Considering concepts of figuration and abstraction as ineffective categories applied to my work, I situate my practice in the realm of the anti-narration. My paintings evoke instead of illustrating, suggest instead of explaining, allowing the grammar of painting to become the subject of study itself.

Driven by a philosophical approach and a contemplative gaze, I work on canvas and on wooden boards, in order to build textures and patterns that function as laboratory glasses, on which the vision of specific elements crystallizes in clarity.

The eye becomes lens, microscope and telescope, in charge of zooming, shortening and mixing the distance between what exists in the micro and macro cosmos, arising questions about our relationship with time and nature.

Barren lands, flowery meadows and colour fields are inhabited by botanical and organic elements, mostly depicted by sight, to which hands and other human features relate, pointing out, taking care or destroying.

My theoretical research is informed by the concepts of beauty, pleasure and caducity, and by the obsession for the marginal, that exists regardless the main scenes and that opens up to alternative scenarios.

Prima Vera Nuova

by Sofia Silva

exhibition text in “Something Filled Up My Heart with Nothing”

Otto gallery, 2022

Something filled up
My heart with nothing
Someone told me not to cry
Now that I’m older
My heart’s colder
And I can see that it’s a lie
(Arcade Fire)

I first met Vera in 2012 when I was living in England and she had returned to Italy after her studies at the Chelsea College in London. At the time, much of her energy was about to be invested in the creation of an artist-run space in Varese, Yellow, of which the initial project was to exhibit British painting in Italy so as to create the cultural humus conducive to the emergence of a new wave of Italian painting. It was an ambitious project, and one which succeeded despite the lack of any pompous acknowledgement.

The few Italian painters Vera and I came into contact with were convinced painting in Italy was dead, and continued to practise it with a somewhat Don Quixotian perseverance. However much our discussion of the medium – mine and that of other painter pen pals – was often over-emphatic and at times even verging on the pathetic, the mission was noble and clear, so much so that to this day I am inclined to think painting is at its best when dead and buried.

As a matter of fact, we are two friends who have travelled around, losing and finding each other once again, over ten years of painting in Italy and the UK: she a bright button – an optimistic idealist, clad in a veil of candour, passionate to the point of exhaustion; I a somewhat greyer figure – a pessimistic idealist, critical and unsociable.

At some point something changed: a lukewarm ray of cultural insouciance spread over me, while a shadow fell over Vera, as if a wandering disillusionment had found shelter on her brow. To present this exhibition, I need to retrace our steps until I find the crossroads where the old and new Vera meet.

“Danger of ticks” cried the newspaper headlines in the pre-alpine area of Varese in the early summer 2022, explaining that due to soaring temperatures, the blood-feast of these pesky creatures had begun in May. On the phone, Vera tells me that her little daughter Tea, while wandering through the sun-dried grass in the family garden in Comerio, keeps running into the pest. I wince. The first time I set foot there, that garden was still a splendidly damp and dewy example of the botanical culture that characterises Varese and its surrounding province. The grass was trampled by the comings and goings of the Portatadino family, whose members displayed an ancient, purposeful and long-suffering air, in which one could easily discern the remnants of a twentieth-century history rooted in an incumbent sense of responsibility.

In 2012, Vera’s painting was like that garden, moist to the point of lacustrine. She painted on canvas as if she were painting on ceramics; she was quick, diaphanous and horizontal, often with tremulous pasty brushstrokes. She was sunny (using incredible amounts of yellow, acid green and lilac), sometimes vitalistically didactic, precociously eco-anxious and full of the sentimentality of British painting. Such a technique was then reflected in her curatorial work at Yellow, which anticipated names that have gone on to become famous today in Italy, albeit not yet quite at the top of the international market. Most of the painters she curated (among whom I never figured, precisely because of my opposite period characterised by my pinturas very negras and angustiadas) made small, straightforward works, clearly reflecting the search for the slender and the beautiful. The styles were diverse (the years of boorish braggadocio on technical prowess were not yet upon us), but every painting Yellow passed in its first three years was a beautiful painting-as-object.

Indeed, in close symbiosis with the life of her childhood garden, the grass ever less moist and the foliage ever less maternal, Vera and her painting also changed, incorporating atmospheres and elements that were first darker and then drier.

