Geisha, Paintings, 21.5 x 34

Carlo Proietto: Conundrums Cloaked in a Pristine Aesthetic

Carlo Proietto has written two exhaustively researched books on pyrography, rescuing the technique of burning images into wood or fabric with a heated instrument from the misperception of being “a relatively minor art form,” establishing once and for all that it is, as he puts, “comparable to any art form.” It is in his own fine art works, however, that he drives this point home most convincingly and dynamically. For on encountering his pointedly titled solo exhibition, “Born of Fire,” leaves no question that Proietto is a contemporary artist of the first rank, working in a graphic medium that he makes second to none. At times his lines can be as fine as those in the pen and ink drawings of the art nouveau master Aubrey Beardsley. However the brown hue that Proietto creates with the burning technique also lends his images a more mellow and even painterly quality, especially in the solid dark areas of his compositions, where he achieves subtle nuances of tone and texture. It is above all the originality of his imagery that makes these works most remarkable, particularly in relation to the plight of human beings in contemporary society. Many of his images are mysterious, obviously based on a hermetic system of personal symbols that makes them teasingly closer to poetry than prose. However, the prevalence of anti-contagion face-masks on many of his figures hints at the toxicity of our environment, the ever-present danger of communicable disease, and the threat of chemical terrorism that haunts our troubled time. Although there is an obvious peril in interpreting such a complex iconography too literally, in Proietto’s “Geisha,” in which the flower bedecked head of a Japanese beauty, the lower half of her face hidden by the omnipresent mask could suggest the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, with the dark area of her broad cummerbund standing in for the charred land below. Whether or not the image was occasioned by the recent nuclear plant leaks in rural Japan, it is a potent image, evoking a modern world fraught with dangers and disasters that the Japanese print master Hokusai, whose delicacy of line Proietto appears to channel here, could never have envisioned. Another kind of dread comes across in Proietto’s “Dal Barbiere,” where a white mass of shaving cream, rather than the expected face mask, partially obscures a close-up male face firmly in the grasp of a razor-wielding woman barber with blood-red fingernails. Here, the touch of color creates a visual effect at once Pop and visceral. In other works, however, more formal qualities come to the forefront, as seen in “Cinese,” where a stylized, semiabstract Asian woman wearing an ornate kimono is enveloped in a serpentine dark linear swirl more overtly reminiscent of the aforementioned Aubrey Beardsley. But lest the viewer be lulled into serene complacency by such an interval of formal beauty, Proietto once again restores the element of anxiety with “Domatore,” an image of a man in a face mask struggling against a female antagonist attempting to strangle him from behind while jamming the toe of her pink stiletto-heeled pump into the small of his back. A comment of amore in the Age of Anxiety? One cannot say for certain. For like most of Carlo Proietto’s images it is highly suggestive in a manner that leaves ample room for multiple interpretations, even as one marvels at the pristine aesthetic qualities which make even this artist’s most disturbing pictures a joy to behold. –– Maurice Taplinger Carlo Proietto , Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th St., December 23,2011 – January 12, 2012. Reception: Thursday, Dec. 29, 6 - 8 pm.

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