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Michele Parisi

essay, Quaderni ADAC
MART Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (I)
December 2019
ISBN 978-88-95133-53-9

Painting as salvation

Daniele Capra

Practice and repetition

Michele Parisi’s work irrefutably shows how, in art, practice through doing can lead to theory. This process was established by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who, after spending years photographing industrial architecture and houses in the Ruhr using standardisation criteria, understood that these images were not taken on their own, but instead, as elements of a higher degree of taxonomy.[1] Similarly, Parisi – who has practiced photography since his adolescence both for personal research and as a collaborator in photo labs – has developed a form of research that comes from reiteration, expertise, and from being able to manage every stage of the process. Parisi controls every aspect but also forgets that he is able to do so, in order not simply to become a virtuoso, but to allow himself to look beyond technical aspects to construct a shrewd, linear and personal thought structure.
His research – which also undergoes a strongly pictorial stage – is a sort of practice, or in other words, a process that comes from repeating gestures, times, viewpoints and compositions. You can guess that his investigations – which are often centred, even conceptually, on drawing – come from repeating actions until the content manifests itself, when a subject or a detail is revealed as necessary, inescapable. It is an unveiling of sorts, an apparition, a manifestation of something that was not there before, but which needs to be fixed in place, before it gets lost in the blur.

La ricerca del soggetto

Searching for the subject
Parisi’s research develops in various forms, beginning with a tireless desire to get to know, describe, and rewrite reality in the way it is presented to us. His operational method involves looking at phenomena, recording them with a specific technical device, putting them in order and then recomposing them in a personal, pictorial form that is in part a sort of mimesis inspired by ancient art, despite differing from its assumed faithful correspondence with the source. For Parisi, nature, landscapes, the human body and, more generally, reality are not unparalleled models to be shown servile dedication, but rather, they are sources of visual stimuli that can be selected as part of a continued experience as an observer. They are viewpoints from which to embark on a journey that includes a process of assimilation, development and individual modelling.
Parisi’s aptitude for finding images is, in anthropological terms, similar to that of the gatherer, i.e. the human who, on his or her wanderings as a homo videns, is naturally lead to what is visually important, without having to follow or hunt for it. There is no anxiety or adrenaline, but rather the necessary calm required to collect a piece of reality, to assess its significance and then decide whether or not to use it in a wider preparatory process. Indeed, coding pictorial types is not secondary in Parisi’s work of selecting and sampling what can be seen. Particularly, categories of landscapes, portraits, and still life – which are at times so mixed together they become difficult to distinguish – persist as minimal interpretative grids in relation to the subject. The subsequent process of manipulation through painting leads us to focus on the idea that interest in a subject is not about its iconographic value tout court, but rather its potential for manipulation and transformation. For Parisi, a subject must provide the necessary freedom to deviate from its original content, so that the artist can appropriate its identity and the creative process can produce further personal narration. Painting in particular provides the pivotal tool required to develop the potential elements of the images and divert from the expectations they convey.
Thus, it is fair to say that by dodging the representative orthodoxy of photography, Parisi is free to depart from it, generating a sense and meaning that could not have existed before. Conceptually, the change of direction regarding the source-image occurs in many ways, similar to what happens in Epicurean physics, thanks to the clinamen. In fact, “For were it not their wont thuswise to swerve, down would they [atoms] fall, each one, like drops of rain, through the unbottomed void; and then collisions ne’er could be nor blows among the primal elements; and thus nature would never have created aught”. [2]. It is this swerve away from the vertical (thanks to the intervention of painting) that allows the atoms (i.e. original images) to create elements (works) that did not exist before.
Only a change of direction, therefore, allows the artist to reach his intended destination, which provides a new meaning that was previously absent.

Samplings, casts and presentations

Parisi’s technique requires the instrumental presence of several media, each of which is employed in a different manner and for different reasons. His work is amphibious, since it exists on the border between photography and painting – both of which are equally present in his finished pieces. The artist’s creative process consists of layering two processes, which occur in a ordered sequence. Making use of a pinhole or camera, Paris starts by taking black and white photographs of the subject and printing them onto a canvas specially treated with light-sensitive gel in a darkroom. The artist then works on the image using graphite, charcoal and primarily oil paints, changing or altering the details, light and colour range. By doing so, both a photographic and painted record co-exist: the first is taken from the stream of time and the second acts as a sediment that reflects its lingering extinction (a sort of res derelicta).
Parisi’s methods are not so different from Susan Sontag’s idea of photography as a snapshot of the generic passed time, which is transformed into a documentation, thanks to the way in which it is recorded. These snapshots essentially become elements of an archive, and as Sontag writes, “inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy”. [3] Otherwise, how might we explain the artist’s need to fantasise, placing paint over a photographic image and swerving away from its basic documentary value? We should take a step back, however, to look at the moment captured by the artist in photographic form, with a method that uses light. He uses photosensitive backing to trap an imprint, a trace that preserves the mark of a garden, a landscape or entwined hands. More specifically, it is a cast (i.e., a negative), since it requires a further process to transfer it onto another material that will make it positive again, i.e., able to correspond exactly to its initial form. What Parisi creates through photographs is an additional, complimentary slice of reality, which, once reversed and transferred, returns to us the original. However, aware of its intrinsic limits, Parisi knows that he needs to work around this, reprocess it, and subject it to further manipulation.
His works thus becomes the result of writing over writing – the former in photographic form, the latter pictorial – in a process that circumvents both the idea of mimesis and the supposed originality of the work as an output of the background. As astutely suggested by Parisi in a recent conversation, “my finished pieces are not so much a representation of something, as a presentation of it”. Evidently, this idea involves going beyond the more traditional applications of art in order to turn pieces into self-sufficient devices or entities that exist entirely in their own right, independent and sovereign over their function, without too many parental links to what came before them. In this process, Parisi seems to behave like the man who, in the myth of Plato’s Cave, [4] is able to free himself from his chains and to understand the ruse that holds him prisoner. In Plato’s allegory, the man is able to realise the illusory nature of the shadows on the cave walls and, after becoming used to the light, decides to get to know reality directly. Similarly, Parisi chooses to look beyond the traces that reality leaves on the canvas, in order to capture an idea (eidos) via an individual gesture of strong will. The artist prefers a direct, profound and cognitive experience to simply recording light as it cuts through shadow, reaching to touch something real.

