Paper, the paper, the pages

Sicilian culture lives more than one contradiction… but, as one knows, contradictions are precisely the right ground on which a complex, articulate and rich vision of the world may grow: it is the clash of situations (speaking of ideas, naturally, and not arms…) which puts interpretative, hermeneutic, even the development of a civilisation, to the test. In this sense the Sicilian situation of having been and still being the crossing point of different civilisations, which although a commonplace nevertheless corresponds to the truth, may be the paradigm not only of an important past, but also of a future possibility for cultural interweaving, so intricate, layered and cohesive as to prove impossible to lead to a dangerous “purity”, to the supremacy of one over another, as happens instead in younger, rougher, more “fundamentalist” cultures: an example of co-existence, therefore, based on apparently incurable contradictions, which almost appear surreal, like that memorable avantguard meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table: besides, putting together the blue eyes of a Norman with the sunburnt skin of an Arab is no less difficult an undertaking…

But to these internal contradictions, which in these ways and measures constitute the intellectual humus, the wealth of a nation, corresponds, with regard to Sicily, an external contradiction, an error in the evaluation with respect to its culture, which derives from a deep rooted and die-hard stereotype, continually rekindled by the superficial approximation with which one looks upon distant situations from “the centre of the empire”: I mean the Romantic myth of a Mediterranean culture made up of spontaneity, extroversion, instinctiveness, immediacy, warmth and that naïve simplicity of happy peoples, still immersed in the sun of the golden age. This myth, which involves all the southern parts of the world – deriving, however, from Greek-Roman culture, and including, for instance, also all the Hispanic cultures of South America, but not the Middle East or Africa or Islam – has produced and still produces a reading of Sicilian cultural and social phenomena following an unequivocal logic, privileging anything that resembles this stereotype over all that is distant from it. Or rather, Sicilian culture has made us so used to such a variety of themes, fashions and languages that every time one sees this stereotype repeated, one is struck by the superficiality of information which stops at appearances only.  And in Sicily, Baroque teaches us…, appearances hide much richness. However, if this Romantic vision is beginning to crumble with regard to literature, thanks to figures such as Pirandello, Leonardo Sciascia or Antonio Pizzuto, owing to whom every Cartesian spirit pales before the geometric, nearly transcendent, perfection of the linguistic and literary construction that they well know how to create, the same cannot be said of art. This constructive, Cartesian, geometric aspect in the more metaphysical sense of the term, is too often overwhelmed by a facile, emotive narration, more populist than popular, which is also present – it is enough to think of Guttuso or his weak counterpart, Migneco…-, but it is not the only thing, and perhaps does not belong to that jealous “aristocracy of thought” which is found so strongly in Sicilian intellectualism.

Antonio Freiles belongs to this aloof context.

His artistic history resembles that of a scientist who immediately had a genial intuition, and who then, for his entire life, investigated, studied in depth, penetrated all the possible roads that that original discovery indicated and permitted him. Instead of a horizontal investigation Freiles has preferred a vertical analysis, towards the deep, but also towards the heights which, to continue this naturalistic metaphor, may be those of the abyss – the former – and of the sky – the others -: in fact, analytical is the adjective most fitting for this artist from Messina, even if its meaning, as he also certainly accepts, is largely autonomous with respect to the artistic analytics which the 70’s have made us so familiar. It is not only by personal chance that Freiles has reached his expressive maturity, almost unexpectedly, precisely in the middle of that decade, so crucial for all those punctiliously analytical experiments, aimed at discovering all the aspects of the intimate, magic and linguistic relationship linking artists to their work, the subject to the object, the action of making art and its effect.

