10 April – 28 May 2016
Peep-Hole presents a solo show by the artist Paolo Gioli.
Since the 1960s Paolo Gioli has conducted complex research on the genesis of images, the nature of aesthetic experience and the functioning of visual processes. Constantly engaged in technical and linguistic experimentation, his artistic practice shifts with ease between different forms of expression, from drawing to painting, film to photography, producing ongoing contamination that uses operations derived from cinema for photographic ends, and a pictorial approach to the use of materials and surfaces.
His complex experiments have become a reference point in the fields of experimental cinema and contemporary photography: from the rediscovery and radical use of the pinhole camera to the application of self-designed tools or found objects to get away from any ties to optics and mechanics; from the unusual use of Polaroid materials transferred onto various supports like drafting paper, canvas, silk-screen, to investigations of the processes of developing or the photo finish technique.
Nevertheless, the complexity of his work is not limited to the sphere of cinema or photography. His continuous exploration of the infinite possibilities of obtaining images from spontaneous circumstances connected to nature, the body and existing objects is conducted in a wide field of study in which cinema encounters painting, painting intercepts photography, and vice versa.
The exhibition presents a body of works dating from the 1960s to the late 2000s, representing the foundation nuclei and the recurring themes of the output of Paolo Gioli, through a selection that underlines the fundamental shift from painting to cinema and photography. Certain key series such as the Fotofinish, the Autoanatomie, the Naturae and the Omaggi pieces, are joined in the show by seldom seen works, including some paintings and drawings made in the 1960s in an itinerary that crosses the artist’s vast production in a transverse way, demonstrating how the passage from one language to another, one medium or technique to another, is always fluid, reciprocal, seamless.
The work of Paolo Gioli touches on all the classic genres of art history, from the nude to the self-portrait, from the still life to the landscape, approached in a totally personal way through the use of different languages, techniques and materials. The constant is his interest in the body, and one of the most prevalent motifs is that of the torso, an anatomical detail subjected to ongoing analysis and deconstructions, from the drawings and paintings of his early career to the more recent photographic cycles. In the series of large charcoal drawings on paper titled 1° Gruppo delle Creature (1st Group of Creatures) made in 1962-63, the artist explores the theme of the nude, moving towards anatomical anamorphoses that gradually abandon any figurative connotation. The torsos based on crucifixes from the 13th-century undergo a distortion and an almost radiographic treatment that translates into constant tension between full and empty, positive and negative.
The different way Gioli approaches the physical nature of the figure in large oil paintings – made in the mid-1960s – reflects his exposure to American Pop Art at the Venice Biennale in 1964, which leads to a shift of interest towards the composition of the image.
The anatomical metamorphoses of the earlier drawings become juxtapositions of geometric forms in which the human figure loses any organic connotation, becoming almost mechanical, in paintings like Grande nudo coricato sul lato destro (Large nude reclining on right side, 1965) and Cristo morto (Dead Christ, 1965).
Large flat field of bright colors and metallic glow screen the profiles of the bodies and the image springs from deconstruction and recomposition, a dissection and overlaying that already alludes to an idea of film editing. The torso returns as a protagonist in more recent works, such as the series of Toraci and Vessazioni. In Toraci (Thoraxes, 2007, 2010) Gioli approaches the classic iconography of the “martyred” body, breaking down the anatomies imprinted on the photosensitive film by light and transfiguring them in evanescent images of great expressive impact. Also in the series Vessazioni (Abuses, 2007) the artist’s action seems to torment chests and limbs of martyred bodies, in which the appeal to classical statuary mingles with references to the early avant-gardes of the 20th century.
The experience in New York, where Gioli lived for about one year, from late 1967 to the fall of 1968, was a fundamental passage in his research.
From that moment on his career has been marked by the continuous interaction of painting, film and photography, languages that are closely interconnected in Gioli’s work, so much so that each expressive form inevitably implies the other two. The film and the works on canvas from the 1970s shown in this room – screen prints with manual intervention and oil paintings with photographic inserts – bear emblematic witness to the nature of these linguistic overlays, showing how Gioli makes cinema starting with photography to end up in painting, or vice versa how he paints starting from cinema to wind up in photography.
