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Domenico Gnoli:
Powerful Synecdoches

Words by
Giorgio Verzotti
Issue 14 — Spring 2012

Rejecting avant-garde experimentation and emphasizing craft, Domenico Gnoli’s elaborate and overdecorated paintings transform the object into an eroticized fetish.

In 1968, Domenico Gnoli painted Back View, a work in acrylic and sand on canvas measuring 159 by 110 centimeters. It depicts the back of a painting, revealing the wooden stretcher frame on which the canvas is mounted, and includes a signature in the upper right corner that reads “D. Gnoli 1968, cm 27 1/2 x 37 1/2.” Since these are not the real dimensions of the painting, some scholars have seen the work as a tongue-in-cheek reference to conceptualism. Daniel Soutif, on the other hand, opened his 2004 essay on Gnoli by describing this work as a sort of vanitas. But my guess is that Gnoli was in fact poking fun at the artist Giulio Paolini, who had exhibited a backwards-facing canvas some years earlier, and also others, such as Gerhard Richter or Daniel Buren, who thought of the artistic process as a meditation on its tools.

Gnoli was never close to the avant-garde, and with Back View he decided to emphasize his distance through his work as well, presenting a piece that acts as a statement of intent. The image of an object rendered in perfect realist style, with an effect very similar to trompe-l’oeil, the painting rejects avant-garde experimentation and reemphasizes craft, a value which is perhaps most strongly perceived as imperative by artists such as Gnoli, who came to painting and its universe of meaning as an autodidact. Until the mid-1960s, Gnoli was primarily an illustrator. He started out very young and showed enormous talent, with a felicitously light-handed line, a baroque imagination, and a taste for caricature. He could also have made a career for himself in scenography, after a successful beginning at the Old Vic in London, but gave it up due to his love of freedom: he preferred to move between London, Paris, New York, Rome and Majorca, and live among models, writers, and orchestra conductors. To this end, he regularly attended the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto—always a meeting ground for intellectuals and sophisticated society—and frequented the studios of painters who were mainly lesser-known figures, with the exception of Mario Schifano, whom Gnoli probably met through Alberto Moravia and Enzo Siciliano. Gnoli’s drawings were published in American magazines such as Sports Illustrated (an apparent cult, judging by its recurrence in Bret Easton Ellis’s novels) and Playboy, and in books of fiction and poetry, in addition to being featured in many exhibitions in Italy and abroad. He began painting in the 1950s, though with some initial struggles, because he did not feel at home in the dominant climate of Art Informel. As his exploration focused on the image, Gnoli came to be associated with what in Italy was called “New Figuration.” However, unlike the practitioners of the latter, Gnoli didn’t draw his inspiration from Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland or Alberto Giacometti, but rather from adherents of Pittura Metafisica, like Giorgio Morandi and Carlo Carrà. (Lorenza Trucchi would later argue that the latter had the strongest influence on the young Gnoli, due to a certain biting irony that is especially pervasive in Carrà’s more primitivist works.)

From the mid-1950s until the 1960s, Gnoli painted in the style of Franco Gentilini—with additional inspiration, Trucchi notes, from Paul Klee and Massimo Campigli—and, like him, mixed his paint with river sand, which made the surfaces of his paintings more textured, but also dulled the colors. After this period of stylistic experimentation, Gnoli arrived at what could be called a “solidified image,” as in his painting Linen Baskets (1959), in which laundry hampers, as somber as cannons, have the sharpness of a bas-relief. In short, Gnoli evolved as a painter according to the idea that the main task of the artist is to establish a level of craft through a full-fledged stylistic apprenticeship, a view that led to difficulty sympathizing with the more conceptual practices of his avant-garde contemporaries.

Art expresses a vision of the world, and this vision is always problematic, because the world itself is problematic, and above all, the language that tries to speak it is a problem.

