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Since his first works in the early 1960s, Giulio Paolini has oriented his poetics towards a conceptual dimension, drawing attention to the elements that make up the painting, the space of the representation, the relationship between the work and the viewer, as well as to the figure of the author. Over the course of time, the artist’s focus on the work of art has led him to include the gesture of the exhibition and the artist’s studio as the spaces where the work comes into being. Paolini’s context of reference is the classical tradition inspired by Beauty and the metaphysical dimension of art, far removed from the transformations of the world and of life lived.

The absence, the silence, the enigma of the wait
Since the very first work he made in 1960, Disegno geometrico, Paolini’s works have “nothing to declare”: they do not want to communicate anything, limiting themselves to evoking the premises of their manifestation. Principally comprising blank canvases, sheets of drawing paper, empty frames, plaster casts, plexiglas elements, and a vast repertoire of iconographic elements, these create a mise-en-scène of the waiting for an image that eludes any attempt to be fixed, thus remaining suspended in the potential dimension. The constant postponement of a definitive presence or appearance leaves room for the interrogation of the representation as such: of the scaffolding that announces it, of the catalogue of hypotheses that precede it, and of the mystery that precludes the immediate gaze.

The author and the work
The refusal of an assertive position, which as early as in Disegno geometrico is announced as a “vow of chastity”, corresponds to the author’s abandonment of a constructive role: rather than a stage actor, he prefers to remain anonymous, assuming the guise of the spectator, seated in the seating area waiting for the performance to begin. Silent stand-ins thus frequently appear in his work, ones that observe a painting or hold before themselves an image (figures seen from behind, valets, masters of ceremonies). In other cases, the traces of the author who has just left the scene – objects, clothing, shoes – bear witness to his exile from the field of action. For Paolini, art occurs unbeknownst to the artist: its conception is immaculate and the riddle of its becoming remains unfathomable. The work pre-exists the author, transcends the author, and all that is left for him to do is welcome it, offer hospitality, prepare the scene for its unpredictable manifestation.

The artist’s studio and the work table
The place par excellence dedicated to the appearance of a work is the artist’s studio. Hence, the recurring presence of easels, stretchers, sheets, pencils, chairs, primed canvases, a table in the middle of a room or a full-fledged view of Paolini’s studio. Or, in a metaphorical key, the motif of the chess-board as “work table” on which the artist lays out and rearranges his “playing cards”. Or hands that attempt to hold sheets, pencils that measure the distance separating them from their contact with the blank canvas, male figures observing frames, canvases, squares. The “card table” is always the same, as is the unavoidable challenge that the author faces each time from scratch.

The eye, the gaze, the vision
From the emblematic work entitled Vedo (la decifrazione del mio campo visivo), 1969, to the motifs of the eyes and the visual cone that were developed in the late 1970s, all the way to the complex artifices implemented in the following decades, the gaze occupies a privileged role in Paolini’s work. It is “deciphered” in its limits and in its extension, it comes into play to measure the distance that separates the eye from the codes of vision. This leads to the recurring contrast between material elements – overturned or broken up to reveal their specific weight – and virtual images, evoked by way of perspectival wall drawings or photographic reproductions. True and proper visual devices, Paolini’s works resemble diaphragms between incompatible dimensions: like mirrors or filters that measure the interval between reality and fiction, intelligibility and imagination.

Fragmentation, doubling, implosion
Moving from the illusions of the representation to the disillusionment of vision is just a step away. Indeed, Paolini’s language is characterized by tearing, fragmentation, explosion, and dispersal, used as expedients to suggest the unbridgeable distance with respect to the fulfilled entity, an ideal model. The Cartesian geometry that defines many of the artist’s works (patterns, grids, diagonals) ends up self-imploding, in a labyrinth of kaleidoscopic specular doublings and multiplications ad infinitum. Akin to the configuration of the works, their mise-en-scène as well is based on complementary contrasts, combinatorial games, registers, and tautological routes, which cause vision to become lost amidst its very own trajectories.

Citation and evocation
Albeit oriented towards cancellation and suspension, Paolini’s work never waives the image; quite the contrary, it declaredly refers to a vast iconographic repertoire. Details from artworks, star charts, planets, skies, sunsets, ancient architecture, female figures, portraits, writings alternate with symbolic motifs such as the swan, gold, the sphere. Photographic or photostatic reproductions, casts, copies, and citations adorn the works with artistic, literary, philosophical, and mythological references, thus suggesting a theatre of evocations, a hotbed of images in which the echoes and reflections of every era and every place resound. Borges, Roussel, Pirandello, Robbe-Grillet, Calvino... Euclid, Parmenides, Lucretius, Plotinus, Averroes... Praxiteles, Phidias, Lotto, Poussin, Velázquez, Chardin, Watteau, Robert, Canova, Ingres, de Chirico... Echo, Narcissus, Psyche, Venus, Mnemosyne, Orpheus, Icarus, Sisyphus... Selinunte, Ebla, Cythera, Hierapolis, Ithaca...

Maddalena Disch