Domenico Grenci

Light Years

04.11 –

It is said that during his last period in New York Piet Mondrian (who knows how much truth there really is in this story) used to paint small still lifes of flowers when hunger and lack of money overwhelmed him, forcing him to find more colloquial and sellable art forms. 

The recent exhibition Stop Painting (2021) at the Fondazione Prada in Venice showed another "removed modernism", that of Kurt Schwitters, dedicated throughout his career on carrying forward a placid bourgeois and intimate production – small compositions of flowers, objects and fruits, carried out for personal pleasure – parallel and independent to the work that made him famous in artistic historiography: the Merzbau of Hannover. In both cases, the flowers, or more generally the work on the stereotypes of painting, appear as an antidote to the avant-garde fever, a beneficial virus that insinuates itself between the cracks of the progressive concrete, just like small sprouts of vegetation that manage to grow even between the paving and the sidewalks of the great urban grid of New York, of which Mondrian's orthogonal compositions constitute the possible aesthetic counterpart.

Domenico Grenci's painting admittedly addresses this kind of compositions. His productive corpus is made up of consolidated subjects of painting – flowers, portraits, surfaces and still lifes – very different from each other, distinct in their progression as almost autonomous series, but also profoundly related both in their expressive treatment and in the meaning they bring with them. Images of astral distance and tactile proximity, dreamy and crepuscular epiphanies that seem observed among the attenuating vapours of past time or of the distance that interposes between our eyes and the target to which they are directed, objects seen through frosted glass with an almost photographic quality, but with a heliographic, nineteenth-century type, flou, unstable, phantasmagorical…

If we choose to talk about it in an orderly manner, we must start from the female subjects, those who most characterize his work. When they don't expose their necks, the most sensual and unprotected part of the human body, the faces of women portrayed by Grenci have eyes that magnetize and pierce. They are looking directly at us, here and now, right at us, despite their simulacrum nature. Female figures who could seem to be lovers or companions from the past, people who were deeply related with each other, but who instead reveal themselves, when tested by facts, as images taken prosaically from glossy magazines and periodicals. It is therefore the exact opposite, faces of anonymity, marketing and media flow that are "brought forward" and humanized by Grenci's drafts, in order to rise to the stature of real portraits.
The flowers, differently, stage a nature that is within reach and trained, which, like a synecdoche or a metonymy, becomes a domestic part of a distant and unattainable uncontaminated whole, that of creation. The environment in these compositions therefore constitutes an immaculate reserve that peeks out and observes us from the dresser, inserted into captivity inside vases, glasses and various containers, in a similar way to what Giorgio de Chirico did with his late "indoor suns", ironically placed on the easel in his studio in place of the painting, as authentic surrogates of reality.
The tripartite series in Domenico Grenci's production ends with the works dedicated to tissues, in particular sheets and blankets, which people know almost exclusively in a tactile way in everyday life. They wrap themselves in them and cover themselves with them: usually these surfaces cannot be seen but are touched in the most intimate physicality by individuals. In the author's works these empty draperies become memory of a presence now absent, a vision of a feeling that has become a poetic and abstract image of something that is no longer here.

If in portraits what we observe is an extreme convergence of something distant, in tissues and still lives we instead notice a distancing of what is closest to us, as if a procedure of radical estrangement was applied to objects that are ultimately rather banal. But upon closer inspection, the opposite procedure is also true and the taciturn and thoughtful faces of women escape into distant nebulae, while flowers and fabrics press on our retinas with their effectiveness. More generally, it seems that Grenci – and with him his painting – melancholically plays with constantly moving the position of the perception of things, which can appear within reach for an instant and then mysteriously sink into sidereal distances. Hal Foster, within The Return of the Real, in the subchapter Visions of the Other, interprets relationships with otherness and with the different as questions of correct distance. By completely changing the context but maintaining the interesting critical approach, it seems that the artist has no ambition to correctness in the measure from which to look but all the subjects have only two extreme possibilities of existence, the radical consistency or the incredible evanescence. What turns out to be paradoxical is that the two states are often mixed in a single image which, like an oxymoron, incorporates both qualities. For this kind of painting, distance and current events are not mutually exclusive conditions but, on the contrary, they give life to confident yet dreamy objects, seen among the glimmers of a memory or obscured by fogged glass, but always there, within reach, subjected to constant operations of lyrical, visual, empathic convergence and distancing.

