at Form Gallery
This is an exhibition that ought to be more satisfying than
it is. Assertive, beautifully designed views from the painters
window in Williamsburg, the work is more appealing in reproduction
than in reality. Clotted with paint, it suffers an excess
of brio and a premature confidence that, like an unripe tomato
gassed for color, thwarts the rewards of natural development.
Siciliano, son of Italian writer Enzo Siciliano, comes well-placed.
He was launched in Rome at 17 with a show of pastels, presented
by the poet Attilio Bertolucci. His post-debut trajectory
gives evidence of having been introduced into just the right
circlesliterary, theatrical, cinematicfor speedy
advancement on the "genius or nothing" circuit.
At 23, he was commissioned to paint stage sets for the Spoleto
Festival. 1995 found him collaborating on a movie by Bernardo
Not yet thirty, he is already being packaged as a legend.
The catalogue tells us that, in 1996, the inaugural evening
of the Roman Summer celebrations was dedicated to Siciliano.
Look at his bio and you can see the protocols of promotion
borrowing the ingredients of myth from Balthus. The young
Balthus, remember, was blessed with a family that brought
him champions among the culturati: poet Maria Rainer Rilke
and such figures as Albert Camus and Antonin Artaud. Balthus,
too, circulated among writers and theater people. He, too,
designed opera sets (Cosí fan tutte at the Aix-en-Provence
Siciliano is clearly being rushed and that is too bad. There
is genuine talent here that would be a shame to spoil by premature
flattery. Talent congeals like pork fat into a trademark style
when it is prized oversoon or for the wrong things. As it
is, everything that is appealing and admirable about Sicilianos
urban scenes suffocates under ham-fisted paint application
that mistakes bulk for significance. This is painting by the
pound. Three pounds of cobalt blue. Eight ounces avoirdupois
of yellow ochre. The cadmiums look good so does the permanent
green. A carton of each, please.
Sicilianos choked, overstressed surfaces have their
origins in a somewhat skewered tribute to Cezannes paint
handling, for which he admits an affinity. Bernardo wants
to take his own work "to the point where the stroke takes
precedence over the thing represented." In other words,
the paint build-up is unrelated to anything but itself. However
much Cezannes motifs were realized in his characteristic
hatching brushstroke, the brushstroke was never an end in
itself for Cezanne. For Siciliano, by contrast, paint application
becomes an additive to the underlying image.
The immaturity of this work lies in Sicilianos seeming
insensitivity to the true locus of solidity in his own paintings.
A sense of strength emerges effortlessly from the uncluttered
substantiality of his overtly structural, predominantly architectural
imagery. Unrelieved trowel-work simply undermines the inherent
assurance of his own design decisions. It is as if the artist
doubted the aggressive physicality of the scenes presented.
As if the dramatic use of light and shadow to produce powerful
interlocking and abutting planes of color were not sufficient
in themselves. Siciliano appears to think they need buttressing
with exaggerated surface mass.
The viewer has to stand quite far back from these canvases
to see how beautiful his darks are. They do not negate the
light but provide an arena for exploring shadows as a variety
of light that produces an abstract, two-dimensional patterning
across the surface of the canvas. I had fallen in love with
Roof, 1998, before the show opened. At the gallery,
I had to look at it from another room to even begin to enjoy
the actual painting as much as the printed announcement. Ditto
the compositionally splendid The River and the conceptually
exciting rooftop panorama of Williamsburg, 1998, with
their multiple vanishing points and coloristic bravura.
The object of painting is not to make a picture. Every painting
worth returning to is the result of the effect of the motif
on the artist. Siciliano is in danger of eliminating all response
to his own motifs in favor of a brash picture making formula
aimed at airport and hotel lobbies. The effect is a crude
gaudiness that palls after the initial impact. I am reminded
of Robert Henris query: "Have you not seen many
pictures that bowled you over at first sight . . . and did
not stir you thereafter?"
Sicilano should scrape down his canvases, lock up his palette
knives and spend more time examining Wayne Thiebaud, particularly
the San Francisco landscapes. Any one at all will do. Thiebaud
works his paint in the spirit of Constable, exploiting surface
inequalities to suggest the effects of light as much as textural
gradations. His surfaces are always in the emphatic service
of his motif, not in competition with them. Thiebaud marries
paint manipulation to the realization of the image. He handles
it with extraordinary refinement. There are lessons here for