Identity in transformation: Italian contemporary art

Rossana Buremi, Italian art now
Images © Rossana Buremi

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Identity and transformation: two themes which have always fascinated artists remain as salient as ever. Emphasis, for example, on socio-political transformation permeates Chinese and Eastern European art; preoccupation with the characteristics of past movements and their contemporary relevance continues to influence much German production.

It's tempting, however, to suggest that recent Italian art (we refer here to work produced by artists up to the age of 40) has opted for the most fundamental investigation of all: a questioning of the very nature of identity in its manifold forms, a labyrinthine undertaking that has given rise to equally fascinating works.


Roberto Cuoghi

Roberto Cuoghi Italian contemporary art

Certainly one of the most enigmatic of the 'post-Catellan' generation, Roberto Cuoghi's conceptual practice is dense and varied, an ostensibly heterogeneous output of cross-disciplinary works. Nevertheless, themes of identity, transformation and change are frequently fundamental to his enquiry.

In probably his most famous work to date, at the age of 25 Cuoghi decided to adopt the persona of his father. Gaining six and a half stone, he also grew a beard, dyed his hair grey and assumed his father's style of dress and demeanour (left). This action continued for several years, only abandoned after his father's death.

In a later work, Cuoghi transformed himself into a cartoon figure. A fusion of various characters from the likes of Loony Toons to The Simpsons, Cuoghi's composite persona became the pixel-based star of a video animation.

Roberto Cuoghi: contemporary art from Italy
Images © Roberto Cuoghi

More recently, the artist has focused on identities other than his own, most notably that of the Assyrian deity Pazuzu, a central presence in Cuoghi's major installation Suillakku (left).

King of the demons of the wind, Pazuzu enjoys a somewhat unlikely role in western popular culture, largely due to an appearance in one of the most famous horror novels / movies of all time, The Exorcist (1971).

Since then, Pazuzu has been referenced by various rock and pop bands (Nefilim, Gorillaz) and appears in a host of video and role-playing games, such as the well known Dungeons & Dragons. Pazuzu even achieves a comedy turn as a pet gargoyle in the Futurama animation series.

Of undoubted further interest to Cuoghi himself is the demon's hybrid appearance - the body of a man, the head of a lion or dog, winged and with taloned feet - which mirrors Cuoghi's own patchwork incarnation in the aforementioned animation.

One of Cuoghi's points throughout his work seems to be that permanence, purity and solidity of meaning are increasingly redundant within a society such as our own. All constructions, including ourselves, are endlessly reworked and recycled to a degree where nothing is capable of maintaining an essential identity. In this last respect, his concerns closely resemble those of Pietro Roccasalva, below.


Pietro Roccasalva

Italian painting today: Pietro Roccasalva

(Born 1970). Midway through his career, interest in Pietro Roccasalva is escalating rapidly.

Although his work encompasses video, installation and object-making, painting lies at the heart of his practice - an idiosyncratic approach to image-making underpinned by dazzling technique and shifting frameworks of artistic allusion, particularly to Italian precedents.

Obvious referents include Modigliani's elongated portraits and the sfumato of Da Vinci, but citations roam effortlessly across the sweep of art history (and many other areas of cultural production besides).

If, in this sense, the enigmatic figures populating Roccasalva's paintings are personifications of painting itself, their distorted features exemplify the impossibility of fully aligning history with contemporaneity, their otherworldly beauty a deep respect for the sources from which they are fleshed.

Pietro Roccasalva

While it's tempting to view Roccasalva's painting and drawing in splendid isolation (Roccasalva himself has also claimed that, if it weren't for the potential offered by interdisciplinary practice he would dedicate himself solely to this medium) it forms just one component of a fantastical and endlessly complex oeuvre.

Roccasalva is essentially a conceptual artist whose works are informed by a dense network of association and learning, as likely to refer to Pink Floyd, Greek mythology or Edgar Allen Poe as art itself.

contemporary art from Italy: Pietro Roccasalva installation view
Images © Pietro Roccasalva

Manfredi Beninati

Manfredi Beninati, Italian art now

Smudged as if by rain, striations of colour partially obscure Manfredi Beninati's scenes plucked from memory or adaptations of grand classical themes such as the still-life or vanitas.

Various layers become a single visual plane, the stripes of obfuscation reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's vigourously smeared abstractions.

In one sense, Beninati's modus operandi seems an assault on the academic representation with which his works are initially created, a questioning of its validity, and power to adequately represent. Yet since his over-painting is only partial, the resulting abstract-figurative hybrid hints at a wider irresolution, a state of flux between opposing forms of facture.

Manfredi Beninati, Italian contemporary art

This uncertainty is mirrored in his sculpture and installation. Forms in white plaster, their pristine surfaces evocative of classical statuary, are daubed and pigmented with candy colour. Elaborate installations are often inaccessible, viewable only through cracks in a wall or dark glass to become, essentially, flattened like a photograph.

Abstract or figurative? Sculptural or painterly? Three or two dimensional? Manfredi's completed works remain in a state of incompletion - or even, it could be said, over-completion - replete not only with pictorial suggestion, but a constant shifting between formal identities.

Italian contemporary art, Manfredi Beninati
Images © Manfredi Beninati

Rossana Buremi

Italian painting today: Rossana Buremi

If Rossana Buremi's approach to painting embraces centuries of figurative tradition, her subject matter is far less conventional.

Hauling an obscure world of 18th and 19th century eroticism squarely into view, her take on period peccadilloes captures much of the flavour of authentic historical works.

The bizarre combination of the dirty and demure that vintage pornography presents is therefore brought fully to the fore: characters cavort immodestly in romantic landscapes, while even at the height of passion, frock coats and crinolines remain sartorially in place. Certain proprieties remain far more inviolable than participants themselves, and chief amongst these are the assumed requirements of painting.

