24.06.2017 – 29.07.2017


Annet Gelink Gallery is delighted to present Sostanza, the first solo exhibition of Italian painter Roberto Coda Zabetta (1975, Biella, IT) with the gallery. Coda Zabetta believes in structuring emotions on the painterly surface. For him, painting is a state of mind and, at the same time, a physical necessity.


Since 2014, Coda Zabetta has been working with pure abstraction, inspired by the physicality of materials. The move from figurative to abstract is not necessarily an irreversible choice, but it allows the painter to take a step back and observe from a distance his work. Instead of concentrating on subjects, the artist focuses on pigments, colours and substances.

Usually large-scaled, Coda Zabetta’s striking works play with different kinds of textures. Experimenting with painting processes, Coda Zabetta not only uses traditional materials and techniques, but also different natural elements such as pigments or sand, organic materials, oyster shell dust, tar, and chemical materials.


The Italian word Sostanza, that gives the title to the show, has different meanings. In current use, it can be translated into being the essence of something. It is also a term that, from the origins of philosophical thought, designates what remains below the changing appearances. And the word can also be used for a substance of a chemical composition that gives it particular characteristics.


In this exhibition, works from two series have been brought together. In his ‘films’ series, Coda Zabetta experiments with layers of wafer-thin pigments, creating fluid coloured paintings that seem to radiate light. The transparency of the works calls to mind traditional Chinese and Japanese watercolour landscapes actually obtained by painting with air-pressure capturing on the surfaces energy and movement.


The paintings in his ‘more materical’ series look much more dense and materialistic, with the paint thickly applied in a single gesture. What looks like the expressive brush stroke is in fact created by working paint with a spatula, evoking the idea of laying stucco on a wall more than painting.

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

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 '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: “take
this 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

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
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


I believe in technique, in the capacity to structure emotions on the painterly surface…
Roberto Coda Zabetta

For Roberto Coda Zabetta, painting is a state of mind and, at the same time, a physical necessity, a personal method to give form to the magmatic chaos of matter. Usually large-scaled, his works show how to seize and ‘force’ pigments into a a transparent, doughy impasto that violates the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Following the teachings of Emilio Vedova (1919-2006), the Italian master of abstraction who used to define his own works as ‘quakes’ and ‘whiffs’, Roberto Coda Zabetta’s research is structured in thematic clusters while hypnotic emotions explode from his layers of painterly substance.
In developing his practice, Roberto Coda Zabetta has never abided by the strict rules of the contemporary art world, reclaiming the freedom to choose his own style with the same eclecticism of his mentor and teacher Aldo Mondino (1938-2005). Indeed, after a years-long period of figurative post-expressionist monochromes, in 2014 he dived headlong in pure abstraction. Once again, Mondino set example opening Coda Zabetta’s eyes on the importance of the materials, of the knowledge of one’s own creative tools and, furthermore, onto the importance to establish a truthful relation between one’s work and the world.

Yet, the diffusion of abstract experiments in the international art scene proves that the return to abstraction as a space of freedom and emotion can be understood as the artists’ muted answer to the exaggerated consumption of the image brought about by global capitalism and the virtualization of the real. The work of great contemporary painters such as Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Amy Sillman, and Liz Deschenes shows that the shift from abstraction to figuration is not conceptually definitive. Indeed, contemporary abstract painting is nothing but dogmatic: it results from the balance between total freedom and the compositional restrictions the artist imposes upon himself.

Titling an exhibition of two-dimensional works FILM# 00-56 entails a semantic shift and elicits a smooth reading of the works that appear connected to one another through a ‘narrative’ structure. In addition, this title turns the artist from demiurge to director since he seizes and captures on film actions performed by others than himself. The choice to paint ‘as a director’ developed after a two-years long pause during which the artist underwent a crises about his capacity to represent the world through images. This crises resulted into a open work, autonomous and independent from the artist himself, to a certain extent, FILM# 00-56 is a sequence of fifty-six frames that tell about a linguistic change in which the expressionist gesture is replaced by the desire to freeze the energy of pigments on the canvas.
However, there is nothing casual about Coda Zabetta’s new artistic practice, his paintings are made of thin layers, impalpable ‘films’ of color and air. No longer thick nor brightened by heavy brushstrokes of white, the painterly substance becomes fluid and transparent thanks to the use of air as a painterly tool. The serial structure of this project derives from the idea to create a sequence of film-stills in which mechanical execution and the energy of compressed air are combined with manual precision, the rhythm of the brush, and the force of color. These canvases of different sizes seem to play with the limits of contemporary abstraction by establishing a tactile and visceral relation with the classic materials of painting which are ‘forcefully’ turned into transparent wefts through the use of spatulas and compressed air.

FILM# features a material metamorphosis where the gestural energy crystallizes a mind state influenced by oriental art. The narrative structure recedes in favor of matter. Technique and manual skill are decisive in governing the flow of pigments, while the formal accuracy of the gesture is quite lyrical and distanced from any form of psychic automatism. The works on view can be divided in subgroups, like the episodes of a film, where the energy of the pigments crystallizes several structures. The material, almost sculptural, weight of certain canvases, where numbers of layers are blended to darken the image, nearly turns them into transparent screen-prints that seem to be painted in watercolor.

Thus, cut across by a vector of color, some paintings appear to be lit by falling stars exploded millions light years away while others seem to capture the reflections of wave motion through the water. Their transparencies as well as their extended temporality recall the thousand-year-old tradition of Japanese ink wash painting and watercolor on paper. Similarly, the concentric force of some works seem to figure forth the slow death of a star and its implosion in a space different from the Cartesian three-dimensionality we are used to inhabit. At last, the small-size square paintings look like microscopic scans of colorful coral fragments. These fifty-six works are about the energy of the world, they turn painting into a film about waves, reflections, particle movements, centripetal and centrifugal forces. It is a moving, stunning film.

Arranged in groups like medieval polyptychs, these paintings remind of nanotechnology digital images as well as sidereal spaces millions light years away from us. They show how the contemporary gaze can now move from microcosm to macrocosm, from the core of a cell to the explosion of a galaxy. In FILM#, then, abstraction probes the heart of matter, contemporary physics is turned into purified painting, suspended in between the continuous flow of time and the urgency of the moment, to grasp the essence of things. This series descends from the urge to represent that which we have never seen nor, possibly, even imagined.

FILM# is informed by Coda Zabetta’s dismissal of the compositional tenets accrued in his figurative works. Here, constitutional and technical features are radicalized and painting becomes an existential exercise. The force of these works resides in their power to condense information and seize the gaze of viewer to lead it, through wave motions and light reflection, in a journey made of emptiness and substance, light and shade, thoughts and contemplation.
It is worthless wondering about the origin of these paintings, they stand as a collection of matter, of its movement and energy. It can take just an hour to make a painting but, for an artist, it can take many years before that hour comes.

