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by Marco Tonelli

It’s hard to think of two painters more polar opposite than Mauro Di Silvestre and Peter Ravn. Along the route that separates their hemispheres, there’s almost no chance to find landings, inlets or bays that allow you to take a break, to catch your breath or to fill up your water supply before you go back out to sea. To go from one to the other, you have to dive in while holding your breath, without having time to get used to it, without the subtle changes of light or colour to soften the journey.

Rather than a comparison then, this case deals with a dissociation. On one hand you have a painter trying to mend a temporal and psychological loss (Di Silvestre); on the other is a painter trying to accentuate the tension and pain of such a break by bringing it to the surface (Ravn). Both of them, however, ideally stimulate the viewer to consider the problem of personal history and of life experiences as vital and central problems of painting, especially figurative painting, an element that neither of the two artists, fortunately, can avoid. Thus, in this sense, painting becomes a strategy for the development of everyday events, first on a personal level and then on a social level.

            Indeed, Di Silvestre and Ravn talk about the condition of mankind pushed to the limit. To do so, they put themselves into two complementary positions: Di Silvestre spies through the keyhole, through the piercing light of the enlarger in a darkroom, through the cracks and wounds of time he intends to mend and heal. Ravn places himself poised on the brink, aching to free himself through the other, to get rid of the other as a form of self, in a sort of exorcism, creating distance from the conflict. However, he doesn’t demonstrate any desire of ever recovering himself, who still believes in the possibility to speak of a self that may not yet be broken, interrupted or imbalanced.

Between these two islands stretches a sea of different visions of the world, man and society; visions so irreconcilable as to frustrate any attempt to tie these threads together. If Di Silvestre appears to reconnect them, so to speak, to the world of fading memories of Marcel Proust, Ravn is bound to the hallucinatory and self-mortifying Knut Hamsum, a Norwegian writer who, in some of his novels, transformed beds into deserts of creative solitude and city streets or bedrooms into prisons and places of tension and neuroses.

As if retrieved from a shipwreck, Di Silvestre’s painting brings back to the shore walls painted with the refined decorative taste of the Nineteenth and the Twentieth centuries, from  Mario Cavaglieri to those interrupted and fading figures of Fausto Pirandello. For his part, Ravn stages unspoken thoughts and hysteria in keeping with Edward Hopper, and later with Eric Fischl, who since the Eighties, freed the unconscious from its cage and let it wildly vent its rage. The painting of Ravn reduces human action to a sterile and masturbatory condition, as is evident, after all, in Hopper, but without the excuse of the tedious boredom of everyday life or the erotic voyeurism of Fischl. Di Silvestre takes back the familiar and domestic space that Cavaglieri used to showcase the “good society” and in which Pirandello found a pictorial magic. These two styles, typically Italian, adds a hyper-realistic vision of the Anglo-American and the Northern European, which for the first time in these volumes, is virtually negated, undermined, if not hidden or erased. And so, here unfold two pictorial biographies that, through their figures, cancel each other out: one who identifies himself with the surname Di Silvestre and the other that takes on the anonymity of Ravn.

While the former factually tells us the day, hour and year of his vicissitudes, providing testimonials and direct evidences on paper; the later conceives his men as vagrants in space and time, homeless entities, without place or history, like bank employees with no connection to the real world. If Di Silvestre is history, narrative, authorized autobiography, Ravn is scientific research, medical records, anonymity. Here the first paradox begins: no one can in fact identify with the characters of Di Silvestre, they all too personal and private, even if they all contain a certain similarity with family photos hidden in our drawers, closets and attics. On the contrary, everyone can find themselves in Ravn’s figures, although few of us have taken the opportunity to strip naked and examine ourselves with such cold lucidity.