Rossana Buremi

In a pre-photographic age, the figurative capabilities of the erotic artist were naturally highly prized, the legacies of academic realism brought to bear on a genre with no official place within that history.

Painterly convention is thus combined with the carnal, a union which, to modern eyes, exudes a staged, surreal quality that Buremi herself continually emphasises.

What's more, if these depictions of debauchery appear quaint, even amusing, what are we to make of the supposed universality of certain themes. Does the abstract notion of sexuality lose much of its power the moment we try to evoke it?

Buremi's skilled pastiches seem driven by a desire to question art's own parameters, particularly the inevitability with which representation evokes meaning or context it may not anticipate or even welcome.

Is painting truly capable of revelation, or is it, like the characters she portrays, too cloaked in convention to do anything except titillate?

contemporary art from Italy: Rossana Buremi
(Detail of work above). Images © Rossana Buremi

Salvatore Arancio

Italian art today: Salvatore Arancio

(Born 1977). Salvatore Arancio creates impossible landscapes in a style reminiscent of 19th century engravings, "... a type of imagery which was (used) to illustrate geological studies and that later became scientifically outdated."

While Arancio's imaginary vistas and forms seem partially validated by time-worn authority, their fantastic nature likewise prevents an entire suspension of disbelief.

Vacillating between artificiality and potential records of fact, Arancio's work explores "the state of suspension between the real and the fictional through an emphasis on construction and staging."

Salvatore Arancio
Images © Salvatore Arancio

Valerio Carruba

Valerio Carruba

From elaborately styled coiffures, to works in which the artist quite literally gets beneath the skin, Valerio Carruba's favoured subjects provide a perfect showcase for impressive mimetic skills and finely observed detail.

Yet there's also something disquieting about Carruba's work, and not just in the obvious sense whereby his flayed figures in particular - a curious meeting of anatomical illustration with grislier aspects of Catholic iconography - both fascinate and repel.

Despite the apparent intensity of Carruba's focus on the human, his investigations remain strikingly remote; compelled, it seems, by a curiosity more scientific and uncertain than sympathetic.

contemporary art from Italy: Valerio Carruba

Those hairstyles reveal next to nothing of the subject sporting them, while Carruba's dissections are typically surrounded by yet more disembodied limbs - quite literally detached.

Comparison with similar studies by Renaissance greats such as da Vinci or Michelangelo (a valid one, considering Carruba's academicism) reveals the extent of the disconnect. Carruba seems focused on revelation, but intentionally or not, steers clear of emotional essence.

contemporary Italian art
Images © Valerio Carruba

Alice Cattaneo

Italian contemporary art, Alice Cattaneo

(Born 1976). Alice Cattaneo's sculptural and video works are underpinned by a sense of discovery and humorous engagement with everyday materials and situations.

Her sprawling installations are typically crafted from commonplace items such as cardboard, tape and timber, their complexity suggestive of unfurling architectures of spontaneous, ad hoc thought.

Despite this, formal concerns are also evident in beautifully nuanced arrangement and deft combinations of negative and positive space.

Italian contemporary artists, Alice Cattaneo

Cattaneo's short videos likewise delight in transforming the mundane into moments of magic and humour through simple manipulations of film. Reversed footage shows face-cream ascending from a spoon; a jump-cut allows two capers on a plate to share a stolen kiss.

Focusing on the identity of the quotidian, Catteneo refutes its definition by uncovering potential for the extra-ordinary.

Italy, art now, Alice Cattaneo
Images © Alice Cattaneo

Federico Lupo

Federico Lupo, Italian contemporary art

(Born 1984). Federico Lupo's poetic installations and videos conjure dark suggestions of memory which, while ostensibly the artist's own, possess an open-ended quality that endows them with collective potential.

His short video series Biography through Objects (2005), for example, suggests by its title some kind of focus on a given life story, but the depicted objects themselves - clockwork toys, puppets, an eerily blinking sculptured bust - take on symbolic, rather than specific narrative qualities.

Childhood is clearly invoked, however, a theme for which Lupo provides an unexpectedly sinister ambiental context through shadowy black and white footage accompanied by unsettling, self-authored soundtracks.

Federico Lupo, Italian contemporary painting

The dreams and terrors of infancy are again suggested by a recent show, La Prima Neve (the First Snow). An oil on board portrait of a child (left) emerges from shadow, disembodied from the neck down.

Another work, a wolf's head protruding from a stone block, (below) carries connotations of the fairy tale or childhood gremlin, but also hints at Lupo's own presence through a pun on his surname (Lupo means wolf in Italian). Again, however, the artist steers clear of certainties, disinclined to associate his imagery with anything more tangible than a notional experience of the past.

Federico Lupo - contemporary Italian artists
Images © Federico Lupo

Maurizio Anzeri

Maurizio Anzeri

While London-based Maurizio Anzeri admittedly supercedes our 40 or under age requirement by a couple of years, he's a comparative newcomer to the art scene who we really had to include.

Trained as a sculptor, Anzeri uses synthetic hair to create slightly ominous, sentinel-like works (below, left). Piled into totemic forms, the bundled locks are simultaneously woven into curls, plaits and pleats which underline the connection to the human and imbue the sculptures with bizarrely figurative traits.

Maurizio Anzeri - Italian contemporary art

In a further strand of his practice, Anzeri embroiders mask-like new features onto found portrait photographs. Partially concealing unknown protagonists, his dysmorphic facial contours create unsettling new personae - as enigmatic and lost to identification as the faces they veil.

Maurizio Anzeri - new contemporary art from Italy
Images © Maurizio Anzeri

Identity in transformation, continued - the Italian NewBrow >

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