Ilaria Bonacossa 2015


1- Ieri

Il Vaso di Pandora si narra contenesse tutte le forze del male, furie, istinti selvaggi, cataclismi, malvagità. Scoperchiato infettava il mondo, trasformando le città in luoghi di tragedia e distruzione. Neppure la speranza (oggi si direbbe speranza di un senso, di una giustizia, di un disegno), venne concessa in salvo alla genia degli uomini. Il mondo, la realtà, sembra dirci il mitologema, non è solo un insieme di forze positve, di bei ideali e di valori sacrosanti, ma anche il suo contrario. Regno di forze oscure e minacciose, imperfezione, entropia. A molti la storia dell’arte dopo le gloriose epoche classiche potrebbe apparire tale e quale. Parafrasando Bataille, potremmo dire che, mentre l’universo è proprio un ragno spiaccicato, la forma può essere uno sputo. Altri sono andati ben oltre, non vergognandosi di paragonare la forma pittorica ad esempio ad un vomito ed ad una carogna di animale in putrefazione. Da un certo momento in poi, più o meno dalla fine del Settecento in avanti, pur avendone avuti già chiari indizi nel Manierismo, la dissoluzione della griglia prospettica o della superficie pittorica, il collasso del segno, la confusione dei toni cromatici, ha generato mostruosità, deformazioni mai viste nell’ordine universale della figuratività. Ovvero aberrazioni informi e mostruose visioni. Come se il quadro dismettendo la sua funzione mimetica, di specchio rivolto sulla bella natura, sul vero ideale, fosse stato voltato veramente da un’altra parte: da quella trattenuta da Pandora nel suo mitico vaso. Una diversa, altra realtà, che albergava nell’essere umano non come una cosa sconosciuta, ma come un’esperienza tenuta a distanza e a parte. La forma difforme fin da quelle prime epoche, pur affermandosi all’interno di una lingua accademica classica, e pur rispettando il testo iconografico, ha stabilito in più modi e in diverse zone del quadro, un nuovo ordine formale, quello incontrollabile della irrazionalità o irragionevolezza. Della follia e della disperazione. Pretendendo, come sostiene Francisco Jarauta, il diritto a pronunciarsi in modo anti-classico, per dire l’indicibile, la morte o la non forma. Esito fondamentalmente scontato in una civiltà che ad un certo punto iniziava a mettere in dubbio l’esistenza tanto di Dio, quanto di valori e strutture appoggiate sulla ragione e l’idea di perfezione ultima.

Dal manierismo in poi, il pittore ha infatti già mutato il suo rapporto con l’occhio, da sempre organo privilegiato della sua disciplina. Dopo Leonardo da Vinci, che forse per primo ha cercato di indagare oltre la superficie ottica delle cose, servedosi però ancora di uno strumento positivo e razionale, sebbene fosse il suo metodo del tutto empirico, l’artista ha aperto lo sguardo su realtà speventevoli lasciando che queste forze irrazionali potessero agire sul segno e la forma, distruggendone la compattezza o la chiarezza, la lucentezza o la trasparenza, l’armonia e la proporzione, in una parola l’intelligibilità e la misura. In un certo senso ha chiuso gli occhi rigirandoli all’interno e da quel momneto ha cominciato a vedere con il corpo, con la carne e i nervi. Siamo entrati in quella notte oscura di cui parlavano i mistici, ma invece che salire il Carmelo per godere di una visione celestiale, gli artisti sono discesi verso la bassa materialità del reale, iniziando a frequentare l’abiezione e la perdizione dell’informe. Il tratto si è confuso, aggrovigliato, come trascinato al centro di un sussulto infernale, la materia distesa per secoli con lentezza e dolcezza si è improvvisamente increspata, agitandosi si è mescolata e gonfiandosi si è poi dissolta in rivoli tumultuosi, in chiazze oscene e volgari più simili a espettorazioni e vomiti che a rosee, argentee, eteree nuvolette. Anche i colori in questo cambiamento di suoni e armonie si sono accesi risentendo di una forza nuova e oscura. I suoni sono rimombati come effetti di una violenza in atto, non solo in potenza. A quel punto sono venute meno, dissolvendosi, anzi cadendo a terra e a terra spiaccicandosi, anche le iconografie classiche. Cioè quelle figure del mito o della iconologia cristiana, che per secoli avevano personificato forze del male, mostruosità, difformità, impulsi feroci, follie e sregolatezze dei sensi, trattenendole all’interno di quel vaso di Pandora che erano appunto le iconografie. E quelle forze, senza figura corrispettiva, hanno agito direttamente sulla tecnica e gli strumenti, imponendo la propria verità senza la mediazione concettuale e iconica di quel linguaggio formale che per secoli aveva fondato e disciplinato la visibilità secondo i principi della classicità estendendo il suo imperio non solo sul visibile e il conoscibile ma anche anche sull’indicibile e l’inumano (M.Foucault).

Dunque, ben prima della manifestazione eclatante dell’informale, come stile e disciplina autonoma, ovvero prima di Dubuffet e Burri e delle loro “operazioni informi”, la follia del segno e della forma, quella forza oltre la linea d’ombra del soggetto, classico, quindi razionale, e della sua metafisica, si è annidata nella pittura classica come espressione di una lignua anticlassica. Osservando certe opere, abbiamo detto, essa si trova in zone, dettagli, particolari che a volte attraggono come un vero e proprio punctum. Proprio per questo hanno a che fare con qualcosa di simile alla morte e al massimo dell’indicibile, a quanto è il male estremo, il destino inaccettabile e inspiegabile, quel misto di eros e violenza che è a fondamento dell’esserci stesso. In queste zone perturbanti, dove aleggia un sentore di putrefazione e di abiezione, siamo ad un passo dall’informe, cioè molto vicino alla dimensione più inquietante del dolore e dell’angoscia, tra le pieghe della follia, nella parte molle e debilitata di una crisi umanistica senza paragoni, quella di una sensibilità, che non facendo più affidamento alla ragione, si è scoperta in crisi di valori e di religiosità, e che perdendosi nel proprio orizzonte materialistico ha visto vacillare la propria fede nella morale (classica) e nella fede (cattolica) aprendo le porte ad un profondo negativo nichilismo.

Prima di altri gli artisti hanno avvertito questa crisi universale dell’uomo restituendone i segni inglorisi e ignominosi. Addirittura hanno anticipato e preparato questa crisi, elaborando una nuova pratica informale all’interno della propria grandiosa disciplina accademica: non potendo più ricorrere al vecchio sistema di segni e di figure essi manifestavano gli effetti di quello slittamento anticlassico elaborando una crisi della materia e della figura, in cui a volte il tema era il pretesto iconografico per praticare la propria eresia, il proprio abbassamento o sprofondamento nel difforme e nell’informe, consumando il sacrifico e liberandone gli effetti. Come Goya che, dopo Rosso Fiorentino ed El Greco, pochi decenni dopo il Piranesi e Fussli, pochissimi anni dopo David e Canova, dipingeva la Quinta del sordo, la sua opera testamento, vero e proprio auto da fé, coprendo di pittura nera, livida e tetra, di figure speventevoli, un serie di bei paesaggi agresti, quel genere di vedute che tanto andava di moda nelle ville e nei palazzi di una società che consumandosi nel lusso e nel libertinaggio era ormai arrivata al capolinea.

