Luigi Cavallo :

"Alberto Sughi, Truth in absence: the pleasures and discomforts of the notturno "

The work of Alberto Sughi is very close to our time, so close that we can sense its stench and heart of ice, its hypocrisy, uncertainty and plausible paradoxes. Although it derives from intense social comment, its criticism is not exaggerated, nor as vicious as the interpretations of Grosz and Dix - with whom Sughi shares a similar pictorial language - nor some expressionists, like Schad, whose works are violent and macabre. Sughi's work is also documentary, a reminiscence, a necessary comment on and contemplation of events. It represents objective exis­ tence, that is both life and the death wish. Life experienced and reflected in an image.

Everything is encapsulated in a drawing, a structure, the language of light and colour. Using these tools, organically composed on the legacy of tradition, Sughi has conceived solid links with the famous chapters in contemporary history, not only Italian history, expressing continuity with nineteenth century developments. With his expertise, cultivated in a parallel interest in the main modes of artistic expression - art-literature-cinema-theatre - he has been able to fuse his paint­ ing with profound meditation on the present, and, consequently, with its various cultural implications. The present is not considered as an isolated segment and structure, but as a condition that contains all the pressures of the past and is chased by the warnings and palpitations of the future, and certainly also by the anxiety contained in and produced by the human condition. With Sughi, we witness a great spectacle that concerns us and awakens our con­ science, a simulation and dissimulation, a sort of investigation, or trial, in which we are directly involved. The subjects treated and questioned reflect our lives viewed from close up and from within, shaking us out of the torpor of our habit of not looking so that we will not be seen. What is provided in the painting is, in part, our own body, our own efforts, the resignation and the recuperation of some arcane strength that keeps us alive here and now.

There is no nostalgia for the past. You have the feeling of a break in a journey, for a moment, at the crossroads of our temporary existence and a hint of eternity, fleeting, unreachable, even tormenting, that follows us during the whole of our presence in the world.

In fact, Sughi encourages us to bind ourselves to the profound meanings or mys­ teries of mankind, in terms of an image created by the artist. Various details taken from private life, that do not really seem to count for much, are trans­ formed into a statement of historical importance, and even the discovery of real, up-to-date meanings - individual identity found in the complex separation between body and soul, and the soul which, from inexpressible abstraction, becomes a concrete icon - what is specifically a temporary distraction, acquires a kind of social position and is recognised as an important clue to a particular condition.

The originality of his view lies in his discovery of many invisible issues, subtle questions, that modify and develop facial features, like the pebbles in a river. Here we can glimpse the underlying influences of expressive art, in which we may find the ghosts of Viani, Rosai, Sironi, and even William Burroughs, the transparency of the characters, a sort of magical corruption of representational art, bordering on the threshold of a formless magma. Sughi expresses the dramatic value of power, the compression of the state of mind that emerges, often with a lack of eloquence, in our pragmatic culture. Diffidence, for modern man, is flicking through the pages of a magazine without looking for anything better than to find a useless piece of news, irrelevant to our own lives. But, for the painter, the act of casually absorbing even cruelly tragic events is news. The determining, essential, issue is the man looking but not see­ ing, glancing along the lines with no real interest, distancing himself from the world, from a world that is less and less his own.

The invitation and indication, Nottumo (Nocturnal), of this latest cycle of Sughi's work, made between 1998 and 1999, is so explicit that, knowing the ambiguity inherent in his artistic-narrative plots, you are immediately drawn to discover the underlying meaning which the artist gives us, recognisable but also hidden by nocturnal shadows, where life really seems to be turned upside down. In Sughi's nocturnal compositions you can feel an enigma to be gathered up and wound into a ball, something sacrificial and ironic, hidden between skin and skin, even in the emphatic outlining of the shapes, or in some darker mys­ tery. Night seems to suggest that the sun has retired in the wings behind the can­ vases, or in the shadow projected by the figures onto themselves. As if to say that, through the filter of Notturno , the portraits, the stage curtains through which the men and their shadows can be seen or imagined, as Antonio Del Guercio has commented, other portraits can also be seen, or imagined: images of the charac­ter who cannot free himself from other characters in search of an author. The theme of Sera (Evening), then, which the painter used in his works from the mid 1980s, is now followed by that of Notturno, in keeping with the logical progression of the day and the painter's rhythm of colour-expression. Three paintings from 1998, Racconto nero: la camera - reminding us of the rooms {Donna nella stanza, 1963, Nudo in una stanza, 1963) containing female nudes wounded by knife-blades of light and by many sharp signs of dis­ comfort - Racconto nero n. 3 and n. 4, are a kind of dramatic introduction to this new cycle. A glimpse of the novelist, of the detective story, with sinister char­ acters, individuals contemplating a crime in an apartment that has become the scene of the crime. But perhaps they are the ones that have been caught in the trap created by the painter. And it would be quite plausible to hear, in the back­ ground, the voice of Antonin Artaud in the celebrated Per farla finita con il giudizio di Dio. Sughi has often handled similarly gloomy subjects, if not these particular ones, following and intersecting his paintings with risky boundaries between his figures and their world, reality and its theatrical representation, changes of identity between environments and people, people and environments, sacrificing any feelings of pity and sympathy.