The composition of an image layered by the use of multiple media lies at the basis of the film Immagini disturbate da un intenso parassita (Images Disturbed by an Intense Parassite, 1970), one of the first films made by Gioli and one of his most complex, arduous works on video images. In this piece the image, produced starting with a square and other geometric forms derived from it, is transformed by a series of interventions made right on the video screen, used by the artist as a luminous slate. A film-collage that reveals many levels of images in the image, many screens in the screen, like other films the artist made in those years. The idea of the screen is central in Gioli’s work, as an element that gives physical consistency to the image, be it pictorial or filmic, screen-printed or photographic. One of the founding principles of his poetics is the idea that the image has an intrinsic physical autonomy, and thus has the potential to shift from one place to another, migrating from the film screen to the canvas and the photograph. Starting with precisely this conviction, in the first half of the 1970s Gioli used the term “schermo” (screen), commonly associated with the language of film, to title a series of oil paintings with inserts of photographic paper (Schermo-Schermo, 1974), and several screen-printed works obtained from a collage of fragments of enlarged film frames and then treated with color and masking, using cut-out paper (Schermo-Schermo, 1975). These works are good examples of the direct mixtures of painting, film and photography typical of Gioli’s practice. In like manner, work such as Scomponibile (Decomposable, 1970) shows how his approach to drawing and painting, from a certain point onward, is more clearly based on the segmented language of film and its editing.
All of Gioli’s works are, in a certain sense, designed and composed with a painterly approach, as revealed in the focus on composition, or the way he thinks about and treats material – just consider his manipulation of Polaroid material as if it were paint. This confirms not only the fundamental importance of the paintings of his early career in his later research, but also the fact that the experience of painting – only apparently repressed in years of ongoing study and experimentation of other linguistic territories – resurfaces insistently and constantly in all the successive phases of his vast output. The city of Venice – to which he moved at the start of the 1960s to study at the Scuola Libera del Nudo – with its great wealth of historical and contemporary visual art, represents for Gioli the symbolic territory of the introduction to art and its history, the place in which that surprising and heterogeneous store of memories and suggestions upon which he constantly draws takes form.
The multiplicity of the references that can be glimpsed in his paintings bears witness to the huge visual culture that informs his work, in which the antique art of Venetian palaces, churches and museums mixes with that of the avant-gardes found in the books of the historical archives of the Biennale, as well as American Pop Art, experienced firsthand by Gioli also in Venice.
The paintings in the exhibition, all made from 1966 to 1969, are among his most representative painted works from the early years of his career. Large oils on canvas all featuring extreme polychromatic effects of juxtaposition of vast geometric fields, where the paints are applied flat, in bright colors. The possible references are many, as are the subjects from which they take their cue; from a landscape like that of the ships on the Giudecca canal – in Trittico blu (Blue Triptych, 1966) – to the reworking of a scene painted in the 14th century by Buffalmacco – in Scomponibile (Decomposable, 1966) – every image is transfigured in visionary geometric architectures and complex sequential compositions, broken down and reassembled through an almost mechanical process, rendered in dizzying projections that lose any trace of linkage to the real. In this attempt to compress and split multiple temporal instants through a succession of images that creates a single visual field, we can already see the sign of a growing interest in film and photography. To symbolically represent Gioli’s progressive passage from painting to these languages, there is a work in charcoal and pastels from 1968, emblematically titled The Big Lens: the portrait of a gigantic lens that reveals his impelling need to investigate the basic elements of the photographic device and to approach the study of the physical laws of optics, psycho-perceptive structures and historical photographic methods.
In Gioli’s vast production of photographic works one important part involves experimentation with the photo finish technique.
Photo finish is a semi-scientific procedure frequently used in sports to determine the exact order of arrival at the finish line in races: in this technique, the film runs at a constant speed and is exposed only through a vertical opening aimed at the finish line. Many artists have been interested in this technique, often seeking spectacular effects through its most characteristic aspect, namely the distortion of the figures. For Gioli, on the other hand, the experimentation with this device corresponds to a natural evolution of his research on pinhole photography. The “transparent point” through which the light enters the camera, transporting images with it, becomes a “transparent line” that generates figures that are the result of multiple gestures and movements, those made by the subject in front of the camera and those made by the artist who moves it.
It is on this line, located on a metal plate that replaces the shutter, that the artist intervenes in an almost obsessive way, with continuous doublings, amputations and incisions. To make the photo finish works, Gioli develops a personal device: a normal camera deprived of its internal mechanism that makes it possible to manually control the movement of the film during the shooting, as if it were a movie camera. This creates movements in real time: the manual movement of the camera, that of the film and that of the subject. Two photographic cycles were made with this technique: the group of the Figure dissolute (Dissolute Figures) dating back to the 1970s, and that of the Volti attraverso (Faces Across) made from 1987 to 2002. In the first series the subjects are everyday people transfigured into what Gioli calls “protokinetic chronofigures.”
