Subliminal Figurations: When Everything is Artificial, the Invisible is Real

by Edward Reich


In these most recent works by Eva Rorandelli (Florence, 1977), a sequence of sinuous and attractive well-dressed female figures traipse through each canvas with a starkly unemotional and mildly provocative assurance amidst languid undulating blobs of stylized textures evocative of human tissue. Consciously referencing a history of representation spanning Giotto to Italian contemporaries such as Vanessa Beecroft and Margherita Manzelli, these latest works by the Italian former model draw on her classical training with layered folds of resonant color to become abstract interpretations of our technological subconscious.

This exhibition, titled Subliminal Figurations, presents 16 new canvases depicting an all-female world. In them, Rorandelli employs a delicate style of subject-oriented realism to comment on the changing roles of history and identity in contemporary life. Centered in each composition and often meeting the viewer's gaze directly (if not flippantly ignoring it), her figures evoke an idealized beauty that, while observably influenced by the language of fashion publicity, are more akin to the inspired traditions of Pontormo and the Florentine Mannerists revived for the purposes of contemporary discourse.

Since Rorandelli first moved from Italy to the United States her work has undergone a remarkable transformation. Having studied painting in Florence from a young age, attending the Accademia di Belle Arte di Firenze following an apprenticeship in the studio of master Italian landscape painter Italo Pettinato, her early work focused on landscapes in oil with respect for tradition. Both methodologies of teaching stressed a figurative formality driving a clear ideological distinction between divergent schools of contemporary artistic practice, favoring a rigorous form of realism over what was perceived as the Americanized influence and degeneration of contemporary art dominated by commercialized conceptual marketeering.

Yet despite this schooling, Rorandelli's work has always reflected a passion for the colorful and intricate contradictions of modern life. Her initial reactions to the bleak Italian quarter of Brooklyn where she soon found herself were expressionistic and vivid, depicting, for the most part, scenes of vibrant objects such as paint cans, brushes, shoes, books and disembodied trees, often standing in front of the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline. Several years later, her first major series of large format canvases—exhibited at Palazzo Morana in Trapani, Sicily, and titled Electroshock—contained wild abstractions of colorful shapes inspired by the multitudes of objects discarded on the streets of New York. The result was not simply a celebration of abstraction, but a profound foray into the machinery of our imminent posthuman future.

Subliminal Figurations builds on this theme, presenting a technological world in which image and identity are inseparably conjoined. At first glance Rorandelli's figurations could seem an aesthetic assertion: today's demure beauty-Goddess wears prismacolor attire on a fragmented mediascape textile stage. For while strikingly different in both color and character from one to the next, each figure in the series reflects an aspect of the romantic facade present in our collective desire for beauty. Indeed, the uniqueness of each individual is evident only in contrast to the overwhelming sameness of her situation, a situation in this case that seems to demand an often empathic gaze of pity or altruism not dissimilar from that of the Madonna in much Western painting. Thus despite the infiltration of mysterious oblong forms into their midsts, Rorandelli's figures seem to arrive from a higher plane—deities reminiscent of a forgotten history of Byzantine icons or the works of Vittorio Zecchin or Gustav Klimt and his Viennese contemporaries for their flat compositions and dappling with gold.

Even Rorandelli's most apocalyptic visions have decorative roots, their embellishments heightening the anxieties and desires of the women they depict. There is a luminous quality in her handling of paint, the backgrounds of her pictures unexplainable abstractions of crumpled color that becomes cloth, the interior shining broken only by the curvature of occasional flesh. Each figure's wrappings are at once skin, spirit, and self—they are her world—and thus comment less on the nature of style per-se as on the artificial being it has helped her become. She is the misplaced protagonist in a terrestrially complicated psycho, socio, bio, even astro-technological film noir mise en scène where it is fatefully unavoidable to flaunt one's self-worth through the momentary indulgence of clothes, be they functional object or haute couture chic.

