Ungodly as sarcastic jokes bursting into living room’s formalities, ironic as ready-mades before their boring canonization, perturbing as Freud’s Sandman, the magician who steals kids’ eyes when they don’t want to sleep, Carlo Rivalta’s objects are liminal elements. Lifeless yet animated, they live in the artist’s imagination, which is a reaction against contemporary banalities.
Rivalta’s works look at the analytic intellectual rigor of illustration – Japanese cartoonists, such as Shintaro Kago, are strong references – and at the irreverence of street art’s anti-gesture. They are contemporary interpretations of what was the local painting school – Mattia Moreni, although he was not born in Emilia Romagna, yet lived in Santa Sofia many years of his life, and Piero Manai.
Rivalta’s works hint at the international scene too – two names amongst the many, David Shrigley and, as Rivalta says, Yoshimoto Nara, whose kids acting cruelty have been a great inspiration. And as Shrigley’s, also Rivalta’s modus operandi could have been inspired by his nightmares whilst growing up.
The narrative quality of Rivalta’s works is immediately recognizable; every work is part of a bigger project, which is a comic book (yet to be published) gathering together his artistic production of various years. Although each work is a fragment of a bigger unity, it can exist autonomously. They are visual aphorisms pushing beyond post-modernism, tired of the past and not caring about the future. Present is the only phenomenon happening, the one and only dimension that is worthy narrating.
Narrating as telling, not judging. And so, beyond judgement, painting a bottle of Prozac or a teddy bear is the same thing for Rivalta; they are both objects, which already existed. The artist didn’t invent them; he uses them as communicational tools, pieces and fragments of stories, which eventually become his property, exactly as the papers he draws on. He finds these at flea markets; they are stage or geographical papers, maps the artist destroys by drawing on them, and thus darkening and confusing their past.
Given Rivalta’s anti-hierarchical aesthetical vision, his special interest in psychiatric drugs needs nevertheless to be acknowledged; they are objects he keeps drawing with graphic precision. Like Damien Hirst in his 1992 installation Pharmacy, Rivalta is fascinated by medicine and its power, by drugs, which are poison and cure simultaneously. In so doing, his artistic research is also related to contemporary society, to medicine as a new form of religion, and pills men swallow without questioning their efficacy like in a Eucharistic performance.
As Damien Hirst, Rivalta seems telling himself: “I don’t understand why most people believe in medicine and not in art, without questioning neither of them”.
Rivalta’s objects are clearly borderline with what is lifeless, and, instead of being mere ornaments, they are, above all, active indexes of men’s daily habits, being them good or bad.
– O –
There is a man figure at the centre of the painting. I will try to describe him: he is neither thin nor fat – he could be both; he wears clothes of different styles – mostly t-shirts and shorts, but he might even wear a tuxedo if the occasion requires it. He favours gaudy colours – bright greens, reds, purples, but does not spurn black and sometimes flaunts pink socks. He might express his state of mind by means of a writing on his t-shirt; he might believe in God or be hungry: it depends. He might be in a museum or brandish a gun, play the saxophone or the trombone, walk the dog or pose in front of a painting representing psychotropic drugs. If you look at him carefully, the only thing he does not want to change is his face, a kind of white, egg-shaped skull, with mouthless teeth, mostly incisors: teeth that seem to reject any soft tissue. It is a two-dimensional skull; the fact that the nose is missing makes it difficult to outline his profile. He turns, looking for something; he watches without eyes. His look is in his posture, in the writing on his t-shirt, in the objects that surround and inhabit him. He doesn’t look but is looked at; he doesn’t choose a place, he just happens to be there. He happens. He happens to bump into a strip of flesh he might have torn, a kind of esophageal reflux by Bacon, or to stand proudly behind a wild boar’s head from which a rabbit springs out. Is it Lynch’s rabbit? Or Cunningham’s? Or Barney’s? Maybe it is just a rabbit. He also happens to face a lump who wants to redefine his outline. Is it a mushroom or a toad? It doesn’t matter. The skull has teeth but hands too, and might peel and swallow butterflies or grab bucket and spade for an unfortunate moment of regression with his friends. Now we should try to understand who, or whose, is this skull, if he has a name or a title, if he is the painter’s alter ego, and maybe assign him an emotion, decide whether he is happy or sad, in other words define him and save him from that unbearable suspension. Where does he come from? Where does he go? Assuming that he comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. Maybe not. Maybe he is just an O with hands and teeth lost in a timeless time and a spaceless space. Surely it would be a shame to bother Freud, and the uncanny, that familiar strangeness. Or to find out that he might be a character from a D.F. Wallace or a Saunders’s novel, or from a certain post-modern movement going from literature to… etc. etc. “O”. There is a skull-like, a zero-like “O” which is nothing, which cancels itself out, which devours, maybe shoots, which is cancer, flesh, an object among other objects, silently thinking. No, it is not a man figure – I must be mistaken. Maybe it is something else. Or maybe not. Maybe it has nothing to do with a man. Maybe – who knows – a new alphabet will start from here.