The dissonances between the gesture of the photographer and the movement of the figure, the frequent slowings, accelerations and sudden interruptions generate a series of doublings, dilations and compressions of the subjects that go well beyond mere deformation, moving towards true deconstructions and recompositions of the figure. In the series Volti attraverso the initial experiments develop in increasingly complex and branching directions. The traditional line-opening of the photo finish is replaced by a fragment of image: the artist now places in the opening of the camera certain organic elements, like small insects or botanical fragments, through which the image of the subject is “forced” to pass, and to be filtered, undergoing an inevitable transformation.
The body insistently returns in Gioli’s research, also as an image of desire and eroticism, through a sizeable series of works on the subject of the female nude. Eroticism is a theme often inseparably linked to Gioli’s investigations of the historical, cultural and ideological roots of photography. Therefore the close and almost tactile exploration of anatomical details like the female breast or sex remains in step with the complex mental and technical procedure of the composition of the image.
In 1977 Gioli begins to use Polaroid materials, experimenting with techniques of transfer onto different surfaces like drawing paper or silk, or also canvas and wood.
In the Autoanatomie (Self-anatomies, 1987) series, for example, the artist transfers onto silk the imprint left by light on photosensitive film, recovering the “detachment” technique used to make frescoes: “the image” – as Paolo Gioli says – “detached by its own reagents from its negative like a skin from living flesh, loses the enamel-fixative-protection that is absorbed by the weave of the canvas or the thickness of the paper.” Symbols of female sexuality are represented, archetypal images capable of keeping their evocative power intact even when juxtaposed in complex geometric compositions. This layering of techniques and surfaces has nothing to do with collage, since these are “strata of matter”: pictorial and photographic materials Gioli reworks in a process of constant and reciprocal contamination.
The gesture of transferring a material that is the symbol of immediate consumption and family snapshots onto very noble, ancient materials is a central issue in Gioli’s Polaroid experiments. Also in the cycle Naturae (2007), the artist arrives at the final image through this layering of different languages, treating the Polaroid film as a pictorial surface. In this case the images are frontal portraits of the female sex into which a flower is inserted, ambiguous pictures of “eccentric vulvas unveiled by a screen-curtain”– as Gioli defines them – in which male (desire) and female (object of desire) coincide.
Gioli intervenes on the sensitive surface with multiple techniques (rubbing, cutting, pressure, transfer onto other surfaces), and at times covers the upper half of the image with a coat of acrylic paint, again combining mechanics of the photographic process with the gestures of painting. Repeating the representation of the same subject, Gioli also experiments with obtaining a photographic image through the technique of the negative contact print. In the works titled Vulva (2004) the artist makes the image by shooting the flash onto a sheet of paper in contact with the female anatomy, which crossed by light captures the reflection thus produced.
Halfway through the 1990s Gioli works on a series of black and white photographs whose title, Sconosciuti (Unknowns, 1994), alludes to the unknown identity of the subjects represented. The artist makes use of an archive of photographs dating back to the period immediately after World War II, obtained from a studio after it went out of business: a collection of negatives – on plates and film – with anonymous portraits of men and women made for identification papers.
What interests the artist most, besides the indeterminate identity of the subjects, is the skillful retouching – a common practice in that period – done with the ability of a craftsman to enhance the faces in the images.
Gioli intervenes on these materials, obliquely lighting the back of the negative and thus revealing, through the macro-shots of the reflections, the countless manipulations of the subjects in the retouching. With an almost archaeological approach, Gioli brings to light the dense layers of signs, traces, imprints deposited on those images, and by revealing the industrious retouching treatment he grants the faces a new identity or, as Gioli puts it, a “counter-identity.” These “reversed physiognomies” thus spring from the unconscious overlapping of multiple authors: the photographer, the anonymous retoucher, and the artist who starts with the back – the hidden side, without meaning – of those found images to construct his image. This research continues with the film Volto sorpreso al buio (Face surprised in the dark, 1995). Made with the stop motion technique, starting with the same images of the previous photographic series, the film shows the same anonymous faces that double and blend together in a single kinetic flow, to the point of making a single, floating visage emerge from the darkness.