In so doing, Rorandelli's figures reflect a compulsory embrace of the tools of our age. Fueled by the interconnective forces of participatory media, our identities are enabled, embodied, and projected on the world. In Rorandelli's conception, such extension is made possible not through the evident use of robotic prostheses or consumer electronics, but by the pervasive and emblematic technologies of attire. Our technologies, in bestowing us extensions of both image and environment, bring unprecedented levels of unease to their wearers. All of us, through our collaborations or rejections of the social machine, contribute in some part to our own domination. From nano-robotics to consumer technology, the tools we employ are extensions of the self, of the power and powerless nature of change.

Rorandelli has little interest in representing specific identities, but rather the fear of their erasure. The reach of our surroundings lies increasingly in our access to the infrastructures of identity, whose effects spread beyond the personal comforts of physical presence to a globalized superculture of meta-cognition. Already, humanity can be seen as a vastly complex and intelligent networked bio-robotic organism relying on a complicated web of such underlying networks, including food production, agriculture and the energy sector to feed our constructed and biological machines, globalized economies to distribute resources, and scientific and artistic research to stimulate its technocultural consciousness. Increasingly we find ourselves trapped in a cycle of short-term benefit with unanticipated long term consequences. Not only must our actions ensure the sustainable wellness of the planet, they must also protect the developing ecosystem of our collective mind.

It is for this reason that, while Rorandelli's figures address this reality with a mannerist edge, the synonymous nature of "manner" and "fashion" is not mere coincidence; both refer to the subtle workings of society and changing acceptance of the ways in which we live. The ephemeral nature of material culture, its recursive self-projection of consumption and display, is laid bare in the disintegration of this textile self in a veritable sea of subjective opinion. In all of these paintings—many of large dimensions and most containing at least one figure—the background has an alien and enveloping quality. It seems at times that the figure is being watched or consumed, by an already intelligent presence or otherworldly observers. Or that the figure herself is a prism, melting into organic geometries of skin and surroundings, her clothes an aspect of an extended being. She is consumed by her stage, by the perceptions of others in the reflections of her self, by her finite response to an infinite void. Rorandelli presents the human on a stage of uncertainty, employing a variety of methods for her form to dissolve.

In Red Figuration and White Figuration, for example (see plates 6 and 1, respectively), the figures are caught in a somewhat off-pose. Both paintings share similar construction: the clothed figure, with eventwear attire of Japan-esque origin, stands frozen in front of a ground of abstraction. In the case of the first, her body is draped with a triangle dress and the strap of a bag, her figure surrounded by blood-like globules that seem almost certainly living. Her clothes have a flatness that challenge her depth, reducing it to that of a cardboard relief, and her expression seems similarly unsure of her bodily dimension. The second figure is trapped in a nonchalant stroll, a sandy coral-patterned bag swinging back from her shoulder. Her background is a wall of translucent fabric or tissuey folds. Both figures are solid, but frozen in a seemingly reactive environment. They are paralyzed—infectious presences on a background plane that looks willing to consume them as unwanted visitors in an immune system of cloth.

In several other paintings, by contrast, the figure itself is conspicuously absent. This is exemplified well by Contamination (plate 3), a canvas in which her dress, volumetric and blue, remains vacant on a hanger with symmetrical poise. In this work as in others, there is a holographic quality to the canvas—not only for its vertical format and dimensions comparable to a full-length mirror—but for the rippled reflections of enveloping light. Gold pigment runs in veins as it would through the earth, a geological cloth of prosthetic skin. And while striking for its frontal composition, it seems evident that the dress is in motion, or rather that the world is in motion as a backdrop to the dress, the frame of the canvas panning in pursuit. It seems to consume its surroundings in an interior stream; the volume of the wearer a consumption of flame, or vapor, or liquid. It is thoroughly unclear if these dresses are possessed or desired, on display or in storage, or perhaps alive in a fantasy realm of embodiment.