Queste dissonanze o slittamenti di senso avevano trovato espressione anche nell’universo compositivo della fine del Settecento e dei primi dell’Ottocento, ad esempio in certe suonate di Beethoven e nei suoi “inspiegabili” trii per archi e per pianoforte, o in quell’impressionante monumento anticlassico che è “La Grande Fuga”, quartetto per archi da eseguire in preda ad una condizione convulsiva. Tuttavia, se ci affidiamo alla storia dell’arte e della critica, la prima vera scioccante esperienza formale è senz’altro l’Olympia di Manet, definita alla sua epoca una sorta di cadavere putrescente. Scioccante perché per la prima volta la dissoluzione della classicità accademica, soggetto, forma, disegno, e tutto il resto, è portata in primo piano, esibita, denudata, e quindi offerta in pasto crudamente senza altra mediazione che la sua evidenza formale. Con quella stessa evidenza con cui appare l’Olympia che è puttana vera e che si da nella sua impudica sessualità, puro oggetto di carne e di piacere. E puro strumento di piacere o di doloroso godimento appare di fatto la pittura di Manet, quella nuova pittura oltraggiosda e irriverente, che veniva giudicata e condannata come oscena. “Olympia è la negazione dell’Olimpo e se Olympia ha scandalizzato, sostiene Bataille, è perché tramite di essa Manet ha rifiutato i diversi codici ideologici e formali che regolavano la pittura di nudo, fosse esso erotico, mitologico o anche realista” (1). ” Il personaggio di manet non è situatoi da nessuna parte, né nel mondo senza fascino del prosaico linguaggio del naturalismo, né nell’ordine convulsivo della finzione accademica”. La sua sessualità è indecifrabile perché oltre le forme, così come informe comincia ad essere la pittura, quindi inammissibile dal punto di vista della forma stessa. A parere di Bataille, forse il vero codificatore della categoria informe, perché l’unico capace di definire la materia informe al di fuori di ogni dialettica o di dualismo idealistico, l’opera di Manet rappresenta il primo caso di operazione scatologica. Quindi è la madre di ogni successiva opera “informale”. La materia brut, per l’appunto la forma informe, al limite del pervertito e del perturbante, è secondo il filosofo francese ” ciò di cui non si ha idea, ciò che non fa senso, che non ha diritti suoi in alcun senso e si fa schiacciare dappertutto come un ragno o un verme di terra”. è quella esperienza e oggetto di bassa materialità, oscena, disgustosa, spaventevole, intoccabile, che non può, non deve e non vuole essere riassorbita dall’immagine o dal contenuto, nel loro vecchio e perdurante ideralismo dialettico: al contrario quando tutto ciò le si avvicina tutto si riduce a forma derisoria, sgorbio, pasticcio, poltiglia, e gli unici termini a disposizione sono quelli di volgarità, bruttezza, oscenità. Tutto questo per Bataille è come la cacca, il riso, la parola oscena, la follia, qualcosa che fa anche appello a una esperienza di realtà e di sensazioni tipicamente infantile. Per questo scatena forze degenerative, regressive, basse, volgari, o meglio ancestrali e animali.

Da allora di materia informe, e di esperienze irrazionali permutate in difformità, abbiamo molti esempi. Da quel fantastico e sorprendente piccolo capolavoro dell’arte informale che è la tela donata da Duchamp ad una sua amica, pittura realizzata con getto di sperma disteso col polpastello (o altro ancora), che anticipa forse molte altre prove di basso materialismo. E poi Fontana, Burri, Fautrier, Wolfs e come indicizzato da Rosalind Kraus e Yve-Alain Bois, anche Rauschemberg, Morris, Gordon Matta-Clark , Manzoni, Twombly, solo per citare alcuni esempi di quella squadra eterogenea di cultori e sciamani dell’informe. A fianco di tutti questi, ma un po’ in disparte, Pollock, più informale di loro, più pittore, più artista capace di rivoluzionare la stessa fenomeologia dell’atto pittorico e gli esiti stessi della modernità. Abbassando tutto quanto era stato verticale fino a quel giorno sul piano orizzontale della vita stessa, quella vita portata a livello dei piedi, della cacca, dello sputo, dei ragni spiaccicati Pollock ha portato l’Olimpo ancora più in basso.


Le grandi facce urlanti dipinte da Coda Zabetta, ma dipinte è un termine ormai poco appropriato per raccontare quanto accade alla materia e all’immagine dagli inizi del Novecento, approdano alla forma sollevandosi a fatica dal piano orizzontale e da quello verticale. Come sospesi sul tragico abisso della materialità (orizzontale) e dell’iconicità ( verticale), gli urli e le facce sembrano subire un attacco (isteria o libido) ancor più deflagrante, più furioso, terrribile e gaudente. L’attacco vitalistico, orgiastico, convulsivo del colore. L’attacco è ovviamente anche un rito e un sacrificio, essendo praticato con veemenza e furore, benché esso sia tenuto sotto controllo attraverso un metodo e una funzione, in questo caso la doppia funzione, logica e sacrificale, di cui il volto, il ritratto, la faccia è vittima e artefice. Senza trovare fissa dimora, in un va e vieni, ora superando la propria alterità ora rifluendo in essa, queste opere nascono e rifulgono in definitiva su tre fronti, quello del volto, l’altro dell’urlo, infine il colore, alternandosi in preda all’euforia e allo sgomento, ora emergendo da un fondo oscuro, ora inghiottendosi pure quello. Infatti l’urlo sembra sul punto di diventare ancor più lacerante, assordante, definitivo, o al contrario rifluire verso il più puro silenzio, verso quella linea d’ombra e di nichilismo da cui forse si era divincolato. Poesia muta, la pittura, lo è in questo a tragedia forse già compiuta. Apres coup, direbbe un noto filosofo a proposito di questo trattamento informale. E l’apres coup qui sarebbe il grido, che terrorizza e violenta trattandolo come pura materia un soggetto classico inscritto da sempre in un genere altrettanto tradizionale: il volto, il ritratto.
Il grido, e un poco più oltre l’urlo, mentre scatena forze, che deformano la classicità del volto, apre uno spazio cavo, profondo, un pozzo, un gorgo, al fondo del quale possiamo già ficcare lo testa, lo sguardo: il grido, urlato, scatena una spazialità altra e quindi anche un tempo altro, una dimensione del reale che si struttura sul fondo oscuro dell’inconscio e della psiche. Una dimensione (onirica, dell’immaginario, della libido) che fin dalle sue prime apparizioni si presentò in modo perturbante, per l’appunto informe. L’urlo non è solo ciò che agisce dal dentro, e da un tempo lontanissimo, per questo terrorizza chi si veda allo specchio urlante, provocando una specie di eco malefico e spaventevole, una vera e propria esplosione, un’onda d’urto che deforma la crosta e le strutture. Vorremmo dire che l’urlo è quella forza che può essere compresa solo osservando la materia e l’intensità difforme della stessa. Come se non tanto il soggetto quanto l’operazione riuscisse a dire l’urlo, urlando (vomitando) la materia stessa.