THE BIG ESTINTION
The only way I know to begin is to make a list.
There is a mother and an aunt, a grandmother who smells of death, the neighbours’ son throwing firecrackers to the cats. There is a priest who believes in God and another one who has never believed.
The homeless guy who rummages through the garbage bin every morning and looks like a stall-seller arranging his wares.
There is a small-town punk teenager, who is admired and feared by his peers, but when he goes home with a temperature his mom makes him a hot soup, puts her hand over his forehead and says “You’re going to school tomorrow anyway”, and he looks at her and knows that is not true.
There’s the one who wanted to be a rockstar but he cannot sing, the teacher who wanted to be a writer but can only read the things that other people write with a touch of envy.
There is your father and everything you don’t know about him, what his pub’s friends think about him, what makes him happy and what he looks like when he’s happy.
There is a hunter, who knows his dog is going to die before him and when that happens he won’t want anyone around, not even his wife. And then there is the Devil, whichever you want, and you remember him very well because once when you were in bad with your head pulsating after the disco, he whispered in your ear the most terrifying sentence: “Don’t worry,” he said “your life will be normal”.
And the only way to recognize others, to make them credible, is to give them an alien face. I have seen the genesis of that face but not its evolution, because there has been none: it was already perfect. It was born adult. What evolved was the rest.
There are a butcher and a surgeon and they share the same space because they are equal: they both see the body as a machine: one dismantles it and other reassembles it. While the butcher takes a head in his hand, the surgeon could operate on the beef quarters. That isn’t a nonsense or a short-circuit – that is pure reality. Everything flips over sensibly and so does painting as we imagine it.
The main subjects are painted with flat tones: there is a blatant disinterest in making them pictorial in a pleasant way. The real painting, material and expressionist, the most brutal painting which comes from the past, acts as an instrument to make the elements of the scene: bins, pieces of meat, fungiform growths, living room furniture, dogs, small bottles of medicines. Realism is everywhere, you just have to look carefully; just look at the head of the Cerberus, the highest one, look at its awed eyes waiting for his master’s gesture. The quality of these paintings is evocative, almost anthropological, certainly sociological. If you look at them carefully, you can place the subjects in front of your own house. You can turn them into your neighbors, then spread them over the neighboring houses, cover the whole area, the corner café, the newsstand, the park with children at play, the postman, the old woman who takes a walk before dinner.
You can see a whole city and you can see yourself, the way you were, the way you are and nothing else; not the way you will be, because knowing the future is fucking pretentious madness.
These works have a mocking quality. I always wonder if they are meant to be a joke, but my questions need answers; I’m not aware of that – it’s a reflex. I see a pale thin figure with a hypertrophic ear next to another figure with clear-cut clothes that has a big black bird in place of his head, and I wonder if that ear has a deeper meaning, if it is the core of the work, if it is there to suggest a theme, an intention. But there may be no intention, and that ear could be there just because the artist wanted to paint it and the same is true for the rest, title included: do we have to take “He has a big bird” literally or in a mischievously figurative sense? I am inclined to embrace the second option, but it’s just my point of view.
The grotesque and tragicomic figures aren’t mischievous, they were born to do what they do: they dance, vomit and drool with utter honesty, they believe in communication and in the way they look. They take medicines unashamedly, because it’s the right thing to do. In fact it is those medicines that keep their bodies glued to those alien iconic heads.
That’s the right compromise between the artist and the characters he creates. He must give them something to keep them in that condition. They have to do things, make gestures, pose forever, dance forever to forget who they are. They can buy a blackhole on eBay. They sell everything on eBay: a jar with a ghost, an imaginary friend (I’m not kidding), even the meaning of life, won at an auction for three dollars.
But the problem is that the blackhole is real and sooner or later it will swallow us all, or maybe it will be tamed like “The greatest dog in the world”. We will see for how long.
There is something esoteric in the figures with a prism head, something we don’t know but they do. The anthropomorphic heads have undergone a transformation: they tell us that an ancient and unknown land exists between reality and what we think is reality, between our actions and their motives.
In the end I think that Carlo Rivalta’s personal and artistic vision is condensed in a sentence written on a t-shirt. In the painting “Nature in a coma” there is a character holding his thumb up and on his white long-sleeved t-shirt is written:
“Stop smoking and live for your loved ones”.
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