by Martin Joughin
What does it all mean?
Roberto has emailed a link to four of his new moving panels http://www.daviusmaximus.karoo.net/squares/ , and news of a new space in the centre of Otley, where they will soon appear, amid earlier work.
I first saw a group of much larger onesided single panels on the walls of his bright flat in gloomy Tottenham one summer afternoon around 25 years ago, at the party where I first met Roberto (my youngest sister’s oldest friend’s boyfriend, from Sicily where they had met, a long way south of Pamela’s maternal Tuscany).
I remember being transported by the Mediterranean light flooding the apartment from the paintings, and wondered how Roberto could live under the dull northern skies of a cramped and shabby London suburb. But Pamela and Roberto brought their light with them, along with sun-fed food and wine, from a warm bright South, and a more closed, conservative, slower society, a place they were perhaps happier to visit from the cold dull North, rather than live and work.
By the time Roberto moved further north to Otley, a few miles from where I’d grown up across the road from Pamela, the paintings had left the walls behind, their other sides no longer hidden and dark, but freed to spread their own light in reflections, modulations, echoes, another angle, of the flip side.
Recently those large doublesided panels have been further freed to live as two sides of any screen from Yorkshire to Sicily and anywhere else on the planet. No longer just a two-sided window into another mysterious space or wonderland or looking-glass world in the middle of some familiar room or space, but now so many shifting panes in Roberto’s magical new windows that take us one more step beyond the traditional magic of paintings and photographs as views through some strange wall from a room into another imaginary space. A space that is always there beyond a traditional perspectival painting only because it is somehow here in the strange space of our heads and hearts as we gaze at coloured shapes on a flat wall.
After many centuries, we’re familiar with such painted windows (even if we still don’t fully understand the spaces in our heart and head that somehow frame them). Pictures of another imaginary world, or another time and place in this same world, constructed for five centuries according to laws of perspective discovered by Tuscan artists and later applied in cameras (Latin and Italian for room). But what sort of space and time do Roberto’s new moving images inhabit, and invite us into?
Aristotle first defined space twenty-three centuries ago as the universal place where one thing can be substituted for another, where things could change place, one thing could be replaced with another as both changed place, moved, interacted. We still don’t fully understand the whole system of all such movement and change, though people who study the physical world have recently discovered they can in principle explain any change in the external world beyond our strange inner spaces – beyond the wall between inner and outer space, between imagination and reality – by simple rotations and ‘translations’ or transpositions of observers and the simplest things they can observe within an almost infinite outer space of stars, along with rotations, transpositons and reflections in the inner space of the smallest things that we and everything else are made of – changes, shifts, in the ‘colour space’ of quarks, and so on.
Change of place, change of state, changes of colour and shape, of pattern – the elementary movement of everything in the outer world – is also what defines the physical space and time of Roberto’s new windows, his moving images, in the classic 4×3 frame, and human scale, of early cinema (in Greek, ‘what moves’ – or is moved) and my ancient computer screen, as of so many other traditional images in landscape and portrait mode.
But moving images and cinema aren’t just about things moving and being moved in some imaginary outer space seen through a special window in a movie-house or living-room. They move us too, in our inner spaces, move us to think and feel and act and interact with other animate and animate things in various ways.
Five centuries ago, a Renaissance Man, Alberti, explained the purpose of visual Art by considering how the analogy between actions frescoed on the walls of a meeting hall, say – the distant space and imaginary time or dynamic of the often great acts depicted – framed, shaped, the inner worlds of the actors meeting in the hall, sacred or secular, moving them to act and interact in good ways. A sculpture and the imaginary world it inhabited would shape the thoughts and feelings and actions and interactions of those who moved around it or passed by, as real and imaginary worlds merged. Later ‘ordinary’ people would follow the great patrons of Art, buying smaller panels for the walls of their homes, and finally everyone would have prints and posters and TVs and computers and luminous touchscreens in their rooms and even their pockets.
