by Andrew Lambirth
‘Photography’s most basic reality is that it shows us the past‘.
A Maritime Album: John Szarkowski and Richard Benson, 1997
Daniela Gullotta makes paintings of interiors based upon reinterpreted photographs. She searches out empty buildings that move her in some way, takes photographs of their interiors, and prints the images herself. But this is only the beginning of her work. She then lays the photographic paper down on panel and works over the top in a variety of media – principally oil and acrylic, pencil and charcoal. The photograph is in essence only the armature upon which the painting is constructed.
These treated images are in mood very far from the Victorian parlour pastime of hand-tinting photographs, but they are intimately concerned with the past; through her paintings Gullotta investigates the relationship of the present with the near past and seeks out the contemporary resonance of recent history. History in the sense not of war and great events, but of ordinary lives and daily concerns. The new images she has selected to transform are harsher than those in her earlier work: the decay has gone further, the dilapidation set in more thoroughly.
Here are no gentle memorials of a bygone age, faded images of an abandoned home, the chairs still in place by a cold fireside; no wistful shots of a deserted saloon bar or restaurant, decorative prints still on the wall, chairs and tables in a semblance of order; no ancient snooker hall, with the balls still on the baize waiting to be potted. Here instead are gritty industrial shop floors and a disused prison – recognizable from the open doors of the cells. A spiral staircase suggests a connection with another level, another life, and it’s this kind of formal device which pitches the emotional identity of her images.
Gullotta’s work alludes to the history of old buildings, making no attempt to hide their previous use, but translates them into something newly relevant and oddly beautiful. Her work has developed in authority as her technical experimentation has led to greater expertise. The sand which played such a poignant role as overall surface in the earlier work has been restricted now to telling areas of texture, mixed in with the paint. Her working-over of an image has become more inventive and more assured, more visible and altogether more drastic. (Look at the scribbling and over-drawing, the scoring of the paint, the confidentattack of it.) Her scale has changed too.
The smaller more intimist subjects have given way to much larger pictures, sometimes extending to triptychs. At first sight the essentially monochrome quality of these empty interiors has a somewhat old-fashioned period look, a 1950s feel. lnitially the note they strike is vaguely miserabilist like the attenuated figures or re-drawn grisaille portraits of Giacometti; but on further acquaintance they emerge as equally life-affirming as that master of the disappearing and reappearing image. ln fact, Giacometti might be seen as the eminence grise behind Gullotta’s work – not so much an influence as a point of reference, a contextual guide.
A recent and valuable discovery is an old chapel attached to a manor house in ltaly. Gullotta has photographed the altar end, and this has proved a fruitful subject. As she says, once she’s found an appropriate or rewarding site, ‘selecting what to photograph is an immediate process, depending on whether there is some feature or a general sense of drama which I can exploit. Decaying monumental architecture exerts both an aesthetic and emotional appeal. There is a seductive romance to the high point of dereliction – that moment of ripeness before the fall and the final destruction. Does this mean she is interested in making a new order from chaos? ‘Often the opposite.
The largely symmetrical reality of the original photograph tends to become more confused in the imaginary space which emerges from my additions. ‘How much does she want to alter the original interiors; is she in a sense rebuilding? ‘l may wish to use the real space to create another one, or to suggest a new way of looking at what is already there. However I would say that I am attracted to the buildings I select, and aim to make their fascination apparent.’ Although in a literal sense she defaces photographs, Gullotta’s work is not about desecration or the casual vandalism of graffiti or carving the initials of the loved one on an oak tree. Like all art, it is at a basic level about making one’s mark, but in a constructive rather than a destructive way.
‘l begin with a general idea of what to do with the photograph, but most of what I do takes shape as I am working. ln this way I often produce several different pictures from the same negative, and as I work on each they develop into quite different paintings. Memory suffuses these images, the trace of the past, of those who are gone. The physical absence of people is an essential feature, says Gullotta. The daily existence of generations of men and women was lived out in these spaces, and their presence is somehow felt in the silence and emptiness that now reign there.’ Canvas and gauze are patched onto these panels like bandages. This is one of Gullotta’s many strategies for disrupting the picture surface.
Constantly we are reminded that we are looking at a painted image, not a photograph or some other simulacrum of reality. Areas of impasto as thick as plaster, paint mixed with sand, blobs of pigment, pencil overdrawing – these are all methods she employs for reasserting the flatness of the picture plane as against the recessional depth of the photographed images. ln fact much of the beauty and point of her work lies in the dialogue between surface and depth, between description and decoration, essentially between fact and art. Her paintings feature squares and rectangles of colour, outlined or solid, rectilinear frameworks. There is a strong geometrical impetus behind the work, which begins with the application of the photograph to the panel, done in sections – a kind of grid of sheets.