Dunque in prima analisi, le opere di Coda Zabetta, sembrano vivere tre esperienze: quella del ritratto, quella della materia, la terza quella del colore. Vissute al di fuori di ogni dialettica idealistica. Anche se appunto l’operazione informale si attiene alle logiche iconiche e spaziali di un genere e di un soggetto a suo modo ancora tradizionale. E queste tre esperienze ondeggiano, o forse slittano, sul piano instabile della figurazione e della defigurazione, su quello della forma e della difformità, della somiglianza e della dissomiglianza. Alla difformità della somiglianza, fa sponda l’altra ragion d’essere di queste opere che è tutta ancora nella forza di essere un volto, e di esserlo ancora nei confini della rassomiglianza. Il volto trascina con se il ritratto e la gestualità altera in modo disastroso tutto quanto, ma proprio il disastro, la cui verità è nell’urlo, l’altro genere e soggetto di matrice moderna, crea una nuova forma a partire dall’informale. L’informale quindi in Coda Zabetta non è tanto una scuola a cui far riferimento, un genere, quanto una pratica, un rito, un sacrifico, quello stesso compiuto da Pollock che ha riposto sul piano orizzontale la pittura tutta, in particolare quella di paesaggio e il paesaggio con figure.

L’opera dunque per assurdo ha origine fuori dal quadro e va oltre il quadro (se il quadro è il soggetto riconoscibile dentro all’immagine, ai suoi confini con i quali ancora si può rintracciare una geografia umana, riconoscere quindi una storia, una genealogia umanistica). Eppure gesto, colore, tensione, frequenza, distanza, consistenza, prima o dopo l’urlo, che è anche l’urto, ricompongono provvisoriamente il soggetto stesso, il genre, ovvero il quadro. L’artista, a mio avviso, non ritrae, né immagina, né tanto meno deforma, si tratta piuttosto di ripassare a memoria (ma è il corpo che ha somatizzato più che la retina) un esperienza del soggetto laddove l’io è altro da se. I volti e gli urli, urti e impatti con immagini e esperienze, che ancora dobbiamo nominare volti, ritratti, nascono da esperienze di simile bassa materialità, di abiezione, di angosciosa percezione. Una forza, un’intensita, esperienza che è ancora più profonda e altra dal soggetto, dall’io e dal tu.

Ecco l’urlo. L’altro che veramente sgomenta e provoca, costruendo intensità tali che la materia diventa cosa assolutamente difforme. Ma l’urlo non è solo materia, è anche spazio, quindi tempo. Nel senso in cui apre una dimensione altra, una voragine, un abisso. Caverna e gorgo, appare l’urlo quando prende sopravvento sul volto. Spazio e misura di una forza che domina su tutto e dappertutto. Qualcosa che deforma prima di tutto la superficie in quanto la trasforma in materia, bassa, deplorevole, informe. Ma la deforma proprio in quanto apre su una dimensione altra, su uno spazio e un tempo altro, La superficie del volto, l’immagine stessa, provano uno slittamento feroce, debordamento, dissipazione, rigurgito. Troppo facile spiegare l’urlo in pittura, da certi urli romantici, a Munch, a Berg (Lulu urla bestialmente), come metafora di paura e di bestiale godimento, paragonandolo al vomito e al gemito, quindi pensandolo come figura del terrore, della violenza, del male, della morte, oppure del piacere sessuale, quell’intensità deformante che prende il sopravvento sull’io, e il volto è prima di tutto lio, quando il godimento arriva a quel punto indefinibile di piacere, che tutto si fa troppo animale, bestiale, e il soggetto perde il senso del tempo, vivendo solo di pulsazione e flash, di dissipazione e contrazione. Troppo scontato riferirsi al grido di certi papi di Bacon, a certi suoi volti che urlando spasmodicamente si liquefano. Eppure è utile fare un po’ di esegesi; ad esempio è utile notare che mentre l’urlo agisce sul volto anche la pittura si liquefa, e con essa immagine e materia. Tutto il linguaggio occidentale si liquefa con Bacon, tutta la visibilità. Qui invece tutto esplode, crepitando e dissipandosi, macchie, schizzi, come un frutto spiaccicato, come un corpo calpestato, fatto esplodere. Quindi qualcosa d’altro violenta il soggetto moderno del volto. Forse la consapevolezza della violenza disumana che è la forza bellica dell’uomo occidentale. L’esperienza di un mondo che non cade, ma si esplode, gettando la propria forma difforme contro lo specchio dei media.

Questa è la tragedia e l’ironia di tale esperienza. Perché tutto qui si trattiene e non si ferma. Attratto da una forza gravitazionale resta al suo posto, limitrofo, in modo da ristrutturare un genere oltre ad un immagine informe si ma rassomigliante. Per giunta a colori. E che il grido, urlato, sia l’intensità dell’ atto difforme su cui il processo pittorico si organizza, si struttura, e anche la sua forma, epifania, tutta difforme e dissipata, lo sottolinea, rinforzandolo con la stessa intensità, e misura, quella macchia di colore violentemente gettato a fianco, una sorta di raddoppiamento sonoro oltre che figurale, altro urlo. (Splash). Macchie di pura pittura, e quindi pittura come operazione e non come tema.

