Metaphors – Some Thoughts on Cristina Grassi Sanpaolesi
By Andrea Granchi
I met Cristina Grassi Sanpaolesi in the 1980’s when she was coming to Florence, with her acute visual capacity and innate sense of research and discovery, and met not only with mutual friends such as the artist Mario Mariotti and the gallery owner Camillo D’Aflitto, but also with the better-known dealers Alberto Moretti and Raul Dominguez of the “Schema” Gallery at the time perhaps the best known international gallery – she sought out what was best and most innovative on the artistic horizon at the time. We crossed paths when she saw some of my work and I was able to appreciate her discerning sense of quality in the fields of design, painting, and contemporary arts in general. Several years later, in 1986, our acquaintance was renewed when I was in New York for the filming of a documentary. Therefore, while our friendship dates back considerably, my extraordinary ‘discovery’ of her work as an artist is much more recent. Indeed, there is a great deal to discover and be surprised with in Cristina’s work – ‘suspended’ as it is between Europe and America, and defined by an almost unique understanding and blending of these two worlds.
European, and particularly Italian, is the artistic culture that is deeply rooted in her; perhaps in part as heritage of her father, Piero Sanpaolesi, the well-known architectural restorer, historian and university professor – and in part also of her own experience having always lived amid both contemporary and antique art and, in particular, for decades next to the paintings restorer Marco Grassi.
Cristina’s chosen technique, the pastel, continues a supremely European tradition, if one thinks only about Degas, some of whose masterpieces happen just now to be on view in Florence. But it reaches even further back, in particular to Rosalba Carriera, one of the first women to ‘compete’ for favor in the courts of Europe and, in general, to the closely related art of design and painting, so deeply ingrained in what one might describe as her Tuscan DNA.
On the other hand, I find that the “American” quality that brilliantly emerges from Cristina’s work is the freedom and inventiveness with which she blends, juxtaposes and transforms a variety of narrative and iconic images with improbable, surprising results: these range from the vaguely cartoonish, Disney-like apparitions to carefully measured, still-life compositions of objects with early twentieth century, even neo-metaphysical overtones. A singular interplay of elements – a stack of cups, a leopard-patterned curtain, even a dozing leopard - emerges in these, very often large-scale, compositions, such as Leopard Again (2013). In another, a good-natured and friendly dinosaur, belly-up, becomes a sort of principal actor peering out at the spectator in a ‘boccascena’ vaguely ‘Morandiano’ setting (I am a little Dinosaur, 2011). There are other instances – somewhere between Pop and cartoon and always in pastel – where the tone is joyous and carefree (Visitors of 2010 and An American Homeof 2004); still others where, within a space that is compressed and denied perspective, one can read words and phrases that are decidedly suspended between Europe and America. These create a kind of “visual narrative” in which – as perhaps a humorous autobiographical note – an artist-ladybug is busily carrying her drawings hither and yon in a flowery, apparently non-threatening environment but, in fact, in imminent danger of being swallowed up by a large toad (An Artist’s Story, 2008). This, by Cristina, is a narrative – of the artist whose work is often rejected – and serves as an allegory of impending danger (the toad’s impending ambush) and of everyone’s uncertain destiny.
Certainly Cristina is not unaware of more recent American phenomena – the street art or graffiti – whose repertoire of strongly colored and improbable human or animal figures are the staple of these ‘wall paintings’. But the most singular Italy-America juncture occurs in those large pastels in which the ‘still-life’ reveals a sense of movement: these are, as in Falling Down or Flying Cups, alive with improbable equilibriums and precarious assemblies of objects that jostle each other, veritably in competition for space.
Then there is a group of works centered on the American flag. They follow the tragedy of September 11 and, unlike how the artists of pop used this icon, they are a forceful document of patriotic feeling. Cristina, in fact, sees the flag as an almost necessary “setting” in a fateful moment of great popular tension and renewed sense of national identity. Emblematic of these sentiments are Flags of 2001 and the aforementioned Falling Down of 2002, in which objects seem precariously suspended or in imminent danger of toppling over, due to a sudden shock. A wholly different aura, instead, emerges from the playful interaction of barrier/stripes as characterized by the divertissement of opposites seen in Barred (2013) and Trapped (2010). In the first of these ‘figural theaters’ the figures are excluded by the constraints of the stripes; in the other, these elements entrap them.
Aspects of the “new world” can also be seen in the repertoire of portraits: narrative subtlety, fantasy and a tendency to understate drama. In one of these works, ever in pastel (My Self-Portrait 2006), a singular world-play with the artist’s name is almost an amused re-reading of Italian “visual poetry” of the 1960’s and 70’s. By contrasting to these, the vivid and intense realism of Portrait of Brandon Fradd and Irene & Duncan, I conclude my essay on Cristina Grassi Sanpaolesi, citing the artist’s own words: “….in the human figure as well, the action is compelling: the subjects are fully engaged in the movements represented and about to move on. My works are breathing. The intention is not to create abstraction, but instead to more intensely imitate reality.”
President, Painting and Drawing Classes
Accademia delle Arti del Disegno