Due donne al banco del bar, 1998, again a brightly coloured painting, marks the thematic start of what became the main subject of Notturno n. 1, 1998, and Notturno n. 2, 1998. The setting is obviously a night club, full of dancing or embracing couples, women dressed in silk with heavily made-up lips and eyes, their wrinkled skins smoothed with waxed creams and varnished nails, women waiting for an invitation in a strained and unsmiling silence. It all seems to con­ vey quiet desperation, tinged with elegance. Sughi also paints the perfumes of these ladies, of their smooth, hairless underarms, of their breath dried by Martinis and Marlboros.

The piano, where the pianist plays slow, soft music, and we seem to hear and remember an old singer's drone - sugary notes that stick to clothing, in keeping with the glossiness of the night club and the faint befuddlement of alcohol. Men and women are absorbed and absent in their isolation; a sterile population living in an atmosphere of Accadde una notte (It happened one night), cap­tured in one of those ritual moments, made popular by bourgeois post-war habits. Slow music, entraineuses, playing at being someone but not being any­ one, relationships that vanish like cigarette smoke at the first light of dawn. Everything seems to happen in slow motion. It seems as though the painter has taken scenes from so many American movies to inspire him. You almost seems to have flicked through the frames of a film, to have watched a movie in which all the edges, all the superfluous material, have been cut out. The director-painter has left no space for deviation from the enchantment. Figures ready to hide in the wings of anonymity, actors constantly encountering their doubles, their dual lives, their triple roles - and the stage is distilled with glaring, grey-mauve lights, the light of solitude, perhaps, or of the mind losing its way in the dark. The more open, public and exposed to society, the more this existence is denied the conso­lation of solitude...

This chastisement of colour reminds the observer of early, black- and-white films. However, Sughi's main influence in this context seems to be those Baroque masters that studied meaning transmitted through light. The light source in these paintings comes from outside the painting, and one can imagine that there is a window, a door left ajar, a neon light or other artificial lighting, somewhere outside the picture frame, illuminating the scene.

The men and women inhabiting these paintings show a strong sense of the unre­ al, perhaps provoked by the sensation of the long night spent in these anony­mous places, making them become anonymous figures, waiting for something that will never arrive, not looking at each other but staring at a point in the penumbra, a place beyond 'which they will never go, and where they don't really want to go. Here we touch, almost physically, the ambiguity of these models, or rather, the frequency and merging of their expressions. As though any direct contact with the observer makes them feel ill at ease. They seem rapt in the burden of a previ­ ous existence and, perhaps because of this, their emotive involvement is limited and oxidised in a totally fixed expression, rigidity, the icy realisation of the unavoidable is recognisable in the empty, black eyes of some of the female fig­ ures, their eyelids pushed up at the corners, as in classical sculpture {Donna con tavolo e bicchiere, Due donne, del 1999). Even in Notturno: Figure fem- minili, 1999, in which the roundness of the bodies conveys the smoothness of art academy studies of sculpture, this obvious, provocative, mixture of classical and modern is evocative and produces fascinating, misplaced images. The artist has placed his easel in the midst of an atmosphere so thick with drama, in the uneasiness of what is supposed to be a place for relaxation and amuse­ment, in ordinary places that he makes us see in a different light. Here, in an obsessive and monotonous atmosphere, he concentrates our attention on looking underneath the surface of his human figures, that may even be attractive in their seductive structural and chromatic elegance, to see if there is anything else apart from this apparent wellness: anxiety, incoherence, withdrawal from daily life, the haziness of a head painted to convey what cannot be conveyed. Because this is what his paintings are about. The people are unwillingly present, while he paints, impatient and capricious, as if in a shelter, waiting for the night to finish with another night. But these characters have been taken from sensa­ tions, lights and colours. In fact, the medium is carefully chosen, the design shows a mechanism in which everything coincides, imagining reality and turn­ing away from it. Every moment of this constructed natural environment seems to have been meticulously calculated by the redrawing of the images and dis­ placement of the composition, traces of retouching that are still visible, like scars on the skin. Distilled syllables that have been meticulously pronounced, with irritating precision. This observation of the real (if not of reality) is a detail with­in the picture, like a subtle gesture in a French drama. Although the structure of the composition and the images is sometimes visible, even in its various stages of transformation, so that the painter's work can be deciphered, even when not over-obvious, within this method of figurative compo­ sition no structure can be taken completely for granted in its apparently fixed state, always leaving room for further events to occur. In fact, it is the ambiguity of the human presence, this "presence-absence", that makes the meaning of the painting impossible to pin down. There is, as I have already mentioned, the fact that the figures are examining themselves from within, so that the final effect, emerging from the painting, is the fruit of subtraction and of complex developments, as though from ghost to sculpted form and from this to an image painted against a dark backcloth.