Sergio Risaliti 2006


The shield is an archaic military device. Once muskets appeared on the battlefield around 1500 it disappeared: what point was there in lumbering around the battlefield carrying a large, heavy lump of wood or metal if a man with a gun could knock a hole in it anyway? Nevertheless it still retains a deep symbolic meaning, for example in two popular English hymns
A safe stronghold our God is still,
A trusty shield and weapon;
Guide me, O thou great Redeemer…
Be thou still my strength and shield.
Or in video games where people still carry them! There in these contemporary fantasy myths a pilgrim or young hero will set off with a sword and a shield. It remains a rich metaphor, not just for heroism but for such things as the USA’s missile defence shield, and also as a term for medical or spiritual defence. The phrase “shield me from” is so common that the word has become a verb as well as a noun.
But though it does not figure in the arsenal of armies anymore it is very much a device used by police in riots to both protect them from hurled missiles and an aggressive tool to push protesters down or away. It has become here not the symbol of heroism but of oppression and institutional brutality. Circular-shaped shields are used by snatch squads: police who run into the crowd to beat or capture individual leaders.
If there is one image of the shield in art that remains haunting it is Caravaggio’s shield-shaped painting Medusa. In the myth she was so ugly that anyone who saw her was turned top stone; Perseus defeated her by using a mirrored shield to reflect her horrific face back at her. This image was re-invented in the late nineteenth century by Arnold Böcklin, both as a painting and as a sculpted shield. However he presents her more as a tragic figure she was – a beautiful woman turned to a vision of terror by Athena whose temple she worked in as a punishment for “letting” Poseidon rape her there.
The shield is therefore, as Coda Zabetta claims, still a potent one, but one with rich yet slippery connotations. He elides it with the human face. The face is like a shield
too – it protects our thoughts as well as supposedly expressing them. In English we say “shield” or “mask” as a way of saying “conceal” or “hide”.
If the persistent oval shape in these paintings is a shield, which side of the shield are we on? Do we stare at a shield held by someone else, bearing as does Caravaggio’s famous painting the image of a face? Or do we stare at the inside, concave side of the shield – our own shield – that is perhaps mirroring or reflecting our own features or thoughts?
Although the marks and flow of paint are, as always in Coda Zabetta, are strong and assertive we are in a complex and uncertain place, we have to think carefully where we are and what we see represents. As always in Coda Zabetta the marks and what they do is ultimately the thing itself. Above all they play on the inside and outside: the outside masking, shield-like shape of the face, on the inside the turbulent emotions and doubts. The face is always there: it is as persistent as a rock on the sea front that the waves storm against and flow over. If the face in its shield-like form represents the person, the paint that flows over and through it can be seen to represent history or the flux of time.
Again and again when we look at these paintings we may ask ourselves which side of the shield are we on? The eyeholes suggest this like a mask may be used for secure viewing, but a mask has associations of deceit and falsehood that a shield does not.
But his marks too can conceal as well as expose: his marks often cover up other images – for example, in an earlier series images from Chinese paintings – as if they were growths of form that are slowly materialising in front of us. Or as if, were to look down at out world from space, they were clouds moving across the globe.
And these are, lest we forget, above all else not metaphors or statements but paintings. In this series there is a wonderful variety of mark, mood and colour contrast or harmonies. Although they are provocative paintings that seem to stare back at us, that seem to occupy the space of the gallery in a challenging way, they are full of visual pleasures for the viewer. They present a discourse about the pleasure or sensuality of painting as well as one about identity and political strife.
In his statement Coda Zabetta talks about the horrors of Brazil, a country once run by a military regime whose crimes (like those of the equivalent military regimes in Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Argentina, Chile etcetera) have never been fully exposed or punished. He has never been an artist to avoid serious themes such as
cancer, genocide in Rwanda, atomic bombs. The face is both the witness to these horrors and the assertion of the identity of the victim.
Do we believe in portraits anymore? Do we believe as people in a different age did that the face is mirror of the soul? Yes and no. Do we believe that the painter can capture the “soul” or “character” of the sitter when he paints him or her? Probably not but yet we remain fascinated by portrait painting and photography. We look at the photographs of these generals who ordered massacres, who directed “dirty wars” and we are puzzled because we cannot see what we want to see. They do not drip blood. They do not look malevolent.
These are and are not portraits. What do they portray: people or states of mind? They appear to be statements but the longer we look the more like questions they seem to be. These are two of the many paradoxes Coda Zabetta has touched again on in this recent set of paintings. He works with paradoxes and radical disjunctures or contrast: the contours of the face are as perfectly oval and as incorruptible and implacable as a shield, but the marks are loose, gestural, flowing. What ever the marks do, whether they define or cover it up, the face remains intact and unchanged. Sometimes an expression and a character will appear, conjured up by lines of age or facial expression, but always there are eyes: they watch us, they bear witness to what has gone before.
The word martyr comes from the Greek μάρτυς, mártys meaning witness. There is a sense of martyrdom or pain here. But above all there is the sense of witnessing – an act in which we are invited to participate.

Tony Godfrey 2013


When the poet T.S. Eliot introduced his concept of the “perfect artist” during the thirties he was paying homage to those who functioned normally in everyday life, yet who performed their work in an aesthetically convincing way. For Eliot, the life-style of the artist was a secondary concern — in fact, separate from the actual creative process. Yet in today’s media-saturated, investment driven art world, the tendency to foreground the artist’s life-style over and above his or her means of visual production is done regularly, almost without notice. Indeed some artists have even cultivated this approach – Andy Warhol for one, Basquiat for another. In contrast, Marcel Duchamp was far less visible in his professional life, often indirect in his remarks, if not deceptive. I cannot speak of Roberto Coda Zabetta in these terms, because I know him only through his work, specifically his dynamic gestural portraits of large male heads. The work appears largely focused on men of African descent. I do not know whether Zabetta’s life-style is perceptively aligned with the subjects in his paintings or whether he maintains a separation in his artistic endeavor.

The real issue is whether Zabetta’s stark, expressionist paintings resonate in a way that is credible and consistent with his intentions as an artist. In other words, does his art give us a sense of what is beneath the surface by representing an inside view of his projected subjects? Are his subjects conflicted to the extent that they appear absent from themselves? Are they trapped in the banalities of commercial media, surreptitious violence, and repression? We do not have access to any of this. What is interesting is how the subjects constitute a kind of psychic persona, an “otherness” that ascertains the artist’s presence in relation to the subjects’ absence. This implies that the subjects in these paintings appear less about their inside motivation than about what exists outside of them, elsewhere. Yet there is a kind of existential dread in these faces. Zabetta is not telling us anything about the motives of his subjects – as one might expect in the expressionism of Kokoschka or Beckmann — but about what lies on the surface. In any case, we are left with something that is distinctly unclear, discomforting, and possibly threatening, a lingering sensation that goes beyond reason, an aura of emptiness or, better put, blankness.

Zabetta is a young, emerging artist, barely into his thirties, who has chosen portraiture as his means of deliver. Some of the images – if seen out of context – could be mistaken for popular illustrations, CD covers, for example. Conversely, Zabetta wants the scale and energy of his paintings to command the space of the gallery or the museum or the collector’s home and be viewed and understood as art. By intensifying the threshold of confrontational awareness in relation to the viewer, the artist incites the demons hidden within these faces to come forth. Even so, there is a peculiar detachment and innocence about these paintings, verging on a kind of naiveté. Zabetta’s way of seeing the male face in its raw state at the core of emotional turbulence may be more cinematic than it is related to the history of painting. This may lead some viewers to see them in graphic terms, but clearly there is more here than technique in spite of the painterly gestures that adorn the surfaces.

In contrast to Eliot’s “perfect artist” – a concept that is essentially a modernist one — I would suggest that Zabetta falls more within the cultural politics of postmodernism. Among the cultural figures of his generation, the possibility of remaining exempt from media visibility is nearly impossible, even if only for a brief period of time. Given the acceleration of digital and commercial media as offering the principle shift from the modern to the postmodern paradigm, it would appear that Eliot’s quest for cultural refinement has been temporarily, if not irrevocably obliterated. Rather than being concerned with formality or the ideal gesture, as in abstract expressionism, Zabetta’s hybrid painterly connotations are more linked to early transavantgardia in their search for metaphysical significance. His portraits have the tone of representing a hardcore machismo that simultaneously reveals both physical directness and elusive self-possession.

Like other artists influenced by the cultural politics of the eighties and nineties, Zabetta’s work does not easily escape issues of irony, detachment, fragmentation, chaos, and simulation – all of which can be traced in the portraits. In this sense, he is an artist who mirrors the global conflicts of the present moment, but he does it through his telescopic views of the psychic persona, the revelation that violent struggle and conflict are endemic to the torn and fractured countenances of ordinary men. Rather than go from the outside in, Zabetta paints from the inside out. The anxiety within these painterly marks and gestures are representational, but only to a degree. There intend to show us the traces of psychic distillation in these flattened remorseless faces – or so it would seem.

