In May, Bernarducci Meisel Gallery presented the first New York City solo exhibition of paintings by Italian Photorealist Luciano Ventrone. The mimetic clarity of his work is uncanny. In fact, the illusion of three-dimensionality he achieves in his still lifes and nudes far exceeds the flattened verisimilitude of the camera eye, approaching the hyper-reality of Early Netherlandish oil painters such as Memling, whose effects seemed a species of sorcery to many of their Italian contemporaries. The title of the exhibition, “L’Eterno Presente,” alludes to the way art can capture and perpetuate the ephemeral ripeness of nature. This lesson is exemplified by the vibrancy of the cherries in L’Ultimo Tocco (2008), which spill out of their bowl and into the viewer’s space. Translated as “the final touch,” the title links the succulent perfection of the fruit to the artist’s technical virtuosity. Ventrone’s compositions exclude the paraphernalia of twenty-first-century life: elegant nudes wearing silk turbans look as if they had strayed from an Ingres seraglio; fruits and flowers are displayed in woven baskets and marble bowls that have been mainstay vessels since antiquity. Yet the hard studio light is blatantly artificial. Simultaneously clinical and theatrical, it brings out the tiniest details.
Ventrone often works at night, as did Caravaggio, and the modern painter’s arrangements often suggest the Dionysian bounty of the great Mannerist’s still-life details. Allegria Irrequieta (2008), which translates roughly as “restless mirth,” is a good example. Grapes, dry leaves, pears, ruby-red berries, a chunk of watermelon and half a peach with flesh exposed—all seem palpably present. But where Caravaggio would surround objects with a mysterious chiaroscuro, Ventrone silhouettes his basket of fruit against a stark white tabletop and a jet black background. Ventrone uses this crisply delineated ground consistently in his compositions, although the color of the backdrop and the proportions may vary. The horizon line is always dead level; the backdrop—black or varying shades of grey—is featureless. This two-tone flatness calls attention to the abstract space of the picture plane, a counterweight to the mimetic legerdemain of the still life itself. Ventrone usually paints in oil on linen, and the subtle texture of the weave is particularly noticeable in the negative spaces, making the viewer aware of the painted surface.
These backdrops can be adjusted for markedly different effects. In Il Doni della Terra (2008), an elongated pyramid of melons, pomegranates, peaches and grapes is spread out against a black background, with tight shadows on the white tabletop. It’s a monumental and blatantly sensual arrangement, with most of the fruit provocatively split open. There is split fruit in Te al Limone, (2008), too, but the ripeness is controlled by an elegant woven basket. The horizon line is low, and much of the picture space is taken up by a cool grey backdrop that keeps the red, yellow and orange of the fruit in check. Occasionally, the balance seems off. The agate bowl of full-blown white roses in Il Bianco delle Spose (2008) is silhouetted against a dark taupe-grey that pushes so far forward that it spoils the sense of illusionistic space. In general, Ventrone’s depictions of fruit are more vibrant than his images of flowers. Arrangements in dynamically braided baskets are especially effective, as in Vincere il Tempo (2007–08). The title, To Conquer Time, could be a motto for the still-life genre itself. The combination of various citrus, grapes, pomegranate, strawberry and persimmon looks both realistic and otherworldly, and the fragile dry leaves have an autumnal elegance against the black backdrop.
Ventrone’s nudes are, at first glance, a little more conventional and academically beautiful, although the roughening of an elbow or the bottom of a foot keeps his models from slipping into the perfection of a marble statue. Again, he uses the neutral background to good advantage, with the white support pushed low in the frame. In the long horizontal format of Sogni Indecifrabili (2008), the model is stretched out with her back to the viewer, her body running from edge to edge, dividing white support from medium-grey background. In vertical images, the sitting model is silhouetted against paler grey. The triangular form of the figure in Cosa Starà Pensando (2007–08) is particularly strong, and the shape of the loosely knotted green silk turban is dynamic. Classical distance reigns in Ventrone’s nudes, however, and the cornucopia still lifes carry a much more erotic charge. Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, 37 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Telephone (212) 593-3757. On the web at www.bernarduccimeisel.com