The path of wandering gazes

Robero Mutti

In 1822, Paris, a city not prone to becoming easily excited, was galvanized by a new sensation: two strange characters, a painter specialized in theater design by the name of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and his friend and colleague Charles-Marie Bouton, had invented the Diorama.  This was an ingenious theater where the audience viewed a show with illusionistic effects created by the enormous panels that were moved in front of the audience: the light, semi-transparent veils painted on both sides would be illuminated by slowly shifting the light source from front to back thus creating the impression that one image blended into the next.  “These representations are so real, down to the smallest detail”, wrote Nicéphore Niepce to his son Isidore in 1827, “ that the viewer truly believes he is watching reality.” In an epoch that literally spanned past and future, painting too was exploring new forms of expression. The most discerning observers had already admired the pursuit of tragic sensationalism in “The Raft of the Medusa” by Thédore Gèricault (first shown at the 1819 Paris Salon) and the rather theatrical mood of the first exponents of the Orientalist movement, which would later be ennobled by Ingrés and Delacroix. In this cultural milieu, the Diorama experiment becomes significant, though this aspect is often overlooked, precisely because its inventors skillfully blended its patent aesthetic feature with its mechanical one, since the theater was operated via accurately devised pulleys, gears and tension rods. Thus, classical and scientific knowledge overlapped in a synthesis that would shortly characterize, for example, the grand and innovative urban architectural structures  –train stations, bridges, public markets, exhibition buildings– where the use of glass and metal seemed to pay homage to a new era.  But let’s go back to Daguerre and Bouton for the sake of curiosity: could they have been familiar with the works of Karl Freiedrich Schinkel, the Prussian painter and architect whose neo-Gothic works could have undoubtedly been staged at the Diorama? If in 1815 they had had the chance to see his stage design for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” with its star-spangled, cobalt blue sky and deepening red clouds in the sunset along the horizon they would certainly have felt its influence. However, that odd theater born sixty-seven years before cinematography foreran several innovations that would have radically changed not only the lifestyle of millions of people but also their awareness of the world. In fact, we can detect several coincidences: two years after writing the above-mentioned letter, Nicéphore Niepce teamed with Daguerre to carry on research on the process later known as photography, which was finally announced in 1839, the same year in which the Diorama –as if its task were over and it had to step down perforce– had been totally destroyed by a fire. The theater came to an end but not its wonder, which photography would have pursued through other means: the same idea of light pouring in from the skylights was employed in the studios that photographers set up by roofing terraces with large glass panels, while the charm of cross-fading light and shadow would reappear in magic lantern shows. From then on, the artistic panorama would be characterized by a mingling of the arts in an ongoing contest whose protagonists –at times diverging, at times converging–  were precisely painting and photography.

It is no chance that to speak about the works of Linda Salerno we start from so far back in time because this artist blends modernity and classicism, references to the 19th century and projections towards the future in a perspective where magical atmospheres are a constant we must inevitably face. Her more recent works, the ones of the “Black Mirror” series”, appear to be both simple, as they are very direct, and extremely complex, as they imply cross-references to the artist’s broader poetics.

This is the starting point: becoming aware that the journey will not be chronologically linear but will rather follow a sinuous and fluid path along allusions, evocations, and analogies.

As most of us and more than most, Linda Salerno reconsiders emotions felt as a child when she would leaf through her first picture books; a memory that usually lies hazily in our minds aside from a sudden flash, while here, on the contrary, it comes back with all its initial power of expression. The drawings are clear-cut, the subjects even too predictable, the paper is plain: all elements suggestive of a bygone epoch characterized by a vision of life dominated by small things. We can almost see the illustrators at work drawing small and charming animals, flowers properly arranged into bouquets, reassuring figures of well-dressed girls and polite children. We can imagine editors and graphic designers looking for pretty maps embellished with small drawings reminding us of the most renowned monuments, the types of landscape, the local economy’s characteristics, the costumes of the inhabitants of those remote, exotic lands. For the artist all this becomes an archive of sensations to draw upon as well as a symbolic warehouse of elements to be turned into a laboratory of ideas where everything mingles generating new forms, new visions, new impulses. Thus, the old and naive maps take on a new role: having lost their original bright colors, they acquire poetic nuances and allow observing the result with a gentle smile. Our gaze broadens to embrace a full vision and in turn closes in on enhancing details like the one of the man intent on fishing (from the series “Maps”, 2005) who, enlarged and isolated from his context, takes on new import and a new role in a particularly exquisite image (M1, see also 19/20). Incidentally, this operation, conceptually speaking, brings to mind the one realized in 1973 by Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri who in “Atlante” enlarged details of geographical maps, thus transforming their landscape’s graphic representation. Alternating the use of color with the transfer technique, Linda Salerno seeks new balances. Thus, we may notice that one of her most recurrent subjects –the little bird perched on a branch – is indeed recovered from old science schoolbooks but is also a clear reference to a drawing made by the artist as a child (M2), which now reappears, albeit reinterpreted, under a new and very sophisticated compositional and chromatic perspective (M3).

