I remember feeling in awe, as though I was watching a magic trick, when the secrets of Raphael’s School of Athens were revealed to me in my Classics class years ago. It was a masterpiece that birthed a new era in art, the Italian Renaissance, one that pushed the boundaries of geometry, anatomy, and colour with large scale frescos. Some of history’s most prominent artists were from the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes still represent the gold standard of the human anatomy in painting. And Leonardo da Vinci, who created some of the most iconic artworks of all time with the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper remains influential in the imagination of many contemporary artists.
So imagine my surprise when I walked into Miucciaccia Gallery at Gillman Barracks and saw artworks that evoked those very same feelings of wonder and fascination. The gallery is known for curating cutting-edge fine art, and in this exhibition aptly named DELIVERANCE, nothing was amiss. This showcase of international artworks, many of which are by Italian artists such as Luciano Ventrone, Cristiano Pintaldi, Oliviero Rainaldi, and Valerio Adami, presents pieces that aim to provoke new ways of seeing the traditional medium of painting. The gallery is one of the few in Singapore to specialise in contemporary Italian art.
In Southeast Asia, contemporary artists often experiment with the medium of painting to produce unique and intriguing results, transforming the technique of painting, both in its concepts and techniques. From the Phillippines alone, young artist Jayson Cortez has combined hyperrealistic trompe l’oeil techniques with dark, surrealist motifs, incorporating reality and the bizarre in pieces such as Open Room (2020) and Wild Immersion (2020) – read more about the works here. Senior practitioner, Ronald Ventura, ranked as “one of the most acclaimed artists of his generation in Southeast Asia,” has also experimented with his painting techniques, producing multi-layered bricolages of images with pop culture references, notably seen in the works Ticket to Ride (2019) and Supremo (2019), paintings that invite and provoke viewers to dissect each element on the canvas.
Miucciccia Gallery’s exhibition offers an intriguing counterpoint to examples of regional production such as those set out above. It’s perhaps a gentle nudge to visitors to reflect on contemporary paintings from the West and consider how they may fit into a local or regional art lover’s appreciation of the wider art world.
In DELIVERANCE, what first stood out to me was an imposing optical illusion by Cristiano Pintaldi – Untitled (Tornado) (2016). Standing at a distance from the painting, I could see the ominous greyish-white cloud cast over a volcano. Pintaldi’s work was visually overwhelming, a sensory overload of pixelated colour. But from just a few inches away, I quickly realised that there were no actual white or grey tones in the work. Rather, it is composed of an unblended grid of geometrically applied red, green, and blue (RGB) dots on a black canvas. Pintaldi is inspired by the digital image – his work tricks the eye into perceiving colours that do not exist in order to create two ways of seeing his paintings. First, the larger image of the volcano looms large, but a closer consideration of the work reveals the minute details of the RGB dots.
This exhibition is a showcase of technical and conceptual innovation, one that makes the viewer question their perception of reality. To my mind, it has an affinity to the brilliance of the Italian renaissance, evoking a magical experience in seeing paintings in the most experimental of ways.
In a smaller room hung several paintings that could easily be mistaken for high-definition photographs. Luciano Ventrone’s Adagio (2002) hides each and every stroke in order to create a seamless blend of colour in the most mind-bending painting of still life lemons. Unlike Pintaldi’s work where upon closer inspection, one can see the exact technique of the artist, Ventrone’s hyperrealism conceals years of patience through the artist’s careful placement of needle-like dots on the canvas. Some of his larger pieces have taken ten years to create.
The kaleidoscope of tones applied with microscopic precision manipulates the viewer into perceiving the painting as a photograph. Ventrone also takes care to paint under a special neon lamp in order to eliminate any shadows on the canvas.
Ventrone’s romantic rendering of still life and nature provides an interesting juxtaposition to some of Southeast Asia’s hyperrealist artists, who depict a grittier side to the genre. While Malaysia’s Ahmad Zakii Anwar explores human anatomy with Head 2 (2019), an acrylic painting of the back of a shaved head, Filipino artist Nona Garcia’s Unearth (2015) exposes an unglamorous Manila in uneven terrain. Unlike Ventrone, these artists are not necessarily interested in replicating the beauty of reality, rather, they aim to capture the mundane and ordinary.
While photography captures reality at the click of a button, hyperrealist paintings require years of painstaking work and technical virtuosity to create an image. On the one hand, Ventrone’s work is special due to his ability to replicate photographs. Moving beyond gimmicky tricks, the wonder of the artist’s hand is evident in this work – it is very much a skilled tool in itself which is able to amalgamate reality and imagination in innovative ways.
Another result of this detailed exercise is E vanno verso il mare (2005), a perfect replica of the most beautiful coast off Sicily, appearing so real that the waves almost move. It’s a bewildering masterpiece that blurs reality and artistic vision.
Viewed together with Adagio and Untitled (Tornado), Pintaldi and Vetrone provoke viewers to examine art differently as the mind’s perception is distorted by one’s first impression.
DELIVERANCE also prompts a questioning of broader ideas surrounding hyperrealistic painting. Johannes Völz offers some interesting perspective in the 2007 essay The Index and Its Vicissitudes: Hyperrealism from Richard Estes to Andreas Gursky, suggesting that hyperrealism is “no longer an aberration of photographic realism, capable of making us feel a truth that lies beyond the scope of the camera. Rather, (in some ways) hyperrealism now poses as the only believable realism in an age in which the photographic protocols of realism are in the process of being shattered (by things like the advent of digital photography and digital manipulation).”
Amongst others (and it’s a really fascinating read, we’d urge the art nerds amongst you to take a look at the full essay), Völz challenges the relatively simplistic idea that unlike painting, photographs have a kind of documentary status, serving as a record or trace of a physical presence at a certain fixed time and place. He argues that “the specific effect of making a painting look like a photograph, yet diverging from the photo look through an overachievement of sorts,” can create a different kind of reality altogether, one that is perhaps more true to the spirit of the image or the time being captured.
Garcia’s Unearth for example, invites viewers to consider the stark, gritty realities of Manila slum housing, against the “near-impossible” sight of a “stunning vast expanse of sky.” The juxtaposition created here emphasises the harshness of shanty-town conditions, subtly reminding viewers of the very real exposure faced by these types of housing to the vagaries of nature in the form of landslides, typhoons, and torrential rain. In a similar vein, Ventrone’s depictions of the natural world in the hyperrealistic painting format prompt questions about our often-fraught relationship with the environment. Of course, while in the grips of a pandemic, the works take on a whole new meaning as well, with access to travel and natural sites being facilitated through a trip to an art gallery!
“Deliverance” as a term is defined as the act of “being liberated or set free,” and true to its title, the exhibition takes viewers on a magical joyride, full of surprises and perplexing tricks. The illusions of the works in the show expose the fallacies in our perceptions, and that is exactly what makes this exhibition fun.
This show reminded me that painting remains alive as ever, still evolving, and still creating new perceptions. One of the most traditional mediums has evolved into a modern, transformative approach to art, and the sheer brilliance of contemporary painting continues to shine bright right here, in a gallery in Singapore.
DELIVERANCE has an extended run till 10 January 2021, at Miucciaccia Gallery at Gillman Barracks. All images are courtesy of the gallery.