Following a kind of brief apprenticeship of abstract reduction of vaguely pop forms, at the beginning of the 70’s, Freiles docked at the great lido of “analytical painting”, namely an environment which had married conceptualism without wishing to renounce traditional artistic media, the most traditional of which was without doubt painting. To go beyond the surface but still remain on the surface was the challenge: unveil the mechanisms by which a gesture, a colour, may transform the surface into a body in itself, yet so dependent on that gesture. Far from any excessively ideological meaning (as instead the French did, above all those of “Support/Surface”), Freiles seeks his compositional and chromatic alphabet and finds it immediately, towards the end of that decade: he calls those “pages of light” “icons” – the definition seems fitting, and we shall see why… – just furrowed by a sign plot which structures and delimits the space, but only to enable being surpassed by the colour which spills over and does not manage to be contained, almost as if to say that the analytical geometry within which, only a few years before, Giulio Paolini had enclosed any possible design (with that conceptual peak, namely the “Geometric Design” of 1961), was a sublime and perfect road, but precisely for this reason, a road no longer viable. In this sense Freiles makes a side-step: he does not renounce the great school of conceptual rigour, nor the sense of transcendence which may arrive by meticulous and analytical understanding, at the same time as being in love with the material and the colour, in an ideal line that passes through Rothko and Burri, the former able to transcend reality through colour (not by chance are his “Icons” modern), the latter capable of transforming material into form without losing their physical essence.

In this way the Sicilian artist begins his mature journey, concentrating ever more his research on these two elements – material and colour – and abandoning gradually that extreme fragment of sign structure, evoked here by geometric partitioning, there by a designed architecture, first “drawing” through superimposition of colours, then simply juxtaposing traces of colour side by side.

But why have we defined his practice analytical, faced with the results which seem to express, on the contrary, the joy of colour, the emotion of their vibration, even the metaphor of transcendence (the icon is, for the orthodox, a true and proper window to the spiritual world, rather than a sacred object in itself…)?

Because it is analytical in the process rather than the end result, as the more exact dictate of analytics in painting would have. What would Josef Albers be if he had done only one “Homage to the square” instead of obsessively continuing to produce them, to test hundreds of times the relationships of the chromatic interactions between his paintings, inserted one in another? To a slightly lesser extent, and a little more freely, but substantially similar, Freiles acts with regard to his own object of love: not the single work, but the series of works, the cycles following each other over the years reflect the measure of a research which is as joyful in the result as it is rigorous in method. It is not by chance, therefore, that he has privileged paper, choosing it as more or less the only support of his works, at least for a decade. Paper as a manageable, ductile support, suitable for that typical spreading out of colour through its fibres which characterises many of Freiles’ works, but also paper as “page” or “score”: in this sense it is the support itself that defines the semantic quality of the work, as something requiring a diachronic vision, a true and proper “reading”, again more so than a “vision”. Indeed, the paper – which the artist, on finishing his work, calls “Charta” in the Latin, to underline its peculiarity, to accentuate the presence and the demand for particular attention on the part of the viewer – is not only the traditional support of drawing, but it is even more traditionally the stuff which books are made of, those strange objects needing to be turned page by page, until the entire theme is unwound (at the same time, line after line, one unwinds the theme of a score: of both forms – book and score – Freiles has made wide use over the years, presenting his work clearly in the form of books, or organising installations of the same on music stands, as though to conduct a chromatic orchestra). In this passage, from paper as pure support to paper as page, as the last “atomic element” of a vaster agglomeration known as the book, which is something to be unwound in time, lies the analytical quality of Freiles: every “charta” is in reality a page of that great book whose beginning we know, but not yet the end.

I believe that this aspect, this capacity to transform the support into the metaphor of doing, of uninterrupted doing, is the peculiar feature of Freiles, more so than the authoritativeness with which he manages the second element of his work, namely colour. In fact, notwithstanding the elegance of the compositions, the wisdom with which he weighs up the chromatic quantity to be arranged side by side – wisdom so much acquired as to seem self-assurance, an automatic gesture -, notwithstanding the final result, so perfect and complete in itself, it is in the more vast symphony of all his work that this single chord (to use musical imagery…) finds its true significance: every page has a before and an after, which we cannot not be aware of, whose existence we know of even though we don’t know the icon, the image, but which we cannot help in considering each individual “charta”. This procedure, without going as far as to say that Freiles “writes” and does not paint (even if we might be tempted…), constitutes the conceptual apparatus of his work, which is not superstructure, but consubstantial to it: it is the ability to be work and fragment, indivisible monad and atom of a universe of other atoms, an uninterrupted flow which for some time has become more scarce in the compositions and, acquiring that confidence which only the praxis of work can give, becomes ever closer to the chromatically intense lines, complementary or juxtaposed, true and proper writing of colour, light, which call up other lines, other pages, other books. And so on, and so on…

Marco Meneguzzo


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