An Interview with Nicola Samorì
An Extract from Preparing for Darkness (2020)
Portrait of Nicola Samorì. / Photo: Stefano Galuzzi.
Prologue – Preparing for Darkness (2020)
Since the new millennium, a new generation of artists – born after 1970 – have been obtaining a similar tendency in their artistic practices. Marked by a figurative pictorial language, these separate actors follow their creative urges and incentives resulting in a body of works reflecting todays Zeitgeist. A bounding factor, beside the figurative visual language, is the darker edge and atmosphere externalizing the existential weight and status quaestionis of contemporary life.
The emergence and manifestation of this recent art historic phenomenon hasn't occurred without going unnoticed. Uwe Goldenstein – author, curator, collector and gallery owner – has been fascinated by this tendency in contemporary painting for over twenty years, following its development closely and participating as a key figure in this exciting and ongoing art historical debate. Recently, Goldenstein has compiled his 20-year research journey, sharing his vision and unparalleled expertise on the matter, postulating a new movement in painting with the publication Preparing for Darkness : A New Movement in Contemporary Painting (2020).
Cover of "Preparing for Darkness : A New Movement in Contemporary Painting".
One of the main protagonists of this publication – and by extent of this new wave in painting – is the Italian master Nicola Samorì (b. 1977). Featured alongside the likes of Teodora Axente (b. 1984), Radu Belcin (1978), Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977) or Matthias Weischer (b. 1973), the importance of Samorì is reflected in his presence in the catalogue in question, resulting in an elaborate and exhilarating interview with Lucia Rossi as one of the many highlights.
With the kind permission of Uwe Goldenstein and the involved contributors, we present you the extract "Nicola Samorì in Conversation with Lucia Rossie" from Preparing for Darkness : A New Movement in Contemporary Painting.
Nicola Samorì, Veglia della statua concreta, 2014. Oil on linen – 300 x 400 cm. Courtesy Rosenfeld Gallery, London.
Nicola Samorì in Conversation with Lucia Rossi
Lucia Rossi (LR): In a text written for the catalog La Pittura è cosa mortale for your exhibition at Palazzo Chiericati Vicenza (2014), Achille Bonito Oliva describes your painting as "a process of demonstrating the difficulty of seeing. A superimposition of planes, signs, images, and colors that produce a particular experience of the gaze. Indeed, the gaze assumes a philosophical decision to show us the problematic relationship between man and surrounding reality.” Is it a curved gaze that allows us to circumvent the insuperable frontality of things?
Nicola Samorì (NS): The “curved gaze” reminds me of the gallerist Emilio Mazzoli when he says that with the eyes, “you have to follow the curves”; Mario Schifano also said something similar. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean – I don’t understand what Achille Bonito Oliva wrote either (was he really talking about me?), but I can tell you that I like to look at paintings in profile – and from the back – if I’m allowed.
I do the same thing with bronze sculptures: I look for the inverse of the form and then, yes, the eyes bend toward looking for something that wasn’t created to be seen. Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in revealing the inside of a painting, scraping away the skin and revealing the first brush strokes that were applied to the polished surfaces of copper or wood, and discovering the geodes, the cavities that interrupt the integrity of the stone. Otherwise, my approach is frontal, stubbornly frontal, a fixity affected by the symmetry that perpetuates the good manners of classical tradition, from the small Greek temple to the side chapels of every Christian church.
LR: And without forgetting that la pittura è cosa mortale (painting is a mortal thing). Is this to say that you distance yourself from the idea of the timelessness of art, or better, from its illusory eternity in favor of a vision of the work’s inescapable degeneration, as of all things that remain?
NS: I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship with art defined as a viaticum of immortality. On the one hand, I’m seduced by its capacity to challenge our biology, while on the other, I’m annoyed by the privilege that we’ve granted it. Perhaps that’s why I accelerate the process of degeneration of the images: I transform them into something fragile like a dry leaf or like the wings of a butterfly, something that you have to take care of so it doesn’t crumble before your eyes.
LR: There are many descriptions of your work that accentuate the aspect linked to the baroque style. But I think baroque is just one of the many inflections that inform your work.
