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2006 09 13
Angle of Incident #20: Ombreti

By Gary Michael Dault

I’m hotfooting it along Queen Street West yesterday afternoon with my partner, going as rapidly east as possible, trying to get to our third gallery of the afternoon on time, when we pass this plate-glass window full of flat, life-size, wire-mesh figures affixed to a white surface—which I think is just some rather ineffectual window-display for something or other—and we’re about to pass efficiently on when I am suddenly visited by the need for one more clarifying glance.

We’re past the window by now, and I screech to a stop—one of those cartoony stops with added double-take—and back up again. “What is it?” my partner wants to know (I’m backing her up too). “Figures cut out of wire mesh”, I tell her. We go inside.

Which feels sort of strange, given that this is a gallery—the Mittica Gallery—I’ve never set foot in before. I’d always avoided it, for the simple reason that it always seemed full of horrid, goopy, ineffectual realist paintings and creepy shards of quasi-surrealism.

But not today. Today, we walk right into this genuinely absorbing exhibition called The Elusive Surface (okay, it’s not the grabbiest title in the world) by Italian artist Mario Martinelli. The walls of the gallery are covered—though I suppose “covered” is too blanketing, too smothering a word—with what senior French art critic, Pierre Restany, calls (in a superb prefatory essay to the handsome catalogue the gallery director gives me straightaway) Martinelli’s “transpareti”: his metal nets cut in the shape of human beings (and a dog and a bicycle) and attached to the walls. To be in the gallery is like being in a room of shadows, where the gallery director, my partner and I now seem more palpably real and round and colourful than before, in effulgent contrast to all this greyish flatness. The shadowy, two-dimensional figures everywhere remind me of the denizens of Edwin Abbott’s mathematical entertainment, Flatland (1884). Or the shadows flickering on the walls of Plato’s cave.

I make a few ingratiating remarks to the director about how intriguing the exhibition is. She seems pleased, and kindly proceeds to gather an armful of Martinelli material together for me. “Have you been to the gallery before?” she asks me sweetly. It’s really awkward to have to say no.

No matter. The exhibition is terrific and we’re all pleased. I proceed to take a few not very good digital pictures and then, while my partner looks more closely at the work—which she seems to be getting very excited about—I start to browse around in the catalogue.

It’s amazing how little any of us know about anything. Well, at least I always feel it’s amazing how little I know about anything, at any rate. I mean here’s this guy Martinelli—who was born in Treviso in 1944, who completed a doctorate in art history at Padua, and has been exhibiting regularly and widely since 1969, and I’ve never heard of him.

I’m reading. I like Restany’s essay. He talks about how Martinelli’s nets “mimic the extreme simplification of the photographic printing screen”. The net, he writes, “is a matter-metaphor of the world; it is more empty than full and the main part of reality is nurtured in space”. Restany being Restany—which is to say, daring to the point of foolhardiness and linguistically operatic—it is no great surprise (and no little pleasure) to read that a Martinelli’s net-shadow, an ombretto, “is not a representation, it is an icon; sister to the great bulls at Lescaux which are the guardians of their own shadows”. Whew. I love it when Restany lifts off like this.

It turns out that this particular exhibition, at the Mittaca Gallery, is only a small, housebound sampling of the kind of work Martinelli usually makes. Mostly, he produces large-scale metal-net installations and interventions: a ghostly, metal-net figure, twice as high as a man, “walks” along a canal in Treviso; metal-net men on horseback along with other men and women riding metal-net bicycles, though fastened to the walls, nevertheless appear to rush though a busy underpass in Milan; a life-size, free-standing, two dimensional violinist throws a sixty foot metal net shadow of himself up onto the wall of building at a traffic-choked intersection in Rome. There are big, lacy ombreti everywhere.

And these few on Queen Street West.

And the more you think about them, the more compelling they become. Who are the people from whom these shadows have been “stolen”? Here is the shadow as a double. As a soul that can be spirited away. As a revealer of light (how can there be a shadow without light?). As the great painter and writer Alberto Savinio—who was the brother of Giorgio de Chirico—sagely and rather frighteningly noted (I’m quoting from the Martinelli catalogue), the shadow is the light that reveals it, “and this is why—despite the praises made of it, despite the love professed of it, despite the honours given it—light is basically feared and hated.”

The Mario Martinelli exhibition runs until October 7 at the Mittica Gallery at 903 Queen Street West. 416-703-3800. http://www.mitticagallery.com.

Martinelli will be present at the official opening of his exhibition on Thursday, September 28, from 6-9pm.

[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 09/13 at 11:51 AM

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