Sandro Chia’s works belong to the celebrated return to painting -- and painting the figure -- that occurred in the early 1980s. Inaugurated by the "New Spirit of Painting" exhibition held in Berlin and London in 1981, it was an international movement that brought to the fore not only painting, which had been repudiated by conceptualism and which repudiated conceptualism in return, but that challenged the hegemony of the New York School by suggesting that European art was not only more advanced -- if ironically, for the regression to painting was a return of the repressed -- but that the baton of innovation had been passed to Germany and Italy. They were declassé countries from the point of view of American triumphalism, but they seemed to be emerging from their defeat with a new vigor -- an artistic as well as economic vigor.
Italy supposedly had produced nothing of consequence and significance since the Futurists, who, riding the wave of the pre-World War I obsession with the new, got carried away by the myth of the brave new utopian technological society of the future -- a misplaced optimism that got its comeuppance with the Neue Sachlichkeit of the Germans, who showed the pessimistic human truth about that future. Italy and Germany not only recovered their artistic losses, but seemed to spring ahead of the United States by producing an art that paid its debt to the past, as though to acknowledge that there was no such thing as progress in art, only emotionally consequential and esthetically significant or emotionally inconsequential and esthetically insignificant art. Only the former has carrying and staying power -- would live on in the future, not simply have its passing moment of exhibitionistic glory.
So, do Chia’s paintings and sculptures have carrying and staying power, as this museum retrospective proposes? Every retrospective proposes that the art on view has a future, can hold its own with the other art in the museum, has carrying and staying power -- will be meaningful and valuable -- beyond the time of its making. I think Chia’s works do, in part because they deal with what has been called the "human esthetic," a timeless esthetic that every figure art tries to give a timely twist to -- engage and convey in a way that gives the all-too-familiar figure an unfamiliar, not to say uncanny presence. And more importantly, because they fuse modernist techniques of picture-making, meant to generate a sense of intense liveliness -- expressionistic distortion, conveying a sense of the subjectively grotesque, and powerful color, often jumping out of the scene as though it had a magical life of its own apart from the passionate life it gives the figure -- and the traditional idea of the figure, derived from classical and baroque art, as timeless and noble despite its vicissitudes: transcendentally ideal and grand, for all its melancholy.
Pastorello eccitato (1980) makes the point neatly: an expressionistic type figure in a cave underground, symbolizing art’s roots in the dark unconscious, is juxtaposed with a classical type (Palladian) mansion, symbolizing the heights of consciousness to which art aspires -- the clarity and coherence it can achieve, its ability to harmonize opposites in a whole, suggesting that it is capable of reason however rooted in unreason -- even as it remains threatened by expressionist whirlwinds that seem to erupt from the elemental earth, as though uprooted from the unconscious.
It is the postmodernist trick -- the post-modernist synthesis of historical opposites -- and Chia does it well: his figures are at once timelessly noble in a quasi-traditional manner, and magically expressive in a quasi-modernist manner. The most magically noble of them is the artist himself -- Painter with Sons and Frog (1984) and The Painter and His Carpet (2005) (it’s the magical carpet of color on which the painter flies, although he looks grounded in the painting) make the point clearly -- or else his protectors and supporters, the critic and the collector. His Portrait of Achille Bonito Oliva (1980) and his Portrait of Giorgio Franchetti (1982) -- the one the critic who curated this retrospective, the other the collector who owns many of the works in it -- make the point explicitly. Bonito is as two-faced as Chia is in The Painter and His Carpet -- the profile, suggesting a third face, is in fact part of the blue (as in "blues") and blue-lipped half of the painter’s face, which contrasts with the white and red-lipped (happier) half. The same two-faced head, supplemented with a profile, appears in Ornamental Moment (2006), suggesting that the sense of being a split personality is a constant of Chia’s self-recognition. Franchetti’s rather grim-lipped, fierce, harshly serious face has a certain affinity with the horned, minotaur-like figure of the hunter, implicitly Chia -- he has the same large, hulking body as Franchetti -- in Io sono un Pescador (1983), a portrait of the painter and his son. Chia identifies with his favorite critic and collector and assumes they identify with him.
What we see again and again in Chia is a post-modernist rendering of artistic melancholy, today known as creative inhibition, even as it is contradicted by blazing colors, adding their poignant energy to the drama of the artist’s suffering. One can’t help thinking of Winnicott’s remark that "creativity. . . refers to a coloring of the whole attitude to external reality" -- and, one might add, to internal reality. Chia has color in abundance -- his pictures are a Joseph’s coat of multi-varied colors, sometimes joyous, sometimes saddening, intricately interwoven in an unconscious fantasy of narcissistic suffering.
Indeed, his paintings have a somewhat narcissistic coloring: colors reflect -- even stage -- his feelings about himself, just as his allegorical self-representations or self-mythologization tend to place him in a heroic, tragic role. Thus we have Lo Schiav (1980), Fire Game (1984), San Sebastiano (2003) and Outdoor Scene (1984), where Chia is the mythical Acteon beset by Diana’s hunting dogs, suggesting that woman problems raise creative problems. Leave the Artist Alone (1985) seems the exception to the rule, but the snarling tiger that is the Arcadian artist’s dangerous pet gives him the mythical power of taming wild animals that artists supposedly have had since Orpheus.
