Paint, in all its plasticity, has a unique ability to bring together the real and the imagined, the felt and the seen. For a sensitive artist, as Rudy Cremonini is, paint is the perfect medium. For too long now, painting has been under surveillance, viewed as suspect by many in the art world because of its longevity. With the rapid evolution of new media, people have questioned painting’s suitability to engage with the issues of our age and its role in art’s evolution. However, those same people have missed its real potential. Like no other medium it can bend to absorb and accommodate new developments, fusing the heritage of the past with the concerns of today, thus proving itself one of the most relevant forms of expression.
Thanks to the internet, painters today have at their fingertips the largest database of source material that they have ever known. In addition to this valuable tool, which most artists take advantage of via the lap tops, ipads and smart phones in their homes and studios, painters have a medium that can overarch and supersede this virtual world. That is, in addition to sourcing from a virtual realm, they can also draw from memory, life and from direct found imagery, such as other paintings or photographs. Painting has the means to not only bring together different images, but different languages in one pictorial plane, on one, definitive ground. If the painter is talented and consistent in his confidence, he can create a convincingly believable world that is uniquely his own. This world is constructed from the artist’s very particular mark makings, and reflects his own preferences for colour and form. Most tellingly, perhaps, it can be distinguished by the finger-prints of a painter’s craft: his brushwork. In short, the artist can bring into reality all that he imagines, and create something that before his touch, had otherwise not existed.
Touch and the physical evidence of the artist’s trace is one of the most striking aspects of Cremonini’s practice. For anyone unfamiliar with Cremonini’s work, it soon becomes apparent that brushwork is a singularly important feature of his painting. Cremonini is first and foremost a figurative painter, but equal to the significance of his subject matter, is his ability to animate the surface of his paintings. Draw in close to his paintings and you will find a ground so active that its abstraction is seductive and absorbing. Cremonini traces his brush through paint that is toffee thick, creating little tracks that are often circular or ovoid and open out like topographical lines on a map. The painterly nature of Cremonini’s work is extremely inviting. It is tempting for the viewer to lose themselves in the buttery grounds, and to be drawn into the abstract world of marks and texture.
The balance between abstraction and figuration is carefully poised in Cremonini’s practice, but it feels natural rather than forced. This is an artist who not only enjoys painting ‘things’, but who loves the nature of the medium itself. This is clear from the delight Cremonini takes in depicting subjects that might otherwise be classed as unremarkable or ‘ordinary’. In the work “dentro in un posto“ (2013) the viewer is confronted by what could be the inside of a box. The scene is ambiguous, but apparently deliberately so. It is impossible to arrive at a definitive title for the subject, though various possibilities are suggested by the artist. It might be the inside of a box, a cross-section of a hill - topped with thick layers of snow, or the interior of a room. The answer is not important, one feels; what is important is the process and the opening up of possibilities. This allows both Cremonini and the viewer to activate their imaginations; one to provoke to thought, the other to wonder and to delve into their own memory banks and imaginations, and perhaps to become lost a little along the way.
Ambiguity is a persistent feature of Cremonini’s practice. Rarely is anything definite. The faces of his subjects - be they human or animal - are often partially or fully obscured. In “swimming pool party” (2013), four swimmers tread water near each other in a pool. The features on the faces are impossible to distinguish, but they look as though they are melting into the water, as if they were formed from the same substance. The painting is a fine example of Cremonini’s ability to capture what is under the surface, as well as visible; the hidden tensions that can be felt but are so often difficult to articulate in the visual realm. However, in this, and other recent works of Cremonini, such as: “oh my lover” (2012) with its highly symbolic, dark subject matter, the influence of the early 20th Century Expressionist painters is evident, most notably the work of Edvard Munch. Consider the adoption of certain devices such as swirling brush strokes that give the surface structure and pattern, a dynamic use of colour and a strongly delineated suggestion of form; with a series of ovoid rings constructing hollows that have been substituted for the subject’s eyes and mouth. The hollows in the faces of the subjects featured in “swimming pool party“, lend a skull-like appearance, leading us to wonder whether this is deliberate and symbolic on the part of the artist.
Again evoking the work of Munch, in the hairstyle and dress code of the depicted woman, the dark subject matter (the woman appears to be holding a baby but in fact it is an empty blanket), and the handling of paint on her face, “di niente“ (2012) harks back to the painting of the previous century. Certainly Munch, but also Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and the Expressionists as a whole (who were largely a Northern European movement), actively employed symbolic references in their work. They had been deeply affected by the troubled time within which they lived; notably the devastating impact of the Great War and the Influenza pandemic of 1919. It is hardly surprising then that their acute awareness of pain and suffering was present in their painting.
A hundred years on, though Cremonini has not been exposed to the horrors that many of the Expressionists faced, he has nonetheless experienced the growing political and economic destabilisation of his native Italy and the European Union, and witnessed the effects of the global financial crisis, the impact of 911 and the conflicts in the Middle East that have arisen in its aftermath. Partly as a result of this increased tension, the changing geo political situation and the global impact of precipitous economic development in the BRIC countries and other nations that were formerly peripheral to the world market, Europe today feels like a very different place than when Cremonini and other artists of his generation were growing up. It is not far-fetched to argue that the impact of fast-paced change across the board in Europe - the advent of rapidly evolving technology and social media - in addition to the knock-on effects of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, and the Global Crisis - have all deeply affected artists working today. This is especially apparent in the work of young figurative painters who often draw from the ‘every day’ and recent history, as subject matter for their practices. We can see this in the work of artists such as the Hungarian painter: Zsolt Bodoni, the Czech painter: Daniel Pitin, the Romanian painter: Serban Savu, and the British painter: Justin Mortimer. Like them, Cremonini is adept at infusing his scenes with pathos and drama, and, as aforementioned, for exposing what is felt under the surface as well as clearly visible.
