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Renato Barilli

Nerosunero, a story from afar


The most striking aspect of Mario Sughi’s work to date is his profound love of the human figure, and of its description, in depicting the thousands of occasions when our bodies are on show, whether in public or in private. But we immediately need to qualify this preliminary statement: the artist is in no way enamoured of the flesh of which we are made. His interest does not lie in the need for our bodies to excrete, that is to say, in the well-used word pair, “sweat and tears”, and he does not allow these natural functions to predominate. Instead, he is focused on our clothes and on every other fashion accessory that is added to us, like a second skin, inevitably corrupted by the regurgitations of that first and natural skin, to which they are stuck like a polluted attribute.



















So, when accidents occur to our bodies, we need to tear off that infected and damaged epidermis, which does not allow for direct intervention. Paradoxically, we could say that Mario Sughi would be fascinated by the repetition of an ecological catastrophe like the eruption of Vesuvius, in 79 BC, when the gases emitted by this seismic phenomenon consumed people’s bodies, leaving only sculpted casts formed of mounds of ash. But perhaps this image is a little too cruel. We should think of something more delicate, or lighter, such as, for example, the myth of the invisible man, or the effects of some miraculous new drug, or the touch of a magic wand, and other cases in which the bodies disappear, and only their complementary elements, in other words their glasses, clothes, scarves and ties, remain floating in space.

Of course, these catastrophes, which we encounter as geological phenomena or as science fiction, can correspond to specific stylistic phenomena, perhaps belonging more specifically to Britain, which would explain the reason why an Italian artist has moved closer to those shores. We can trace his inspiration to a decidedly revolutionary era in English stylistic development, the period between 1700 and 1800, when the highly original artist John Flaxman decided to strip the flesh from his human figures and render them only in their bare outlines, although given an additional burden of responsibility, and made to flow clearly, essentially, ready to enwrap, to suggest physiognomies through the chaste lines and purity of a drawing. As well as Flaxman, we are reminded of an even greater global genius, William Blake, who, in his etchings and engravings, was also prepared to rid the human figure of its material contents, like an empty skin, hanging from the branches of a rather meagre arborescence, twisted around itself.

That emptiness was a way to express his condemnation of all the temptations of the flesh, the nude, laborious anatomies, the smug ostentation of muscular torsos, or of copious breasts. It was, in fact, a peremptory refusal of all naturalistic suggestions, so strong that it could remain valid, even for the future. In this way Flaxman and Blake, in perfect harmony, pronounced their a priori condemnation of all the naturalisms that would re-emerge in the 19th century with the triumph of Impressionism, but also continuing into the period of Expressionism, despite the grimaces that its followers were to pull at conformist art. This was because it was a way to further squeeze out the poisons inherent in the somatic values, in the muscular and glandular apparatus of the human body. In this context, if there is a reference which does not comply, in the case of our artist, it is that of Lucian Freud, who is well aware of what he needs to do to torture faces, adipose tissue, arms, and to bring forth hidden meanings, and strong, aggressive feelings in the modern age.

Perhaps in this interpretation of Sughi’s work we find an apotropaic gesture towards his father Alberto, who, in his way, was also a cultivator of bloody and violent expressions. Mario Sughi’s history takes other paths, but can be followed by tracing the path of the great British artists at the end of the 18th century, not forgetting that soon afterwards, on the roads of Paris, Monsieur Silhouette appeared with his enterprising and original art form. His work proceeded in the same direction but at a popular level, tracing the outlines of those who posed for him on a compact and monochrome sheet of paper, then cut out with scissors. And again, for centuries artists from the Far East had achieved similar results through simple hand movements against a white wall background, producing the amazing effects known as “Shadow play”

