Astor Row Unlimited
October 7 – November 1, 2009
The scenes in Riccardo Vecchio’s recent paintings are at first glance ambiguous in their evocation of a postwar cityscape—it’s hard to discern whether these places are in a state of reconstruction or stasis, whether they are tinted with nostalgia or tamed by the discipline of building a picture.
A road bends through a housing project in a city’s outskirts. The planes of the buildings are muted, save for little turquoise swatches shuttering the windows. How one navigates Vecchio’s rhythmic images of cities and outlying areas—judging by the density and uniformity of their housing blocks—would not be with the leisurely pace of a flâneur, but, to adopt the distinction made by the French Situationist Guy Debord, as a drifter. Debord described his “method” of the “derive” [literally: drifting] as “a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances.”
Vecchio’s images take interest in the tension between bodies and places; much in the same way Debord’s theories explored the tension between an architectural program and the psychology of how people move through spaces—a “psychogeography.” Debord mused: “from the dérive point of view cities have a psychogeographical relief.” This “relief” becomes more prominent with the long shadows of time. Vecchio’s paintings, based on recollections of his childhood in Italy, come with the freedoms and restrictions of memory, and certainly its psychogeography. Time gives Vecchio perspective to contemplate the relationship between city and inhabitant with greater artistic freedom.
From image to image, the relationship between bodies and architecture varies considerably. In some, banners splash public gathering places, or a brigade of blue-uniformed students play trumpets, providing a specific national and historical context. In others, bodies seem accidentally dispersed through urban space—in Debord’s language, drifting—breaking free from the architectural program—and therefore the psychology of a city. A large print, “Sesto San Giovanni,” depicts a town square with rubbed shadows and a palette of monochromatic earth tones. The simple figures in the foreground bear some resemblance to Romare Bearden’s collages, with backs rounded in deliberate contrast to the rectilinear architecture. Vecchio carefully controls the ambiance of the images, modulating the balance of detail and ambiguity. The paintings’ astringent light and concentration of small shapes exhibit something of a horror vacui or a desire to fill the gaps of memory with the precision of the image as verifiable presence.
“Il Popolo” is another large print that Vecchio approaches architectonically, depicting bodies rather than buildings massed together, suffused by blue-black shadows and washed out by the bone-white light of the cinema. Debord’s understanding of culture and image-as-spectacle seems to act as a subtext here. The picture’s high contrast also recalls Roland Barthes’ essay, “Leaving the Cinema,” where he describes departing the cocoon of the theater and its communal suspension of reality, bleary-eyed and blinded by daylight. In “Il Popolo,” bodies bear a group mindset, as opposed to the alienation and loneliness of Early Modernism, most popularly characterized by Picasso’s Blue Period.
Vecchio’s images arise from evocation rather than illustration, though, ironically, he has garnered much recognition as an illustrator. The populist impulse of his imagery, with its public piazzas and massed figures—here transplanted to a converted garage-turned-gallery in Bushwick—seem to comment broadly on the nature of cities rather than retreat into wistfulness for a singular place and time, even when we come to recognize their Italian elements. In cities, tension between durational change and controlled development define appearances, a cycle of tearing down and building up that serves as a practical and psychological model for Vecchio’s process of construction.
Advocating the populist medium of murals, Diego Rivera once said: “the social struggle is the richest, most intense and the most plastic subject which an artist can choose.” Indeed, Vecchio treats his subject as a plastic one, as malleable as memory can be, yet delimited by the present. Perhaps the notion of social struggle is peripheral to these images, but it kept itching at my brain as I left the gallery that night and passed a corridor of vacant new luxury condos on the way to the subway, trying to remember exactly what had occupied those lots before.