We live in a moment when the visual arts, preoccupied with conveying social and moral lessons to their audience, often seem to forget the pleasure principle.
Or, if they do remember it, then what they often want to do is to supply their audience with immediate sensations, things that often seem to have little to do with the making of stable objects and images – things ready to take a place in the world that viewers occupy as part of their everyday existences. As opposed, for example, to making a visit to a public gallery, lured there by the promise of an ‘experience’, quite unlike what might be offered to them outside.
Christian Carlini describes himself as a ‘hyper-realist’ and quotes Salvador Dali: “I have no fear of perfection, although I can never achieve it.” He also cites another saying of Dali’s: “I do not occupy myself with being modern, since this – fortunately – is the one thing I cannot avoid.” This philosophy is expressed in intensely observed still life paintings. They cover a relatively limited range of subject matter: things to eat, mostly cakes and gelati, exquisitely presented, of the kind that might be offered to you in and elegant restaurant; and citrus trees ready to be planted, not yet full grown and with a little soil clinging to their roots.
Though there is nothing directly comparable to these in the work of Old Master still life painters, certain resemblances suggest themselves. There are links to the work of certain Spanish artists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, most particularly to the work of Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) – the still lifes painted before Cotán closed his Toledo studio in 1603 in order to enter the religious life. While Cotán made austere compositions of fruit and vegetables, they are not as drastically simplified as those that Carlini has to show us. It is just that there is a rather similar sensibility at work, but one formed by contemporary ideas and conditions. There is no religious vibe here.
As the Wikipedia entry for Cotán tells one:
‘Even if the objects are arranged so that they seem close enough to touch, they are nevertheless distanced. For all the realism with which they are depicted, the isolation of each object, heightened by the black background, gives them a monumental, almost sculptural gravity.’
Carlini’s work differs from this in one important respect, however, which is that the backgrounds he chooses are not black, but are, rather, a very light grey. This does not affect the tactility of what he shows. The things he paints are distanced. Paradoxically, they also very much present, almost inviting the viewer’s touch.
This is due, in part at least, to the artist’s approach to colour. The hues he employs are, he says “an evolution of the classic colours used in Hyperrealism.” That is to say, he aims to go beyond the confines of photp-derived art. The influence here is the kind of colour we now see on the screens of high-definition television sets equipped with 4K HDR. These hues increase visual impact by going beyond the normal boundaries of human perception. They intensify the power of the gaze, to an extent never previously experienced.
Another major difference from Cotán, and also from all the still life painting of the past, lies in Carlini’s embrace of items that we recognise as being very much of our own epoch. The elegant Positano Ice, for instance, is very much a treat for right now. A treat you might be offered in a café situated in that elegant resort on the Amalfi coast. The wafer, industrially produced, and the plastic spoon are guarantees of contemporaneity.
The main message that I find in Carlini’s work, whether he intends this fully or not. Is a fascination with the actual. He is not propagating any creed. There is no concealed message. What fascinated him as a painter is the state of things as thy are. He contemplates the things he chooses to paint with an absolutely non-judgemental gaze. He wants to share the experience of seeing with an intensity that goes beyond the viewer’s ability to see experience the same items for himself or herself.
In the world that surrounds us, our eyes fall upon a multitude of objects. Very few of them make more than a tangential impact. We look, and then we look away – at something else. The scenes and objects that from time to time rivet our attention almost invariably do so because they resonate with something within ourselves – something we know already or have experienced previously. Carlini asks us simply to look – to experience what he shows to us without preconceptions. Sometimes his titles supply quiet clues – Sulla vetta dell’ Olimpio, for example, with a cup-cake balanced on a heap of pebbles. Or L’isola del Tesoro, where the clod of earth supporting the sapling offers a couple of coins. Yet these prompts invariably have an element of irony. They seem like wry comments on or inability, as human beings, to look at things simply for what they are.
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