After that magic moment when my eyes opened in the sea, I was no longer able to see, think, or live as before.
At a first, inattentive glance, the chance passer-by might think that Cristina Sammarco’s works depict the waters that bathe the Island of Elba in the Tuscan Archipelago, gently lapped by the Tyrrhenian Sea, where the artist has chosen to make her home. That there is a relationship of mutual and sensual affection between her painting/non-painting and the location, no one would deny. But are these really the waves of such a calm and welcoming sea? Perhaps the key lies in the name of this series, Mediterranean, the stage, the hub, the basin, the dimension in and on which the whole game of the present is being played. Not that there is a political and social message at the root of these formal experiments conducted by Sammarco: the interplay between one medium and another, the gentle transition from one material to another, from one texture to the next.
The protagonists, along with the light, are the colours, deployed with sharp, often even violent contrasts of tone.
With the perceptual simplicity of a child and the conscious skill of an artist, Sammarco describes sunsets and dawns, the expectations, the visions of those who look at the Mediterranean. How can we deny the implicit inspiration that the events of the present day propose with all their signals? The artist speaks of all this through abstraction, without any immediate concession to figuration or to current affairs. Even more distant from the landscape are her Islands, where what emerges instead is the anecdote, the story, the biography, a life, the choice made by this artist born in Paris in 1977; but it does so in a light manner, without commentary, and is lost among the jagged outlines of her ceramics and in forms that evoke maps of unknown lands. Are they real or imaginary geographies? We cannot tell. Gleaming and flamboyant, they jut out from the wall, while blending into it. Form dominates, taking the leading role: are they islands or Rorschach inkblots? Are they places or just shapes? Are they stories or are they dreams? Paint rules the roost, and the direction is lost in technical excellence.
The voyage towards these shores continues (the series is a work in progress and could go on forever, almost to the vanishing point), but the compass no longer works.
Santa Nastro, art critic
If painting were a question of iconography alone we could say that, with respect to the works created just a year ago and presented in the same exhibition space, Maria Cristina Sammarco Pennetier’s gaze has shifted its direction, if only by a little: from the sea viewed as an absolute dimension to the sea understood as a relative setting, as an element connected with the coast. Or perhaps I should say: from the sea to the consequences of the sea, to its subtle and ever-changing reverberations on the shore, so scrupulously evoked by strokes of the brush. However, given that for at least a century the subject has been the vaguest and most semantically obscure in painting, I think I can say that this shift has had very little effect on Cristina’s poetics. On the contrary it seems to me that her most recent paintings have the same horizon of reference as the preceding ones, but that they reach out for it with more persistence and precision. This combination of attitudes – persistence and precision – usually immediately generates a third, which we could define as awareness. Well, I believe that what distinguishes Cristina’s latest paintings is the awareness that the horizon slips away, that it is fleeting, but that it is still worth trying to seize hold of it. The condensation of moods and emotional saturation that the maritime panorama offers, the possibility of drawing on the light of the landscape itself, of casting yourself into it, of identifying with it: all this is a process as delicate and irregular as some of the works published in this catalogue. One can keep on chiselling the luminosity, cutting into the iridescent volume of certain atmospheres or certain clouds, but the essential always seems to end up concealed, rather than revealed, by the work. Showing paintings also means exposing yourself in the attempt, which can prove at least as fragile as is necessary, if we are going to pay heed to two celebrated lines of Rilke’s: ‘This gains us, in our unprotectedness, / a safe place there’.
Roberto Borghi, art curator
“Before writing this text, in order to get my ideas straight about the title chosen by Maria Cristina Sammarco for the book that documents her painting, I thought it would be worth reading the 19th-century stories and novels in which the maelstrom features. When I had finished, I realized that I was barking up the wrong tree. The whirlpool evoked by Edgar Allan Poe, Emilio Salgari and Jules Verne in their writings – the vortex that actually forms off the Norwegian coast owing to a particular movement of the tides – has little to do with Cristina’s works. Above all what is missing from the paintings published in this volume is the atmosphere that Poe describes as ‘wild’ and ‘bewildering’, the blend of the terrible and the magnificent, the horrible and the sublime that the writers of the late 19th century found so attractive and that they were seeking in the sea off Norway. Instead there is an allusion to the physical dynamics that characterize this natural phenomenon, but viewed in a metaphorical light. It seems to me that Cristina perceives the maelstrom as an inexorable way of getting to the bottom of things: it is an indispensable abyss, foolhardy but virtuous; shifting the discourse onto the psychological plane, it is inwardness in the pure state, immersion in the most profound depths of the self. The maelstrom is also the sea at its apex: the sea as a dimension that is all-absorbing and unique, but not ultimate; perhaps in this case we might turn back to Poe, to his hypothesis that the vortex was a way of going elsewhere, a ‘bridge […] between Time and Eternity’. From what I have written so far, it can be deduced that Cristina’s works are related to inner life and the sea, but I have to point out that this relationship is less straightforward than it might appear. In the paintings the sea is present in a way that is usually explicit, sometimes implicit, but always unmistakable: yet it is not their subject. If there is something that these works are intended to represent, it is a form of intimacy with yourself, a sinking into your own being that is able to avoid being unfathomable, a condensation of feelings that