Among Roman artists who feel at ease with their cultural heritage, Carlo Maria Mariani is certainly one of the most knowledgeable, sophisticated and resourceful. He is fortunate to have matured in a city that is an open textbook of world history. By the end of the third century B.C., Rome dominated the Italian peninsula, having conquered its Etruscan neighbors to the north and vanquished the Greek cities of southern Italy. During its most expansive phase, under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, the Roman empire commanded the entire rim of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria and from Germany to Ethiopia. By the eighteenth century, when topographic artists converged on Rome to sketch its hodgepodge of antique temples, Egyptian obelisks, medieval and Renaissance churches, the Eternal City was a multi-layered treasure trove of ancient, modern, pagan and Christian monuments.
A hometown with such a long and complex history might intimidate many an artist, but Mariani thrives on the juxtaposition of contrasting styles and sensibilities, which he exploits to the maximum in his art. He is a connoisseur of many of the artistic impulses that swirled through Rome during the past two millennia, and he often gathers and concentrates them to create images that are poetic, dreamlike and inexplicable. Mariani's artistic identity is elusive and difficult to pin down, and his arcane visionary pictures represent situations or concepts that exist beyond the demonstrably known world. He is both a modernist and an anti-modernist, an insider (perceiving art history from a Roman perspective) and an outsider (viewing all historical styles through the wary eyes of a revisionist historian). "I think of myself," he once said, "as an artist who is acontemporary, outside of my time."
One of Mariani's most intriguing recent paintings, L'Imponderabile, is profusely layered with enigma. Its central figure is a nude youth, who stands alongside a seated man. The pallid, delicately poised youth with somewhat marmoreal flesh is depicted with exquisite ambiguity, his facial expression suggesting curiosity as well as serenity. Mariani's painterly expertise is abundantly visible in his luscious treatment of luminosity -- the subtle chiaroscuros and the glimmers of ruddy color that cling to fleshy edges.
The seated man wears a large classical head-mask, disproportionate in size to the rest of his figure, over his own head and neck, while sitting on an even larger marble head, which is turned on its side. Consequently, the seated figure is implicated in the different head-scales: the toppled monumental head, the oversized mask and his actual head, which remains unseen. Most bizzarely, he holds a megaphone to his inanimate mouth.
The room is illuminated through an open window on the right wall. A dainty feminine figure, wearing a Picasso head-mask, peers through the window, ostensibly studying her reflection in a hand-mirror. Her head is obviously inspired by one of Picasso's busts of the early 1930's, portraying his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was also the model for the artist's painting Girl before a Mirror (1932). But can Mariani's woman really see anything at all? What is the arcane connection between her mirror and the adult male's megaphone? Do they signify thwarted sight and sound or self-aggrandizement?
If L'Imponderabile's juxtaposition of classical and Picassoid heads seems a bit odd, the kinky combination of heads in The Grand Creative Process is even more strange. Here, two figures are amorously sprawled on a bed, legs intertwined, suggesting a pair of Boucher Venuses engaged in extracurricular activities. One wears an oversized head-mask based on a similar Picasso bust, the other a mask of a classical Greek youth. While wearing male and female masks that alter the fantasy element of their face-off, the figures also represent a cultural confrontation between antique and modern conceptions of beauty.
Mariani's images obviously spring from a well-stocked imagination that is fueled by classicism in virtually all its manifestations, from the imposing glories of the Greco-Roman world and the grandiose idealism of the High Renaissance to the refined simplicity of late 18th-century neoclassicism and exemplary "classic" masterpieces of early 20th-century modernism. The main focus of Mariani's stylistic references, however, is neoclassicism, a style with an emphasis upon clear articulation, formal purism and a resolute tendency toward idealization.
One of Mariani's most arresting adaptations of the neoclassical style is Weaver of the Ideal, an allegorical portrait of the three Brontë sisters reunited in an elysian setting whose somberness hints at their melancholy history, the three sisters are depicted with almost marmoreal solidity. They are also strangely androgynous, wearing sheer dresses that show off their full-bodied figures. Their somewhat masculine faces are crowned with laurel-leaf crowns that seem to possess unnatural vigor. The sisters sit in a row, collectively holding on their laps a large marble arm that weilds a quill pen. A convoluted marble scroll, representing a long roll of paper, twines among their wrists. It is embellished with the letters "C," "E" and "A," the initials of their own given names as well as their literary pseudonyms -- Currier, Ellis and Acton Bell.
Mariani is exceptionally deft at interweaving ambiguity with irony. How many young women could be as ambiguous as the lithe figure, scantily clad in a blue tunic, who slides through thin air in The First Target? Is she diving out of the building or perhaps falling into the open window? There is plenty of irony in the representation of a Greek statue of Apollo with a lyre in the lower right corner of the picture: the god of music and poetry is ingloriously bedecked with the modern detritus of bottle caps, painted in trompe l'oeil.
Actual bottle caps, as opposed to simulated ones, are scattered across the surface of Deified Philosopher, an experimental work for the artist insofar as he exhibits it in a horizontal format. The image consists of an overhead view of a medieval floor sculpture, based on an actual tomb (c. 1450) of a Dominican prior in a Roman church. The eroded tomb-carving is bordered, above and below, by fleshy signs of life -- rose-bedecked ankles and the bottom half of a lightly draped female nude. A marble head, in the lower right corner, a marble hand and brush, held by a living hand, perhaps signify the durability of the creative spirit. On the whole, however, the picture seems a somber meditation on death and decay.
Doom and destruction appear on the horizon of The Three Elements, a scene of aerial invasion that is both frightening and melodramatically comic. The setting is a murky coastline, with small waves lapping at the shore. Three young female nudes, representing earth, water and air, flee from the scene, each pert body trailing a piece of fabric. They wear head-masks of classical females. Overhead, a squadron of red, Lego airplanes approaches. The airplanes may be only plastic toys but that does not diminish their menace. (Plastic, to Mariani's mind, nearly always represents pollution and environmental degradation. Consider the supine figure mysteriously heaped with red plastic parts in the lower corner of L'Imponderabile.) The desperate plight of the figures in The Three Elements brings to mind virtually every kind of enemy invasion, from marauding nomads on horseback and pillaging Vikings in longships to the deadly forces of modern aerial warfare.
While alluding to earlier artistic styles, Mariani reminds us that the past was often filled with terror as well as beauty. By recreating the elegiacal moods of neoclassical painting, he resuscitates age-old dreams of classical values. His art affirms his belief that certain ideals and values transcend the time and place of their origin and continue to exert a seductive appeal beyond the framework of history.
All of the above mentioned pictures were painted in New York where Mariani has been living for the past several years. Although life in New York has heightened his awareness of the contemporary art world, it has not obliterated his fascination with the past. If anything, New York and its fast-moving contemporary culture bring forth the need for a strong voice with the ability to revitalize cultural memory. With his carefully orchestrated collisions between classical ideals and contemporary concepts, Mariani's paintings provide the restorative force of such a voice.
Carlo Maria Mariani at Associated American Artists, Oct. 30 - Nov. 29, 1997, 20 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.
DAVID BOURDON is the author of Warhol (1995). This text originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue.