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