Still, there is another dimension in Zabetta’s work that opens a more palpable vision of his work. In mentioning the fear or the cover for existential dread in the faces of his subjects, I am reminded of the French writer Jean Genet. Genet was Moroccan by birth, a bastard without legitimate parents, who later became an acknowledged thief and murderer for which he was imprisoned. In prison, he wrote some of most powerful allegorical confessions in the form or plays and novels that revolve around his existential philosophy. What is impressive about Genet’s writing is, in some ways, as ineffable as the gestural marks than comprise Zabetta’s portraits. It is difficult to get to the source of what propels them into reality. We might consider the cultural parameters that inhabit the paintings of Zabetta as an existential confession. He goes to the source of being without knowing where it is, maybe through “otherness,” maybe through the threshold of a densely clouded confrontation — a tough-guy look where the presence of the gaze obscures our notion of presence.
Robert C. Morgan 2010


The images on which we have recently been nourished all hark back to the demise of certain, apparently inviolable, symbols that indistinctly conveyed to us a sense of stability and permanence and the loss of which has undermined a pervasive sense of protection against transience.
The century opens with a cheering crowd applauding the toppling of a statue, that is monument and celebration, what art in a strict sense would call sculpture. The function of monuments – and here I refer to civilisations such as the Etruscan or Babylonian, but the list is endless – has always been in a sense to fuel the placebo effect of the attempt to overcome death. Funerary monuments have always existed: signs of something that has been and symbols of something that will be forever. Hence the aesthetic attempt to make them of great impact, of great environmental impact, frequently of impressive size and always exploiting materials such as marble or bronze destined to withstand the passage of time or at least, in the short term, to convey a sense of potency and resistance.
Contemporary sculpture has probed the disappearance of the monument, creating a lay poetics based on the very concepts of integrity, unity and solidity: Land Art assumes responsibility for being colossal in the invasion of the environment and founds its poetic on an attitude that appears to be grounded on archetypes of millennial monumentality such as Stonehenge or the Pyramids.
Moreover, the reference to something other to which to sacrifice time and belief has always been inherent to human nature: according to William Stukeley the Druids used Stonehenge as a place of worship, but in general it is by now fairly clear that beyond religion it served as an immense calendar.
The megalithic complex of Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain in Great Britain around 3200 BC, that is around the same time that the great pyramids were constructed in Egypt.
The construction is circular in form, of a diameter of a few dozen metres; it is composed of several rings of tall, narrow stones, some of them surmounted by other slabs of stone. A series of holes in the ground, arranged in circles, can also be observed.
As we mentioned, Stonehenge is also coeval with the construction of the pyramids, around 3200 BC. Religion, cult of death, the quest for knowledge and funerary monumentality are therefore elements that link up, emerging at distances that are immense at the least.
Minimalism itself takes the same rigour from Land Art, albeit maintaining a more assertive and vaguely emphatic attitude: It is founded on a poetics in which the rigidity verges on being austere and icy, capable of retrieving signifiers through motifs that are of the same scope but opposing results, consequent on waiver of the overload of formal outcomes.
Dry prose, inevitable, immovable, makes it into a monument where the figure vanishes to leave room for the pedestal, itself morphed into sculpture, an abstract sarcophagus.
More recently the installations have created surroundings to sink into, offspring of the consumer society, shattering the sense of unity and generating the immoderate sense of connections born of mass communication and the society of increasingly enticing luxury goods fuelled by consumerism. Relationships, rearing up with no apparent means of control, make the space of the work overflow: the art of the installation starts from the assumption of being a thread in the fabric of the incessant flow of global connections.
And hence another monument founded on the celebration of the instant.
Today’s sculpture, on the contrary, offspring of our own fragility, is in itself promiscuous, no longer lives elsewhere, no longer sets a distance, but abandons the pedestal and comes to dwell among us, annihilating the space that reciprocally isolated us. Brancusi had already anicipated this sense of the postmodern, with no apparent way out, devoid of a line from a to b that can be followed confidently. First conceptually and then formally abandoning the pedestal of his works, he came to produce a sculpture consisting of serial bases, the Endless Column, almost positing a seamless continuity between earth and heaven.
Not to mention Manzoni, who to restore the sense of the coincidence between art and life set a pedestal upside down in a park as a stand for the greatest and most vital sculpture in the world: the world itself.
The ecstasy of communication has triggered indiscriminate attitudes among contemporary artists that can be traced to the pervasive need to restore the precariousness of unstable relations and the desire to tackle space.
In the general flow addressed, it is useful to see how the approaches of figures such as Ernesto Neto or Thomas Saraceno, at their best, dictate a sort of direction in which we must perforce look.
According to Neto the work of art is a place rife with sensations, exchange, continuity, and the work only becomes complete when it meets the spectator; he himself claims that “everything happens on the skin, through the skin”.
Neto creates installations that involve the spectator in a play of interactions and relations, just like Thomas Saraceno whose poetics is similarly linked not only to an interaction with space but also, and even more importantly, to the suspension of the creations themselves in the formal epilogue.
Enzo Cucchi presented Costume Interiore at the Macro in Rome: forms more than things, biomorphic elements suspended at eye level upon which Cucchi has painted with energetic freshness much of the iconology dear to the artist.
For years, Daniela De Lorenzo has been pursuing research that leads to the decomposition of rigid forms, making way for a more organic dimension. Evidence of this evolution is the use of felt as the chosen material for her entire production, linked to the fact that it retains the memory of the gesture performed upon it. Proposing a reflection on the value of suspension, on temporality and identity, oscillating between Robert Morris and Joseph Beuys, who in 1974 at the René Block Gallery in New York staged his Coyote performance, I like America and America likes me, wrapped in a blanket of grey felt. De Lorenzo proposes the felt like grammar, in the same way as Filippo Sciascia does, establishing the use of the chalk and enamel, or Roberto Coda Zabetta the chromolux, the gesture on the porcelain or, more recently, the liquid chrome bath of what we might call the aerial sculptures, for which form is determined by the very swiftest gesture.
Chalk is chosen in Sciascia’s paintings, although it could be any other art object instead of a painting, because like felt it is a dynamic material, it is connected with the rhythm of the unspent temporality of a process that proceeds in stages: qualifying the conceptual nature of painting through materials and narrative choices is a “coincident parallelism”, a challenge that is cast down. The suspension of the installations that we find in this show, the temporality marked out by light determined by frequency and wavelength, which is the passage of atoms in a period of time, the unresolved identity and the lesson of Beuys, whom Sciascia for example adores, depict part of the ring, linked to the chain of the contemporary flow, to which this Como two man show refers.
The instability that we have arrived at, the fragility of the human being, the shapes that it has given over time to elements that could safeguard the precariousness of earthly life – as we have seen starting from the funerary monuments through to following a chain that brings us face to face with the installation medium – defines the space in which this show is to be placed.
Both artists implement practices that define their relations with the contemporary debate through intersecting planes of reading: they appear to be interested in the way the work pursues itself through space, starting from a profane sacredness to arrive at one in the true sense, which finds a point of encounter in the very title: Ex Voto.
Ex Voto is the grace received: patients suffering from cancer, but alive; the light is focal to Sciascia’s poetics as the very embodiment of salvation.
But they go beyond this: Coda Zabetta presents sculptural works that have lost their customary availability, they are set within bell jars and the pedestal is no longer a necessary means for enjoying the work but is raised to the function of religious icon, a sort of temple, an altar. This is why the work is only complete when it meets the spectator; this is why everything has to happen on the skin, through the skin, like the light which for Sciascia is paramount.