Continuing up through the various branches of this complex art form, we finally reach the contemporary era, in which, once again, British artists are the first to understand how much can be achieved by concentrating on the silhouette, on the action of cutting out, and thereby isolating. In this way they show that Modern Man, the masses, the people of today, and those who express a Pop-based culture, basically detest the body in its physiological, biological, and somatic aspects. What matters is that outer, additional skin - the artificial imposed on the natural. And so we see the birth of a superb heir to Flaxman’s work in the art of David Hockney, together with a “new” Blake, this time called Peter, who may have committed the error of mixing a little too often his slender lines with some more substantial volume, not being entirely persuaded to limit himself to the two-dimensional form. It is no accident that the English Pop style is more attractive, captivating, in its insistence on playing with silhouettes and shadow play, than the pop art produced in America, which proceeds directly to the exaltation of accessories and fashion objects, while ignoring the iconic, anthropological aspects. When has Oldenburg ever considered putting, next to everyday objects, elevated to macroscopic proportions, their user’s human face, even reduced to its most essential traits? And Lichtenstein has buried us under a scarlet fever of chromo-lithographic retina dots, corroding the clarity of the profiles, rather than allowing them to appear distinctly. And Warhol humiliated the presence of our faces by eternally multiplying, whitening and depersonalizing them. But in gathering evidence for this race towards the repudiation of the flesh in favour of all the exterior traits, the American Alex Katz excelled, and he is the most valid and definitive precursor to invoke in the case of Nerosunero. In passing, it is also worth commenting on this pseudonym chosen by Sughi (Nerosunero, which translates as Blackonblack). Black is almost the symbol of the univocal use of outlines, the exterior trait, on which, as we have shown, all the knowledge of Linearism is based. The highbrow and aristocratic Linearism of Flaxman or the more popular cut-outs of Monsieur Silhouette anticipating 20th century Pop art, and the wealth of the anonymous creators of Shadow play. Perhaps the second reference to Black it not quite so acceptable, echoing the first, given that otherwise this imposition would suggest that the external lines entrusted to an incisive black should be made to host areas of beautiful chromatic shades. In the middle there is also an inevitable reference to Gauguin’s á plat, precise geometries used to design the flowerbeds, borders, and plots of land (cloisons) within which to paint a background of shining chromatic expanses.

Mario Sughi is an excellent heir to all this knowledge, to centuries or even millennia of artistic experimentation, to its immediate and long-term results, and to its aristocratic or simply “popular” expressions. What is certain is that our humanity, within the universe of Nerosunero is discoloured, becomes pale, and almost disappears, while all the superficial additional elements, for which fashion has invented the highly appropriate term “accessories”, dominate. So we find sunglasses, female make up items, lips swollen with lipstick, in competition with publicity posters. And if the flesh, with its subdued, uncertain, dirty or sick tones, has disappeared, it has been replaced by a triumph of clothing, scarves, kerchiefs, boleros, knickers and swimming trunks. Mankind has been persuaded and obliged to take a step back, to allow all the objects that accompany us to triumph, precede or dominate. They manage to be more tasteful, significant, and meaningful than the human being, whether male or female. And the survey expands to cover sunbeds, chairs, the “salons” in which people, frozen or absorbed by emptiness, still want to try to find some kind of support.

It is obvious that the same eclipse which strikes the somatic traits in their squalid existential reality also reaches, hides and removes the environment. Just look at those beaches in almost total dissolution, against whose pale backgrounds the vivid chromatic points of bikinis and swimming trunks stand out. Obviously the same discoloration is also shown in the vegetation, in cases in which this “popular” crowd wishes to partake in some healthy gymnastic activity. But there is no escaping the supremacy of artifice, as the additional patina of culture, whether high, mid or low, now accompanies, substitutes or surrogates the feeble natural emissions, on their way to extinction.

A chapter in our recognition is also reserved for the technical procedures with which this population of spectres is evoked. They can no longer be physical, material productions, extracted from tubes of paint, marked by the waste and imperfections against which Seurat’s Divisionism already thundered. Now they are colours obtained through the most advanced and sophisticated means made available by the technological advances of our age. The exclusion of natural dyes, of the hendiadys, blood and tears, inevitably also affects the pigments of old, also these, in the end, secretions, extracts produced from real materials, using rough, physical procedures. In a way, today’s ideal is to return to the purity of past epochs, to the ideal of the “Acheiropoieta”, which was obtained through a divine miracle and made “without hands”, or by the “excessively human” intervention of machines and all their related products.


Renato Barilli

(translation from the Italian by Joelle Mary Crowle)


nerosunero A story from afar

is published in nerosunero Across the lane, Giuda Edizioni (Ravenna, 2014)