Backstage Conversation from FILM#00 to FILM #056

Ilaria Bonacossa: This exhibition presents a selection of works realized in the last year and a half. They are titled FILM# and are numbered as a sequence from 00 to 056. What is the origin of these abstract paintings? They are quite different from what you have been making over the last ten years.

 

Roberto Coda Zabetta: The exhibition is a sequence of frames. For me, every painting is a still frame, by which I mean a frozen image taken from a non-narrative film made of light and color. This film reflects some considerations on the meaning of painting that I have developed in the last two years. In fact, all the fifty-six paintings that compose this series could be considered as a whole, an uninterrupted flux of
painterly matter extending from one canvas to the next.

 

IB: How did you come up with such a structurally rigorous sequence where every painting seems to grow from the the previous one in a natural, almost organic, manner?

 

RCZ: My work has always been premised upon thematic clusters, or projects. Yet, my previous series were composed of twenty pieces, twenty-five at the most, after which I felt that the subject was exhausted. In this case, the fifty-six paintings relate to one another in a much stronger way. From my point of view, the series is ideally made of five “episodes”, each one comprising seven or eight paintings each with its own autonomous place but, taken as a whole, they form a polyptych and each painting is “activated” by the reflection, repetition, and contrast with the others.

 

IB: Film has a double meaning: on the one hand, it turns the paintings into mental frames that convey several sensations, much in the same way as a proper film captures what happens in reality. On the other hand, it evokes a sense of transparency and overlapping layers… I am fascinated by the fact that the series begins with a black, blind canvas and ends with a painting that is completely different but, once again, toned down with dark pigments. FILM # both starts and ends on black. It is as if the shutter of the movie camera had blacked out the image upon closing.

 

RCZ: It is often the case that the interpretation of a series is grounded on the first paintings that compose it. Although these works might appear gestural and impulsive, they were made with clear intentions regarding the final result. Then, the work can be seen as a journey toward its final version. For instance, in the first painting, FILM #00, I experimented with the physical substance of paint: after pouring melted plastic on a tempera-coated canvas, I covered the entire surface with oil painting and made the rubber translucent.

 

IB: FILM#56 has an opposite history. As you were telling me, it took you longer than four months and quite a dose of obsession to painstakingly reproduce an antique Chinese fabric on a linen canvas with acrylic paint. After which, you covered it completely with a coat of black acrylic enamel paint so that a just a few, obscure motifs can be perceived against a light background. It looks as if you have an urgency to reject sight, as if this phantasmagoria of light and color could not but settle down in
darkness.

 

RCZ: Indeed I have always worked with layers, with coats of color paint that both conceal and reveal forms and images. To conceal in such a way that it is possible to catch a glimpse of what happened before the work was finished… The painting is like a secret made of lines and light, a saturated light that ends up disappearing.

 

IB: In this series, all the canvases appear to have been made by the water or the wind. They possess a wavelike nature, concentric or vectorial, while the artist's hand has completely vanished. It is as if you were a 'director' who orchestrated the chemical reactions and captured their process of becoming. This may be the reason why they remind me of batik tissues, dyed fabrics that have a serial quality but at the same time are unique and elicit an intimate relationship with the viewer.

 

RCZ: I have always painted light adding white to the impasto. In this case, however, I removed the excess paint.

 

IB: Then your works always result from a subtracting process. The shadows and transparencies in the background almost turn them in Japanese gouache paintings. In FILM#, the artist's hand that used to dominate your previous works, recedes in favor of the technical properties of the materials and the mechanical action of compressed air which activates the different features of each material. How important is chance in the structure of your work?

 

RCZ: Chance affects the details, but before starting a work, I already know how it will look like. I choose the ground surfaces and the paint materials depending upon the effect I intend to achieve. After ten years of practice, it feels as if the knowledge of the materials turned my freedom of action into a freedom of representation…

 

IB: So we might say that FILM# is like a story about two years of thoughts and ideas, and about how the paintings were originated.

 

RCZ: These paintings result from a sculptural research. They are three-dimensional versions marking the conceptual boundaries of the painterly gesture and its structure… They are indebted to Aldo Mondino's theory of paint materials and his experimental research on sculptures assembled with domestic items (I am thinking to his late 1960s sculptures made of caramel and chocolate that looked like bronze, or his plaster pieces that looked as if they were made of gianduiotti chocolates…). Much in the same way, by using an air compressor both paint and enamel becomes undistinguishable, and the paintings look like silkscreens prints….

 

IB: The idea that these works originate from the chaos experienced by a painter facing a blank canvas as well as by the mind-blowing perception of countless possibilities fascinates me. In fact, what strikes me the most is that this series is a “movie” on today's painting for the sake of which you gave up the subject matter and focused instead on pigments, colors and materials. This feature film is about your drive to paint and your decision to withdraw from the stage. Your own signature style and all narrative elements vanish as your energy is transposed onto the canvas by means of different devices.

