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Massimo Bignardi/ Moving: From Cities to The City

There is something suspect – a particular air – about Mary Cinque’s most recent paintings, like a momentary berthing of her pictorial experience concerned with the city; an air that directs the gaze toward a metaphysical watershed, renewing and being renewed in turn. Why bring metaphysics into it? As I well know, because her cities are unconsciously untethered from the interstices of memory, when talking about them there is a real risk of conflating the flat dimension of these urban scenes with De Chirico’s cities, in which: “All of the houses are empty / sucked clean by the aspirating sky. All those squares deserted. All the pedestals widowers.”

Merleau-Ponty writes that we cannot “draw up a limiting inventory of the visible”. This is the assumption that makes painting, figurative or abstract, destined to celebrate the enigma of “visibility”. Figurative or abstract – and I want to stress this – because among Mary’s intentions there is no possibility of tracing a precise line of demarcation: if the formal rendering of her cities orients the viewer through a geometry of forms to recognize façades and architectural elements – covering almost the entire dictionary of our modest modern urbs– in contrast, her flat expanses of inexpressive colors, her cancellation of shadows and her sticking so long with pastel shades that at times verge on monochrome all lead me to glimpse an interest in the quality of color, a spiritual dimension of her own, and an absence of body.

The artist snatches the illusory certainty of space from Daedalus, mythological custodian of the arts of architecture and sculpture, entrusting this space to the atemporality of image. As I was saying, she achieves this by reducing volumes to flat geometric shapes in flat colors that outline an axonometric projection, in which architecture – indeed the entire city – relinquishes its definition of space in the Newtonian sense to rise to the idea of present time (and hence to memory and the future). In this manner, painting becomes a locusoutside the real, laden with the narrative value of an artist who strives to convey what it is to be in her own time.

Mary attempts this with the same extreme rigour as she did in her “Lifelines”, in which she seems to be on the verge of sketching through the cipher of an animated cartoon style; or as she did when she staged a kind of pop parody of the corners of New York she happened across in 2002. A case in point are her works “Littleitaly”, “Philly” and, to an even greater extent, “In line from Moma”, whose compositional framework returns in “Surf Av”. We can certainly see this today in “016titled#012”, created earlier this year – a painting that she spent a long time studying, amending and redesigning, and to which I shall return later on.

Her creative path is delineated by experiences during distinct moments of reflection that the artist engages in for her own purposes, each time posing questions of these locistarting from her perceptions of them. This way of approaching the image sears itself onto our retina, as was true when she presented her cycle of watercolours in her one-woman show “Acque Chiare” at Palazzo Sasso in Ravello in 2009. In my introduction to the catalogue for that show, I pointed out how, channelling a kind of negative of the image portrayed, this young artist focused on the transitory value of the image, like water as it flows and, at the same time, she focused on a clarification (a less superficial vision) of the processes that make the experience of reality all the more authentic. And yet, in the slow sedimentation of her processing, the idea of the private notebook and, above all, the heartfelt need to keep on returning to the same framing, that is to say, rewriting using different tones, she opened up a new, sensitive way in to her painting.

The first thing to note is the size of the media on which she works: in her case, small sheets of cardboard, most not much larger than a postcard, which convey the idea of a souvenir, referencing an imaginary correspondence; in practice, a channel through which one gets in touch and communicates. The medium combines with the technique; she has chosen rough paper whose intrinsic nature offers a kind of materiality or, rather, an irregular and porous surface that, with its wrinkles, allows her fluid strokes to become more dense and turn into blots and irregular backgrounds full of smudges and filamentary water halos. This surface therefore facilitates the formation of folds, just as living skin yields to the processes of time and its inexorable action.

Cinque’s chosen technique then was watercolour, the simplest and yet the most cerebral of techniques. Initially, the artist used tablets of paint manufactured by industry for “fine art”; later, seeking out her own hues, she assembled her own paints using an alchemy that, to our great fortune, remains part of the practice of art. I call it a cerebral technique because, eschewing any kind of a priorisaturation, Mary began by discarding minimal tonal passages, working on the utmost luminosity represented by the white of the sheet of paper before closing down the diaphragm to measure the greatest contrast. In other words, she proceeded by subtracting light, leaving the task of holding onto the essence of forms, their ability to reference presence or the architectural space, by pushing colour to the margins. The artist subverts the process: she imbues white with the value of marking out an opaque body that selects and reduces the passage of light, and attributes to colour the selfsame action that Man Ray entrusted to light in his photograms.

Lastly, her insistence on the monochrome “blue” she has chosen not so much out of some kind of symbolist reference – I would indeed say that there is nothing literary here and avoid narrative approaches, a practice that is a far cry from her forma mentis – as out of her instinctive sensibility for becoming matter, existential identity or, better still, an original cipher present and insistent in the formation of her “gaze”.

Remarkably close to the luminosity of fountain pen blue ink, this colour is redolent of a reality that insinuates its way into two levels of imagination; it is highly familiar to people who, like Mary, were born and raised casting their gaze out over the great expanse of sky and sea visible from the terraces of Agerola, from the highest point in this town along the Amalfi Coast. “Blue” is matter that entwines with every form and every gesture that inhabits and cadences our everyday lives: that same “blue”, in its the more “azure” forms, entwines with the plastic interplay of leaves; delineates architecture and the man-made landscape, figures and relationships; and of course, the celestial dome, the ultimate witness to a triumphant beauty that slides into a continuous, infinite (indeed abyssal) mirror-like interplay with the sea.

This interpretation, however, runs the risk of viewing these sheets of paper as the latest example of nostalgic “landscape painting”, a kind of painting closely intertwined with the Amalfi Coast’s indisputable beauty.

