, was often represented by a line that penetrated the entire surface of the canvas, like a “second level of interpretation” of the work, in the constant attempt to “cool down” the figurative painting with abstract structures that cross the surface, almost as if installing a protective screen over it; and if in 1995, according to Vallora’s words, that line was nothing but an “abstract outlining in the style of Magnelli: a band, you never know whether cerebral or decorative, that tries to bind things, to stitch up the hem of the world, but ends up just highlighting this disunion no longer with pathos”. With the new series this became a much more imposing and evident presence. “Solid, structures, like a real castle of strange green rectangles – clearly with a digital twist”, Riva wrote again in “Arte”, “mysterious symbols of some electronic language unknown to us that dominates the landscape that we are used to seeing and recognising”.
The landscapes, the beasts, Zucchi’s animals, kept becoming more characterized also by that strange “perceptive disturbance”, as
Marco Meneguzzo was to define that “absolutely geometric series of square and rectangular elements, that make him talk about Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism (but instead will it not be a sort of Neo-Plastic
formation of the image, meaning the cancer that corrodes it from within its own language?…) as an inevitable reference to what the painting has become, once the “innocence” of the representation had been lost. This is why all Zucchi’s paintings are “polar” paintings, in the sense that they run between the two poles of painting, the iconic pole and the aniconic pole, with all of the corollaries that these linguistic magnets carry with them: narration and self-reference, pleasure and purity, the concrete and the abstract (where abstract is naturally the figurative representation, and the concrete is the materialization of geometric forms…)” If for the critic therefore “it is legitimate to evoke Mondrian’s figure, it is perhaps even more spontaneous to think of a sort of difficulty in reception, a disturbed transmission of the image, as happens with monitor screens that aren’t fast enough or equipped with the right number of bits.
The surface of the painting therefore becomes a screen, and the painting mockingly “mimics” electronic communication”.
Zucchi’s landscape thus became more and more “a landscape that”, Riva wrote, “because of the very fact that it is seen via this strange screen that dominates it – an ideal metaphor for all video-cameras, digital cameras, closed-circuit televisions that nowadays accompany our existence everywhere, from the cash machine to the holiday ferry boat to the office door -, has by now definitively lost any claim to naturalness. And perhaps it is precisely this vision that we are already used to impose on the world, like it or not: an eternally filtered, scanned and digitalized vision. A vision that has made that old, dear reality to which we thought we were so attached disappear forever”.
The oxymoron therefore became more evident than ever: just where the paintings seemed to be more “natural” – or rather carried out according to the archetype of the natural, which is the exotic, as we by now recognize it just from nature documentaries -, the painting turned itself into something more “unnatural” than ever, also thanks to the Neo-Plastic grid that the artistput over it.
It could be said that here the grid had the same destabilizing function and the function of logical dissimilarity, of the well-known notice that Magritte added to his famous drawing of the pipe: ceci n’est pas une pipe, for Magritte; ceci n’est pas une bête, or ceci n’est pas un paysage, for Zucchi…
7. A FICTITIOUS FORMAL ORDER
And so we have it that Zucchi’s game of hide-and-seek with painting, with what is visible, with the very meaning of the things we see, apparently shifted its objective again, yet without changing the most profound meaning of his study. “I would like to be mystically fused into the unity of everything but I have a background of scepticism that confuses my ideas”, the artist wrote in one of his Autodafé. “I am a little fuso [burnt-out] but in the prosaic sense of the word. Burn-out or confusion? Chaos or Cosmos? State or Anarchy? What dilemmas! If it were burn-out, I wouldn’t be standing here wasting time and I don’t like confusion very much. On the other hand I wouldn’t mind anarchy that generates order, a strong formal order that puts back together what is fragment and coincidence. (…) I’m attracted by the connection of incongruent elements, by the amassing of contradictions that are piled up and laid down without getting mixed up. For me painting is born to halt this form of vision, whether it is external or internal, to filter it, solidify it and render it therefore intelligible and long-lasting. Painting is my little anarchic domain where I can at least develop a fictitious formal order”.
So there you have the birth of something on which, in his unflinching practice of self-demystification and questioning his own reference systems, the artist himself ironized, defining it as a “silly little idea”.
“Making choices wears me out. I give in to the attraction of options that are not easily compatible and in order to have my cake and eat it I often have to dream up hybrid solutions, which elude taking a clear stance and allow me to remain coherently confused.