only in some cases has a crystallized, saline appearance, while usually remaining in a fluid, liquid state. The sea, in Cristina’s painting, is a sort of filter, a setting capable of distilling states of grace, of allowing life to reach its zenith. Why and how all this takes place, and why it happens there, by the sea, the paintings don’t tell us: part of their fascination lies precisely in the fact that they are eloquent but at the same time subtly evasive. So intrinsically, reservedly elusive, and yet capable of raising questions in the mind of the viewer, that they remind me of the wonderful title of a novel by Fruttero & Lucentini, An Enigma by the Sea. It goes without saying that that book, apart from the title, has little to do with Cristina’s painting. A novel which I believe does have a connection, although in way that is also intrinsic and elusive, is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. If you have read it you may remember the character Lily Briscoe: a painter who, in the third and last part of the story, finds herself at the seaside, trying to paint the portrait of a person she loves who had died not long before. Like Cézanne and like Woolf herself, of whom she is a literary transposition, Lily is convinced that ‘nature is on the inside’. And perhaps – I might add, inverting the terms of the discourse – that the inside is like nature, that the inner life can be represented as a landscape. For this reason, the completion of the portrait, which coincides with the end of the novel, takes place miraculously, ‘with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something.’ After all, as Woolf wrote elsewhere, for a miracle to happen, you have to want it, you have to look for it. It seems that Picasso, at the height of his genius and his arrogance, said of himself: ‘I do not seek. I find’. In my own small way, however, I continue to believe that art is of value when it tries to find something again: in the case of these works, ‘moments of being’, as Woolf calls them, instants of intensity plunged dizzily into painting.”
Roberto Borghi, art curator
The performance Anthropological Herbarium is a project of a conceptual character founded on philosophical and mystical theories on the universal animation of nature and in particular on the sensitivity of the plant world, the subject of recent neurobiological experiments that have demonstrated the ability of plants to communicate through their bioelectrical system, not unlike our nervous system. Visitors are involved in a scientific game aimed at bringing them into emotional contact with flowers and plants and allowing them to pick up the messages they transmit: a fanciful gesture that turns the perspective on its head, placing humanity in a position where it can listen to nature instead of dominating it. The artist, assuming the role of a medium, elaborates the form and colour of the plants chosen in chromatic paintings and embroideries, along with the message they have inspired, creating works on paper that will be given to the visitors in remembrance of an experience that is above all one of inner awareness, aimed at establishing new relations between humanity and the unknown realm of plant organisms.”
Anna Mariani, art curator
THE SEA WHERE THERE’S NONE
In The Sea Where There’s None, whether the sea is really there or is just an idea matters little. Some kind of sea laps in any case against the lives and works of Godot, Cristina Sammarco and Francesca Meana.
Just as paper is a material common to all three, whether as a photographic support or a material contribution to the concept.
Godot is a master mariner, and at bottom everything for him is sea, the blue or milky waters of the Aeolian Islands and the celestial vault to which the walls of San Galgano reach out.
In part because, once you have gone beyond the tribute to places, the main accent of Godot’s work is the vision that takes you by surprise: Strombolicchio looming on the horizon like a mirage, La Canna near Filicudi emerging from the water, while its reflection trembles and seems to dissolve in that same water.
Then the dove viewed from below, in a moment of formal perfection stolen from chance that makes it the centre of everything, for an endless instant.
Godot freezes the images that appear before him, startling him, without any need for iconographic continuity. The continuity lies in the wonder.
The sea reappears in the ceramic and paper works of Cristina Sammarco, who lives on an island and always pays tribute to the sea. With an almost animist inspiration she discerns a sort of aura in islands – the shadow that is cast by their raised profile – and a varied chromatic sensibility in the waves of the sea, along with the coarse texture of sandpaper or the slipperiness of oil.
There is even something sacred in the polished white of her ceramic islands, looking almost like candied hosts that float out of the lightness of the spirit. While in the images of the sea, mostly small in size, we sense a concentration of meaning in the waves that pass their rhythm from one to the other, ideally expansible to suit the breadth of feeling.
Francesca Meana’s sea, on the other hand, is one of air, and one that is able to balance geometries thanks to the impalpability of mist, especially in her views of Milan and Paris.
Her landscapes take their inspiration from Bruno Munari’s book The Circus in the Mist, playing with the illusory depths of theatrical sets. They are illuminated from behind like the photographs of Jeff Wall and can be explored with the fingers as if, by touching them, it were possible to walk inside.
Her mists, in part proudly Lombard, are also an ingredient that can be used to gauge the weights of these prêt-à-porter miniature theatres, which concentrate within them skilled handling of line, feeling for material and awareness of allusions, settling out into little childish nostalgias.
Yet the thread that links the three artists is not, on close examination, the circumstance of the theme. If anything, it is the commonality of their gaze. To be sure, Godot’s vision has the maturity of his practice. It is intuitive and rapid, and only subsequently lends itself to more leisurely reflection. While Cristina Sammarco and Francesca Meana take more time over their meditation and construction.
But in the encounter with reality that they are interpreting there is a similar silence, a holding of the breath that is like the casting of a spell: then the silence grows different in the form, while remaining at its centre.”
Silvia Ferrari Lilienau, art critic