Nowhere is the notion of ‘what lies beneath’ better conveyed in Cremonini’s work, than in his water paintings. In “mani nell‘aqua“ (2013)we see a pair of hands with the finger-tips disappearing into a pool of water. We are not sure if the hands are dipping in, or being pulled out. The hands could suggest cleansing or even baptism, but since the actions of Pontius Pilate (as recorded in the Bible), the phrase: ‘the washing of hands’ has become a byword for betrayal and not standing up for something you believe in. A darker work in the Water series hints at submersion in a darker place “in acqua” (2013).
There is ambiguity here also. On the one hand, there is the suggestion that the figure has become lost to some murky underworld, or somehow tainted by something sinister, but on the other, it could be that the figure has blacked up his face for camouflage in order to hide and remain unnoticed. There always seems to be a tension in Cremonini’s Water series. There is the promise of redemption but also the suggestion of looking away, as evinced by the work: “baby, don't see” (2013) which creates a strong narrative when viewed in the context of “mani nell‘acqua“. In addition there is the hint of the seduction by something dark that might entrap versus the desire to hide and to cover oneself in order not to be seen or to be able to disappear. It is not decided what is happening; the questions are there but the answers remains open. This is a persistent feature of the artist’s practice: the raising of questions with indeterminate answers. What is apparent is that at the core – whatever the answer – seems to be the over-arching question of survival. What must be done in order to survive? Do I seek absolution and redemption? Do I walk away and decide not to challenge the status quo? Do I give in to the pull of the underworld? Or do I hide in the folds of the darkness? The quest for survival and the submergence in paint as a means to achieve a place of safety is a leitmotif that runs the course of Cremonini’s works.
Nature is often present in Cremonini’s painting. In “paesaggio cangiante” (2013)we are confronted with a loose, yet tender treatment of a lush and verdant island, an isolated oasis, dark against a bleached-out ground. In other works we find animals, such as horses (“cavallo bianco”, 2013), birds, and in a more sinister turn, dark brooding shapes, suggestive initially perhaps of animals but indeterminate in terms of form. In fact though initially the dark shape in “tank (1)“ (2012) might look like a malefic creature that appears to be hovering expectantly, waiting to attack or encompass its victim, as the title suggests, it is in fact an inanimate weapon of war. It is possible to read a great deal of symbolism and metaphor into Cremonini’s work, and in the case of “tank (1)“ the shape could be a stand-in for Death itself. Indeed the idea of Death crouching silently but knowingly in the wings is a reoccurring presence in Cremonini’s work. Sometimes he alludes to it through dark backgrounds and nocturnal scenes, at other times via the skull-like faces and bones that appear to be almost jutting through the skin of his protagonists in a way that is just the wrong side of visible - and so serve as memento mori.
Women are rarely featured in Cremonini’s paintings. Sometimes we find the Mother and Child, a re-working of the Madonna and Child subject that has persisted and sustained through Art History, yet tellingly as we saw earlier in “di niente“, the mother is looking not into the face of her beloved child, but smiling into an empty blanket, again a metaphor for death; in this case personified as a woman. It is the male figure though who is the subject of the majority of Cremonini’s attention. Sometimes he is depicted engaging in physical pursuits such as fencing “la mira“ (2012). Often though, the male protagonist is depicted naked; sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs. Eroticism is hidden but near to the surface. Some of the paintings read as disclosures: confessionals of secret, even socially unacceptable desires, as in: “twins desire“ (2013). Initially we think we are looking on a pair of naked, male lovers whereas in actuality, what is depicted is a pair of twin brothers.
Though the subject matter is surprising, Cremonini shirks from anything overtly explicit or brutal. He uses his seductive and often tender painting style to suggest rather than assert. In this way he succeeds in drawing the viewer into his world, making them part of it, rather than shocking or alienating them. From the delicate objects he selects to depict, such as: “scultura su fondo rosso“ (2013),that are intriguingly underplayed and almost out of focus, to darker, highly charged scenarios: brooding landscapes and domestic scenes brimming with erotic tension, Cremonini questions what is given as the status quo, and provokes the viewer to do this alongside him.
Some of the subjects and scenarios he recounts are undoubtedly drawn from the imaginary, but he gives life to them, making them a reality than is not only vaguely plausible but convincingly believable. Picasso pronounced that: “Anything you can imagine is real“. In Cremonini’s paintings we find the reality we recognise and often other realities we have not known, but imagined and even felt. The latter we might know only in our mind’s eye and keep for our secret thoughts, but it finds resonance when we see it expressed in paint. Once delineated it becomes evidence, like an archaeological find that sheds new light on a lost or forgotten world and demands a new evaluation. Once the hidden and the open are merged, something powerful is unleashed. It does not have to be delivered in an aggressively bold way, but it requires commitment to telling the truth and to bringing together thought and action. In short it is about the collision of two worlds and the beginning of the creation of a new one. This world is a place where honesty can find form - even if it begins as tentative exploration - and where fear and desire no longer have to remain hidden or suppressed. It is a free world, a site to exercise expression: a place where life can begin again and where anything can become real.
(Text: Jane Neal)