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