Franco Viola is a painter who also happens to be a research engineer with the Italian Space Agency. (And why not? Gauguin was a stockbroker, after all.) From the town of Gaeta, situated on a peninsula on the Mediterranean coast half way between Rome and Naples, Viola has been deeply influenced by the Mediterranean landscape and seascape. In his early work he explored figurative material based on classical sculpture and placed in architecture of both classical and gothic lines, but architecture with the earthy solidity of his region. The influence of De Chirico was noticeable, but, as in a distorted headless torso with truncated arms, so, too, did Viola bring Francis Bacon’s imagery in play.
Viola acknowledges many influences, from the surrealism of Magritte to the figuration of Lucien Freud to the nineteenth century realism of Courbet. Even in Viola’s early work there is a painterly quality, a strong awareness of the brushstroke and the paint itself.
In his current show of recent works, his first American museum solo exhibition, Viola is showing only landscapes, having moved away, for the moment at least, from figurative work. The works range from clearly representational to completely abstract. Viola is an intuitive painter, expressing his emotional response to the landscape. Brushstroke and paint are assertive on these canvases as is color which, with its deeply hued greens and oranges and yellows, calls to mind the palette of expressionism.
"Tra cielo e terra" is one of a series of landscapes blocking a group of buildings and virtually isolating them in the expanse of surrounding landscape. There is a sense of massiveness in the buildings, establishing a rooted presence, but the surrounding landscape dominates with energetic brushwork defining cliffs and a lowering sky. The placement of the buildings at mid-distance, along with the sweeping red horizontal directly in front of them and the cliffs to the right, define a perspective. At the same time, the abstracted foreground flattens out.
Two elements then–the flattening of perspective in contrast with a more realistic perspective and the representational elements vying with the abstract, all in the same canvas–create a tension in these works that, combined with the strong colors and edgy brushwork result in a distinctive nervous energy.
When Viola presents completely abstracted work, such as in "Reflections III" and "Gaeta Outskirts II," some of that tension gets dissipated and the work seems weaker and unfocused. But more often he follows the traditional horizontal layers of landscape; even in a flattened perspective, the layers of mountains, flatlands, cliffs, and seaside provide the eye and the mind (and Viola’s composition) with an anchor. A fine small painting ("The Wanderer’s Path"), hung off to the side by itself (it would be easy to miss), reduces those horizontals to highly regularized bands of strong color–blue, yellow, orange, black, purple–with the sinuous path of the title winding its way across the bottom tier. (Kenneth Noland comes to mind and, indeed, Viola seems to have a kinship with the color field painters.)
Viola also works with verticals, frequently using the strong lines of a tree trunk and branches as the jumping off point for an abstraction such as "Immagini di un viaggio I" and the even stronger "Immagini di un viaggio II." But while those paintings are intensely active, and brimming with movement, "Immagini di un viaggio IV" (see left) must have been a very different journey. The powerful verticals to left and right, in dark blues and black, seem like cliffs, seen from a cool shade, framing a yellow sky that seems to blaze with heat. The power of this canvas is achieved with an economy of means and a simplicity (as is "The Wanderer’s Path") that demonstrate a growing confidence in Viola’s work.