In 2009 Gioli, again forcing the boundaries between photography and cinema, returns to the images he had obtained with the photo finish technique to make the film Il finish delle figure (The finish of the figures, 2009), in which those static images come back to life, in a certain sense. The artist makes the rolls of 35 mm film he had exposed with the photo finish technique run to construct a kinetic narrative: a film derived from a “non-film,” from images that are fixed but were made with a procedure of a filmic nature, where the manual movement of shooting is in fact equal to that of a movie camera, without being done with a movie camera.
In the 1980s Gioli makes a cycle of works that pay “homage” to artists of the past, such as Courbet, Van Gogh, Dürer, Signorelli, Piero della Francesca or Mantegna, and makes films on Talbot, Muybridge, Londe, Duchamp. But the personalities he concentrates on most are the pioneers of photography, such as Niépce, Bayard, Cameron, Poitevin, Marey and Eakins, with their importance for the origins of this discipline. In the cycle of Polaroids titled Eakins/Marey. L’uomo scomposto (The decomposed man, 1982-83) Gioli tries to fuse Eakins (man) with Marey (action), interrelating two misunderstood 19th century experimenters: on the one hand Thomas Eakins, one of the great American realist painters, an artist ignored in his day and a pioneer in the field of photography, and on the other Etienne Jules Marey, the well-known French physiologist and a precursor of cinematography. For both of them, photography is connected above all with the theme of the body and its movement, and represents a new and fundamental tool for its investigation, analysis and breakdown.
Gioli, besides paying tribute to two great innovators, delves into intense reflection on the potentialities of the visual process, bringing out connections in an almost theatrical compositional construct. The encounter between the artistic connotation of scientific research of Marey and the technical-scientific results of the art of Eakins represents, for Gioli, the idea of an art capable of including any discipline. Another important series of tributes is devoted to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the French researcher who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, credited with the fundamental passage from engraving to photography. The artist retraces the history of the man he considers the absolute inventor of the photographic technique, starting with the portrait of Cardinal d’Amboise, one of the few images that can be clearly attributed to Niépce. For Gioli, this is an opportunity to gauge his own creativity against that of the great innovator, to compare the experiments of Niépce to his own Polaroid works, approaching a progressive identification with his model. The works on Alphonse Poitevin, an early experimenter with color photography, represent for Gioli an ideal continuation of the works about Niépce. These are studies of the face, as also happens in the tributes to Julia Margaret Cameron, the English photographer famous for her evanescent portraits conveying the dreamy atmosphere of the Victorian era.
In this series, titled Cameron Obscura (1981), the artist investigates the enigmatic and elusive female physiognomies portrayed by Cameron, acting on them with a series of delicate doublings and rhythmical fragmentations.
All the works that can be included in the category of tributes share a complex stratification of techniques and media. Often, starting from photographed or photocopied images, then developed through black and white slides, Gioli makes an initial image by contact or projection. On it he applies masks of shaped paper that once exposed will produce a series of geometric forms and cuts. Finally, through the shapeable and photosensitive material of the Polaroid, the image is transferred onto drawing paper and onto precious silk fragments.
These “revisitations” play an important role in the path taken by Gioli to the extent that they constitute another way of getting to the roots of the photographic language: the images and vicissitudes of the proto-photographers are absorbed and reworked by Gioli in lengthy research that transforms these models into other models, bearing witness to the fact that his gaze towards the past is never nostalgic, because his approach to history always happens in terms of endless research and experimentation.
Paolo Gioli (Sarzano di Rovigo, 1942. Lives and works in Lendinara, Rovigo) after studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, moved to New York at the end of 1967, where he lived for about one year and began to approach cinema and photography. After returning to Italy in 1968 he settled in Rome, from 1969 to 1975. In 1969 he made his first film, while in photography he began to use the pinhole technique, followed by strip photography and Polaroid emulsion lifts transferred to different surfaces. Starting in the 1980s, he took part in many exhibitions and art events. Main solo shows: Istituto Nazionale della Grafica-Calcografia of Rome (1981), Musée Nicéphore Nièpce in Chalon s/Saône and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1983), George Eastman House, Rochester (1986), Palazzo Fortuny in Venice and Museo Alinari in Florence (1991), Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome (1996), Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea of Cinisello Balsamo, Milan (2008). From 1974 to the present he has participated in the main experimental film festivals as well as important international events like the Venice Biennale. His works are included in the collections of the leading European and American museums, including Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA New York, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica in Rome, Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea Cinisello Balsamo (MI).
Peep-Hole would like to thank Paolo Vampa.
Special thanks to Daniele Fragapane for curatorial consulting.
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Ph: Andrea Rossetti 2016
10 April – 28 May 2016
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