This monochrome first stage is subjected to determined revision and development. lt is not a process of refinement, of distilling an image, but of building one in layers upon the initial structure of the photograph. This incremental procedure of re-stating the original image mirrors the action of memory, and the discourse between reality and what we make of it. There is a suggestion that Gullotta is trying to entrap appearances, to contain them in some way. Yes, she re-works reality, offering instead a personal view, an interpretation of the past, but the notion of containment is also manifest in her images. Not only are details isolated within painted outlines (for example, the white quadrilaterals in lnterior W145), but a scaffolding often extends over the entire image, like a net.
The isolated details attract our attention, but do not destroy (though they may interfere with) the overall structure, which holds true throughout. The painting thus works triumphantly as a whole and doesn’t collapse into its component parts. lnterior W147 is the largest single painting in this group, looming like a cathedral in its vastness. Perhaps because of its size, Gullotta achieves a greater fluidity of mark in this work, articulating the surface with dabs of bright colour. Here is a metallic blue, there touches of green, with a further application of thin smoky green adding atmosphere rather than straight description. Foliage appears to be growing through the windows of this building. Did it in reality? Perhaps. Certainly it does here, in this heightened reality.
Gullotta’s work approaches magic realism in its creation of an alternative, parallel world. Look at the magnificent display of ceiling piping in lnterior W143. lt looks as if Gullotta has used the same photograph as a mirror image to suggest a pattern of energies fanning out from this central position. Her highlighted squares are a microcosm of the grid which encompasses all, a reference in the detail to the larger structures adumbrated elsewhere. This rich painting, with its touches of coppery gold and turquoise, its mustard yellows and the deep blue of the pipes blocking in the main structure, is performed like a toccata on some venerable church organ. Gullotta plays tricks with perspective, juxtaposing or superimposing different photographic images, opening up the ‘real’ space with a new ’imaginary’ breadth.
ln lnterior W146, for instance, gaps appear in the grid of photographic sheets, and the areas between are painted to enlarge the apparent space. Photographic details are repeated, such as the motif of a desk. Gullotta thus draws attention once more to the artifice of her painted image. ln the same way she paints the lamps green with a central core of yellow, and the roof girders look like a rack of coat hangers. Colour is applied in different ways to the panels. lnterior W153 looks more like a treated photograph than some of the more radically reworked images because colour is used structurally, almost illustrationally. Look, for instance, at the way the blue-green is applied to the spars of the spiral staircase.
lnterior W141 focuses on a close-up of six prison doors, depicted in pastel shades – pale green, blue, cream The contrast between subject and treatment is deliberately shocking: the harshness of incarceration against the softness and optimism of palette. Six small vertical panels, images of stairways or stairwells, have a clarity and serenity that is usually overlaid in the larger pieces. The stairs vary from a grand baronial sweep to a tight spiral reminiscent of the prison images. The worked surfaces are interrupted with areas of pink, grey, pale green or yellow. They look a little like abstract paintings with passages of detailed representational drawing in them.
They offer a pause for contemplation among their more spatially complex neighbours. lnterior W157 has an immensely satisfying structure, even though the normal appearance of recessional space has been collapsed, and the destabilizing effect of this is almost vertiginous. Gullotta’s structures suggest something between a cage and a space frame. lnterior W167 consists of a dark deep vista with only tiny windows to illuminate it. There’s something vaguely sinister and 19th century about it, a sense of grinding poverty and deprivation. That’s an impression not usually derived from these pictures with their pale greys and faded industrial yellows, their drift of memories like dust settling. lnterior W140 is a triptych of the chapel, with its perspective opened out like you would a cardboard box, making it several times larger than it really is.
lts actual narrowness has been extended into a grand triple-vaulted building by repeating passages of the photograph, obscuring others and re-drawing the space. Gullotta excels at this kind of re-interpretation. Her interior, panels within panels, repeated but painted to look different, is a kind of deliberative trompe l’oeil. lt certainly deceives the eye, just as it stimulates and delights also. Floating white lines, extending out from the original architectural features of the building, the dado for instance, or the architrave, form a new structure which both animates and contains the subject. (l am reminded of John Tunnard’s strange surrealist structures, mostly marine in tenor, which gripped and organized the picture plane while operating through the picture space as well.)
Are these interiors bordering on decrepitude or new life? There’s something of the wrecked room about lnterior W158, the smaller chapel image. lt’s more intense, and all together denser in its richness, more compact. A couple of gold patches like heraldic shields decorate the surface, down which colour has elsewhere been allowed to run. lt’s a wreck that’s humming with possibilities. ln several of the images there appears to be a sea mist rising from the floor, as if decently to shroud these remains of buildings from human view. After, that is, Gullotta has recorded their immensity of sadness and burden of memories, and furnished their literal decrepitude with new life and colour.
And after she re-tunes the co-ordinates and canalises nostalgia into present immanence. Not that any of this obtrudes in an obvious fashion on the viewer: part of the appeal of Gullotta’s work is that it remains speculative and ambiguous. For these paintings offer what the poet Geoffrey Hill has called ‘vistas of richness and reward’.
London, March 2006