The significance of leaves, which the author has been studying with particular attention for years, is striking as they become the true protagonists of “Mimetic Impulse”(M4-6 ase also 7-9), an extensive work made in 1992-1993 that highlights her stylistic maturity. The use of oil and especially of pigments, which leave sharp signs on the texture of the rough linen canvas, inevitably bring to mind the experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot, author in 1844-1846 of the first photographic book ever published, whose title, “The Pencil of Nature”, is still fitting for the work of those who can perceive nature’s hidden beauty as an artistic expression in itself.  But while the English artist dwelled upon the shapes which he elaborated formally as he did with butterfly wings or with fossils, in this case the leaves (M4, M5) seem to emerge from a chaos composed of signs pursuing each other in a rush of fullness and voids before resuming their own specific shapes.

Yet we need only observe “Libretto” (M7), ideal conclusion to “Mimetic Impulse”, to spot the reference to the antique book in an enlightening sequence: the starting point is a 19th century print which inspired a lattice of signs that rivets our gaze like a tangle of branches in the woods. If leaves still appear in her later works  –essential in their highlighted structure in a stunning 1998 “Untitled” (M8) or codified in the antique prints included in the 1999 series “Formal Arrangements” (M9 and 17,18) – other elements come to the fore in a work realized between 2003-2005 in which artistic experimentation plays a major role. Its title is “Le Moniteur de la mode”, explicit homage to the French 19th century magazine where ladies in elegant gowns displayed the current fashion trends marvelously portrayed in the illustrations by Jules David. Drawing inspiration precisely from these graceful drawings and from that magazine found in an antiques’ shop(M10), Linda Salerno began a multi-layered research, which includes a new interpretation of the feminine figures and setting them side by side with other heterogeneous elements. Fish floating in midair, insects, in particular butterflies that seem to have been preserved by an entomologist, or poised skeletons occur in turn with leaves, fruits, birds in a universe that blends an 18th century grace with unexpected surrealist-like dreamy visions (M11 and 21-23). The finishing touch is an unusual sequence of rich monochromes in yellow, red, green, purple (M12) realized by the artist via extremely free experimentations.

From a technical point of view, these experiments were so bold that their successful result would emerge only the next day, once dry and ready to be seen in the daylight. A new perspective born of the evolution of all these elements was fully achieved in “Black Mirror” in which the outcome of some technical solutions (employing colored pigments on fresh oil to obtain a personal interpretation of the dripping technique) converges with the definite parting from the overlay of drawings and graphic design  (M13) in favor of a sharper and more linear pictorial representation (M14) that had already been achieved in the 2002 series “Demoiselles”(M10, also 21).

For a long time Linda Salerno has had an ongoing dialogue with photography both directly and indirectly and whether conscious or not is irrelevant, though the title itself is a subtle indication; how can we not think that the black mirror is the one within the camera’s darkness waiting to receive images from the outside?

Now photography becomes a fundamental element of her work, which acquires that necessary new and long-sought dynamism. The works in this series obviously cannot be defined photographs as such (though definition is a problem that critics very often face with regards to contemporary artists) nor is Linda Salerno more of a photographer than a painter. The issue is moot if we agree that the important aspect is to come face to face with the artist’s works letting ourselves be guided above all by the enticement of her creativity.

The first noticeable aspect is the chance we are offered to cross the two-dimensional boundary when we face a series of overlapping sheets of paper hinged on top, each of which was used to depict a feminine figure, the shapes of some leaves or other elements. A frontal view allows us to distinguish principally what is painted on the first sheet and barely discern shadows of the subjects on the next ones. Inevitably, therefore, we will warily turn those large sheets to discern the other figures, in an act that evokes leafing through a book or, better yet, lifting a stage curtain to glimpse the setting of a show we have yet to see. Along with these works, others, instead, live in a gossamer dimension where the sense of space and time are nearly suspended because Linda Salerno leads us along her highly personal path inviting us to blend into nature wherein she moves lithely. One image in particular, the only one without a human figure, seems to surface from a dream barely remembered: something resembling a fount from which water springs, gushes and finally spreads into a pond appears among the trees’ twisted branches. Perhaps this is the source of everything, as people of ancient times thought when they identified a wellspring with the deity that dwelt in it or perhaps everything is fated to converge towards that spot.

If so, all of Linda Salerno’s works ought to be arranged in a sequence in which beginning and end coincide as in a magic circle where moving does not mean going from one place to another, but rather finding the path that leads to ourselves. The artist becomes twofold because on the one hand she captures the scene while on the other she is the protagonist, inducing us in turn to identify with her view that rests gently on nature’s landscape and to observe her from only one step back to take in her dance-like gestures and movements. As if emerging finally from a distant echo, the photograph captures fragments of reality setting them in a delicate, dreamy atmosphere that reunites long-sought poetic elements. The figure doubles as if seeking an impossible encounter with itself, it moves forward giving the impression that it barely skims the grass, it nearly vanishes to leave room for the detail of an arm, a step, a gesture like the hair let loose in a cascade that counterbalances a dripping. The protagonist steals the show, moves before a vast backdrop where the signs of variously overlapping sceneries pursue each other, once again meets the butterflies, fish, and leaves that accompanied her first steps and shows us the way along a meandering path among the trees where our gaze wanders.

Roberto Mutti

(translated from Italian by Lura Munsel)