The nocturnal concentration of light, shining in on itself, opens onto the interior of dimly-lit rooms used for ambiguous purposes. The profile of a woman seems to be a leitmotif of his work, the same features drawn with different interpreta­ tions. Muted voices respond, the falsettos and the sinister hoarse whispers, with autobiographical evocations of the author and poses, fragments of Beckett-like plots. The visual effect is like this, an anthology drawn from situations that Sughi has never abandoned and that are now fully expressed as a complete expe­ rience, one which is so totally involving that the painter cannot get away from the autonomous life of his figures.

The painting seems to consist of additions and overlapping effects. It is revealed and then hidden from itself amid crepuscular anguish - Cqffe di notte, Gran cqffe, Nel cqffe -, nocturnal visions, and equivocal relations. The scenes contain only a few controlled gestures: his figures take a drag on a cigarette, stare into the void, their stillness conveying expectation of an event, of the inevitable, a kind of resignation, in the end almost an approval. They evoke the shadows of Weimar, the downfall of the famous, destruction.

Every organism has its own inextricable good points and defects. In their pres­ ence you feel that they have experienced the malice of envy, delusion and obsession, the hypocrisy of society. They look bewitching: in the variety of images even inertia and boredom emerge and are resolved in the thickening of dull hues and seem to be emptied, because it is the brush stroke that survives, to show with all its energy what the hand of the artist shapes for successive, imminent contami­ nation. The nightmare of a millimetre-precise arrangement falls onto the weightlessness of every object and figure. However, that spark capable of render­ ing every scene credible and vital would be missing, if they had not been tinged with just a touch of self-irony, viewed as a fragment of the absurd. The development of a style that expresses a perception of different atmospheres, with subdued tones and those impalpable conventions of a pictorial language, is emphasised in the important work Notturno, 1999 (180x200), which depicts a fine portrait of a woman in the foreground, in profile, attracting the observer's gaze to the painting, with an unforgettable atmosphere. It almost seems as though the painter, remembering a real and carefully observed scene, has filled the picture with his experience and critical judgement, but without letting his interpretation cover the soft breath of life that expresses the real essence of the characters. In this way, the two authentic characters of artist and the model for the figure share in the picture, in its creation. Here, they seem to be revealed, unsealed by their indifference, their negation, by endless time that also seems to be suspended like a flash of lightning over the present, like a plot. In the caesura between fascination and beauty, the expressive possibilities of the figures and their environment, and of those lights that illuminate the painted subject at reg­ ular intervals, appear, as if on stage.

There is even a digression in this nocturnal theme, that depicts landscape. Paesaggio romano and Sera nella campagna romana, painted in 1999, give some indication of the place in which the film has been shot; views or previews, like the studies of heads that you sometimes feel lie beneath the surface of cer­ tain paintings, or, behind the painted heads, landscapes containing a series of events that are barely visible and that have been painted over with a succession of seasons and different scenes.

It is a critical order that cannot be reversed, a view of crisis that clearly indicates the general meaning of this cycle: women, men, middle-aged and young people exchanging masks, the psychological mask to be worn on the sunset boulevard of the western world. There once again, at the turning point and the decline of an era, there is a painter who depicts a woman at a table with a glass in front of her, expressing the idea of a century-long page that has been completed in the great book of civilisation.

But, in the end, in this painted book, as the title of a play by Lars Noren reminds us, La notte e madre del giorno (Night is the mother of the Day).

Luigi Cavallo, Bologna 1999

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