Domani, a Palermo #14 – Per Barclay

4 dicembre 2010 – 4 February 2011
Galleria francesco pantaleone arte Contemporanea
via Garraffello, 25 Palermo

It was back in 1989 when Per Barclay created his first “oil room”, a room completely flooded in which architecture was mirrored on a black, translucent surface of mineral oil.
For his first solo exhibition in Palermo, Per Barclay (Oslo, 1955) has given birth to a new work created in the halls of Palazzo Costantino, a fine example of baroque architecture in the heart of Palermo’s old city center. For his photos of “flooded” rooms, Per Barclay has always carefully chosen the places where to create his reflecting architectures: Palazzo Costantino is a symbolic place that tells of the decline of the old city center, but it is also the charm of a space that bears the signs of abandonment at the end of World War II and, like many palazzos in the old city center, has been left to the neglect of time.

The Palazzo was built by Giuseppe Merendino on existing 17th-century structures. Inherited by the Costantino family, it underwent major renovation works started by Andrea Giganti and continued in 1785 according to the plans of Venanzio Marvuglia, which included 18th century traditional elements inspired by the nascent neoclassical style. Palazzo Di Napoli and Palazzo Costantino are two of the most beautiful residences of Via Maqueda, near the Quattro Canti – the Four Corners, namely the symbolic and geographical center of the city inside the walls. They are 9,000 square meters of pure splendor with extraordinary frescoes, monumental stairways, breathtaking halls and courtyards. In recent years the Palazzo, now empty and abandoned, has been stripped of some of its decorations, among which some floors covered with precious majolica tiles.

Per Barclay’s artistic creation comes at a delicate moment in the complicated history of this architectural complex. The most scenographic fresco is definitely the Trionfo di Costantino – Constantine’s Triumph – by the Sicilian painter Giuseppe Velasco based on a copy of the same subject created by Giulio Romano in the Vatican. This is where Per Barclay has chosen to stop and build an image caught between control, tension and formal balance.

Like almost all the artists born in Scandinavia, Per Barclay too devotes special attention to light. The desire to make an interior mood difficult to reveal come to the surface through a liquid – oil, water, blood and wine that flood the rooms carefully chosen – points to a mainly formal comparison between the visual compositions created in his photos and the great Flemish tradition. Surfaces that refer to a reflected reality, apparently identical yet different. «Liquid mirrors – as someone has defined them – that reflect the opposite, that project upwards but evoke the overwhelming desire to discover the “dimensions” of their depths» (M. Centonze).

The first stage of Barclay’s journey abroad was Italy where he completed his studies. Interested in its conceptual trends, he was influenced by the movement, which at the end of the 1970s still prevailed on the Italian scene, namely Arte Povera. One aspect he took from this movement and which will prove to be crucial to his work as artist is the relationship with the classical world. Living every day in Italy’s cities means living in contact with an aggressive beauty from the past: many artists of the Arte Povera movement included references to this world of the past and to a present in their works. Unlike the Arte Povera artists, Barclay’s work takes on less conceptual traits, maintaining the prominence of aesthetics and domain of formal tension. This tension is the result of the relationship between a well-defined classical image and the reflection that the reflecting material emits: the more disquieting and dangerous the material is (mineral oil, blood…), the greater the tension. There is no contentious ideology, but just formal tension.

Barclay conveys most of his references to Arte Povera in what is one of the main features of his work, namely the reflection, thus offering more radical options of the mere inclusion of history in the depths of the mirror. At the end of the 1980s, after the creation of his first flooded rooms, other works followed in various parts of Europe, in places without any apparent link to one another, but which underscore, with the utmost consistency, some aspects of the walk of humankind through life and the world.

In the effort to reveal specific features – both architectural and formal – of the various rooms, Per Barclay uses different types of liquids: motor oil, both dense and dark, swallows and cloaks in darkness spaces which are supposed to be formally clear, while the water, though turbid, leaves a glimmer of hope in an extreme transparency. Fluids, motor oil, blood, water and wine become uniting elements capable of covering surfaces both due to their chromatic features – water’s transparency, the darkness of motor oil, deep red blood – and to their diverse metaphorical value.

As for the “oil rooms”, critics, curators, and the very artist all agree in distinguishing the works proper from their own photos. As Mariano Navarro has pointed out, they all share the fact that both can be observed solely “from external viewpoint” located outside the room. If the room cannot be accessed by visitors, the bidimensionality of photography offers the same result: we look at a place, open only to the eyes, an inaccessible three-dimensional space.

Barclay’s photos cannot be simply considered “documents” of his works. They are rather objects that capture the synthesis of a clear and balanced vision and at the same time a perceptive ambiguity caused by the shot and by the characteristics of the reflection, which reveal in the depths of the reflecting liquid what at times is almost indistinguishable on the walls or floors.

However, in photography oil is odorless, blood does not clot, water does not cloud windows as it evaporates, thus intensifying the distance of the vision and aesthetic coldness that Barclay pursues. These goals are amplified by the resolution, transparency, clear luminosity and chromatic definition of the final impressions; they give photography an intangible yet undeniable degree of existence.

A reinterpretation of baroque space and its artifices, rooms with a profusion of decorations in which the contrivances of illusionism are multiplied in a space that is always closed, almost completely empty. Barclay adds a fourth fluid dimension to a 3D architectural space, which is then restored through the bidimensionality of photography.

In the hall of Palazzo Costantino, the fine and always fleeting balance between disquietude and certainty is exacerbated by the room’s fleeting state of conservation. The oil bursts in like a black wave reflecting in its dark abyss the conditions of the enormous fresco on the ceiling, of the walls whose filthy fabrics create waves in the torn cloth. The bodies full of mannerist tension, the muscles of the steeds, and the swirling chaos of the battle are immersed and swallowed in the oil’s black pane.

Known corners are rendered through the overturned perception of the reflection. It is the return of the myth of Narcissus who recognizes himself only in his own reflection. This act of recognizing has led though to annihilation: life and death separated by a thin reflecting diaphragm. Man did not realize that he existed until he saw his reflected image. The image reflected in the mirror determines the point in which the self, the awareness of the self and creation of the subject are generated. The mirror reveals the shades of the photograph’s subjects even without exasperating the conceptual nature of the very image: what is real is made fantastic by vision. The mirror, according to the semiotics and aesthetics of the arts, is not only the object that returns the image that it reflects, but it becomes a sort of canvas that captures the image and takes it to a place, which will reflect another image. There is the identification of a self and of its other that leads to the splitting between the real subject and its ideal image. The use of the reflection has allowed for the confrontation between the eye and vision, between seeing and understanding, between exterior and the interior in its various characterizations: the psyche, the mind, spirituality. It is the path that opens on a new «door» of «reflections». On what leads us to new horizons demolishing what becomes «conventional» and no longer «conviction».

Per Barclay’s journey to Palermo has been a never-ending crossing of places and tales, images and sensations, a stay, which has reached its climax in the halls of Palazzo Costantino and fits perfectly into the line of research that this Norwegian artist has been conducting for years. Only through vision and the sensitivity of the artist is it possible to impact Palermo’s age-old history and project its contemporary character to the world of tomorrow.