Chaotic Presences (plate 5), a larger format canvas containing a Milky Way of geological globules collaged across its surface, offers an alternate version of the liquefaction of form. The figure in this case is framed in full, strolling head to toe down an invisible catwalk that could be construed as the vastness of space. Mineral veins of golden pigment splinter her essence as before, but the heightened degree of aloofness in her posture, her ambiguous Mona Lisa smile, and the mistlike dusting of stars both define and restrict the simple limits of her form. It is as if Botticelli's Primavera, dressed in blue, took a stroll through the brownest fringes of aesthetic disorder.

The tension between chaotic abstraction and classical order in all of these works has proven a ripe territory for Rorandelli's investigation of paint. Her impulsive desire to confront flat fields of color with the delicate visages of youth has a direct, honest, almost simplistic quality. Many of her paintings take on the patchwork texture of an aerial landscape, interweaving abstract planes of space with an entrapping, tectonic reality. Here the surroundings of the figure becomes a palpable geometric medium in which she hangs, a landscape of influential and possessive force. In both Walking Through Steel and Weighting, for example (plates 4 and 8), the protagonist's handbag seems to be a literal fragment of the world she inhabits. In each case, an off-kilter composition is combined with an empathic studio-like portrait to render the subject an immobilized icon of post-Warhol consumerism. Similar are the two figures' overlapping watery dresses in Floating Point (see cover), the painting's concentric composition heightening the interplay between reciprocal elements.

This latter composition adds a social dimension to the possession of goods. The presence of multiple figures in the scene invites a dramatic and interactive quality, allowing it to be construed as a Renaissance parable. Here not only do Rorandelli's subjects hang suspended in the absence of bodily confines, they find themselves pinned to the canvas and intertwined in one another by filaments of gold pigment. The smaller canvas Precious (plate 9) offers a magnified detail of this effect, in which the covetous glare of one figure at the other, a gaze then reflected at the viewer, seems to take on moral if not allegorical overtones. Indeed, in all of Rorandelli's works the posed confidence and accessorized mannerisms of these women reflect a tentative discomfort, the self-awareness of their vital role in a globalized socioeconomic trend-setting machine.

Rorandelli's work remains a celebration of virtue, and it is here that she shares kinship with more modern Italian masters. Despite its abstract and colorful tendencies, her work is greatly influenced by a succession of painters such as Giorgio Morandi and Ottone Rosai, not to mention the universal abstractions of Alberto Burri or Mario Merz. In all of these artists' work, the desire for anti-aesthetics or contemporary goading is irrelevant to its integrity but this by no means reduces it to an act of idealism. Since Gustave Courbet's harsh attack on idealist painting, the line between candid realism and our archetypes of beauty has been thoroughly demolished. Subsequently, each generation's avant-garde has thrived on its ability to portray the human form with increasingly "realistic" repulsion and to great critical effect, thus altering social conceptions of both beauty and the ideal. As a consequence today's art is a territory ripe with the potential for glorified saccharine drivel, as witnessed in the blunt and often masturbatory kitsch of Jeff Koons, John Currin, and Lisa Yuskavage et al. Relative to these artists, who have now been embraced with pinched noses and some of the art world's highest praises, Rorandelli's figures occupy a distinctly opposite pole. She is interested in a more tasteful appraisal of the aesthetics of change, in beauty for its own sake juxtaposed with the real. To disfigure reality as a means to achieve seems a gratuitous contribution to an already unsightly culture.

Increasingly, the line between fashion and function are also blurred, between the amplification of beauty and the needs of survival. While on the one hand her work celebrates tradition, Rorandelli's motivations have little to do with sentiment but with an acceptance of technology as a necessity to endure. In many of her canvases the protagonist is present in the scene without seeming to know exactly why. It isn't simply that the figure is lost, but that her identity itself has no anchoring principles. This is what makes her a subliminal figure—the spotlight has made her disappear.

