A knife with no blade, missing its handle

23 Nov 2022-14 Jan 2023
PV 23 Nov 2022, 6-8pm


Chronicle of a Methodical Meeting
by Milovan Farronato

Composed, dignified even, Guglielmo Castelli likes to pose with his right eyebrow coyly arched while turning his body to the left and at the same time looking to the right. He makes frequent interjections in his fluent speech. Methodical, he doesn’t stumble, doesn’t falter, doesn’t interrupt the continual flow of words. He is not playing a part, but you might think he has a script, at least a rough draft, to serve as an unconscious memory of his reasoning. Our first meeting was intentionally predestined: the prescribed visit to his studio towards the end of last summer. I waited for him at the Torino Porta Susa stop, climbed precariously on board his Vespa and, in a sorry state of mutual indulgence, arrived at his reassuring maison absolute in the Madonna di Campagna district of the Piedmontese capital. It is a city with two souls: an industrial one and an underground one; dazzled by light, but stalked by the shadows that slink along its porticos; animated by Carol Rama and Carlo Mollino, who lived next door to each other, but never knew it.

Castelli’s studio consists of two spacious rooms on the ground floor facing onto a modest internal courtyard, over which looms a main block at the front that is oriented to the west and thus never prevents the daylight from entering through the two large skylights that are set like jewels in the ceilings of both parallelepipeds. Symmetrical, regular with two functional cubicles, each in the same specular position – the first to meet the needs of food, the second those of physiology – the rooms offer to the perceptive eye frugal information on the practice of painting, research and archiving carried out and contained in them; a practice on which it is, now, worth dwelling. On entering I am surrounded by a sloshing of paint, and by dirty but tidily arranged brushes; by canvases ‘stacked’ in progressive stages of definition. I see that they are innumerable, but can be distinguished into four distinct stages with no possibility of regression: uniform ground of a monochrome tint the first; abstract and chromatically variegated miscellany of blots and drips like a sadly deranged harlequin transformed into polymorphous shapes that I think his unconscious memory, again, knows how to handle so that they can be modelled in the phase that follows, when some of them are absorbed into figuration and others persist imperturbably in that primordial indistinct material, that nebulous cocktail firmly convinced of its inviolable ornamental value; while others, the last, give up almost completely and reluctantly allow themselves to be concealed. In conclusion, the fourth stage arrives with the blessing of elusive, inconstant shadows, awkward alter egos that duplicate, balance, support or plead with the origin from which they have sprung.

I let myself be persuaded by the possibility that the apparently uniform light pouring like rain from the skylights in reality seeps in fitfully, like a devious desire that attenuates and softens the presence of the shadows in the studio and consequently offers them the possibility of free will, of an independent and animated gesticulation. After all shadows are doomed to vanish at the zenith, when the demons of midday finally start to dance. Carl Gustav Jung argued that shadows are demons. ‘I will stay by your side if you offer me the possibility to persist, but I cannot be a mere reflection, or a reluctant projection; I have to be able to bend, to kneel, to elongate out of all proportion. To be above, but below too. The first and the last,’ they might whisper to us. In Castelli’s paintings they are concupiscent, neurotic presences, ill-omened and benevolent bystanders at one and the same time. Perhaps these shadows too are a demonic presence in dispute or in mutual aid.

But let us go back to the studio: order encapsulates the chaos of action, enclosing it in a special decorative frame made of elements and ornaments that frequently turn up again in the canvases. A precise frame like the one traced in so many notebooks and on loose sheets for which the blank margin is a border if it is not framed by a line traced in pencil, even several times on the same regular piece of paper. With these presences as volatile as Caravaggio’s clouds we have already passed into the other room, more domesticated, more furnished, more comfortable and more welcoming in keeping with a courteous and cordial, typically Turinese etiquette. The exhibition of the pictures is precise, less of a jumbled heap, and yet the space is still tyrannical. A flower offers a cameo from a vase in semi-darkness. A pair of pissoires turned into miniature theatres demand the attention of the public even though they choose to place themselves to one side. Equally harmonious in its reciprocated horror vacui, the room is characterised in its reading. There are two passages unobstructed by doors between one room and the other. Like an ouroboros biting its tail they are set regularly in the same wall, in continuous communication. We could go round and round in perpetual motion to find the curve in the straight line or the straight line in the curve. I, without being aware of it, have found the five paintings and two drawings in the process of gestation on which I have now been invited to speculate...