Now we can all have Roberto’s moving images, his cinema, the magic windows that float in his new white room, his meeting hall in Otley, on our screens, whatever size, wherever we are.
They’re not traditional pictures, images of things, not even traditional abstract art or video art or light sculpture installed in a gallery. But I can see in them, on various scales, atomic interactions, microbial life, shimmerings in the rippling surface of a Mediteranean harbour reflecting the bright southern colours and distorted shapes of boats and houses and people above. I see faces, torsos, portraits and landscapes changing with the seasons. I can see, in the contrasting ‘sides’ of his latest panes – in two sides of his fourth panel, for example – the busy energy of midday, with its fragmented, linear reds, yellows, bright greens, its multiple directions – and the deeper, calmer, spacious volumes of a dawn or evening modulation of blues… shadows, even. Some might see a male and a female side. Or lilies and irises perhaps, dissolving into a background like a Monet pond, or Matisse wallpaper, echoing figures dissolving into the ground of another, English, Turner…
The earliest window in Roberto’s Turner series now has sound, another shifting dimension added by Bob Salmieri, counterpointing, interacting with the musical harmony of the three-dimensional rotations and transpositions, the spatial permutations of its living figures – a soundtrack for the previously silent cinema of opening and closing lines, ribbons, strands, surfaces… for the dance of subatomic particles, microscopic life, filaments and amoebae swimming in the uniform pale blue texture of Roberto’s Mediterranean pond, or the sundrenched harbour of Trapani where he grew up. A fish or a face in the sky or water, linking up for a moment, then changing place, swirling and dissolving as our mind tries to glimpse some underlying pattern, some simple jigsaw, some hidden connection between the moving edges of the constantly shifting squares, which in the first window all share a common palette and figuration, so we can’t even track the elements of the endlessly changing pattern from back to front, side to side.
Then there’s a wider space and a dynamic in which Roberto’s four musical panels themselves seem framed. The second panel or window is less linear than the first, with broader surfaces, perhaps more familiar abstract figurations or glimpses of faces, bowls, flowers… again a uniform palette, but cooler, a different season perhaps, or different weather. The third introduces another new dimension – two contrasting sides (that remain in the final panel) with a strong burnt red, and a light olive or dark lime forcing themselves again and again through the window, pane by pane, as the panel mutates.
All these shapes and colours, resonating from pane to pane, awaiting new aural counterpoints to their visual music – colours named after Italian soil, raw and burnt earths, and the olives and limes and other life that that bursts through in the saturating summer light and cooler autumn mists – what is their purpose as they endlessly shift, or as we ourselves shift them and their sounds, interacting with or in these windows? What does it all mean?
Last May I walked again through landscapes around Lucca in Tuscany, on some paths every view, every perspective is a picture. Not just one special viewpoint, but every view, and every shift of perspective from one point to another within each scene as one walks through it, picture within picture, is perfectly composed. Landscapes so familiar from Italian Art, so beloved of English travellers for centuries, that have a kind of natural harmony, in which human patterns of cultivation and culture – stone villages growing from soil and rock of ochre, umber and sienna, in a sea of curving, rippling fields and groves and vineyards and woods and mountains; cypress, olive, lemon, fig, cherry, lime, a living harmony of colours named for the landscape – seem a kind of natural frame.
Harmony, composition – everything fits together along any path, and I feel calm and happy as life makes sense. But it’s a long way from my daily space, even my time, perhaps, and there are many ugly things and feelings just around the corner from such a paradise. Busy modern people are more and more disconnected from a Romantic harmony of culture in nature that was always partly imaginary, especially for those who laboured and sometimes starved in the beautiful landscape.
The Romantics grew up in the Industrial Revolution, Matisse framed the calm balance of a luminous Mediterranean scene in a window within the window of a framed painting ‘for a tired businessman’ in an industrial city. But the music or harmony of Roberto’s shifting luminous panes are not, I think – or feel – just some idealized landscape we can briefly visit or tour like a fantasy TV escape from our real lives.
