Arturo Carlo Quintavalle
The cruel narrative of Mario Sughi
No, these images are really too strong - violent, in fact. Don’t be taken in by the wonderfully warm colours, the apparently static figures or the apparent lack of subject matter. No, this is not how things stand at all.
First of all, where does Mario Sughi’s art derive from? He’s Italian, of course, but not in his images, his writings, his way of expressing himself. He openly declares his appreciation of Francis Bacon and David Hockney, so, on the one hand, he reflects on solitude, obsession and emptiness and, on the other, he directly criticises society, its conventions and also its violence. However, he has been influenced by other artists, too, including Peter Blake, from whom he derives his sensitive composition and his skill in managing empty spaces, as well as figures. And then, perhaps, on reflection, Sughi must have loved Lucien Freud, not because of his dense and layered painting but, once again, because of his harsh judgement of human character. So Mario Sughi’s work contains all of these influences, perhaps, but also much more. There is his incisive, original style, traced back to its silhouettes, an original use of colour within a context of constant tension, through which the artist creates space, movement and depth. In fact, we shouldn’t expect to find a direct, immediate and clear focus in the work of Mario Sughi, in the tradition of German Expressionism, or the social criticism that clearly emerges in the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz, artists whom Sughi must also have loved. No, Mario Sughi’s work is very different. First of all, he feels the need to connect the traditions of graphic art, the art of British manifestos during the Interwar years, to that of illustrations, because, if you wish to invent a critical analysis of the society we live in, as Sughi does, you need to use the language of that society, but you also need to know how to transform it.
Let’s try to interpret the figures in this important cycle, drawn, coloured and then inkjet printed, a cycle in which the use of space is so essential, enabling the creation, with the same image, of small, large or even huge formats. So Sughi is one of the few artists who is able to manage monumental dimensions, who can create and manage space, its emptiness and its compartments, as if it were a piece of music, perhaps electronic music, or popular music – like a Beatles’ song. But let us stay with the images of this portfolio, almost all dated 2012, except when otherwise specified. There are four pictures with the same title: “Yellow on Black”. These describe a sequence, a movement, almost, though the female figures are similar but not the same person, except in the case of the third and fourth images. So, in the first print [A] there is a yellow background, a woman walking, the hint of a shadow at the bottom and a hint of green just behind her face. Her anatomy is constructed with great sensitivity, but purposefully flattened by the shadows, an en plat that is little more than a profile. The same can be said of the other two images in the group of strongly expressive figures, turning away, in different directions: one [B] with clenched hands, concentrating, tense, with a prominent shadow; the other [C] with hands outstretched, sitting. Finally, the fourth [D] is a detail of the head of the previous figure, almost an in vitro demonstration of what advertisers and the inventors of affiches instinctively know: that if the perspective or dimensions of an image are modified, the meaning is also transformed.
"Yellow on Black"
The composition of this series of works is complex. The order could be different. Here I will begin with the main figures to then go on to the others, their environment, the “story”, which their titles, or sometimes ironical captions, narrate. So we start with the “Student” [E]: on a light blue background with a false perspective, a rectangle with its edges not foreshortened, there is a girl, her body sculpted by the folds of her dress, her gaze fixed, her steps frozen, though her arms, slightly asymmetrical, still suggest a movement that her face, as expressionless as a mannequin, refutes. So, is she a character in a Surrealist play? Is this what Sughi wants to convey? In order to understand we must follow the possible succession of other works, starting with “Red Door” [F], (2011-12). This composition is dominated by the façade of a light blue and pink building. On the right there is a square, on the left, a rectangle, perhaps like a halo, in a golden section, against which the figure of a smoking woman is outlined and then, foreshortened, in perspective, there is a highly unrealistic pink door and a green staircase, as if ascending into empty space. And then, in the foreground, a solitary figure, whose forward movement is timeless.
“Red Swimmer” [G] is an intriguing work. Sughi’s idea is to depict two figures in the foreground who are on the water’s edge, one splashing about, the other going into the water. Then we discover, further into the grey middle background, the head of a swimmer who, all alone, transforms this grey space, which had been ambiguous, incomprehensible, into the surface of the sea. “Girls in Red” [H] is, instead, a street scene, like so many other scenes described in pop music, or in comics from the 1970s onwards, or in films. Here Sughi reveals other mysteries. First of all, the layout is in perspective, a foreshortened pavement, a street with shops, while the figures in the foreground look like the images used to criticize the lifestyle of “opulent” cities, in the ‘50s in Britain, or from the 1960s in the USA and Europe. Here we find the violent red and bright pink of the clothes and the red of the doors and the brown window frames of the wooden shop windows. Here, too, the figures walk stiffly.
