May 9, 2010

Feast your eyes on Carlo Pittore's brilliant strokes

By DANIEL KANY

Even if you have never heard of Carlo Pittore, you have probably felt echoes of his activities in Maine. For example, he founded the Union of Maine Visual Artists, which helped establish Maine's Percent for Art program and craft the first legislation in America allowing estates of deceased artists to help pay tax debts with works of art.

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Carlo Pittore’s 8- by 17-foot “La Buffonera,” 1983, is the centerpiece of “Carlo Pittore @ the Constellation Gallery.”

David Marshall photo

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“Self Portrait with Profile of Bern Porter,” 1986

Courtesy photo

Additional Photos Below

ART REVIEW

CARLO PITTORE @ THE CONSTELLATION GALLERY

WHERE: The Constellation Gallery, 511 Congress St., Portland; 409-6617 WHEN: Through May 26 HOURS: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

ALSO: Pittore Birthday Party, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday

While he was an artist advocate, educator, publisher, actor, filmmaker and performance artist, Pittore was fundamentally dedicated to painting. His works are figurative and largely inclined to portraiture.

Pittore studied under Joan Semmel and Alice Neel, and I think it's fair for a thumbnail description to say his work falls between Semmel's unblinkingly odd eroticism and Neel's organically empathetic portraiture.

"Carlo Pittore @ The Constellation Gallery" features 33 works that showcase Pittore's range, skill and painterly ambition. The show revolves around an enormous (8- by 17-foot) canvas shown for the first time since it was painted in 1983. "La Buffonera" ("the buffoonery") features dozens of wildly energized performers in and around a circus ring.

In the center quietly stands a calm figure with his arms outstretched to present the entire performance. His gaze is fixed directly on you. He looks familiar -- because he is almost every one of the 100 or so performers. (Pittore loved painting boxers, and this man was one of his boxer models.)

Despite the cacophony, "La Buffonera" is an extremely well-composed and structured painting that immediately brings to mind James Ensor's similarly-sized 1888 masterpiece, "The Entry of Christ into Brussels." Ensor's carnivalesque and creepy characters form a crazy parade in which Christ is humbly mounted on a tiny donkey and quietly centered like Pittore's ringmaster. But Christ seems to be forgotten at the party in his name: Not a single eye falls upon him.

I have no doubt Ensor's painting was the main inspiration for "La Buffonera," but Pittore takes his work in a completely different direction than the cynically misanthropic Ensor by exuding an optimistic enthusiasm for people and culture and a palpable love of humanity. Ironically, it might be his sympathy for all mankind that drove his admiration of outcast artists such as Ensor, Goya and Pietro Longhi (an 18th-century Venetian whose paintings are echoed by masked figures in the lower right).

"La Buffonera" is a recent discovery, so there is no definitive interpretation of it. That alone makes this an incredibly exciting exhibition.

I think the key is Pittore's deep connection to the theatrics of portraiture and his obsession with painting self-portraits. In this show there are at least seven, including self-portraits as a weightlifter, a drummer with mouth opened in song, a wizard and a spectator of a chaotic performance in a 1978 painting titled "The Rag and Bone Shop" that sets the stage for "La Buffonera."

"The Rag and Bone Shop" is from the last line of William Butler Yeats' "The Circus Animal's Desertion," which, the poet said, was about his thoughts on Christianity. To conclude the poem, Yeats insists the author "lie down where all ladders start." Yeats' point is that any ending marks a new beginning.

We see a performer by a ladder looking toward its obscured base with the literal form of a man lying below it in the foreground (on a ladder?) in the lower left -- where Pittore painted himself in the earlier work. In the later painting, however, Pittore shows himself quietly exiting to the right (the end of a page in Western culture). The two paintings share much in terms of structure and theme, including a specific form of a trapeze artist in the upper right; their interconnected narrative is undeniable.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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“Opera – Self Portrait,” oil on linen, 1981

David Marshall photo

  


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