Yes, they’re a sort of Mediterranean window here in a northern winter, and as I flip and turn the panes there’s a path, multiple branching paths, through a harmonious space – but despite all the figural resonance, on various scales, and the southern colour on every scale, it’s not about seeing anything in particular, any things, in or through the window. And it’s not just about me and my path through it either.
Matisse’s painted windows weren’t really about views of things – the decoration of the room is confused with the pattern in or through the window, figures in the room dissolve into fabric and wallpaper, which are no longer fabric and wallpaper, but an abstract design. Viewpoints become confused and dissolve as ‘modern’ art breaks free from the old idea or image of a painting as a sort of window constructed between well-defined things and viewers on either side of a solid wall dividing inner and outer space. The true theatre, the real drama, even of photography and cinema, always lies in a dissolving wall, a merging and confusion of inner and outer space that itself drives their largely imaginary separation, along with everything else in our confusing world.
There’s no longer some solid Renaissance analogy between the outer space of a hall in which a painting is made and the inner space and dynamic it brings to the minds and actions and interactions of those in the hall. The separation, the wall between inner and outer spaces dissolves in a play of shapes, colours, ambiguous fleeting figures that resonate between inner and outer worlds, and from which both these previously separate and self-contained worlds have always ultimately been formed, crystallized. Aristotle’s theatre and cinema in which an observer identifies with an actor on the other side of an imaginary wall finally dissolves into a dreamlike play, a music of resonant shapes, colours, sounds and emotions.
And for me, Roberto’s new Turners, these new movies, his living windowpanes, are paths through this modern or futuristic landscape, as we move step by step through the panels, or take a guided tour, led not by Mussorgsky wandering around the gallery, but Bob Salmieri wandering all around the world though one of the new windows.
As in a perfect Tuscan landscape, the true guide through these windows is the harmony of all the unconscious, dreamlike resonances of the coloured figures and their shifting combinations and perspectives. Where a mathematician might see only a ‘random walk’ through an infinitesimal fraction of all the permutations these new Turners allow, we feel the calm of a luminous landscape framing an interplay of inner and outer worlds in which the apparently random paths of events, actions and interactions all add up and fit together like music, a dance through life.
Like a walk in another beautiful landscape further south, or on the Chevin in summer, Roberto’s musical painting makes us feel good on a meandering path through Otley or anywhere else. And like an old Italian painting, a more traditional window in a more traditional wall, it provides a frame for the jigsaw of our inner and outer lives, a feeling that it can all fit together, step by step, if we are guided by harmony, as the first philosopher discovered in the far South of Italy twenty-five centuries ago.
In Pythagoras’ Greek, theory was literally the vision of life as a cosmic theatre, cosmos was simply the beautiful cosmetics of a universal jigsaw, harmony was the fitting-together of all the parts and figures of cosmos, the cycles within cycles of the planets and the resonant combinations of musical chords. This vision of the external world has come full-circle with vibrating subatomic strings, but we have yet to find the harmony of inner and outer worlds that guided the actors and cosmic spectators in the meeting-halls of the philosophers’ many followers throughout Roberto’s Sicily so long ago.
Otley, famous for its public houses and other meeting places, clubs and markets, has a new meeting hall, a white space with strange musical windows inside, right at the centre of the community, where friends, visitors, observers, painters and other musicians can interact in a shared confusion and harmony of inner and outer worlds, and where perhaps for a moment it all fits together. The Guardian in January encouraged everyone to go to Otley, but I can’t be physically there on the ninth of February when Roberto’s musical space and time formally opens. I can contribute a few words to the script and share some of the views through his four musical windows, as I raise an imaginary glass in his theatre of light where Roberto has set the bar pretty high. If his next space is an interactive hologram, I’ll see you all there.
In the meantime, Cheers, Roberto!