This is why we cannot help but refer to religious monumentality for an exhibition inside a church, to how this has evolved in relation to sculpture and the sense of installation that we refer to today, in the presence of an association linked to the theme of the Ex Voto, and to how it is vitally relevant to the current debate on the relations between art and Church.
In effect, faith asks to be rendered perceptible not only through listening to the word of God, but also through the other senses, above all sight. Apropos the attempt to improve and update the tenuous relations underscored by Paul VI in his letter to the artists as far back as 1964, we can mention Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with the artists on 29 November 2009 when he expressed his hopes for a strengthening of the bonds, and above all the news that at the 2011 Venice Biennale, for the first time, there will be a pavilion of the Holy See.
Particularly relevant in the light of this updating is to connect the selection of the former Church of San Francesco to that made in Bergamo by the priest and theologian Giuliano Zanchi in the former Oratory of San Lupo, where site specific projects are hosted in which each artist is called upon to interpret passages from the scriptures or significant issues between man and God. The artists invited to date are Jannis Kounellis and Giovanni Frangi. Luca Pignatelli presented the monumental painting La Madonna della Neve, BM07, in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, in one of the most suggestive examples of Lombard Renaissance architecture, famous the world over for housing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper on one of the walls of the Refectory.
This exhibition, Ex Voto, offers a further encounter and exchange between Roberto Coda Zabetta and Filippo Sciascia following the earlier occasion of their highly successful joint show at the National Gallery of Jakarta.
Due credit must go to the Como City Council which, through its culture department, maintains a programme of exhibitions that insists upon meditation on contemporary art through events that dwell on artistic production as a territory of insight. In effect, this two-man show comes after that devoted to Hans Haacke, one of the greatest living exponents of the neo avant-garde season, who has had numerous solo and group shows in some of the most prestigious locations of Europe and North America. The winner of the Leone d’Oro at the Venice Biennale in 1993 chose this very site of the former Church of San Francesco for his first one man show in Italy.
Ex Voto offers another opportunity to compare the language of the two artists whose work, despite being different in approach, encapsulates the principal characteristic elements of this project: sickness and “divine” healing. On display are ten paintings and an installation with an igloo tent and plasma screens, conceived and produced in Italy by Filippo Sciascia, and a painting of almost 4 metres and eleven ceramic sculptures, with one of bronze in the centre, which Roberto Coda Zabetta made in Indonesia two years ago.
Ex Voto, understood as thanks for grace received, represents for the two artists an opportunity for comparison: on the one hand sickness in the work of Coda Zabetta, with his lacerated countenances of men, who are nonetheless survivors and hence reprieved, and on the other the light, it too the bearer of the concept of grace or reprieve in the work of Filippo Sciascia.
The works of Coda Zabetta are the result of his time spent with the cancer patients at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London in an attempt to discern whether there is any possibility of at least a psychic recovery from this disease. Following this experience, in Indonesia, on the island of Bali, the artist painted faces distorted by cancer. They are the faces of courageous men, who prefer divine providence to medicine, and celebrate the time spent with other benefits: wit and wisdom. Filippo Sciascia instead explores the more conceptual aspect of his own work, analysing the very function of light: what has it represented for man? How has man represented and used it in history? Starting from documents and scientific studies dealing with the functioning of the pineal gland and melatonin, which regulates cerebral activities during the daytime and night-time hours, Sciascia represents “grace”, conceived as a source of divine, inspiring light.
Ex Voto hence offers the chance to see painting as a means rather than an end, a sort of liberation for both artists, and to explore a direction that can be discerned in the mutual approach for appraising the expressive options through which the work of the two artists can be understood within the context of contemporary production.
Harald Szeemann, a key figure on the critical and theoretical scene of the late twentieth century, an outlaw thinker, independent art historian and director, who coined a term – Ausstellungsmancher, that is curator – paved the way to a vitally topical debate. He embodies a type of criticism liberated from the rude control of time, shifting the theoretical debate towards the notion of the exhibition, an inalienable creative moment, a critical space in which the conditions of the work are not only displayed but verified. A passionate lover of the exhibition in its role as a visual happening, Szeemann’s voyage through art was charted by landmark discussions about the approaches underlying the creation and the display of art.
The question of the exhibition as a flow of ideas and opinions had already been addressed by Coda Zabetta, for example, at the Teatro India in Rome, where he abandoned the classic exhibition in favour of a more conceptual choice. At this show in Como too, not only are the canvases on display standing on the floor, but the sculptures are under glass bell-jars, set in turn upon what we would once have called pedestals but which are now part of the work, completing a circuit taking in bell-jar and element beneath. In addition to the paintings – the conceptual genesis of which we will look at in further detail below – an environmental installation of large dimensions as a visual-environmental synthesis of his research.
The result, therefore, is that of linking this propensity to the general tendency to refer contemporary production to an interchange that invades the surroundings and, far from being limited to a mere aesthetic complacency, actually evades this at first impact.
In Sciascia there is no aestheic satisfaction; he uses painting like Beuys uses words, Kounellis iron and Zorio powder or tar. It is merely a means and not an end: that’s why the conceptual dimension of his work is of predominant importance, what we see is exactly the way the artist expresses his exploration.
Shunning all collusion with visual enjoyment, Sciascia remains poised between the practice of a conceptual art and a gestural dynamism to which he wants to feel parallel, drawing from it, as from Alberti’s window, improper combinations and articulations as precarious as they are solid.
Sciascia explores the socio-cultural aspect of perception: through his head, his eyes, man perceives: this is a primary function, it has always existed as has the need for shelter, and it is itself a primordial need.
The need to know, that is the learning, is what interests Sciascia: he’s been devoting himself to it for years; he has carried out scientific studies on light which – not coincidentally – scientists represent with graphs that in formal terms look exactly like a dome, a shelter.
This shape recurs precisely in the organ, the pineal gland located inside the brain, responsible for the production of the hormone melatonin which regulates the sleeping-waking heartbeat, reacting to darkness or lack of light, the starting-point for the work of Filippo Sciascia.
In oriental medicine, the information received from subtle energy fields through the pineal gland is decoded and transmitted along the vertebral column as a resonant vibration. The information travels to other parts of the body through energy channels, bio-electrical fields, nerve fibres and systems of circulation. We must not overlook the importance the pineal gland has for the Indians and the Egyptians, who consider it as the third eye.
For Descartes, instead, the pineal gland is the focal crucial point at which the mind (res cogitans) and the body (res extensa) interact, distinguished as he sees it by the fact that it is the only cerebral organ to be single and not double.
During the night the pineal gland is 100% reactivated, it is as if the eye moved, restoring light where the darkness of the night reigns, and so the alternation of darkness and light returns. And the very eye that is responsible for the acquisition of light, if graphically overlaid on the pineal gland and the illustrations of the scientists, proves to be a perfect match.
Literary impressions, the relations with philosophic thought, the myths and the archetypes recur, not as mere citations or poetic evocations, but rather as elements on a conceptual map that entwine the history of man, art, science and the sacred.
Hence what Sciascia achieves is a conceptual process: for him painting is not an end but a means to address all these elements and the strength of synthesis, practiced through painting, makes it into a work of a conceptual character sustained by the investigation of science, philosophy, poetry and the sacred.