Each of the paintings, however much effort it makes to be gaudy under the skin, tends to veil its epithelium in a single, dominant glaze of green. Some do it in a brazen manner, heady with the colour’s propensity to encompass everything. Others set out to confuse it by drawing on consonant hues coming from bordering territories, close in taste and expression: muddy and mouldy soil, resounding rust with incandescent iron. And there are those that prefer to save it for charismatic underlinings that mark the profiles and supporting ribs of a nebula that has exploded, for the most part around a central vortex. This is what happens, for example, in the calamitous case of that outline of a figure in Deduction Exercise (2022), squashed like a skewered chicken at the very moment in which it tried, possibly exhausted, to hunker down on a chair that has in its turn been dismembered and segmented by a centrifugal force. Suddenly, and with no possibility of appeal, it has been contracted into a by now almost blurred agglomeration, a dense and yellowish blend that imprisons within it a collection of ornaments comprised of a wide range of objects, including the recurrent gloves, the discernible scissors and the pansies that are scattered around the composition at regular intervals, as well as an empty pair of trousers erected at the base of the painting like a candlestick for a triple flame, of which only the left orifice tends to blur. The whole thing seems to be compressed between the pages of the volume of an encyclopaedia. The expression on the face is reticent and the hands are raised in sign of surrender; we might imagine, given the view of the posture from the bottom up, that the genitals would be exposed, but they are nowhere to be seen. It is always difficult to assign a gender to these polymorphous figures entangled in their scenic backdrops. In this painting too we see a radial expulsion from a central eddy, and at the same time we can feel the strain of a containment step by step. The amalgam is always held in by a border that never quite reaches the edges of the picture. In this ‘deduction exercise’ the containing membrane, double like that of a mitochondrion, is viewed from above and seems to define the juicy outline of an upside-down cashew, vivisected so as to reveal its interior. Or perhaps it is just a set of Russian dolls with an unusual flattened content.

In Dressage (2022) it seems instead to be a circular enclosure or a circus tent with its top removed, erected right in the middle to imprison or protect – the choice is yours – another figure exposed to a distorted perspective and an equally uncomfortable posture. It rests its chin, buttocks and knees on the steps of a spiral staircase surmounted by a beach umbrella that might offer relief to the shadow gripped between the hands of the body clinging onto it, while it just wants to flee to the east. The rest is ornament, perfectly pleated like the wrapping of a present in which care has been taken over the smallest detail. In Space more than time (2022) the omnipresent border becomes a fortress, a solid and resistant barrier, an impregnable perimeter. Like in Deduction Exercise, it lays claim to all the possible space of containment in order to provide, but in the manner of Dressage, an ample central area for an improbable little genre scene: a seesaw of bodies as stiff as props. Perhaps they are the handles without a knife – or the knives without a handle – to which the title of the exhibition seems to refer. Here too, as in the previous case, there is a central pole, from the top of which flutters a red ribbon (in the Parisian manner of post-guillotine fashion), which the figure in the middle is languidly hanging onto, while the other two balance it on each side, wrapping it in the double grip of a strange rope. At the top a crumpled horse is the sole, indifferent witness. These three paintings are Guglielmo Castelli’s responses to the space of the gallery in London, hence the pole, the dressage, the raw brick... And rightly, perhaps due to a distortion of space, they have all migrated west, to Piraeus, while in London the one that stand out is the biggest of all, and the most majestic for the complication of its elements, as well as the only one to have been painted prior to the welcome invitation and thus completely independent of the spaces and their morphologies, things which the artist sometimes lets influence him.

Dark was the night, cold was the ground (2022) is its title, taken from the name of the song that was on the soundtrack of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew. The recurrent feature of the enclosure is given a vertical twist here, in a plausible and semicircular perspective as if, at the level of the imagination, it could continue into our hemisphere as well, gobbling up the space and its viewers. It seems to be constructed out of vegetation, following the rules of the art of topiary. It has openings, entrances and escape routes, an Italian-style garden in which the figures are arranged in nonlinear fashion. The group in the foreground, on the right, seems to consist of two bodes clinging to each other a moment before kissing. If we were in the garden of Gethsemane, as everything seems to suggest, they would be Judas and Jesus Christ, just before the arrival of Pontius Pilate’s soldiers. The shadows are tortuous, just as the tops of the plants outside the enclosure are fluid, waving against a spectral sky. The figures inside appear to melt continually. An elastic storm isolates them on a stage at a specific flexible moment to indicate what had happened before and what is going to happen after.

But let’s go back, in conclusion, to the omnipresent green, laid on here in chromatic mappings that roam freely between the realm of minerals and that of entomology. Green like the shield bug and the green rose chafer. Jade, emerald, tourmaline and malachite, but fern, myrtle and mud too. A sickly, unhealthy, swampy green. And above all bile green, by now as jaundiced as the eyes of my cat. They are in short, all of them, bar none, coagulated landscapes dominated by the wind that flexes, shifting back and forth constantly. Perhaps in the end they are not vortices, but hurricanes. For the Hindus green is the colour of Air.