How many times does it happen in everyday life that you feel a familiar person to be absent and incommunicable, perceiving them light years away? And how many times do we get affected or fall in love with imaginary characters that we feel so close, in the fiction of a book, a work of art or a film? It is the gentle power of a certain type of aesthetic discourse, capable of touching us like a dart shot even from points that are invisible to us or, vice versa, the silent force of a desire that we keep with us but which slips away in a whirlpool of absence.

Sandro Parmiggiani states it well when speaking about Grenci's portraits and referring to Braque: "These faces are evocations that come from afar, recalled from an 'other' world: they express a sort of excruciating feeling of distance (...). In many of Grenci's paintings you can breathe what Georges Braque had developed over time: 'The only thing we have left is what they take away from us, and it is the best thing we possess'". They are the roses that I didn't pick of the crepuscular Guido Gozzano ("I only love the roses / that I didn't pick. I only love the things / that could have been and that have not / been") who also shares with Grenci the predilection for luministic transitions between light and darkness, poignant moments in which it is not possible to decide whether we are in the last moment of the day or the first of the night that has just begun. And ultimately all this continuous game of opposites, in which we are testing the diligent reader through repetition, retraces and reiterates to a higher degree the ultimate dynamic of antithesis, the definitive rebus of our existence, the one between presence and absence, between life and death.
It is probably no coincidence that all the genres that Domenico Grenci uses present contradictions. Life cannot be still (dead in Italian), though still life, if duly attended, allows us to probe both conditions, keeping them suspended, concomitant and opposite. The portrait already has in its definition the double substance, which was mentioned above, corresponding to an extreme presence - "I portray you, I see you, I concretize your features here and now" – which is also a mysterious withdrawal – "I retreat, I withdraw, I hide, I obliterate myself by making myself seen”. Layers of meaning that were masterfully established by Georges Didi-Huberman:

in the portrait, in his portrait – in his "own" portrait (an ambiguous expression more than any other) the other retreats. He retreats by showing himself, he retreats within his own manifestation. The other who is portrayed is also the withdrawn other, and consequently the recognized other – if the resemblance counts as recognition – is also the other made more unknown than he was before this recognition. He is more unknown since he is withdrawn into his otherness. But this retreat reveals the mystery of this otherness: he does not reveal it, on the contrary he reveals that it is a mystery – and that it is undoubtedly not a question of dispelling it.

Words that take on even more depth if imagined alongside the portraits of our artist, always addressed to people never truly known and re-recognized only based on their own media anonymity. Faces, flowers and tissues, therefore, in their simplicity, already provide the tools to pause on the threshold of passing, between closeness and distance, between life and death, between contact and contemplation, a threshold that Domenico Grenci has chosen as his own territory of predilection from which to produce evanescent visions. Epiphanies on canvas that refer to the legacy of Odilon Redon, a very intense painter who practiced the realms of visible and invisible to bring back, at the end of his career, among very bright bouquets and delicate faces (therefore through absolutely present and real subjects) all the visionary and dreamlike brought that he had accumulated, like a deep inner reserve, in his most clearly symbolist phase.

All of this is, ultimately, already present in the myth about the birth of painting, where the need to trace minimal signs on a support is dictated by the imminent departure of the beloved in order to preserve his memory. Painting is therefore, as Grenci also reminds us today through his actions and the concrete examples he presents, a question of closeness and distance. A discourse which, starting from light, manages to unite time with space in the chromatic quality of a painting, in its colourful atmosphere. Because light is a functional element for vision and painting indeed, but also a measure of speed and length, therefore of a duration, within which the mystery of the creation of images takes place.

Together but we were miles apart
Every inch between us becomes light years now (…)

Your lights reflected now
Reflected from afar
We were but stones
Your light made us stars


Gabriele Salvaterra

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