Drawing as Fighting
Ph. Francesca Iovene
Ed. Francesca Iovene
F.I.: As I enter your studio, I find myself in front of a backrest; then I turn around, and I see a huge wall full of overlapping canvases resting on the ground. I understand immediately that this is the wall on which you exhibit your work for yourself, to look at it, think about it, let it settle, and maybe eventually reassemble it.
Tell me about the idea of "quadreria" (ndr. collection of paintings). If it were for you, your paintings would often change position and therefore the relationship between them. Some paintings need to be completed by finding their place and the right composition. I imagine that sometimes it is a rational and designed process, other times it is the result of a more intuitive and unpredictable one. Can we say that you need to read the painting not only as an image but also as an object, as something that has to do with both its interior and its exterior? How do you relate to your work in this sense?
M.B.: That’s true! If it were for me, I would change the walls, layout, and even titles of my paintings every week. Painting does not tolerate conventions much, even when they reassure us. I like to look at the paintings while they are superimposed, in a row, or resting one on top of the other as if in a constant search for balances and connections. Of course, they stand alone, but it seems to me that sometimes they need to be grouped, to approach each other for support, for a moment in which to bind to the outside world and maybe contaminate themselves. The life of a painting is apparently resolved between the edges of the canvas, but in reality, it constantly tends towards what happens outside it. Holy icons and great cycles of paintings teach us exactly this.
In this sense, I believe that it is important to go back to reading paintings as pictorial objects rather than just images. Painting is not a technique of visual representation, a filter that can be applied to an image to make it warm or mellow. We are talking about a language with mechanisms that cannot be detached from its physical presence/existence. I am interested in the pictorial object as a display for retaining the procedural traces of its being while suggesting future reading trajectories. I have been working for years on the Polyptych form, combining two or more canvases or juxtaposing them to objects, drawings, or images. Every time, I glance a sense of relief. As if each painting rested a little on an unexpected foothold.
F.I.: Your studio says many things not only through the "exhibition" wall but also through more personal traces: the gym towel, the Leone bag, the square drawn on the floor with tape. There is also a sheet hanging with a list whose title is "Drawing as Fighting". Your personal and artistic life are intertwined and inevitably overlap. How did you relate boxing and drawing and what comes out of this combination that has influenced your painting technique in practice?
M.B.: I started to practice boxing with Davide Guarino; a great athlete, an excellent teacher, a friend. He made me passionate about this discipline, but I can't consider myself a boxer. I have too much respect for those who spend all their time training and fighting. It is both painful and risky.
I am a painter in love with boxing and in recent years in the gym, between a jump rope and a heavy bag, I realized that boxing and drawing share many aspects: both are disciplines that arise and find strength in their limits.
A ring seen from above is like a sheet of paper. An enclosed space, well defined, but free to be investigated. While drawing, I move according to trajectories and mechanisms that I find, for example, in shadowboxing – that is, the training in which the boxer brings blows, sequences, and figures without an opponent, hitting the void. In this phase, it looks like you are fighting against your own shadow, and visual/motor coordination skills are fundamental. As is the rhythm, which in a drawing varies as during a boxing round.
And again, the "right distance" with your opponent, that every master teaches you to find and keep by tying a stick between your ankles; it is one of the fundamentals of boxing and is also crucial in the relationship with the subject of the drawing.
Hence, Drawing as Fighting, is a project that tries to relate the attitude of the painter and that of the boxer.
This is an experimental drawing workshop that proposes a series of exercises and practices inspired to the world of boxing. In 2016, I was invited, together with Gabriele Sassone, to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and we performed bringing two professional fighters into the space of the museum and creating a workshop open to the public where drawing and boxing shared the same ring. Drawing as Fighting is about to have an editorial slant: it will be halfway between a contemporary drawing manual and an artist's book. Stay tuned.
«I am interested in the pictorial object as a display for retaining the procedural traces of its being while suggesting future reading trajectories.»
F.I.: You have pulled out a large folder full of sheets from an architect's chest of drawers that was your father's. It contains many self-portraits very different from one another: drawings on yellow and white paper, torn pages, dirty tracing-paper, drawings made with ballpoint pens, chalk, felt-tip pens, ink... Your face is portrayed each time in a different way; sometimes it is unrecognizable. Why do you have this need to draw yourself? In what contexts do you do this?
M.B.: I have been drawing since forever, almost every day. For me, a self-portrait is halfway between a ritual and training. I prefer drawing from life, rather than from photos or without visual references. My face becomes a sort of mandatory subject since I am often the only living subject in the studio.
Over the years I have practiced self-portraiture almost everywhere, with any material and on any surface: on the bus, on the plane, on the train, on notebooks, on scattered sheets, with ballpoint pens, graphite, chalk, oil, on metal, on wood, on canvas, on car hoods, walls, billboards, with sprays, lasers, water, mirroring myself in a river, in a broken window, on the iPhone screen, on old paper, on new paper, on dirty snow, in digital, in large size, medium size, small size, on photos, on glass, on Plexiglas, on rusted bins and even on a diaper of my son. Each time it is a struggle between what I see and what I think I see.
