Symbolism in art inevitably provokes a verbose reaction from most critics. It is unfortunate, for often, unwittingly, it detracts from the visual enjoyment of the work of art, diverting the viewer into the world of words rather than images.

Such is the case with Italian artist Mimmo Paladino, whose itinerant exhibition breezed through Montreal like a zephyr wind, light and refreshing, infused with the sunlight and culture of that art-infused country. One of Europe’s most famous contemporary artists, Paladino is familiar to the Montreal audience — his kouros-like standing figure one of the pantheon of works gracing the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts sculpture garden, but perhaps less so in the rest of the country. This intimate show focuses on Paladino’s prints, particularly his use of the Mixografia technique conceived by the Remba family of printers and publishers. In 1973, Luis Remba began experimenting with ways of printing in relief, employing wax tablets and finally paper pulp to produce wonderfully textured surfaces like no other print method. An inspiration to many artists, it proved popular as a working tool pushing the medium beyond its previous boundaries. And Paladino’s vision turned out to be especially suited to this form of expression. Often incorporating found objects within his paintings, he could now render them in a Mixografia print, further adding to the sensation of viewing an artefact of a past culture that his works provoke. The fact that one of Italy’s most revered living artists reached out for his ‘invention’ delighted Luis Remba, now well-established and living in Los Angeles. “Paladino has a great vision, and understood immediately our process,” he is quoted in the accompanying catalogue. “He right away thought he could do a mosaic, for example.” Inspired, the artist produced a series of works that marvellously showcased his complex prints, such as the California Suite on view in the travelling exhibition. Collaged, textured, the 78.7 x 58.2 cm prints are as contemporary as they are ancient, referencing history, mythology, folklore, and at their core, the creative process. Mosaic, photography, objects (brush, pimento) all find their place in the deceptively simple compositions, springing from a central image, usually a stylized head or tiled symbol. Reams have been written about the meaning in his work and its many correlations, historical, spiritual, and other. But even without the literary interpretation, Paladino’s art speaks to the least informed of viewers through its pure presence and the aesthetic enjoyment it inspires. The tactile, sepia background of the California Suite prints on handmade paper gives the works the feel of an archaeological find, resembling fragments, shards of antique pottery, assembled loosely into a pictorial narrative. Letters and numbers appear as if in some Cabbalistic configuration, intriguing, mysterious, carrying their own hidden message that seems to stir something in our collective unconscious. Gli Alberi Che Nel Corpo II, a magnificent silkscreen etching is also part of the exhibition, more complex and visually compelling than the California Suite prints. A triptych, it incorporates Paladino’s favourite themes — hands, birds, a human head — but in a more complex composition, with each panel encapsulating an entire visual universe of meaning. Colour, whether a cobalt blue stain, a splash of green, or a purple red background, plays a major role here, anchoring the image as it were, while at the same time putting it in pictorial relief. In his commentary on the work of Paladino, Paolo Granata of the University of Bologna, who presented the artist to the Montreal public, describes it as “a skilful alchemy of shapes and colours, imbued with rituality and memory.” But what of the work that graces the cover of the catalogue, a stylized human figure besieged by black birds? Untitled, it offers no hint, thus giving free reign to the viewer’s imagination. Visually reductive, the 185.4 x 88.9 cm mixed media etching instantly draws attention away from the other works on display. The ‘birdman’ faces us, his palms outward as if in supplication, the black birds pecking mercilessly at his body marked with enigmatic scratches and lines. In Paladino’s signature sepia tones, he is a symbolic figure, embodying perhaps the human condition, an archetypal Job, prey to life’s trials and tribulations. Or maybe not. 

Itinerant exhibition Istituto Italiano di Cultura de Montréal
September 5—27, 2013

Han Art Gallery, Montreal
28 September—20 October 2013

Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Toronto
February 5—March 8, 2014