I love Painting, good painting and I make an effort to paint well, although I don’t paint well, I paint reasonably well and I am not interested in being one of the many painters who paint well nowadays, avant-garde or not. I develop my painting, I look at it and I look at it again, it’s not bad but I’m not satisfied with it, it’s not ugly enough to be destroyed but then leaving it as it is doesn’t make any sense, it’s too finite a painting to be finished, I have to go back and work on it but how? WHAT DO I DO?
I start to ponder, I look for visual stimuli everywhere, I reflect on ideas and silly little contemporary art ideas (I play the innocent, although deep down I’d love to have a successful little idea), I’d like to be a bit psychedelic but I have much too much of a bourgeois substratum, I’d be freer with abstract art but, after my first loves, those who maintain that it is a superior form of decoration convinced me, I am intrigued by the special effects of digital graphics but do you really want to put painting up against the flatness of photographic or video images. No, painting does not betray itself, it’s the only thing I’m sure of. I want to work all-out in the specific terms of painting.
I have to do something however, I salvage what can be rescued, I transform an expedient into a method that muddles things up.
I overlay a second level of the image on the surface of the painting,
a sort of perceptive disturbance (Do you remember the Doors of perception?) made up of a series of square and rectangular elements that on the one hand recall Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic compositions and geometric abstraction, and on the other hand a possible binary code or electronic scanning language.
It’s a silly little idea but for me in a silly little way it kind of works”.
8. FROM SQUARES TO WHITE LINES
It is now 2005: after the post-digital squares, we have White lines that stretch across the surface of the painting. It was the umpteenth “accumulation strategy”, as it was defined by Ivan Quaroni, who curated the show that was actually entitled White lines, at Annovi in 2005 put together by the painter in order to cool and distance our perception of the painted image; as Quaroni highlighted, an image that was increasingly indebted to the imaginary, infinite sampling that reality continually bombards us with, via the thousands of streams of reproduction (digital, photographic, televisual, cinematographic and so on): to the point where the critic compared the painter’s activity to that of a DJ, following a “combinatorial” logic of existing images.
From there it was also necessary to “take a step back” from them, freezing them under an abstract grid, whatever that might be.
“The truth is”, wrote Quaroni, “that Zucchi couldn’t and can’t tolerate the naked proof of the image, that unashamed figural indiscretion, ever in debt to a History that has already researched the researchable and produced what can be produced. And so he has gone on, show after show, series after series, to move the required distances away from the painting, placing elements of disturbance between himself and the painting, always invoking the equilibrium of a lucid, disenchanted vision, unchained from the prison of the ego. So as not to be ruined in the shipwreck of an irrational, self-satisfied painting, yet nonetheless a thief of photographic images, Zucchi had to bridle his subjects in the tight mesh of a visual cage, of a Cartesian fabric of criss-crossed demarcation lines”. And so, more evident than ever, and nevertheless subtly evanescent – really almost a vague technological trouble in the reception, thinned down and reduced “to a fine mesh of horizontal or vertical lines, that almost leave the image intact” – that perceptive disturbance which had always accompanied the artist’s paintings returned with white lines, bringing with it however a greater compositional synthesis.
Stage by stage, Zucchi’s paintings in fact, once rich with crazily, chaotically juxtaposed elements, kept on however losing quantity and capacity for accumulation, instead gaining conciseness. “In the
white lines series”, wrote Quaroni again, “Zucchi goes back to his visual obsessions, concentrating on the definition of one sole subject and for a moment setting aside that combinatorial magic, made up of bold visual matching and estranging juxtapositions, which has fundamentally been a prerogative of his style”. “Perhaps, concluded the critic, “Zucchi has not realised that something is changing, that a tension is being released. The canvases are no longer cluttered with figures, indeed the figures stand out solitary on the surface of the painting, as if the artist wanted to verify their force and autonomy”.
9. THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
Yet Zucchi’s combines are far from over and done with. We will find them again, nowadays, although in a much more synthetic, rarefied form. They are the matchings between no more than two images, that are yet very different from one another, to which reference was made at the start of the text, and which constitute the narrative and compositional theme of the artist’s paintings: an Afghan woman in front of the Frank Gerhy museum in Bilbao, a Berber woman in front of the Atomium in Brussels, a warrior from New Guinea in London, in front of the Swiss-Re Tower, a hornbill whose profile seems to be calling out at the Calatrava station in Lyons….
