Gallery & Studio Magazine, NYC, September/October, 2010

Vincent Arcilesi’s New Roman Idyll

By Ed McCormack

The last time Vincent Arcilesi found inspiration in Italy, in 1994, he gave us an exhibition that could easily have been called “Love, Italian Style,” given its emphasis on couples canoodling amid Roman landmarks and in the bucolic countryside of Sicily.

“Summer Night in Rome,” the 96" X 80" centerpiece of that memorable show (which was actually titled “Arcilesi in Italy”) serves as a segueway into the present exhibition, “Arcilesi in Rome,” in which one of our most original figurative painters focuses more locally on that fabled city.

Such has been the global scope of the artist’s themes over the past several seasons that many of us have come to regard his “Arcilesi in...” exhibitions as the artistic answer to Fodor’s Travel Guides. However, every locale that Arcilesi paints is radically transformed by the poetic liberties that he takes, particularly in regard to relocating architectural  monuments to suit his compositions and abolishing civic codes against public nudity to achieve his Edenic vision.

Rome provides an especially auspicious subject for the Italian-American artist, in terms of both his ethnic and artistic heritage. Indeed, in “San Lorenzo in Lucina,” a view of the church where Poussin is interred (one of eight small plein air landscapes that complement the seven large figure paintings in the present show), the tiny figures of tourists, framed by architectural geometry, recall the formal components of the high Renaissance master’s processions.

It is in the large figure paintings, however, that Arcilesi takes his most startling imaginative leaps and also displays most spectacularly his exquisite technical proficiency. Witness the atmospheric amalgam of artificial light and moonlight flooding in through the open dome of the Pantheon in “La Fornarina and Venus at Raphael’s Tomb,” which depicts a nocturnal meeting in the stately mausoleum between  Margherita Luti, the sexy baker girl who posed for one of Raphael’s greatest portraits and became his Roman mistress, and the Goddess of Love herself. That Raphael’s fiancee Marie Bibbiena is also interred in the place where these two comely nudes preen like concubines in a Turkish harem lends an element of scandal comparable, in modern times, to when French president Mitterand’s wife and mistress were seen seated together beside his coffin. Add Arcilesi’s faithful copy of Lorenzetto’s sculpture of the Madonna, gracing the tomb in the background, and our most intrepid contemporary figure painter outdoes himself in this masterly imaginary menage.

Although earlier in his career Arcilesi created a stir with paintings of couples engaged in explicit sex acts, one believes him when he insists that he never aims to be controversial. Never gratuitously prurient, his paintings celebrate the beauty and sensuality not only of the human body, but of all creation. His figures –– more often nude than clothed, mostly but not exclusively, female –– inhabit an arcadian realm of blue skies and heavenly clouds floating above palatial public squares, verdant gardens, or landscapes dotted with picturesque ruins, into which conflict rarely intrudes.
One of the most magnificent recent examples is the large canvas “Venus at the Roman Forum,” where many of the above elements (among them the statue of Castor and his horse imported from the Campidoglio on an aesthetic whim) sprawl out panoramically behind a standing female figure, confronting us not with classical coyness, but with the frank confidence of a hip young woman completely at ease in her full frontal nudity, her arms raised, her hands clasped behind her head. One is especially impressed not only by Arcilesi’s ability to carry off such an intricately detailed composition without sacrificing painterly fluidity, but also by how he imbues a mythic subject with contemporary immediacy by depicting the specific features of the model, rather than succumbing to too-easy neoclassical idealization. Arcilesi’s eschewal of all such clichés lends his work an edgy sensuality absent from much figurative painting today.
Consider “ Diana and Venus in the Villa Medici Gardens,” where, in contrast to the informal stance of the Venus in the previous painting, as Diana stands on her left in the magnificent garden with its precisely trimmed hedges receding in vanishing perspective, displaying the strong back and firm buttocks of the disciplined huntress, Venus actually assumes a Botticelli-like pose with her right hand above her left breast and her left hand resting on the thigh below it. Yet, here again, Arcilesi gives her a more down to earth sensuality than we see in Botticelli’s celestial nymphet. And if this doe-eyed, high cheekboned brunette’s charms are less dewy than those of the earlier painter’s fairer figure, she has her own more seasoned and voluptuous allure, reminiscent of Bert Stern’s great last photos of Marilyn Monroe (in which the photographer peeled away all the layers of Hollywood illusion and airbrushed artifice to immortalize the screen goddess’s naked womanly warmth). Nor does the brash conceit of the priapic spire, rising from the fountain between the low hedgerows behind the two figures, put too fine a point on a beauty that even the sturdy virgin huntress Diana turns her handsome aquiline profile to admire.
Among several other pleasures to be savored in “Arcilesi in Rome” is the large canvas “Venus and Apollo at Hadrian’s Villa,” in which the enigmatic Roman Emperor’s mania for collecting exotic treasures is reflected not only in the Grecian statues and over-the-top Byzantine decor, but also in the dusky male and female nudes posturing at poolside. Then there is “The Dreamer,” a tender and unguarded portrait, executed with a breezy vigor more akin to the artist’s plein air landscapes than his larger oils, of a tanned, tawny-haired nude dozing  in a beige chair before a window looking out on a partial view of the Trevi Fountain, its stridently animated equine and human figures and gushing waters contrasting with her soft repose.  

But perhaps the biggest surprise, for those who think they can predict what Vincent Arcilesi will do next, will be “The Secret,” a  large canvas of two pretty, fully clothed young women exchanging a sisterly buss in a Roman piazza dotted with distant tourists, its mood as exhilaratingly fresh and lyrically unforgettable as the evocative title of Irwin Shaw’s famous short story, “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”