This artist, however, shifts the focus onto the places from which she hails and the practices that led to her growing up and perceiving reality as an active and shared presence in the everyday actions of being: a reality of the visual that we may touch, in which figures, architecture and nature are opaque bodies that, through light, leave an imprint in our memory and durably insinuate themselves into our consciousness.

For Mary, light is not just an element of the visual process but rather an expressive given with which to come to terms. This was already evident in her earlier works, in certain atypical urban landscapes with a clear focus on the sign, exhibited in the summer of 2009 as part of the “Défense” show.

Light is coloured, elastic and liquid material. At times, it is capable of becoming the sign of a cursive gesture; at others, of thickening into patches saturated with luminosity. Colour is therefore the sky, light, “material” that enables the bodies that inhabit our experience of reality to leave their imprint and bear witness to their own presence.

In her “Acque Chiarecycle, Mary undertakes a reflection on light, on its ability to create what Roland Barthes defines (for photography) as“the Real in its indefatigable expression.”

Adaptability across multiple practices, including photography, cartoons, watercolour and the wide gamut of traditional painting, all the while proposing the image as a dual vehicle for emotional perception and communicative synthesis, is a hallmark of people born between two very distinct generations, during the final decades of the century we have just left behind – a cohort that today is coming under the microscope. Although she was born in 1979, that is to say at the end of a generational grouping known as Generation X, Mary grew up as part of the following generation, the one that, in their generational theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe dubbed Generation Y, aka the Millennial Generation, which runs from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. According to Strauss and Howe, at least in the Western world, this generation is characterized by a greater propensity towards and flexibility with media and information technologies, evident familiarity with creativity, and an attentiveness to the practices and processes of communication. Images take on a crucial weight in the thick web of social relations: they travel faster over computer networks, and their “iconic” value is restored in a formula that makes them an immediately identifiable template. The neoliberal world was posited on a kind of optimistic vision (alas, ultimately a chimaera) that prompted people to abandon an approach based on “social” participation, something that had characterized the preceding generation.

Despite growing up in this environment, through the questions she asks of life Mary succeeds in maintaining an intangible equilibrium between the two generations. Her identity has of course been moulded by a number of factors: a childhood spent in Addis Ababa, a classics-based education, the richness and cultural multiplicity of her family environment, studies of image and communication, and indeed her work on the history of the graphic “manifesto” in the Campania region (a degree thesis for which I was the supervisor, submitted in 2001 to the Naples Academy of Fine Arts), followed by further study into economics and the art market at the Accademia di Brera. Last but not least, her interest in the graphic arts and photography. This multifaceted education and upbringing has enabled the artist to turn her gaze on the “city” without yielding to the lure of the pictorial representation-based approach espoused by the “new urban landscapists” or, alternately, the blandishments of media focused solely on communication.

In this young artist’s experience, the city is the perfect accomplice for painting that pursues its destiny to celebrate the enigma of visibility. This is what we find in the works from her exhibition cycle entitled L’illusione di Dedalo. For the most part, they are paintings on canvas or board which restore and rework the gradual opening out and narrowing in of her gaze: here she chooses the naked eye, with the leftovers bi-ocular vision leave behind, there she embraces the leavings of the photographic eye, that is to say a viewpoint which, for Scianna, is an “illusion” inasmuch as photography cannot assert that it is “an incontrovertible proof”, making it possible for her to work with an awareness of not manipulating reality.

In these urban scenes, which date to the summer of 2015, Mary abandons her vision of generic cities to move to her own city of Naples, abstracting herself from the context to follow the trails blazed by Calvino into the rocks of his invented cities, bringing with it a new élan laden with emotion that displaces the cold aura of frontal framing from her 2011 Siena exhibition. Like Elio Vittorini in the pages of his book Le città del mondo(published posthumously in 1969), in which he encapsulated the world within a tale about Sicily during Italy’s economic boom years, so Mary attempts to “narrate” her Naples, returning to live there after years of moving between New York, Philadelphia, Milan, Addis Ababa and Agerola, where she has her studio. The characters Mary comes across in her urban perambulations are, at heart, the same as Rosario, Matteo the puppeteer, his son Nardo, Rea Silvia the criminally-minded woman, all characters whom Vittorini animates through his story on distant, opposite paths as they head towards their different fates. Mary portrays the location and the humanity that animates it; in other words, as Giuseppe Lupo observes in the preface to a recent edition of Vittorini’s work, she depicts the city, the human territory in which “myth transfigures into story, the stillness of time suddenly and irreversibly speeds up…”

The myth of a city without frontiers between reality, imagination and dream – Naples in the media mythology – is where Mary becomes matter that reflects on being in such spaces, in these geometric coordinates of a space undergoing continual transformation.

In its latest guise, her painting “016titled#012” presents a view of Piazza Garibaldi in Naples: in the background, we can make out the wording “KIMBO”, a brand of coffee, a symbolic, vital and essential element of Neapolitans’ everyday dialectic. In the foreground is the statue of the “Hero of Two Worlds”, shorn of any descriptive features and completely blank – an approach that recalls one of her watercolours from her “Acque Chiare” cycle. The artist employs the golden mean to the point of luminous saturation of a polar contrast, at the tip of which are black squares next to the red writing high in the sky, constructing perspective first by inclining the vanishing line, and then by eliminating all spatial relations between the buildings piled up higgledy-piggledy against the background, as if they formed a single architecture.

It is a city-is-entertainment that runs through Mary’s imagination: not the city Giandomenico Amendola sums up as the place where “everything must be visible in order to exist” or, perhaps better still, “where everything can become an event just like in entertainment”, but rather a place that manifests its own existential identity as a unicum.

Translation by Adam Victor