Rewriting and slowing down

Tracing oil paints over a completed image that does not need any substantial additions, in order to change it, rebalance the tones, hide or add details, and actively transform it into something else, is equivalent to geometrically projecting the image outside its own perimeter of significance, looking for a new potential meaning. This is a conceptual operation, due to the conflicting stages of loss and rediscovery that the rewriting process entails. It is also an ideological one, due to a manual process that draws on slowness as one of its key elements. Parisi is in fact interested in remoulding the narration underlying the image in a personal (and in many ways, timeless) way and at the same time, to slow down the flow of events, taking them back to a metaphysical dimension. The subjects of the images remain at a standstill, gradually slowed by the application of paint and coloured layers, thus becoming set and dense, like an object – an inanimate thing that rests in silence.
Rewriting a text (or editing an image) is equivalent to discussing and renegotiating its characteristic elements with regard to perception, ideology, style, grammar, time, idiosyncrasies and the artist’s passions. It is an act of regeneration that, as Carmelo Bene once said about his manipulation of theatrical texts, “turns off an annoying, flickering light bulb to finally switch on the light”. [5] But Parisi’s work is not in opposition to any prior status regarding visual content (as ingeniously but ambiguously occurs with Bene), it is instead a necessary evolution into a final form, a metamorphosis that leads to a change of state. It is a morphological leap, a means of progressing into another dimension, in which any detail – moving out of the typical hic et nunc photographic dimension – becomes part of a broader narrative. In this transition, there is a conceptual leap from the typically precise, specific dimension of recording a snapshot, to a timeless form, such as that used in narration, poetry or the religion. Parisi achieves this by using a pictorial process that reshapes the image from a physical and emotional viewpoint, transforming its details with a desire to slow down our gaze.
The eye gradually comes to rest on what is not there, on a misty garden at an 18th-century villa, on the sun bathing a tree-lined city street, or on shadows that play, like sleepy cats, on archaeological ruins. They become drained, metaphysical images, prepped for our contemplation, thanks to their distance from the speed and unceasing flow of our existences. By opposing this speed, they offer our eyes margins of relaxation and peace, of slowed breathing; like icons of orthodox tradition, they encourage abandonment of everyday life, using images to transport us elsewhere.


What interests Parisi in his work is seeking stasis, i.e., something still and monumental (not so much in the sense of greatness or majesty as in the sense of memory) that acts a doorway to other spaces and places, [6] to a time that perhaps does not even exist. The artist is aiming to alienate the viewer, to ask him or her kind but inconvenient questions that will remain unanswered, because he has no clear ideas to put forward. Or perhaps because, in the contemplative melancholy that the fixed gaze induces, there is no point in finding answers – if such things exist. It is better to lose oneself, to take a step back, and enjoy the image. Sweet, seductive discomfort that gifts the viewer such beauty.

[1] In a conversation I had with Hilla Becher in 2009, on the occasion of her exhibition at the Museo Morandi in Bologna, she told me how, contrary to popular belief, the conceptual photography created by her and her husband originated in an inductive rather than deductive form, since it was the process of repetition that created the theory and not vice versa.
[2] W.E. Leonard (ed.), De Rerum Natura: The Latin Text of Lucretius, Latin and English Edition, University of Wisconsin Press; 2008.
[3] S. Sontag, On Photography, RosettaBooks, LLC, New York 2005, p. 26.
[4] The myth is told by Plato in book VII of The Republic.
[5] C. Bene in E. Ghezzi, Cose mai dette. Fuori orario di fuori orario (librorale), Bompiani, Milano 1996, p. 161: “Turns off an annoying, flickering light bulb to finally switch on the light” [translation by Eurotrad, Urbino].
[6] See the first chapter of V. Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Metapainting, Cambridge University Press, 1997. The Romanian academic argues that a painting is a doorway, a glimpse into the architecture of the walls that leads to new lives, visions inside the domestic environment of the home.