Bernardo Siciliano
Urban Views
at Form Gallery

This is an exhibition that ought to be more satisfying than it is. Assertive, beautifully designed views from the painter’s 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 circles—literary, theatrical, cinematic—for 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 Bertolucci.

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 Festival).

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 Siciliano’s 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.

Siciliano’s choked, overstressed surfaces have their origins in a somewhat skewered tribute to Cezanne’s 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 Cezanne’s 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 Siciliano’s 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 Henri’s 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 Siciliano.


June 1999

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