It also suggests his aggression. Does he want woman -- the woman depicted in Leda and the Swan (2000) and Ricordo di un viaggio (2009) -- to let him alone? The latter work suggests she continues to haunt him. The Figures Outdoors with Knives and Hand Game (both 1981), turn the tables on woman -- the man is attacking the woman rather than vice versa -- even as her perversely big buttocks in Collision, Derision, Precision (2002) suggest her continually distracting appeal even as their size mocks it. Sexuality or creativity seems a hard choice for Chia, so he resolves the problem by sexualizing his colors.
Another problem -- a problem for portraiture, certainly for figuration -- is abstraction, which eschews the figure, or else reduces it to a "formal device." As Léger arrogantly -- not to say destructively -- said, "for me human figures, bodies, have no more importance than keys or bicycles. . . . For me they’re plastically valid objects and they’re for handling as I choose." This dehumanization of the human body can’t be the case for a portrait and figure painter; he has to respect and convey the subjectivity of the figure even as he acknowledges its objective character, in whatever fantastic way. The figure is necessarily more important than keys or bicycles -- which happen to be made and used by human beings. Chia is a partial modernist, as I’ve noted -- his expressionist handling and flamboyant colors (his exotic carpets owe something to Matisse’s) re-humanize, re-subjectify and re-embody the human figure while giving it a fresh abstract "plastic validity" -- but he also mocks, attacks and theatricalizes modernist devices, perhaps most note-worthily in the dramatic standoff depicted in Ossa, cassa, fossa (1978), where the human figure, naked to the waist as though stripped for battle -- a heroic fight to the death -- takes on the black Suprematist square, the entrance into the abyss of nothingness that abstraction dead-ends in. The work is a deceptively simple contrast of planes -- flat color fields (á la Barnett Newman?) -- and muscular figure in the round. While he peers into the abysmal square, he’s not likely to fall into it. Accident (1981) suggests the outcome between figuration and abstraction (Léger’s tubular forms): the wall of pure plastic forms comes tumbling down, suggesting their "plastic invalidity," not to say triviality. In The Hand Game (1982), the artist’s juggles them and sticks his ass out at them. He in effect debunks the myth of modernism by treating "high" abstraction in a matter of fact "low" way. The figure triumphs over it by mischievously treating it as a joke -- on art as well as life.
Pure abstraction -- supposedly the great achievement of modernism -- has become a banal plaything in Chia’s hands: geometrical formalism has become sardonically informal. Similarly, Cubism, with its multiple views of the same object, suggesting that it is self-contradictory however much the views "inform" the object (but fail to cohere in it) -- Cubism’s perversely complicated, not to say confused perspectivalism -- is simplified into a one-dimensional standard iconographic device by Chia, as his use of it to portray his conflicted state of mind in The Painter and His Carpet and Ornamental Moment show. Cubism’s intricate multi-dimensionality is no longer innovative -- a shocking revolution in the rendering of plastic form, as it was in Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits -- but assimilated and domesticated as one technique among the many used for expressive effect. Similarly, the minotaur monster -- shades of Picasso again (and Surrealism) -- in La pentola dell’oro has a mask-like green face, its "primitivism" or instinctiveness derived from Fauvism (think of Matisse’s portrait of his wife with a green stripe for a nose) and perhaps also Kirchner (think of his mask-like face in his portrait of himself with a model) but matter-of-factly generalized into a conventional signifier of feeling. Chia borrows from modernism, but treats it as a means to an expressive end rather than a formal end in itself. The shock of the new turns out to be a passing fancy that nonetheless can be used to psychodramatic effect.
La cucina di Dioniso (1980) shows Chia at his magical best -- a boy with the magic wand of intoxicating art. La bugia (also 1980), shows him as able to see the light in the darkness (he retains the modernist idea of the "child as the greatest imaginer," as Kandinsky thought). Sarcasm, Phantasm, Orgasm (1987) shows him at his most anguished. His use of three terms -- the second ironically informed by the first to dialectically climax in the third, with each "commenting" on the other -- to convey changing states of mind and body, is correlate with the three dimensions he gives his face in some portraits, thus suggesting its plastic as well as expressive extremes. I think the triple meaning, with each meaning implicated in the other, owes something to Boccioni’s paintings of three States of Mind. The idea of a trinity of meaning is classical as well as Christian.
In both these works we see Chia struggling to conjure form out of the formless, clarity out of chaos -- find human meaning in inhuman abstraction. In the nightmare that is Silent Knight Plight (1987) -- he is the huge red horse carrying a small woman on his back, pursued by cannibalistic eyes -- he races out of the picture into our own imagination, reminding us that we too are instinct beset by demonic strangers, intruding upon our fantasies with their hostile curiosity. It is a magnificent picture, showing that Chia is a master fantasist, and that his fantasies are a defense against his paranoia about the public, whose eyes pursue him as eagerly as the vicious dogs pursued Actaeon and as the arrows shot at St. Sebastian pursued him, wounding him until he bled to death. (Red seems to be Chia’s favorite color, which ambiguously serves to render both blood and fire, and of course signals passion.) But they are also his inner eye multiplied ad infinitum, taking emotional revenge on his creativity even as they give it imaginative substance. It is the unstoppable Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Sandro Chia, "Della Pittura, popolare e nobilissima arte," Dec. 16, 2009-Feb. 28, 2010, at La Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna e contemporanea, Viale delle Belle Arti, 131, 00196 Rome, Italy
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.