26.09 – 9.11.2013
EL GATO CHIMNEY – Crossroads
curated by Michela D’Acquisto
On 26 September Antonio Colombo starts the new exhibition season with a solo show by El Gato Chimney, entitled Crossroads.
This is undoubtedly a crucial moment in the career of El Gato Chimney, represented by the works shown in Crossroads, which are the result of in-depth research in the fields of anthropology and folklore.
The artist has not abandoned the Flemish overtones of his recent works, but now uses them as a backdrop on which to address other themes: beliefs and superstitions, the inseparable ties between nature and man, myths passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition, the religion of the people, seen as a complex of artifacts and apotropaic gestures.
El Gato Chimney draws on European folklore and paints the delicate silhouette of Lithuanian crosses, borrowing multicolored masks that adorn mysterious figures (trees, animals, or perhaps persons dressed to conduct who knows what rituals) from Oceanic tribal culture, in a successful mixture of epochs and traditions, because the celebration of life and redemption from death are the desires shared by all human beings.
The leitmotiv of the narration is the crossroads, the intersection of three roads sacred to the goddess Hecate, the place where day and night, the world of the living and the subterranean world of shades converge.
The details always nurtured by the artist are still present: halfway between a drawer full of forgotten items and a Wunderkammer, bells, keys, votive offerings and everyday objects seem to have been abandoned forever, or left there to await something or someone, in almost imperceptible lines lightly traced in pencil.
Besides paintings on canvas and drawings on paper, El Gato Chimney presents a site-specific installation and two fetish masks made with found objects and recycled fabrics.
El Gato Chimney was born in 1981 in Milan, where he lives and works.
Self-taught, with a background in street art and a passion unfamiliar to many for engraving, he indicates the artists he met during his years of work as a street artist as his true mentors, especially the American artist Doze Green.
His varied influences include: Flemish, sacred and tribal art, esotericism, folklore, magical realism in literature.
He has shown in many international galleries and museums, including the MADRE Museum of Contemporary Art of Naples; the Musei Capitolini – Centrale Montemartini, Rome; the Museo Della Permanente, Milan; Thinkspace Gallery, Los Angeles; and the Milan Triennale.
Publications include Arte Contemporea Volume 7 “Ambienti” (Electa for Repubblica – L’Espresso, 2008, Italy), Hunt & Gather (Mark Batty Publisher, 2010, USA), Los Colores Del Underground (Astiberri, 2009, Spain).
Jean Pierre Girolami
I met El Gato Chimney thanks to our common interest for Himalayan tribal art.
Indeed, I harbour a great affection for Himalaya, not only towards its immense mountains, but also, and maybe especially, towards its inhabitants, their philosophy and their way of life.
During my many expeditions in Himalaya, mainly in Nepal, I became a collector of objects, predominantly wooden masks and statues typical of the local tribal culture.
Himalayan artists work anonymously, don’t attend any schools, don’t own any books nor any subscriptions to art magazines – their artistic expression is entirely the raw display of their way of being, free of any outside influence, except the one of their immediate surroundings.
In a climate of absolute intellectual isolation, these sculptors have created plain artifacts holding an extraordinary power, able to convey comedy and tragedy, the grotesque and the refined, fear and protection against it.
Starting from the first discussions with El Gato Chimney, I became intrigued, and then seduced, by his art, in which the combination of technical skills and deeply lively imagination give rise to touching works where many features of this kind of tribal art are evident – such as the illusory essential nature of the scenes that, united to the attention for detail, requests the observer to look beyond the surface, to spot all the clues in order to put together the story told by the painting.
The characters frequently present pointy noses, reminiscent of the vivaciousness of the masks created by the Sepik river groups in Melanesia, while the scenes often recall the rituals still practiced among the people living in the isolated valleys of Himalaya, in a completely unique mélange of superstition and tradition.
The meeting with El Gato Chimney and with his style, so accurate and, at the same time, simple, taught me how to travel inside the seemingly restricted space of a canvas, reminding me of the emotions I sense when I am in the presence of primitive art sculptures, bare and rough, yet infinitely powerful in their purity.
A clear sky, an idyllic landscape reminiscent of the magnificence of flemish views, an almost palpable silence.
Then, in just a moment, the air is charged with the electricity of a storm, the day changes into night, the nature shows its wild side.
El Gato Chimney’s world is dual and deceptive, like a good nightmare.
Such ambiguity is well represented by the title of the show: crossroads, but also juncture, turning point.
Indeed, it is a turning point for his career, and the artist knows it.
Even though he has not recanted his training as a street artist, still clearly evident in the incredibly bright colours, in the lettering, and, last but not least, in his attitude towards art, El Gato Chimney, having reached a new artistic maturity thanks to his in-depth studies in the anthropological and folkloristic fields, decides to enrich his pictorial lexicon, scattering with keys, literal and not, with subtleties and with multiple meanings the corpus of works that constitute Crossroads, in a skilful mix of contemporaneity and tradition.
The crossroads, the intersection of three paths sacred to goddess Hecate, the place where the illuminated world of the living and the underground one inhabited by shadows converge, finely leads the narration of the subjects of the works: the lore and the superstition, the indissoluble bond between man and nature, myths spread orally, people’s religion, intended as a combination of artifacts and warding gestures.
Elaborate themes, perhaps meant to be debated by philosophers and theologians instead of a painter, but what the artist proposes to do is certainly not arguing about celestial existence, but rather exploring human approach towards the supernatural.
