The animal kingdom as we conceive it in our liberal, cosummerist minds is a perpetual competition between one another, an unforgiven fight to stay at the top of the chain. This is how we have managed to justify our barbarous behaviour towards other species, the environment or even among ourselves.
Instead of interrogating over and over again the human condition, the Italian painter Lorella Paleni shifts her attention to animals in an effort to show the similarities we share with them, evincing once and for all that what we assume to be “animal behaviour” is a biased interpretation of otherness.
Lorella Paleni, The Ritual 2, oil on canvas, 45 x 55 cm
Gilles Deleuze in his book Francis Bacon: Logic of Sensation speaks about what makes Bacon’s characters so akin to animals. According to the philosopher, in Bacon’s work, there’s what he calls a “zone of indiscernibility” where man becomes an animal and the animal transforms into man’s mind. The face is replaced by a stroke, there’s no way to discern the nature of what we see, except that it is flesh. In Lorella Paleni paintings the human face is completely devoid of any features. In her series Sleepwalkers the characters have blurry faces or just melt with the rest of the composition. Animals on the other hand possess neat faces and may look straight at us like the monkeys in her series Dwellers. “I feel drawn to animals because of their uncanny similarities with the human and the way we tend to look at them. Because a lot of my work, when I deal with animals, has to do with the animal gaze and with meeting this other being as a being per se and not as an object.” The meeting point is indeed the face, more specifically the eyes, the windows through which we recognize ourselves in others.
Lorella Paleni, Unruly, acrylic and oil on canvas, 165 x 147 cm
This takes us to the Anthropocene, the so called new geological era where humans have triggered the current climate crisis having obliged us to see beyond to assess the impact of exploiting the earth. It is more and more common to see creators turn their attention to other species to decolonize our gaze. Jacov Von Uexküll in his book A Foray into the world of animals and humans: with a theory of meaning introduced his readers to what he called “umwelt”, a concept explaining that living beings perceive the world through a subjective perspective influenced by the environment surrounding them, each way of seeing the world is different for each species. Paleni’s work seems to take this into account as she creates environments where animals live in a different time-space zone, we share our existence with them but communicate with them not via a specific language but through the body or the relationships we develop with them. “With a lot of other representations of animals, they’re often not subjects, they’re objects. Even historically in painting, which is very similar in the case of women, women are represented like a body to please, their body is seen through the male gaze … Animals, they are disposable, they represent something else, an allegory of something but they never are subjects themselves or very rarely so I was interested in them as subjects.”
Lorella Paleni, Ghost Dog, oil on canvas, 79 x 60 cm
Another of the themes recently examined by Palleni are women and how we are represented. For a series of portraits she still is working on she took inspiration in the figure of the witch as conceived in the Middle Ages: “I was reading about these women and I found a book written by an Italian writer that collected the documents of the processes with names and the written words of the women, the tortures they endured… Initially I wasn’t planning to do any series but my readings lead to a quest. Most of these women were poor women, there are no representations of them, there are no portraits, they were forgotten in a way. I found there was a connection, all this history resonated somehow so I decided to make portraits of them using the portraits of friends.” Portraits throughout history have been tools used to strengthen and evince power, during the Renaissance until the 19th century only wealthy families could afford to be painted by artists. By focusing on animals and women, Paleni’s work introduces to painting not dominant males but fragile and vulnerable beings and gives them a place in art history.
Lorella Paleni, Catherina Ross (Gina), oil on canvas, 121 x 132 cm
In terms of aesthetics, a recurrent leitmotiv in the artist’s body of work is fire. Series such as Dwellers, Otherwise or Dusks-s are abundant with characters wrapped in flames or standing by the fire. The element can be decoded as assembling as well as tearing apart or destroying. Moreover, rituals and pagan gatherings come to mind as we observe the artist’s paintings, fire is a force that united people in the Middle Ages. As stated by the artist, fires and ceremonies were a space where people could assemble, discuss about politics and resist. In her canvas The Ritual 2 the colours and the light beaming on it are what lures us to the action. “To me the colours come from a feeling, I try to use feelings to build my paintings (…) This is why I don’t want my paintings to be descriptive, I want to have a conversation with the viewers rather than to say a story”. This could be why her creations are so similar to paintings by surrealists like Remedios Varo or Dorothea Tanning were the viewer is in a hazy zone, a purgatory with flimsy spirits. Nevertheless, Paleni seems to push further by constructing a pictorial space where abstraction and the material world join together in an entangled oil mesh. It’s not always easy to discern what’s happening inside the canvas leaving the spectator’s mind run amok. The assembling is done little by little enabling the painting to take shape like a living organism. Accidents are not excluded, they can happen but are regarded as part of the creative process. “When I start the work, I rarely know what it’s going to be. The process, my interaction with the canvas and with the painting it’s essential for me and is almost by ‘chance’ that things happen. There’s almost like a sort of conversation happening between me and the medium where it’s not only me deliberately painting the image but I’m also responding to what’s happening on the canvas.”
Lorella Paleni, Benandanti (Night Guests), oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm
Despite not being political at first sight, Lorella Paleni’s paintings unbosom as subtle statements on women’s position, animals and the Anthropocene as well as painting itself. Nostalgic at times, Paleni’s compositions zones of indiscernibility connecting us with the animal kingdom and bringing us closer to unexplored layers of our existence.
Lorella Paleni, Tied In, oil on canvas, 110 x 80 cm
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