I am lucky when I can force the blockage of my thinking. My face escapes, it becomes the face of the others; men of distant times and places. Then, it comes back to me, reassembling itself, and I see it tracing out before my eyes. For a moment, it can tell me about the lives I could have lived.
«I am lucky when I can force the blockage of my thinking. My face escapes, it becomes the face of the others; men of distant times and places. Then, it comes back to me, reassembling itself, and I see it tracing out before my eyes. For a moment, it can tell me about the lives I could have lived.»
F.I.: You asked me if your work arouses feelings of "fear", but I don't think it is the right word to use. For example, when I look at your self-portraits, your thousand faces, I see parts of a face put together at different times, because the technique you use to draw has to do with the attempt to create movement within a precise field of vision, in a specific amount of time. Where does this goal come from?
M.B.: In the 1960s, a Russian researcher named Alfred Yarbus demonstrated with experimental equipment that during the act of watching our eye is not still, but is engaged in a series of very rapid micro-movements that investigate the field of vision. These movements are called saccades and have the task of bringing the observed elements in correspondence with the fovea, where the vision takes place.
What is frightening is that during these movements there is no vision. It is as if to see we need to become blind for a moment.
Painters have always known that the visible is not to be taken for granted but, at the same time, when you challenge the visible, you allow the form to be renewed.
My work lives in a constant balance between what is seen and what is forgotten; they are oil paintings on canvas, coals, graffiti and chalks on paper, wood, and more. They are fixed, but they seek instability. They are still, but they try to dodge. They reveal themselves, but they call you out.
«I have been working for years on the polyptych form, combining two or more canvases or juxtaposing them to objects, drawings, or images. Every time, I glance a sense of relief. As if each painting rested a little on an unexpected foothold.»
F.I.: Let's go back to pairings: still life, drawing from life, and the photographs of contemporary dictators, hung one on top of the other. When and how was this work born?
M.B.: SLPFL (Still Life / President for Life) is a series of small oil paintings made in the last two years. They are small still lifes, portraying compositions of poor and unimportant objects, such as lemons and rotten pomegranates, grey hydrangeas, stale bread, rags, and glass jars stained with color. I set them up in a corner of the studio. On the upper edge of the canvases, I put a small image of a contemporary dictator, closed between two sheets of glass held together by duct-tape. The image works a bit like a counterpoint to the canvas: it is a visual short-circuit, but also a cognitive and conceptual one, whose purpose is to make you doubt its own effectiveness. I have often wondered how an image of a dictator and a rotten lemon could live together, then I realized that, in English, “still life” and “president for life” contain both the word “life”. As if the inexorability of these two subjects proved possible only in relation to a generating energy. Mike Watson wrote a nice statement about my lemons being overpowered by the dictators: “If there are lemons, there might be other real things and, as such, a whole world to be configured by human subjects”.
«My work lives in a constant balance between what is seen and what is forgotten; they are oil paintings on canvas, coals, graffiti and chalks on paper, wood, and more. They are fixed, but they seek instability. They are still, but they try to dodge. They reveal themselves, but they call you out.»
F.I.: SLPFL has been exhibited together with "Kangal", whose name takes up that of the dog breed that usually accompanied the shepherds for the protection of the flock and that, throughout history, especially in recent years, has been forced to meet a series of increasingly high standards. Again, you used self-produced visual filters, creating an analogy between the concept and the way it is represented. So I see a leitmotif in all your work: we were basically saying that even if you don't make a series conceived as a series, you like to approach the canvases and see them together, being able to see that there is a certain coherence in all your works... Do you think that this result has been achieved in a somewhat natural way or that there is a very strong rationality that leads you to constantly deepen certain themes (and means)?
M.B.: Kangal is one of the names of the Turkish Shepherd. Also known as Karabash (Karabash, in Turkish, means black head), it is an ancient animal: it is strong and tenacious, accustomed to the highlands of western Anatolia. This painting gave its name to an entire exhibition that I consider emblematic with respect to your question.
All the works on display have been painted using a series of self-produced viewers, made with the help of magnifying glasses, optical isolators, mirrors, underwater masks, spectacles, and VR viewers that not only alter our visual perception, they also become coercive acts with the task of conditioning the amplitudes of movement and definition of the eye itself, at the same time generating reactions, resistances, and unexpected cognitive aftermaths. A visual impediment is actually an act of subversion of the dictatorship of the contemporary image, a realization and declaration of autonomy, an attempt to overturn the dominant system of thought’s hierarchical subjections and signifiers. Each work, however, was created autonomously and live on its own. Just like the Anti-Wolf collar (first introduced in Anatolia by Turkish shepherds) or the Dangle Stick (the stick with which Romanian shepherds dress their dogs to inhibit their predatory instincts), my pictorial process lives on constrictions and fugues between the wild and the domestic world.
F.I.: what do you see in your more or less immediate future?
M.B.: This summer I will be freediving in Corsica. So, in my more or less immediate future, I see Le Grand Bleu.