Deformed, defaced and destroyed, Nicola Samorì’s obscure, Baroque-inspired oil paintings are skillful reproductions of classical portraits and still lifes on canvas, wood or copper, systemically assaulted by the artist’s hand or knife in an attempt to provoke the status quo of the history of art. Samorì scrapes, scratches and deconstructs the surface, unraveling subterranean traces of existing work, “planes of temporal accumulation”, as he puts it, where complex layers of different textures immediately pull us in and activate short circuits between past and present.
Vacillating between life and death, his macabre, liminal creations exist as remnants of an act of violence, of so to speak Erostratism, namely, the morbid drive to prolong oneself in time and become immortal through outrageous and irreversible acts.
They might bear an air of familiarity and déjà-vu at first sight, yet they reveal their real haunting nature at a closer inspection. Their skin flake off and their limbs are so much vividly reminiscent of open sores that one can’t help but pause to scrutinize their suffering, with painstaking attention, even with a hint of dark pleasure, unsure as to whether heal them or let them agonize slowly.
Whoever has some familiarity with the art landscape – no need to be a genteel connoisseur for that – will suddenly find striking similarities and powerful correspondances at stake between Samorì’s works and the most iconic figures of Renaissance, Baroque and Mannerism painting alike. However his approach to his predecessors is not at all that of a devotee, one of awe and docile reverence but rather that of a ruthless mind who subjugates and engenders all forms, pushing them to their furthest extremes, their vanishing point, where “a form of exhausted, at-the-limit beauty is impressed in them”.
However murderous and deadly they might look, with all their bloody insides surgically exposed and skin ripped open, Samorì’s resilient creatures belong to life: even when nothing remains within themselves and every ounce of life has been brutally brought out, they scornfully appear almost as harmonious and serene as their original counterparts.
During our long-lasting conversation, Samorì explained to me that a painting necessarily has to go through a downfall, a temporary eclipse of its nature, if it wants to “reincarnate” and come back to life again. To this end, not only he tries to revitalize an age-old, lofty legacy by infusing it with new blood and life, but he also tries to upend it completely, injecting it with fear and anxiety, two permeating forces in his work as much as in the history of humankind.
By creating fragmented and shattered scenarios, his paintings mark the moment when we finally abandon a strictly contemporary and nostalgic viewpoint and, as he says, “go hunting for evocative shreds”.
AM: Whenever we are before an image, notably your images, we are before time, confronted with something that will probably outlive us. We are transient beings contemplating the element of future, the element of permanence. Far from basking in ideologies of restoration and nostalgia, you put the past to death, thus exploring the notion of “resistance” which is linked to a question of memory, of living on (survivance, Aby Warburg’s Nachleben).
You once said that a painting has many lives, ad nauseam, and this gives you the chance to challenge their limits by torturing them. Could you elaborate a bit more on that?
NS: No rigor mortis can exist for an image or a painting style.
There are subjects and styles that are no longer of interest for centuries and, so to speak, fall into oblivion, waiting for a wind of change when someone, gently or abruptly, resuscitates them.
Seen from a time perspective many works of art might look like a sequence of variations towards a vanishing point: this is what I meant by saying that a painting has many lives ad nauseam. Think, for example, about Leonardo’s The Last Supper and its multiple reincarnations, either brilliant or flimsy. Over the past few weeks I have been offering my sacrifice to Leonardo’s painting, too, thus placing myself in the great gear that fuels its memory.
I am not afraid of challenging a painting that has a long and prestigious story behind it. Should the original disappear forever, the legend would live on and many would try to bring it back to the world.
Paintings can be compared to San Gennaro’s blood. It is dry but it liquefies on certain occasions, when age-old rituals are performed around his relics.
AM: I believe your practice poses an unsuspected rendezvous with Walter Benjamin’s theories about origin as “that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearing” where there is no stable source but rather a “whirlpool in the river of becoming”, a stone cavity reminiscent of the so-called “mala fonte” – starting point of your last exhibition at Galerie EIGEN + ART in Berlin.
To some extent we are always dealing with a past that is inherently fragmented. It is only by tearing apart the image of a presumed totality and origin, blowing it open, that it becomes possible for an artist to create. For Benjamin the origin names “that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance”, not the source understood as something remaining upstream from things but a whirlpool reshaping the notion of time: not the far-off, outdated – albeit prestigious – past, but a “parameter of ambiguity”, the rhythm in which the Then and the Now come together like a flash of lightning. What do you think about it?
NS: I try to give a voice to those who do not have a mouth.
What is this, if not a ritual that artists have been perpetuating for centuries when hunting for evocative shreds?
A certain lack of coherence in the past might be a luxury for an artist and at the same time a major dilemma for historians and archaeologists alike: a fragment is always unpredictable, as it strays apart from the whole and causes fruitful misunderstandings.
A cult of the fragment has always existed, but the way we deal with it has radically changed throughout the years. An ancient headless and limbless torso became the divine Ganymede and a shrine thrived around a shard.
AM: How is the socio-anthropological dimension in which you operate – your here-and-now – and how crucial is it in your art-making? In other words, how can we read your works without necessarily resorting to age-old categories more or less tied to art history or religion? So how do you reflect on your reality – the political and cultural environment – and, most importantly, what inspires your most typical Iconoclasm?
NS: Imagine you suddenly find yourself in a familiar place that you can hardly recognise. My works try to capture that moment of slow recollection against a backdrop of pure alienation.
I look at things as from an afterlife viewpoint, separated from my time, but without feeling nostalgic towards the past. Insisting on being contemporary is somehow tantamount to writing an expiration date on one’s work.
In this sense, my iconoclastic stance is just a passionate act of translation. I believe that some works of art need to go through a downfall, a catastrophe, if they want to find some fresh, new blood.
AM: A dialectic of desire is always at stake in your works which implies alterity, distance, separation, loss as well as a certain amount of Sadism. The way you handle, manipulate and eventually distort your works by literally ripping them open and pushing them to their furthest extremes shares more than one point of contact with the sadistic tendency to inflict suffering upon a victim beyond life and death. The sadist is required to be apathetic but his apathy is not an end in itself; rather, it points to the quest for something that transcends it. Do you recognize the connection? Which is the prescribed acme of your paintings, their ultimate goal?
NS: I try to overload my paintings with anxiety, but to do so, I always need body, a simulacrum to start with. Once this body is built – either entirely or partially – I start assaulting it with an escalation of vicious strategies.
It is not just a sadistic momentum since its masochistic flip side arises shortly after. This is obviously due to the fact that I spoil and undo my own work, as well as the time and the attention I devoted to it. What really matters to me is creating images as equally transfixing as thorns in the eye of the viewer.
Interview by Angelica Moschin.