French intellectual Simone De Beauvoir wrote: “Obviously I knew that a work wrought on earth can communicate only in earthly terms.
But there were some that seemed to me to have broken free from their creator and absorbed something of the meaning he had tried to put into them.
There they stood, foursquare and independent, dumb, inscrutable, like huge abandoned totems: in them alone I made contact with some vital, absolute element”.
In the same way El Gato Chimney rejects the rule of omniscient creator in order to assume the one of psychopomp, mediator between the hyperuranium and the real world, fully aware of the extraordinary expressive power of his subjects.
So, as though after having plucked the golden bough, our journey begins – not as much as a descent to the netherworld, more like a trip in a merely Dionysian cosmos.
We cannot allow the beauty of the surroundings to deceive us, here nature is violent, alive, feisty, always ready to remind us that a hill can turn into a precipice, a mountain can change into a volcano, and that, with no doubts, the moon and the sun can share the same portion of sky, but sooner or later one will prevail.
We are in a world constantly split between a daytime Arcadia and an inhabited and unquiet night; the dividing line is clearly visible and easy to cross, both a danger signal and an invitation to disobedience.
If we could hear any sounds, they would be the crackling of the fire, the haunting rhythm of the drums, the sweet jingle of chimes and systrums… and then chants, lullabies, screams of joy and terror.
An abundance of fauna and flora populate these lands: anthropomorphic trees, unidentified animals and apparently alive splinters of wood are immortalized in unmistakable human acts; if Balkans dress up as wild beasts to scare evil spirits away, it is almost like these beings, with their clothes and their headdresses, want to exaggerate, duplicating them, our mores.
A magical and religious syncretism liven them up, a well-turned mixture of cultures and eras, as the artist wants to assert that celebrating life and escaping death is what joins all men.
Thus El Gato Chimney draws from European folklore and paints the delicate silhouette of Lithuanian crosses, borrows from the Oceanian tribes the colourful masks that adorn his mysterious characters, asks the protagonists of his works to officiate rites to forestall misfortune, sacrifices to lure prosperity: trait d’union between the various scenes the omnipresent crossroads.
At a first glance one could overlook the details dear to the artist: figures hidden in the clouds, seemingly common objects abandoned forever or left waiting for something or someone, and, above all, symbols, a multitude of heterogeneous symbols whose decipheration reveals new meanings at every reading.
The hues utilized for the paintings, the golden and bright shades of the dusk, the ethereal and limpid tones of the dawn, in the drawings fade and let the almost tangible texture dominate over the colours: compositions of shells, leaves and animal skeletons mislead the eye, sketching invented beings decorated with ribbons, beads and lace, imperceptible particulars traced by a faint line of pencil.
The characters of El Gigante, mostly animals difficult to distinguish because of the ritual attire and the cowls that conceal them, are celebrating a procession, but behind them, in the distance, figures wearing elaborate clothes that are gathering around a bonfire near a junction cannot fail to arouse our curiosity, just like the arbre à chiffons, widespread from Asia to Europe, whose branches are tied with pieces of cloth to symbolize the prayers of the devoted, the burning haycock, typical of rural culture, the shadows that can be seen on the hill of crosses, ex voto from the Lithuanian tradition, and, finally, the little chapel sacred to Mary at the fork of a crossroads that lead inevitably into the woods.
In Riflessi Eterni, where an arboreal spirit practices its magic near a sacred tree at the intersection of three roads, this unique harmony of elements can be found again; here, just like in Enigmi Animali, Giocare Col Fuoco and Il Responso, the fire, with its destructive and, at the same time, purifying power, honored but dreaded too, manifests itself under the guise of trees that seem to light up of their own accord, stacks of wheat ablaze, flames that suddenly pop up in the sky.
When in front of these works it is impossible not to wonder what hides in the woods, where that road will lead up to, why these beings trust in such a blind way this primitive religion, partly attributable to preexisting cults, partly made up.
James G. Frazer, founder of current anthropology, tries to explain: “At an earlier stage the functions of priest and sorcerer were often combined or, to speak perhaps more correctly, were not yet differentiated from each other.
To serve his purpose man wooed the good-will of gods or spirits by prayer and sacrifice, while at the same time he had recourse to ceremonies and forms of words which he hoped would of themselves bring about the desired result without the help of god or devil.
In short, he performed religious and magical rites simultaneously; he uttered prayers and incantations almost in the same breath, knowing or recking little of the theoretical inconsistency of his behaviour”.
El Gato Chimney, instead of answering directly, fills his paintings with clues and appeals to our imagination and our sensibility, keys of interpretation of the modern world.
In his eclectic painting, difficult to interpret, the secondary plot plays a role as important as the primary storyline.
In this context the term plot may seem unusual, but I deeply feel the need to give prominence to the literary quality of El Gato Chimney’s works, able to move, engage and amaze like the best of writers, stirring up the desire to explore, even to live, his imagined universe; furthermore the artist does not hide his love for fantastical tales, so it is not hard to understand why his works resemble the masterpieces of the Flemish masters enhanced by the tension of magical realism, almost like Borges’ imaginary beings had met the Bulgakovian Behemot in a Bruges landscape.
El Gato Chimney owns the uncommon ability to draw from the body of fables, legends and traditions that languish in our subconscious, letting it emerge with vivid colours and reinterpreting it in a slightly disquieting way.