“In my first works I played around with the ambiguity of the meanings of these overlaid images”, said the artist in the interview he gave to Ivan Quaroni. “I created, let’s say, the illusion of history that in reality had no foundation. In these recent works, for me the iconographic juxtapositions have instead taken on an exclusively formal value. (…) I’m aware of the possibilities of interpretations, but what I’m concerned about is rather the assembling of images on the basis of a formal and compositional, not narrative choice. I banally use the mechanism of free associations, already used over and over again by the Surrealists, but not in the sense of psychic automatism, which
requires the artist to himself become the mediumistic receiver of the forces of the unconscious. I would say that I am a medium who is tuned into the multimedia rather than the oneiric. I want in some way to stop the chaotic flow of images of the media and make it the object of contemplation, not interpretation”.
It was a Marco Meneguzzo text, written in 2004 – for the show at the Obraz gallery in Milan – that considered the meaning of this persistence with the combinatorial technique in the artist’s works so far. “Perhaps”, wrote Meneguzzo, “it is more current and relevant to the situation to in fact talk about flow, which is a neutral term, as neutral (!) as the indifference with which we view all the images can be, whether it is a terrorist attack or the latest TV fiction hiding behind them. Like the rest of us, Zucchi lives within this flow of images, and so that declaration of “non-choice” of images, or better still, of choice dictated by motives that he himself is not bothered about looking into, acquires meaning. In any case, what keeps such distant images together is that sort of coloured connective tissue, made of up those abstract segments, of that kind of electronic disturbance consisting of rectangles that are laid over the image, or that decorative “padding” that brings back different-sized images to the repeated series of the rectangles of the canvas (…) That is the continuum of the work, whereas the image, inasmuch as it is evident and in the foreground, could actually be interchangeable”. Meneguzzo’s reasoning seemed to re-echo, remotely, the famous McLuhan paradox: the medium is the message. So, paradox for paradox, even in Zucchi’s works it wouldn’t therefore be the image, rather that abstract upper structure that lies over the image, which constitutes the real compositional and conceptual fulcrum of the work.
10. THE IMPOSSIBLE EQUILIBRIUM OF THE WORLD
Is that the way it is? It may be, yes, it may be; the continuum of the work is therefore not the image of the painting, but actually the “perceptive disturbance”. Those “abstract profiles a là Magnelli” which once penetrated the painting in order in an attempt to “stitch up the hem of the world”, or the Neo-Plastic Mondrian squares, “mysterious symbols of an electronic language unknown to us”, or the white lines, that “Cartesian fabric of criss-crossed of demarcation lines”, or finally again that “decorative padding” that brings back different-sized images to the repeated series of the rectangles of the canvas “, or as the artist defined them, simple “intrusive elements”, transformed into an “instrument of separation between one image and the next”.
It may be, yes, it may be.
It’s a shame that it is not. Once a possible shore has been spotted, Zucchi moves further away again, and in a bit of a hurry.
Nowadays in fact in his paintings there are no longer green squares, there is no longer the delicate line “a là Magnelli”, there are no longer even the white lines, and not even the coloured rectangles at the edges of the images. There are only the images, naked and raw, brought together and combined according to a system that at first sight seems to be purely and merely for balancing and searching for an (impossible?) formal, compositional equilibrium.
And, nevertheless, again surprisingly unsettling: a Yemenite woman in Rio, a mandrill in Chartres, a kangaroo in Libya, a harpy eagle that watches threateningly over the Mole Antonelliana, and a Mongolian falconer at the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles… where has the “fictitious order” of this crazy, crazy world gone, if it ever even existed? Perhaps it’s in the very incongruency of the images? Or rather in its secret harmony, hidden beneath the congruence and formal similarity of such diametrically opposites elements?
And the attempts to cool down the image then, that wanting to “give an impossible order to the “flow” of what is real?
Let’s once again, and for the last time, give the last word to Zucchi. “Is the order of a form enough to generate meaning? I think about it, although I’ve stopped worrying about it, since I reckon that wanting to give meaning to things is something that we usually do after the fact. We justify what our instinct makes us do with thought, we write down the recipe for the omelette after cooking it, perhaps with the leftovers. If it is good, then that’s great, if not we try another one, and it’s sheer luck if someone else likes it too.
And this is the probably the reason why I change course so often, I get tired of the same flavour and others do as well, or no one likes them or they don’t have time to get used to them.
I follow a strategy based on failure in painting. Painting is a continuous sequence of failures.
What can we do if not work on our defects? ”
(from “auto de fe”, ritual of public penance of condemned heretics)