NS: The baroque was a long season when oil painting became flesh and, thanks to the lesson of Caravaggio (1571-1610), space was simplified, enlarging the emptiness with a hemorrhage of details. In these dark rooms, skin assumes an almost obscene highlight so it’s easier to reveal my typical treatment of the material, the preservation of the surfaces, where a San Sebastian who looks like a boy has skin that seems like that of an old man. It is not by coincidence that I use the adjective “easier” since many of the choices that I make obey an opportunistic logic of ease and of laziness. Making the skin of a 15th century panel shudder would be much more difficult for me, if not impossible, also because I haven’t yet penetrated the mysteries of the mixes of tempera and their transparencies and, at the moment, I don’t know what to do with that, except to admire it in a museum. All the same, as you say, the baroque is only one of the rooms explored in my work, because I don’t disdain Flemish painting, the mannerists, and not even the purists. Modernism strongly infiltrated my work as well – Fontana (b. 1899-1968) and Burri (1915-1995) among others.
Nicola Samorì, La Colonna, 2018. Oil on copper – 40 x 30 cm. Courtesy the artist. / Photo: Rolando Paolo Guerzoni.
LR: I remember the group exhibition Nero su Nero. Da Fontana e Kounellis a Galliani at Villa Bardini, Firenze, in 2017. On this occasion a dialogue was created between the works of Burri and Fontana and your art.
NS: Both of the artists you mention were already selected for projects that included me: Fontana with Concetto spaziale of 1962 for my space at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and Burri with a Cretto bianco for the project Gare de l’Est at the Teatro Anatomico of Parma in 2016. My work represents a step backward with respect to the radicalism of Fontana’s holes and Burri’s combustions, works in which the authors have pushed themselves so close to the material that the sense of figuration is lost. I’m interested in displaying those “wounds” in Christ’s ribs, to make it clear that between representing a wound and wounding the material, there exists an intermediate passage, which is that of wounding the image without being iconoclastic.
LR: What are your thoughts about the dark side in your work and what role does melancholy play?
NS: Darkness is the condition of things, whereas light is only a temporary episode and one that expires. It’s not a coincidence that miracles and visions were always represented by a ray of light at some point in the painting. Wherever you see more light in an old painting, you can bet that there’s a miracle in the air.
LR: Painting is a place where you can hide, rediscover the dark side that helps us emerge from the banality, and maybe meditate upon real human nature. What are your thoughts on this?
NS: I started painting because it came easy to me; then everything got really complicated and now I can’t pull myself away from it anymore. Meanwhile, I discovered that, for me, no more efficient way exists to record the days that pass without having to scroll the image files of a cell phone.
Nicola Samorì, Jan's Horizon, 2013. Oil on bakelite – 28 x 68 cm. Courtesy the artist and Collection SELECTED ARTISTS.
LR: That reminds me of Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili where a series of themes centered on time, space and memory are triggered. A time that doesn’t exist, fragmented, that hints at a desire to comprehend what to do, in the end, in order not to forget.
NS: I have a disturbed relationship with time, a kind of obsession: if I don’t transform it into something material, I consider it lost. Painting and sculpture help me to slow it down and secure it. That’s it: art for me is “stopping time”, a calendar that allows me to associate a year, a month, a day with the emergence of an image, and with the slow work it entails before it’s released from the studio.
LR: Speaking of the calendar brings to mind Salvador Dalí’s (1904-1989) melting clocks and the theory of relativity as related to the flexibility of time.
NS: Art persists in talking of “actual” time, as if ours were the only time worthy of attention, whereas I would like to paint as if I were dead for a century, free of any encrustation that glues me to the present. That’s why I believe in art as a hole in time, something that frees itself from chronology and from history, at the mercy of the melting hands of the clock. And – still regarding time – I’d like to more often realize works that compel me to “sustain a feeling for months” as Philip Guston (b. 1913-1980) said in reference to the old masters. Today it’s difficult to reflect upon a work very long because the market constantly wants feedback, and to withdraw to a grey zone for months or for years requires a lot of courage.
Nicola Samorì, Pillow, 2012. Oil on wood – 32 x 21.5 x 5 cm. Courtesy the artist. Collection AmC Coppola Collection, Vicenza.
LR: You handle and manipulate your works, pushing them to their furthest extremes. There is an overload of anxiety. How do you do this?