“Laundrette” (2010) [I] tells another story, that of the launderettes that became a symbol, in American films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, of the lives of less fortunate people, but here the scene, as always in Sughi, is more ambiguous. A nude woman is sitting on the washing machines, opposite another woman, fully clothed, with, at the bottom edge of the scene, the feet of a figure who is lying down, outstretched. Is this scene merely taken during a lunch break or does it depict a murder? And what is the significance of the nude woman? The spaces in these pictures are inhabited by the absurd.
The idea of conveying a feeling of shock and discomfort with a nude interests Sughi, I believe, because in “Political Party with spiritual Leader” (2011) [J] we find a nude figure. The scene is in the country, with trees, red-brown trunks and branches covering the background like pavilions of umbrellas, along an empty path through the grass, the nude figure of a spokesman is standing in front of a microphone while, next to him, there are two fully clothed women, totally estranged from the scene. I believe that Sughi was interested in showing detachment, the difficulty of communicating, a choice that is reminiscent of and reflects the images of his father Alberto, although the images themselves are very different. Mario Sughi’s work is not anguished, with shadows enclosing the spaces and gestures underlining a deep anxiety, but are, rather, a rational, aware and direct criticism of our way of life, expressed in a very different pictorial style.
To understand how we live, perhaps we need to reflect on how we meet, how we talk to each other, or how we are unable to communicate. We find an example in “Kiss” [K], where two women meet, once again on a beach, but the kiss itself is missing. Perhaps the moment has passed, or it is in a possible future, or it is what they are talking about? The picture suggests all of these possibilities, merely hinted at. We could make the same comment about “On the Carpet” [L] where the space, bathed in light, perhaps an interior, depicts a dialogue between two figures, a woman and a boy, against a background outlined, as always, by compact pastel hues, from grey to a pastel light blue.
A confirmation of this strong criticism of people and of their lifestyle can be found in “Afternoon Drinks” [M], which again shows a meeting on the beach, where the dialogue of gestures constructs a possible movement. Here, there is a woman on the right, opposite a man, and in the background a woman going into the sea and, in front of us, in the centre of the picture, with a red cardigan covering her shoulders, there is a nude woman, perhaps elderly, with a terrifying smile and teeth like a wild beast. This shows the cruelty, the potential violence, of the inventions of Mario Sughi.
The final two pictures in this complex series depict something different. The first, “Kids” [N], shows, within a subtly constructed context of geometrical shapes and hues, varying from dull greens to greys and light blues, on a white stripe, which is actually the bare canvas, three kids leaning over to look at something on the beach, a crab, a shell, or maybe nothing at all: yes, perhaps there’s nothing there. But perhaps the quality that best expresses the depth of solitude of these figures is the absence of any kind of event. This we see in “Bath” [O], with a small swimming pool dominating the scene, where the water is light blue and surrounded by trees and greenery. A boy, in the centre foreground of the picture, is coming out of the pool. He is looking down, treading cautiously, while, behind him, there is a girl, still in the water, in the background. It is a world of figures who, yet again, are completely detached.
If we reflect on these works by Mario Sughi we can certainly recognise the influence of British Pop Art but also of other elements. There is the intentional suspension of time, his wish to depict non-events, to draw and colour figures who have no history, if not in those tiny gestures that are hinted at, or suggested, because they are always subtly ambiguous. I think that, in the dimension of the new depiction of British figurative art today, but also of Italian art, Mario Sughi’s work is important, principally because of his capacity to enrich the ancient language of art with the novelty of new expressions, like the influence of comics, affiches and illustrations. This is a new pictorial language: original, innovative and of the highest quality.
Arturo Carlo Quintavalle
The cruel narrative of Mario Sughi
(translation from the Italian by Joelle Mary Crowle)
is published in Figures and lanscapes, Mario Sughi at 6° Senso Art Gallery (Darwin Edizioni, Rome, 2012)
"Shock & discomfort"
"The absence of any kind of event"