The Salience of Color
« Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom, / in darkened leaves the gold-oranges glow, /a soft wind blows from the pure blue sky […]?». These verses by Goethe are an excellent introduction to the understanding of Nataly Maier’s works exhibited at the Antonio Calderara Foundation. The artist never had any direct contact with the master, and yet her work shows a subtly evident stylistic connection to his, based on the shared ambition to «paint the light-color as an essence of the visible, a synthesis of its infinite dimensions», as Claudio Cerritelli wrote about Calderara.
Like many artists from the North, in any historical period – Dürer would be the first and foremost –, Maier does not just see the South as a traveling destination, allowing her to visit cities, monuments and artworks. Rather, she perceives it as the background of specific climatic conditions making it possible for her to experience light in a new way, to savor its different intensities. A natural environment of great and peculiar pleasantness.
The present choice of Maier’s works is meant to summarize a very peculiar artistic research, beginning with the exclusive use of photography – rooted in its etymological meaning of «writing with light» – and eventually resulting in an essential, and yet extraordinarily rich and skillfully arranged inquiry on the reality of vision.
Maier, who stays near Boleto very often, records her visual impressions on several notebooks, which do not constitute a mere curiosity, but rather an important tool to reconstruct the way she works.
In several occasions, her works establish a network of references to Calderara’s painting, all unintentional and yet very precise, based on the specific quality of the colored surface, describable as a screen emanating a peculiar brightness, intimately connected with the genius loci of the lakeside. As Maier herself wrote: «the lake is a free surface, a surface for the projection of light» [fig. 3].
As she first moved to Italy in the early 1980s, the artist entrusted her knowledge of reality to the photographic lens; gradually, however, the list of possible linguistic choices able to convey such knowledge – at least partially – grew larger and more complex. Photography extended itself, communicated with different mediums, became a three-dimensional body with a very strong chromatic connotation. The medium of photo-sculpture already had a nature both conceptual and material, and such materiality was basically that of painting. Through the format of the diptych – the two parts of it not adjoined horizontally, but rather placed one on top of the other – Maier addressed problems connected with the domain of form, introduced by a black-and-white photograph (on the top), and questions raised by the sensorial phenomenon of color (at the bottom), thus breaking up the basic elements of representation [fig. 1].
It is at this point that the beginning of the aforementioned poem by Goethe, dedicated to Italy, the South, and its full richness of color and light, becomes pertinent. In Maier’s works depicting lemons, the color yellow represents the maximum possible saturation of both intensity and light. We are looking at the absolute yellow, the idea of yellow, or rather the very essence of yellowness offered up to our perception.
If the eye has its own taste buds, then it is here that the meat of yellow appears in all its glory [fig. 2]. A full, pure light, as it is immediately perceived by a child: «Raphael (three or four years of age) sees a slice of lemon floating in a fountain and yells: moon, moon», wrote Maier.
These early experiments, mostly connected with nature, were followed by a series of works addressing the specific palettes of several masters from the past, again summarized in the format of the vertical diptych. The conceptual component of the earlier works – expressed through the separation of form and color, black-and-white photography on the top and glorious color field at the bottom – is now turned into a dialogue between two areas of color. The upper area is covered with a shiny, mirror-like layer of monochromatic enamel paint applied directly on an aluminum panel; on it, nothing but the letters forming the name of an artist Maier is analyzing, trying to capture the essential, deepest elements of his palette through the selection of two of his colors, two very specific tones. In the polyphonic hymn of the chosen artist’s oeuvre, two notes, each placed on one panel of the diptych [fig. 3], are selected as representing a synthesis of the artist’s research. This series of works gave way to a more complex inquiry on the history of art: with the series aptly titled Paraphrases, watercolor remakes of famous paintings, Maier extended the scope of her research, from an exclusively chromatic analysis of the work of some “masters of color” to a more exhaustive reflection on the other essential component of their art: the organization of structure and composition [fig. 4].
The corpus of Maier’s pieces, as well as an individual reading of each of them, clearly suggests one basic consideration: drawing may be «the probity of art», as Ingres stated, but even for him color was the salt, the vibrant aroma of painting, as suggested in the impassioned, striking interpretation given by Roberto Calasso in his La folie Baudelaire.
«The clouds over Ireland turned me into a painter», wrote Maier, in an attempt to find a name for her new kind of immersive analysis. Why not blame it on clouds, extraordinary, ever-changing screens for light?
Light-color laid out in simple shapes upon a surface: such is the language Maier has chosen (up to this point) to describe the natural landscape, or rather its essence. «Before, I would go to the wood, and then to museums. Now I’d rather think looking at the immenseness of the sky, water, and the horizon».
In these paintings, particular movements reproduce the horizon while making it look slippery, ambiguous. At the same time, they fill up the surface and organize it in a way that makes it possible to embrace it all with one gaze [fig. 5]. «The paintings [referencing the horizon] ask to be admired slowly. They are made with a dense, porous layer of color that absorbs light. […] The horizon, in such works, is a curtain of light expanding from deep inside, towards the wholeness of the canvas. That is the subject here: light, with the phenomenology of its victory». Dario Trento’s analysis moves towards the sense of threshold, limit and suspension constituting the primary condition of Maier’s recent painting; in describing it, the critic focuses on that particular mode of expression in which intensity and silence are combined, revealing the sudden explosion of large areas of photo-chromatic awareness. Such explosion creates an opening towards vast, aerial territories, where subtle resemblances between Maier and Calderara can be found. Light, for instance, its sources alternatively withheld and released, partially thanks to the technique of tempera and its crispiness, as in Maier’s series titled Confinitudine, Sconfinitudine and «Horizons». Naturally, the lists of artists from whom Maier and Calderara each took their inspiration are very different: the latter had Bill and Albers as the pillars of his language, while the former’s list would definitely include Delacroix, Cézanne [fig. 6], Morandi, Rothko and Gerhard Richter [fig. 7].
With Richter in particular, Maier shares an element of reflection on the basic nature of painting. The Invert series of 2002, for instance, displays her interest towards the digital world, already perceivable in the 1993 Handmaps, in which the direct impression of several individuals’ hands were analyzed by a computer, and turned into constellations of signs creating maps of territories still unexplored. In Invert, Maier uses the diptych format, with a painting on the top panel and its digital version on the lower one, to study how the savory, multi-faceted world of painterly color is muffled and betrayed by the flat, synthetic palette of a computer, potentially unlimited but lacking a body and – consequently – a soul.
While willingly leaving out the more physical, somber and dramatic side of Maier’s painting, this small, precious exhibit is nonetheless able to provide a few guidelines to comprehend such a varied, rich and complex research. We can grasp the inner coherence of such research in one glance, provided the abundance of different interests, tools, mediums, subject matter, and formal elements does not divert our attention. We ought to view Maier’s research for what it actually is: a deep understanding of the nature of painting and the reproduction of images, necessarily implying the undertaking of multiple points of departure and the realization of their partial, temporary extreme consequences. A continuously rebooted vision, in which color is the key player.