May, 2013

Vincent Arcilesi’s Rome Redux: Goddesses and Angels Made Flesh

By Ed McCormack

While previewing his new exhibition “Arcilesi in Rome –– Part II,” in his studio in downtown Manhattan, it occurred to me that the central drama of Vincent Arcilesi’s artistic mission is the heroic reconfiguration of a unified world vision first fragmented by the guerilla bomb of Cubism.

Toward this end, Arcilesi mingles modern life with myth, transforming beautiful young women of our own century into angels and goddesses strolling nude or nearly so among the clothed tourists in public plazas or pastoral landscapes in a manner that calls to mind my wife Jeannie McCormack’s one word concrete poem “Returnity.” So rarely do Arcilesi’s comely figures appear fully clothed that when they do one is reminded of some now lost lines by Richard Brautigan to the effect that watching a woman get dressed can be the tantalizing opposite of a striptease, as parts of her disappear under the garments she puts on.
In “Circo Massimo,” for one splendid example, the artist’s pretty gallerist daughter, Francesca Arcilesi, is seen in a vibrant blue sleeveless shift sitting barefoot astride a white horse with the famous Roman ruin in the background. Characteristically, as we studied this easel-scale oil on canvas together, her father pointed out that his positioning of the horse’s head, curving inward toward the rider, was influenced by the mount in the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s portrait of the agrarian revolutionary Emilio Zapata, adding that Rivera was an admirer of the Venetian master and was obviously influenced by the equine figure in Veronese’s “Mars and Venus United by Love.”
Such references, layered down through the centuries, are very much a part of Arcilesi’s art; for precious few contemporary artists are so steeped as he in the great art of the past and comfortably intimate with the Old Masters. After visiting Arcilesi in his studio Jeannie and I reminisced about the cold winter night we ran into him hurrying in the opposite direction, as we left the Metropolitan Museum close to closing time on one of the weekend evenings when it stays open late.
“I’m going to see Poussin!” the painter exclaimed slightly breathlessly, as if on an urgent visit to a dear old friend. And indeed one of the larger canvases in his second Rome series is a tribute entitled “A Gathering of the Gods at Poussin’s Tomb.”
“Poussin’s tomb is actually in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, but since Roman gods wouldn’t meet in a Catholic Church,” Arcilesi commented with an ironic little chuckle, “I took the liberty of moving his gravesite out of doors, to one of the wooded glens in the countryside that he loved to paint.”
Poussin’s actual tomb is adorned with a sculpted stone bas relief based on his painting “ Et in Arcadia Ego,” which roughly translates from the Latin as “Even in Arcadia, Death is present.” It depicts idealized shepherds from classical antiquity gathered around an austere rustic tombstone in a similarly pastoral setting to the one in which Arcilesi relocates it.
Never one to shun poetic license, Arcilesi enhances the Arcadian atmosphere by replacing the monochromatic stone relief on the tomb with a full-color copy of Poussin’s painting almost as brightly simplified as one of the late African-American painter Bob Thompson’s neoclassical takeoffs. He also jazzes up the surrounding landscape with a lush rainbow melange of cross-seasonal foliage, mixing verdant summery greens with autumnal ochres, as well as a particularly majestic species of tree that briefly blooms with white blossoms in the spring.
Either because the Arcadian Italian landscape that the artist has concocted is so otherworldly dazzling, or simply because gods and goddesses cannot be seen with mortal eyes, a couple of tourists sightseeing in the distance appear unaware of the two lithe female nudes perched on the base of the tomb, or the barechested young Apollo nearby, astride yet another white horse with its head craned in the same position that Arcilesi adopted from Rivera by way of Veronese.

The largest painting in the show at 54 by 78 inches, as well as its centerpiece, is “The Dreamer and Her Dream.” In a composition bathed in golden fresco-like hues that make daylight appear fully as haunting as night, the dreamer of the title wears a sheer, clinging white nightgown with folds as articulated as the drapery in a stone statue, her breeze-blown auburn tresses flowing behind her, as she flees somnambulantly along a red dirt road with one hand raised to her forehead in a dramatic gesture of distress. Further back on the road, a young man and a young woman, both nude, strike classical poses under a row of Roman pines, their trunks as straight as slender columns, with four of the stray cats that wander freely around Rome lolling at various intervals underfoot.

In the distance, nestled amid the greenery of Palatine Hill, the grand shell of the Circus Maximus, once the site of gladiatorial contests and chariot races, can be seen, with the tiny figures of tourists dotting its green lawn and colorful automobiles streaming like toys along the narrow adjoining road.

Whether the two idealized nudes represent figures of torment or desire for the dreamer, this painting, which the artist described during our studio visit as “a pure fantasy,” is one of his most haunting to date.

Included in this second Roman sojourn by one of our most masterly postmodernist painters are other major canvases, such as “Piazza del Campidoglio at Dusk,” “Bernini in the Roman Forum” and “The Baths of Caracalla.” Particularly striking in the latter painting is a crouching figure holding a laurel leaf, modeled after a sculpture of an angel that caught the artist’s fancy in the Vatican Museum.

Juxtaposed with another graceful female figure in a formfitting red gown, the two women in this timeless scene simultaneously suggest priestesses engaged in a pagan ritual or modern dancers giving an impromptu avant garde performance with the gaping, cave-like portals of the ancient baths serving as a backdrop.

A group of exquisite nude studies in pastel on paper are also objects of aesthetic delectation, revealing the suburb draftsmanship that serves as the armature for all of Vincent Arcilesi’s compositions.