 

RCZ: FILM# is about the line, the wish to find a escape route from color…

 

IB: In order to grasp the origin of this work, I would like to step back and talk in general about your practice. You did not go to art school nor studied painting and art theory. You learnt the ropes by working as an assistant in the studio of Aldo Mondino.

 

RCZ: I came across Mondino by chance. As a student I was neither good nor bad. The distance between theory and practice has always put me off. When I was eighteen-year- old and did not know “what to become” as a grown-up, I was drafted into the military service and sent to Vercelli where I met the art collector Gigi Chiese who, hearing about my plans to enroll at the Brera Fine Arts Accademy the following year, introduced me to a painter friend of his who lived in the Piedmontose countryside: Aldo Mondino.
On the 6 th of September of 1995, I went to visit Mondino and did not leave his house for the following four months: Brera had just slipped out of my mind. Back then, Mondino was sixty-year- old, stern and generous. As he took me as his assistant, I realized that my job had be hands-on and to entail some degree of practical making. I did all sort of things but I never approached his paintings: his studio was a sacred place. At the time I used to draw, or rather scribble, so you can easily understand what it meant to find myself at eighteen-year- old in close contact with the Italian art world. I was inebriated with discourse, ideas, and thoughts. Curators such as Achille Bonito Oliva and Alain Jouffroy, artists such as Luigi Ontani, Ignazio Moncada, Antonio Recalcati and the young Maurizio Cattelan, outstanding collectors and art lovers such as the bullfighter Antonio Ordònez, Umberto Cacciatore or publishers such Giancarlo Politi and Renzo Parini, all came to Mondino's studio where fiery and impassioned conversations took place at night. All the while, I strived to figure out the meaning of art…

 

IB: In 1993, Bonito Oliva curated the Venice Biennale and the “Mondino frenzy” begun. The international crowd and the collectors became conscious of his talent. How did this affect your job?

 

RCZ: Well, people were queuing at the studio… There was a tremendous boost in the production: works to be finished, created, and delivered. We were up all night working… Mondino's death in 2005 came after ten successful years. Aldo became a master. Certain things never change and Mondino could never
amp;#39;accept' the Transavanguardia. As for me, I did not like the idea of a powerful group lobbying to pack up five names for export, like brands… their painting was not truthful. However, it was greatly instructive for me to see how shortcuts may lead… nowhere.

 

IB: Besides working as Mondino's assistant, I assume that in the dead times at the studio you created your first minimal, abstract works and although Mondino was an eclectic artist, he never made abstract painting. I gather that your research developed independently from the start. How long did you work for Mondino? When did you move to New York? If memory serves me right, we met in New York in 2000. Two Italians taking their first steps in the art world…

 

RCZ: In 1998, I lost my older brother in a motorcycle accident and the pain overwhelmed me. When I went home to see my brother, I was crushed with despair and did not go back to Mondino's. Nineteen days later, Aldo came to visit and took me out for a walk, he was truly serious… He said to me: “takethis pain and use it in your painting, figure out a system…”. Twenty days later, I was back. He was working on Morocco and Turkey and gave me a plane ticket to Essaouira. There, I got excited… I had always envied how Mondino could paint a face with four brushstrokes and I became impressed by the people's faces in Morocco. They seemed carved out of wood and inspired me to paint faces…

 

IB: And so this is how Faces, the series you worked on from 2001 to 2007, came about: like a scream of sorrow. Those paintings are large, the faces oversized and fraught with paint. But they are also monochromes, as if they were ghosts. There is something too straightforward about them, almost naif in respect of what was going on in the contemporary art scene at the time. This may be why they worked right away…

 

RCZ: To paint faces was a compromise to do something that was aesthetically comprehensible… Thanks to the faces, I learnt how to paint with matter, how to use brushes and the painterly material. I learned about oil and acrylic paint, and their different properties. I have always loved the canvas, and the stretcher. Later on, I started to use more technological, industrial pigments. First, I begun with enamel paint you can find in any hardware store and, then, I moved to sophisticated industrial paints
that form a different structure on the canvas and are very reliable when you handle them as well as in the drying process. For a painter, it is very important to experiment with pigments and to test out their stability. I can paint because I know the materials and I can handle the brush and the palette knife…

 

IB: Matter as the matrix of painting. This passion of yours comes up in your latest works as well. Which art were you looking at in those years? Who did you like? My first guess would be Francis Bacon for the screaming sorrow and Julian Schnabel for the matter.