Di Silvestre believes in the existence of a memory which we all have experienced and use daily, without which we would not be what we are, we would not have social roles, emotional ties, either familial or personal; we would not be anything. Or rather, we would be what Ravn’s figures are: beings subjected to complete isolation from the world and under psychic shock; prisoners, catatonic and hysterical who in and of themselves are unable to break these invisible chains. Time in Di Silvestre’s painting is long and layered, it literally has “all the time in the world” for its elements to appear or disappear (depending on your point of view).  Ravn’s time is instantaneous, immediate, excessive, concentrated; the impulse arrives even before one becomes visible, forget having the time to see something disappear or dissolve.

This is why Di Silvestre overlaps and combines styles, surfaces and marks so different from the other. Real wallpaper, whose design is simplified and continued in drawing, the holes seen through lace, movie tickets, an exhibition, doodled scraps of paper, torn-out pages from school reports; these compose his biography, ironically summed up in that perfect title “Between 1969 and 2010”. Neither formal intention or linguistic structure is present in Di Silvestre’s work, nor is found a decorative or illusionary end, as, for example, in the Cubist painting of Picasso and Braque with the additions of tram tickets or fake wood adhesives applied directly to the canvas. Di Silvestre likes decoration and flaunts it ostentatiously, but it is not for this fact that his painting could be called decorative, not anymore than any other paintings by contemporary artists like Peter Doig, Neo Rauch and Jason Martin or of the old masters like Raphael, Caravaggio and  Poussin. First of all, the decoration in Di Silvestre is real: archaeological records and historical relics are actually placed in his painted space, in his rooms, in his environment, alongside real-life characters saturated in his personal history, pictorially made more fertile and lush, like ivy that swallows a house abandoned to the elements and the passage of time.

In Ravn’s case, on the contrary, with a punctuality and oppositional counterpoint to which we have become accustomed, there is no more space than that occupied by the figures. There is no time for them to leave traces of themselves, let alone to decorate the negative space, which makes the silent neurosis of his isolated and anonymous men even more deafening. The Danish painters’ work is cold and detached, but at the same time describes pain as seen in his interrupted figures. In another way, if we observe some of Ravn’s forms with squinty eyes, we can see resemblances to some of Lucian Freud’s figures, without, however, all of those pictorial connotations that would make the figures more credible and real: the thickness and heaviness of the flesh and sexuality, the thick use of color or the description of a real place and time. But Ravn isn’t Freud, even though he discovers a more didactic sense of internal human neurosis, stripped of names or biographical notes, but generalized in its universal condition, or at least something very close to it.

Let’s consider now the second paradox: Ravn’s painting expresses an inner condition; certainly not idyllic, as we can gather evidence of some pathological conditions from his characters’ behavior, yet, everything is painted so impersonally and flat in an anesthetized and clinical way as if he could see the characters’ internal conflict with an objective and unblinking eye, possessing the ability to externalize his subjects and thus make a diagnosis, to save and heal them. Di Silvestre’s happy and ironic excess in recounting his life story practically negates the readability of his own biography, covering his tracks and complicating the tale. If his intention was to mend the passage of time and to preserve memory, the result will be the opposite: this stratified, glorified time will blur these memories even more, rendering them virtually useless and chaotic, without even a single, distinct memory remaining. In this unexpected shift of paradoxes, the anonymous figures of Ravn will ultimately be more specific and objective than at first glance, while those characterized in heavy detail by Di Silvestre will eventually end up as generic icons and signs of common personal experience.

Thus, two parallel worlds oppose each other. They are not just two different ways of painting, but two ways of interpreting mental existence, as if to remind us that reality, especially regarding the human figure, personal biography and clinical-social relationships, is too complex to be reduced into compartmentalized aesthetic principles; it must be defined instead by numerous and unique emotional experiences that are often self-referential and are even more frequently incompatible.

Text by Marco Tonelli, italian art historian and curator for the Mauro Di Silvestre & Peter Ravn exhibition catalogue. Galleria Z2O l Sara Zanin, Rome. March-April 2010.

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