“The artist must see his work as a photograph, an open, unfinished image.” (Joseph Beuys)

Like all Sciascia’s works, those on show here in Como in the former Church of San Francesco at the Fondazione Ratti, have all been created in the aftermath of the production of a video, Lux Lumina, that began many years ago and that Sciascia updates from time to time. It is the illustration of a practice never finished, or rather of an ongoing process, since each work is a step forward in the research. No concession to decoration is allowed, because there is no end to evolution, each work is a passage. The very use of chalk, by its nature an unstable material subject to change, which he controls in its dual solid and liquid form, is intended as a conceptual reference to a research, and hence a work, that is not designed to find an end in the shelter of the self-satisfaction of either artist or spectator. Rather it is a sort of magma that proceeds through various stages on both the semiotic plane of container – the videos, the canvases and their consequences – and that of contents: the updating of an unspent scientific-philosophic insight.
He loves philosophy and science. The choice of painting is determined as a consequence of the inclination that he feels morbidly his own and from which he derives particularly felicitous results. What he aspires to is to explore an intense conceptual dynamism before which he can genuflect like a well-trained monk and adore the epiphany of thought revealed in the form of painting.
The emotive matrix at the level of content gradually excludes the insistence of the formally impeccable datum, mastery of which he has amply proved, suffice it to think of Lux 2 and the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of 2008, published here. It is as if he has shown his mettle as a capable and refined painter, and now wishes to shift the emphasis to an evaporation of figuration, to tip his quest still further towards the immediate manifestation of a thought rather than a datum.
He stakes on thought to unleash a conscious materiality; this is the path Sciascia has always followed. “We are always trying to make or become something or someone, and that’s how we create all our problems, all our difficulties … because that’s exactly where the Ego pops out, and if someone doesn’t agree with our way of understanding or share our opinion we are disappointed.” The mystical, religious concept that appears in For Your consideration only, where men read passages from the Bible and the Koran marking a time of action that is repetitive, mystical and alienating, is a 2005 video from which, as is his practice, he derives paintings with the same title, numbering them starting from one in chronological order. It is a sort of visual poem and an allegory of life, since as the readings continue the video shows sections of road, by association inviting the observer to find his own path through life.
Fall/Rising and Sophia, two videos that complete the triptych between 2004 and 2006, probe the relations between the life, freedom and conscience of the artist in relation to his own sub-conscious as an updating of Sciascia’s conceptual research: the videos maintain a visionary relationship with the representation and the protagonists are never didactic , but through unpredictable attitudes hark back to the parody of the artist’s practice, especially in Sophia, and to the approach to existence in Fall/Rising.
These videos too – which are preliminary in terms of research to that of Como, Lux Lumina, a ten-minute video specially produced in its complete version for this show at the former Church of San Francesco – had their customary aftermath in a series of paintings yielded by the exploration of the video.
Begun in 2001, Lux Lumina was shot between Bali and Como.
It was produced without any particular interest in technology, since Sciascia prefers to generate an artistic conditioning in the video, modelling by hand with a general-purpose programme as if he were painting.
The formal outcomes of the installation at the show illustrate the synthesis of Sciascia’s work: the dome shape confirms the sense of protection linked to primordial images of shelter and home, experienced by man contemporaneously with the light, and the known shape of the pineal gland and the images offered of light by the scientists. Then, inside the tent, we find canvases representing the support that Sciascia has chosen. In terms of contents, the presence of the pliers with three legs is associated with the video-camera that is used on a tripod. Like all the other elements, there is nothing accidental about the fact that they create tension, in this case a tension precisely between light and darkness. The clay and the glass phial are materials whose solidity passes through a fluid state, they are not merely matter recurring in the paintings, but also significant witness of a magma that apparently proceeds by means of stages of temporary equilibrium.
Already displayed in a smaller version with a diameter of two metres at the National Museum of Singapore, one of the most prestigious art venues in Asia, the tent presented in Como is no less than nine metres wide and three high, and is the result of months of work that brings together technical and conceptual refinements, the evolving expressions of which were noted also in the Trinacria show in New York. Similarly, in that show there were paintings and installations that referred to Fall/Rising, the famous image of the bullfighter, and to Sophia addressing the quest of the artist – with Mr Artist in a dark suit and trendy glasses chatting with his Conscience, interpreted by a young, bald actor in a white suit, and Freedom in the guise of a young Asian woman.
Even the tripods hark back to previous projects, and more specifically Trinacria: there are three sides and three panels on the tent on which the light – who else – produces unexpected hues depending on the absorption of the light, despite the fact that it is always the same colour, black: Trinacria, symbol of Sicily, his homeland.
The tripod that recurs as a symbol of Sciascia’s work, each time in different formal conditionings, maintains the underlying concept, raising it to the rank of icon as demonstrated by other conceptual interpreters such as Kounellis, Zorio, Merz or Beuys. This need for exploration confirms that the work is an open work, that the reactions and connections do not end with the end of the video or still less with the completion of a painting.
Sciascia’s icons mingle but are never absent: the light is what the video camera captures, what men see immediately and what plays an essential role in arriving at knowledge.
“The interaction between the artist, the video-camera and the audience evokes the relativity of the roles and shows the analogies between man and the technology created by man,” says Filippo Sciascia.
So much so that the paintings indiscriminately bring together the fundamental aspects that Sciascia is tackling: the works may represent, for example, three figures interacting with the external environment in which we can make out a circle of light, which has a clear geometrical and symbolic reference, in terms of contents, to the pineal gland, the conformation of the eye, the representation of light and to the very means through which all this is accomplished, namely the head itself, here represented by extension of the figures, a magnificent visual synecdoche.
All the works on show derive from the Lux Lumina video, a copy of which is projected on a loop inside the installation. In other words they are an extract of it, a sort of still: an expressive mode of strengthening the concept while substantially ignoring the well-wrought painting, since Sciascia can rely on a technical mastery of such calibre that he can even allow himself, every so often, to tone it down.
This is so in the case of the girl going into the shrubbery as an expedient for representing the passage from darkness to light, who in the video goes through a dome with a hole at the top that recalls the shape of an eye, or the deer whose horns started off as mere weak skin and grow stronger and stronger over the years, illustrated purely on account of providing such a cogent metaphor of evolution.
We said that the whole work started with a video, why? Because it is the most effective way of capturing the light, which is life, the essence of which is the subject of philosophical debate.

Lorenzo Poggiali 2011