Hunter, Gatherer

Messums London 27 April – 27 May

Francesco Poiana has recently travelled further and deeper into the land in which he grew-up (Northeast Italy). Working and researching en plein air and from memory in the studio, he has seen more, seen anew and returned with unfamiliar gifts. There is a sense of journeying implicit in his latest paintings, of hopeful outward venturing and reconciled return. They invite us to join the artist in achieving states of grace in beloved places.

In one painting we see pale rose slices, split like slate, suggesting a scene of pleasure boats with sullen sails stilled on a breathless afternoon. Elsewhere a deep majestic blue is chased by the artist’s scumbling brush into a thorny hedgerow or impenetrable rockface. A villa’s cream wall is gently baked by afternoon sun, and with the coming of night car headlamps slink along purple mountain roads to roll across a shallow valley floor. Into these scenes the painter peers, conducting a celebration of the senses.

Inhuman forces boiled and folded this land, before it stilled, cooled and formed the surface we now see. However, Francesco’s paintings do not address the land like clothes hung on a human form, rather, they investigate its flesh, akin to an animal’s patterned skin. The artist has suggested that the land may have its own camouflage. If so, the painter is challenged not only to reveal what appears to the eye but to tease-out a deeper truth, while sharing his personal affinity with ‘the lie of the land’.

Francesco calls his latest collection Hunter Gatherer, implying an early form of social organisation and economy, a pre-modern way of life in which human needs may have been better matched and balanced with a land then not so enclosed, coerced, exploited and turned into productive territory and profitable property. These paintings remind us to treat the land with reverence, to embrace it with gratitude and to explore it with all our senses.

Painters find their own forms, hues and tones within the land. Consider the symbolist Gauguin, the analytic Cezanne, the expressive Fauves. But while our perceptions of the land may be changed by those of the painter, the painter’s perceptions, along with the techniques they use to render and record, are influenced by the encounter with the land. In this way the artist’s encounter may be comparable with that of the hunter gatherer: reciprocal, respectful, osmotic and holistic. What cannot be caught in the morning might be snared at dusk; what is unready in one season will be ripe in the next. If we can take wisdom from the land, but also give back to the land – if only in the form of a care and respect that goes beyond mere admiration – we might better believe in a justified, sustainable sense of our place with and within the land.

While subtly secreting his own modes of capture Francesco shares with us the precious products of his perception, but makes no greater claim to the land. No land is truly ours, and no painter today, working in, with and from the land can avoid consideration of a wider ecology. Climatological forces show disdain for human bounds and borders; hurricanes and wildfires rip regardless through all-too-human structures, and yet this foreboding ‘scape’ can still be inflected by those who encounter and record it. So, while the climate is dramatically changing, we acknowledge that both the land and our self are also and always in flux, glacially progressing, ever in in process, elemental and eruptive, ancient and renewed, splitting and spilling only to reform.

In and out of Francesco’s forms skulk our own lingering links to living with the land. They lead us back to half-forgotten days, places and regions we have known, where a formidable meridian once braised rooftiles, leaving walls and windows in severe shade; when we peered into mirroring pools and pitched pebbles into ponds; where we walked towards the horizon intending to never go home; and when, on a summer day that can never be bettered, the child we were, and sometimes still are, desired to be taken-up into the blue of the sky, momentarily enraptured by the sun’s amorous power, sacrificing a newly emerging sense of self to the adorable heat and light. If such days seemed endless, it was not because time or the planets really stood still, but because the child, like the painter is at the center of its own universe, making its own time, meaning and language, creating its own value and narrative, taking all that it needs from its surroundings.

Marcel Proust once enchanted readers with associations spun from his own childhood memories of town and village names then newly connected by the burgeoning modern rail network. I am unable to recall with equal splendour the names of painters’ colours introduced to me in childhood by an elder artist sibling, in words that even then were barely discernible on stained and crumpled tubes. However, I do recall that those names, long evolved through speech and writing, and awarded to to colours formed from oils and minerals extricated from the land, were mesmerising and evocative even before the painter deftly deployed them in their art. As Francesco’s colours now step-up to enter the canvas arena, their names, like a rollcall of heroes, jostle in the mind like medallions: Orange Lake, Indigo, Turquoise, Cobalt, Indian Yellow, Manganese Violet, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Emerald Green, Cadmium Red, Vandyke Brown, Ivory Black, Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre, Deep Purple, Titanium White, Burnt Sienna . . .

When we leave the gallery, and call Francesco’s paintings to memory, the first things we will picture, in our ‘mind’s eye’, are those colours;  vivid, intense, assertive and atmospheric. They echo the land’s light and shade, hollows and crests, its rough rolling shoulders, crisp cuts and breaks, and seem visibly proud of the part they play in rendering scenes that, though we may have never visited the region they represent, seem to invoke an episode from our own life.

– Dr Paul O’Kane