 

RCZ: Of course. I also found that the works of Hermann Nitsch were extremely powerful. In those years, I met Willie Valentine, a gallerist from Singapore, who worked with Yan Pei-Ming and decided to show our paintings together. I have often be accused of copying Yan Pei-Ming but showing our works together allowed to catch all the differences beyond the fact that our paintings do indeed represent large-scale faces and feature a dense materiality. Yan Pei-Ming makes black-and- white oil
portraits whereas my faces are monochromatic archetypes painted with acrylic enamel… This said, I was struck by the power of Yan Pei-Ming's work and his take on Western painting.

 

IB: With the faces you found a way to achieve something absolute…

 

RCZ: Yes, they express my being pissed off at the world, my impotence in the face of life tragedies. I made other series like Street Accidents, Dead Children in Rwanda, and Embryons in which the painterly matter is closer to Emilio Vedova… their purpose is to show how a person's emotions can be seized by the violence of the matter… When those works were made I was unaware of what was around me.

 

IB:At twenty-five and as a self-taught artist, you moved to Milan. Things were changing: Cannaviello's roaster featured artists like Pusole e Pizzi Cannella, and there were also the play doughs of Stefano Arienti, and Corrado Levi and Amedeo Martegani. Who did you look at?

 

RCZ: Thinking about artists of my same age, I was fascinated by the work of Luigi Presicce, Nicus Lucà, Davide Nido, and others as well as by the music scene. But beside Mondino, my teachers were artists like Michelangelo Pistoletto or Antonio Recalcati who taught me how to look at the world, and the photographers Carlo Valsecchi and Filippo Sciascia with whom I have night-long discussions about art. A special guidance came from Roberto Barni, a pre-Transvanguardia painter whose work have been unfairly underrated, a sublime figurative painter who precedes Mimmo Paladino and Sandro Chia.
Then, another stroke of luck: the beginning of “real” art making, and idea that becomes concrete. Italo Crevola, Emilio Mazzoli together with Paolo Majorana and Alessandro Poggiali came to my studio and bought my works. In fact, they even commissioned new works which kept me busy for the following four years. And I do still work with Alessandro Poggiali.

 

IB: In 2006, you stop making faces but carry on with the monochrome and the painterly density. Slowly, you work begins to change. How did The Explosions come about?

 

RCZ: In 2009, I went to Japan for two months (I am used to spend long periods abroad, and the Orient has always fascinated me). There, I could feel the weight of History, the atrocity of the Atomic Bomb obsessed me and for this series of great explosions I resumed abstract painting. Upon seeing my work in the studio, critic and journalist Marina Mojana and gallerist Claudio Composti came up with the idea of an exhibition with catalogue to be held at Palazzo Reale on occasion of the anniversary of the
Hiroshima bombing on the 6th of August. The copyright on the photographs of the atomic bomb had just expired and these images were everywhere. So, I sat down to study the explosion, its movements and destructive energy.

 

IB: From the formal point of view, The Vulcanoes and The Explosions strike me as quite similar and might date from the same period. You showed them together in an exhibition at the Ronchini Gallery, in London. These works seem to set natural violence in dialogue with human violence and its insanity. At the same time, as the figurative representation begins to subside and the painterly substance gains weight, the palette is still monochromatic. How did you come up with these new works?

 

RCZ: After the exhibition, I decided to take a break from work and stayed in London. I felt I had come to a standstill and began looking for a theoretical ground to start afresh. I forced myself to pause for two years during which I read a lot, went to as many exhibition as possible, and studied the artists I loved the most. This break issued from the need to clean up my mind. I strived to take in as much as I could without restricting my creativity, I was looking for emptiness and silence. I left my studio on purpose so that I did not have a physical space to work in and I committed to looking and walking.

IB: What brought you back to work? And why such a different style?

 

RCZ: At some point, I felt I had to have a studio again and the studio is the fundamental condition for me to work. Back in Milan, I found a industrial loft that I transformed into a house/studio, a place to settle down and do research. I went back to work, and it was happy and hectic.

 

IB: You are loosely inspired by the Japanese conception of time, extended and anonymous. The techniques of enamel and oil painting on canvas but with industrial materials…

 

RCZ: I am looking for a way to break the dichotomy between the East and the West, tradition and modernity. My research is grounded in a post-industrial present, as if our expressive means would become something else in the Orient…

 

IB: This series turns a sequence of paintings into a motion picture. Like celluloid film, it is light-sensitive. Also, it is made of thin overlapping layers that affect the color and create an instinctive, material texture although your work is far from being instinctual and possesses a infinite number of layers. Like gouache painting… The idea of capturing the flux of pigments and turn it into a representation seems quite conceptual and abstract.

 

RCZ: That's right. In these works, I leave it to the viewer to figure out some kind of figuration. Everyone is free to read the painting in her own way… What I make is like a code, and the vision of the public is an open and undetermined. I enjoy looking at the painting as a whole. My favorite ones change every day depending on my thoughts and state of mind…

 

Ilaria Bonacossa and Roberto Coda Zabetta