NS: I’m a coward. I’m not courageous, I can’t even manage to raise my voice. These are things that create a disadvantage for me and which, in some way, were contrasted with the invention of an alter ego: the massacrer of images who compels the works to go under the razor blade. What I create is always in danger, it has to contend with the worst nightmares to push the material toward intense reactions.
LR: In certain respects, your role as a massacrer of images evokes the fury in the works of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). Luigi Lanzi affirms that hers was a painting of strong substance, of thunder, and of a narrative that emanates terror.
NS: My works represent the perpetual oscillation between healing and violence. Without accumulating tension through the slow and painstaking application of layers of paint, you’ll never find the energy necessary to release the fury stored within a resolute gesture.
LR: It seems you view the past without nostalgia. Your iconoclastic stance is just a passionate act of translation. What exactly does the contemporary mean to you? And what is the risk of insisting only on the present?
NS: I’m pleased to hear how you think with respect to a presumed iconoclasm in my works. I’ll repeat this to the point of exhaustion: I am an iconophile, I believe in the power of images, I believe this to the point at which I feel the force, even when only a small part of a body, of a butterfly, of fruit remains. The contemporary is another wrinkle in the millennial body of art, a small sign of aging, but also of variance that adds corruption.
Nicola Samori, Lienzo (installation at the 56th Venice Biennale), 2014. Oil on board on mounted table – 70 x 200 x 73 cm. Courtesy Emilio Mazzoli Gallery, Modena.
LR: Nicola, you were one of the artists selected for the Italian Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale. A key reference of Okwui Enwezor, the curator of that Biennale, was Walter Benjamin's reading of Paul Klee's “Angelus Novus” (1920). Benjamin describes an accumulation of wreckage that piles up at the feet of the Angel, who is being blown into a future to which his back is turned, his face toward the past. I see a relationship between your work and Benjamin's theory of the angel of history, a melancholy view of historical process. What's your opinion on this? And what does the future mean to you?
NS: We don’t know anything about the future, we can’t say anything that is true about it. I don’t think there’s even any sense planning it. And that’s why Benjamin’s celebrated image continues to be the most fitting example of the condition of the artist and, in fact, of all humanity. We always think of going forward, whereas at times we should put the gears in reverse. I often think of the enigmatic phrase of the navigator who said “turn back when you can”, and that’s it: sometimes artists, too, would do well to learn from this.
LR: I find this statement of yours truly interesting: “each act is a re-writing conducted with after-the-fact wisdom, as if Holbein had made a deal with Appel in Ribera’s shadow”. José de Ribera (1591-1652) has a significant influence in your art. What exactly is it about his work that resonates with you?
NS: With José de Ribera, the halos disappear, the flashes of light close again, and flesh becomes the surface that supports monumental events. There’s so much light on the forehead of his saints that even a blind person could read it with his fingers.
Nicola Samorì, Lucia, 2019. Oil on onyx and Trani stone – 40 x 30 cm. Courtesy the artist.
LR: A light inundates the face of your Lucia too, from eyes that are not painted but the result of natural fissures.
NS: The flesh of Lucia is whitened so as to make “visible” her mutilation that coincides with the invisible part of the stones – the geode – that comes to light only through a trauma to the material. The part that is obscured, hidden from our view in the heart of the minerals thus becomes the fissure through which the saint scrutinizes us, and it is when our eyes get closer to hers that the mineral specks, almost eyelashes of glass, become legible.
LR: Your practice focuses on painting and sculpture. How do these forms meet in your art? And, from this point of view, how was your experience at the Made in Cloister Foundation in Naples?
NS: Painting and sculpture have lived side-by-side for a long time in my studio and so end up imitating each other: the painting detaches from the support and protrudes forward while sculpture nourishes itself from the earthy polychromy that encrusts the natural cavities of the rock.
In Naples, sculpture dominated the space: a colossus – Drummer – inspired by a small ivory attributed to Joachim Henne, occupied the center of Made in Cloister. Headless, Drummer is a metaphor for a volcano that spewed heads and lapilli (volcanic rocks), that fell back down into the perfect geometry of a square at its feet. A burnt and furious image five meters high, inspired, among other things, by accounts of the eruption of 1631, caught between terror and panicked wonder: “it was a magnificent spectacle, that of lava flowing through the groves; every tree touched by the lava ignited and burned”, one witness wrote.