Human culture today has moved far beyond abstraction to a generation of meta-figuration where our bodies, actions and images are increasingly torn at and manifested through the symb(i)ologies of communication technology. In the face of the overwhelming forces that threaten our significance, Rorandelli's work reminds us that there is a role for compassion in the art of today. Art can reach deeper, beyond the limits defined by its commercial, provocative and sensational realities. By definition, such "subliminal" figures require the attention of subconscious awareness. The very act of perception thus takes on metaphysical terms, implicating the subliminal and the sublime. Her work evokes the nascent human desire to create something so awe-inspiringly beautiful as to seem almost heavenly in its moral or spiritual value, not simply as a form of extended well being but as a quality of survival towards a posthuman future. If we do manage to endure to a higher state of being, the separation between body and figure—much like the artificial distinctions between "figurative art" and "abstraction"—will become increasingly unclear.

In Rorandelli's view, the honest portrayal of the contemporary sublime is a pureness of feeling, one unneeding of the trappings of the body and irony that have been misinterpreted and celebrated by the markets of culture. Beauty, after all, is a deeply natural human trait. Beauty bestows empowerment and defeat, the force to captivate, to nurture and to destroy. It is here that her realism and abstractions collide. Indeed, the paradoxes of the beauty market and the concentric appropriations between fashion, identity, biological integrity and artistic success are underlying currents in the best of her work.

Are we actually in possession of both mind and spirit, or is it simply a vastly complex network of neurons, amino acids and electronic stimuli that happen to feel like we know who we are? It is in this regard that the loss of identity instilled in her work is of such central importance for contemporary dialogue. She describes her paintings as not about fashion but willing to use it. "I try to appeal to the sensibilities of fashion and embrace its contradictions. My figures aren't sexually appealing—they captivate with their eyes, with attractive expressions. Possessing an energy deeper than the garment will never negate a woman's need for superficial self expression."

And it is here that Rorandelli's vision embodies the absurdity of the truths of our age. In 1832, Thomas Carlyle published his now infamous Sartor Resartus (or "The Tailor Retailored"), a radically unconventional pseudo-philosophical text that raised eyebrows for its combination of critical theory, dramatic narrative and fantastical nonsense. Claiming unlikely status as the first major theoretical treatise on clothes, Carlyle's contribution to the logic of absurdity—once dismissed altogether by critics but now praised for its embodiment of the paradoxes of modern life—exemplified the beginning of a colossal shift in cultural values we have witnessed over the past two centuries, and set a new standard for their measure. This existentialist unfolding, evidenced in works of art, fantasy, philosophy and science fiction spanning Lewis Carroll to Marshall McLuhan to Matthew Barney, provides a central lens on our conception of the world. The role of clothing in society has become a pivotal tenet of Western thought that Rorandelli's figurations so conscientiously employ.

It is here that the abstractions of idealism will take their last inevitable steps, the nonsense of culture providing a blueprint for thought itself. From the perspective of fashion, the model begins as a canvas on which perfection is painted. In the world of art, however, she exists as a body more often torn, buried, burned or obscured. She represents not only the real world object of lust, and the object of envy, but most certainly not an object. And while rejecting what she refers to as the "fossilizing" qualities of postmodern feminist theory, Rorandelli's vision raises similar issues in regards to the nature of bodily value. From the perspective of her posthuman gaze, the model is a servant of objects—the object's object—a motory mannequin of object as feeling. Like fashion seeks beauty, and beauty is fleeting, the Rorandelli art-object reflects the pragmatic hedonism of the contemporary ideal. In the tension resulting, that between knowing what we like to see and seeing only what we know we like, she epitomizes the resulting technosocial imbalance.

In today's age of post-sensational media frenzy, Rorandelli reminds us that the ultimate reality is the power of brand and its interlaced presence in all things interactive. We're attracted to shadows, to a faith in the lies of an invisible hand. We become the shadows. Be the brand Gucci, Michelangelo, YouTube or "self," we want their reflection, and her paintings indulge us.