And yet, in 1964 he painted Mise en Plis n. 2: a woman’s head in curlers, seen from behind, which functions as a sort of anti-portrait—a painting that was just as ironic as Back View, but which trafficked in a much more aggressive brand of irony. Art historian Giulio Carlo Argan has written that Gnoli cannot be grouped with Pop because those artists painted “things” rather than “objects,” just as they themselves were no longer “subjects” but “individuals”—a transformation resulting from their intimate integration within consumer society, and their redefinition by its technical and psychological mechanisms. And yet, like the subject in consumer society, Gnoli’s subjects are also subjected to a process of reification. This process may not be a full-fledged commodification, but it does seem to involve a form of eroticization—it is about transforming the object of the libido into a fetish. As a result of this process, the distinction between inorganic and organic, matter and living body, becomes so subtle that it disappears.

What happened? How did Gnoli make the shift from virtuosic imitator to critical producer? He came to grasp the idea that art is not the free flow of creativity onto paper or canvas; rather, it is a problem posed to the artist by the work itself, by its references and viewers. Art expresses a vision of the world, and this vision is always problematic, because the world itself is problematic, and above all, the language that tries to speak it is a problem.

In the mid-60s, Gnoli found his language and honed in on his problem, thus becoming an artist, not just a creative craftsman. At this point, his free-flowing expression contracted into an obsession with the reiterated mark, and his gaze was transformed into one that is pathological and unnaturally close to the object, a gaze that chokes up the surface, creating a sense of suffocation. This constricted viewpoint monumentalizes the painting’s subject, an effect that is all the more disturbing in that we never see the whole figure, or, if we do, it is from an unsettling bird’s-eye perspective.

Of course, this process of approaching/isolating the object is not the one adopted in Pop Art. (Though it is true that works like Cravate and Fermeture éclair (1967), with their vivid, delicate shades of white, red, pink, and beige, are unquestionably “contemporary,” they lack the glamour of Pop icons). If anything, this strategy can claim a different stylistic pedigree derived from American painting of the 1930s, which we find traces of in Gnoli’s previous works such as the Apollo Theater cycle of 1962, where the figuration has an element of distortion and caricature that recalls Thomas Hart Benton, and, above all, Paul Cadmus.

Gnoli’s world is one in which objects have a dull, impervious solidity, where the animate and inanimate switch roles: the supine body of Dormiente n. 1 (1966), visible from chest to thighs, is entirely molded by a sheet and blanket, skillfully depicted in monochrome checks—white on white, tone on tone—and appears enveloped in the bed itself, an integral part of the furniture.

Conversely, the drawer in his work Open Drawer (1968) seems to become an enormous gaping mouth, much like Suitcase (1969) depicts a half-open valise that looks ready to snap at any approaching hand. Gnoli always said he was not interested in abstraction, yet we see how much effort he has devoted to creating dense, intricate, elegant abstract textures: the embroidery of another tone-on-tone bedspread, the zigzags of a red and blue necktie, or the wavy black lines of a man’s hair seen from above, the ridges on a beige garment one can guess is made of corduroy, all the way to his virtuoso depiction of an armchair, almost flattened by the frontal view, but rich with tiny heraldic flowers. Here, the texture is also a structure, because it is the pattern that defines and identifies the object, and the act of meticulous, obsessive decoration is what gives it the value and role of a fetish, creating, charging and eroticizing it.

It is almost unanimously agreed that the culmination of this approach is to be found in works like Curl and Red Hair on Blue Dress, both from 1969. A ringlet coiling down over a background of red checkered cloth or the wavy fringe of a hairdo resting atop blue fabric, this time in a herringbone pattern: they are powerful synecdoches. Rarely in art does one see something so elaborate and detailed, so “overdecorated,” being used to declare the disappearance of the body and its complete replacement by the fetish.

Giorgio Verzotti is an Italian curator.
Domenico Gnoli (1933-1970) was an Italian artist.

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