But painting is not silent, also because for some time now it behaves like the blood of San Gennaro: it seems dry and dead but begins to liquefy again for special occasions when rites that have been handed down for centuries are performed over its relics.
Installation view; Black Square – Made in Cloister. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.
LR: In “The Logic of Sensation”, Gilles Deleuze maintains that “for Bacon as for Kafka, the spinal column becomes nothing but the sword under the skin which a torturer has slid inside the body of an innocent sleeper”. What do you think of this sentence with regard to your art?
NS: It’s a very seductive image that doesn’t come from a painter: I fell in love with Bacon (1909-1992) through Deleuze, then I needed many years to free myself from this filter. When I work, I’m very practical, like a butcher who knows exactly where to put the knife, and I leave the poetry to others.
LR: I have the impression that many artists work meticulously in one direction only, without crossing borders. I mean, too often we have works that reflect exactly what is expected of figurative painting. In some cases there is good technique but I can't find the intention. What's your opinion on this? You were a jury member of Figurativas 2017 - Fundación de las Artes y los Artistas, Barcelona.
NS: At the time I said that I saw mostly the paint brushes, but very little painting. Nevertheless, in a competition like Figurativas, I recognize the will to react to that which I call “painting to conserve energy”: a collection of hiccups, spots, trembling lines, empty canvas, a little like a De Pisis, without much inspiration. Stuff that functions at all latitudes, that excites the intellectuals of painting and that saturates the most sought after art fairs.
LR: You once said that you are interested in a transversal condition. Can we say that you don't feel part of figurative painting? Or that artificial categories have been created?
NS: Every time I’m involved in a context of figurative art (award, conference, group exhibition), I don’t feel like I’m in the right place. Each time I’m involved in a context of “contemporary” art, with those of my generation, or somewhat younger or somewhat older, I don’t feel like I’m in the right place. Now, whatever my actual place is, I don’t know. I’m excited by some people and what they do, never by the herds. I detest the team and the group, I’ve always acted alone, with fleeting contacts born of temporary affinities. So if you ask me if I feel part of figurative painting, I would say no. But if you ask me if I ever had the intention to create an aniconic work, I would say – once again – no.
Nicola Samorì, Sordina, 2017. Oil on copper – 100 x 100 cm. Courtesy the artist.
LR: Do you think there is still a kind of repression of the pictorial language in art today?
NS: Certainly, because painting is an activity that is dirty, erotic, ruffian, ineradicable. I don’t make videos and I don’t make photos, but if I ever did, I would live in terror that one day the means that allow me to create images could disappear or break. A thing that needs an electrical outlet is more fragile than one that is attached to the wrist.
LR: I know you appreciate Georges Didi-Huberman. He suggests that art historians should start to think of representation as a mobile process that often involves contradiction. What's your opinion on that?
NS: We learn to read from left to right, to browse history from the Sumerians to Trump, as if the whole chain of events were chiseled in the collective consciousness in progressive order, whereas history is mutable, continuously redefined by those who hand it down, not by those who live it; and the same goes for art. We call progress that pointed arrow that pushes us from A to Z without hesitation, whereas art seems to say exactly the opposite and, just because of this, it is invaluable for accessing a complexity and fragility of structures that can’t be explained in evolutional terms.
Art doesn’t care whether the earth is flat or spherical.
Introduction written by Julien Delagrange
Interview directed by Lucia Rossi
English translation by Laurie Schwarz
Edited by Julien Delagrange
In cooperation with SELECTED ARTISTS
Special thanks to Uwe Goldenstein and Nicola Samorì
Photographic material by Stefano Galuzzi, Rolando Paolo Guerzoni and Danilo Donzelli.
Published online on 24/01/2021 by Contemporary Art Issue © 2021
 Uwe Goldenstein, Preparing for Darkness : A New Movement in Contemporary Painting. Berlin: Selected Artists Edition, 2020.
 Nicola Samorì, "in Solo" in Collezione Coppola: No 1-May-MMXI. Vicenza, Italy: 2011.