Around 2018, following a fascination with the work of her husband, a molecular biologist working in cancer research, Vera began to paint scattered elements on backgrounds that looked like rocky backs or cosmic horizons. She wanted to make herself as small as Maya the Bee in order to paint the micro-traces of life, be they manmade and otherwise, scattered on the surface of the garden: insects, scraps of plastic, broken clothes pegs, petals, hair and threads. The paintings were still drawing on her British lessons, although unlike before: they were organic, textural, making extensive use of earth, yet they were glossy, painted in oils in a way that could not have been more obvious. Around that time, I began to feel a sense of unease with oil painting, which I started to see as one of the many techniques I possessed and no longer as the sole creed in which I had placed my early works. We talked about it and I got the impression that Vera felt rather betrayed, as for her, oil painting was like the molecules of organic matter on Mars that space agencies occasionally boast of having found. The organic alchemy of oil made her believe that the painting was, if not a vegetable or an animal, at least a mineral being, and this was important to her.

Vera was born in 1984, I in 1990. We belong to that generation of Italians from progressive families, educated and liberal in the upbringing of their children, who lived through the final cadence of the twentieth century uncritically and then into the second decade of the 2000s gradually more and more critically; we learnt values from those who came before us, but we also learnt from adolescents the urgency of accessing new rights. Little by little, each from within our individual sensitivities, minor revolutions of a socio-political nature manifested in personal actions and reactions: no longer tolerating the tone of voice of certain television presenters, losing interest in partners who offered master-pupil relationships, no longer putting up with the hypocrisy of the word ‘bad weather’ as a substitute for discourse on the climate catastrophe, looking with hatred at those who throw cigarette butts on the ground, feeling our eyes glaze over in front of images of all-male conventions in positions of power. A heap of sensations, experienced one by one over the course of years, built a new consciousness into much of our generation, which – although quieter than those that came later – was actually able to learn from both the old and the new world.

Since painting is in equal measure the elaboration of a quest and the transcription of a biography, all of this has sedimented in our paintings, and in Vera’s it has had the effect of making her hand slower, her thought more dense, her subject more lonely and her colour more realistic, be it bathed in nostalgia or burning in despondency.

Today, Vera Portatadino’s paintings stand on a parataxis that I define as Byzantine. Each painting is a tabula that on an imaginative level may be replaced by the area of a rudimentary weaving loom. The layers of paint – i.e. the threads of the composition – are pulled one by one by Vera, some longitudinally, others transversally, just like in the weaving of warp and weft. What appears to be just a technical parenthesis is actually consubstantial to Vera’s work, for hers is a simple approach, paratactic even, rich in detail but devoid of mystification. A row of flowers, above one of leaves, above a proto-geometric decoration: everything features a linearity akin to that of the ornamental framework of ancient Greek ceramics. Just like in the vases of that world, the plant, animal, human and decorative elements are hybrids of one another, bereft of any disparities of power or narrative.

In just a few lines, I have brought up ancient Greece and Byzantine parataxis: the oriental flavour of Vera’s world originates from the place where she was born, from her strong, partially unelaborated cultural affiliations. Comerio is located in a land of sanctuaries and mystical cults, full of theosophical and mediumistic views, not far from Monte Verità, shrouded in the mystery of gardens, the legends of the lake, and strongly bound up in the world of magic. The same land is home to the fashion house Missoni, whose fabrics, not by chance, live on the same parataxis as some of the works on display. Vera also picked up the magical threads of the Varese district on an aesthetic level, so much so that on her wedding day – as if it were the most natural of outfits – she dressed not as a Christian bride but as Persephone: the goddess of spring.

In her canvases, we come across numerous symbols derived from ancient and archetypal iconographies: the burning rose, the flower of the Apocalypse and the fire of revelation. Vera does not use symbols as such, but rather she encounters them spontaneously. In my opinion, the viewer accustomed to the traditional enjoyment of the painting medium might approach Vera’s work more like a still life than painting of a surrealist, symbolist or abstractionist kind. The elementary nature of her subjects brings to mind the figs painted on the wall of Villa Poppaea, the cherries of the House of the Ephebus, or in other cases the display case of a shrine, in which small devotional objects are laid out one beside the other. Vera does not implement any particular use of illumination or embellishment, even though the oil medium readily lends itself to it. In fact, she uses oil as if it were tempera – a strange tempera, whose opaque, translucent and long drying time she embraces, along with the opportunity it affords the painter to retrace his steps with a wipe of a cloth.

The early Vera (2009–2017) and the new Vera (2018 – up to the present exhibition, Something Filled Up My Heart With Nothing) draw on a major extension of the painting time used for each painting and of the doubt – both aesthetic and moral – that surrounds it. Put simply: from being very rapid, Vera’s painting process has slowed down greatly; from being carefree, the painter has become ever more thoughtful; from being superficial (in the literal, non-moral sense of the word), her painting has become layered. This is how I witnessed my artist friend change, in keeping with the changing history of us all and that of her garden.

Sofia Silva

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