Patrizio Di Massimo is an Italian artist living and working in London. His figurative paintings form part of Grim Tales, a group exhibition curated by ARTUNER at Cassina Projects, NYC, which ran until October 21st 2017. One of Di Missimo’s paintings will also feature in ARTUNER’s Turin Exhibition, ‘Through the looking Glass’, which opens at Palazzo Capris on Thursday 2nd November. In this interview, we discuss the history of painting, and the importance (and difficulty) of pursuing one’s own artistic calling.
Alisei Apollonio: My first question is, in a way, a question about origins: why did you become an artist?
Patrizio Di Massimo: Quite early in my growing up—maybe when I was 14 or 15 years old—I was quite good at drawing. And, in a way, I think that influences the view you have of yourself. So, drawing was my talent. However, I was definitely not aware of what would become my life choice years later. I remember that my father, who is a doctor, introduced me to a patient of his who was a painter—the village painter—a very nice guy, who I now understand was significant in my life. My father asked me ‘would you like to go and meet this painter? He has a studio and he makes etchings and sometimes oil paintings’; and I said ‘yes, of course’. I was quite intrigued. So I started going to see him maybe once or twice a week. I was spending a lot of my free time in the studio and watching him. You know, he was doing something quite different from what, as a teenager, one would do. That’s how it started.
Then I looked at Modern Art and I saw, for the first time, artists like Picasso and Dali, and I was really shocked. I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible’; and I was buying books and reading them and trying to do my own paintings in the basement of my house.
Your first approach to art was painting and drawing and etching, then?
But at the start of your professional career you did different things, like installations and video, before switching back to painting. How did that happen?
When I finished high school and I decided that I wanted to be an artist. I went to Brera and I chose the most conceptual course and I dropped painting completely. I was just trying to be contemporary.
But during those years in Milan I felt really unable to make significant works. It was more like studying: an attempt to understand the last twenty or thirty years of contemporary art. This led me to idealise certain figures that were very in vogue at the time. With the class we would go to the Venice Biennale and see artists like Pierre Huyghe and Maurizio Cattelan. They seemed like the Gods of the art world, so I wanted to make the kind of thing they did.
Then I moved to London where I went to the Slade School of Art. I started to be very interested in the Italian imperialist and colonialist time in Libya, Eritrea and Somalia.
I was quick at picking up that this was a subject matter which nobody really focused upon. So, I went to Libya to shoot a video. I exhibited the work quite quickly. It was at the end of my first year at Slade that I had my first exhibition in a project space in London; and then, it was just before leaving Slade that I presented the video that I made in Libya at Whitechapel Gallery in a little solo presentation.
I made several works that drew upon the topic of Italian colonialism but, at a point, I began to feel like I was not really connected to the subject matter anymore and, also, that some of topics that I was addressing were so heavy in political content that I was unprepared to face them. And even though I tried my best to cope with it, I felt that I was being pushed away from my origin. This was a moment of crisis. After I finished Slade, I won the stipendium at the Ateliers in Amsterdam, which gave me a studio and a house for two years. And that’s when the crisis started to become more and more prominent to me, and also when I started to shift the work.
I didn’t want to make work that people would like just because it touched upon certain things which are interesting because, when I did that, I felt like all my urgency was lost. I felt very unhappy with how things were going. So I took advantage of my studio space in Amsterdam to re-train in painting. It takes practice, you need to spend time in the studio and get your mind away from the all the things that pollute you; you know, social events etc.
What I understood in that moment was that is very important for all artists to accept who they are and not just follow an idea of who they want to be. When you realise that, it can be a difficult maieutic and introspective moment, because you have to deal with yourself. But it’s also the most liberating thing you can do because it’s the only thing you can really do, for certain.
You stress the importance of history—how you went back to explore Italian colonialism which is not very well known. But you also said that there is a fracture between your older works and your paintings. Do you feel that history is still an important theme in your work, or is it something which is not there anymore? Is it lying in the background somewhere?
It’s a good question, because I could answer it in many ways. Certainly, the answer is yes, it is there. History is one of the elements which intersects with the work. But it is not the subject matter upon which I construct the work anymore.
When I used to make works that were based on historical stories, it’s was because I was fascinated by those stories and felt that they were connected to myself. That fascination is still in some works that draw on specific mythologies. But mythologies and stories are, now, just one of the elements that influence the narrative of my pictures. I try to make paintings that don’t really tell you what you should know, or how you should perceive history. They just draw upon the atmosphere of mythology. So, it’s very different…
Also, painting is a medium that often refers to the past. And that’s an interesting thing because it’s up to us, as contemporary painters, to decide how much we want to draw from the past, or how much the past is a platform which we want to use with awareness—to create an image of “what has been” with what we’re doing now. So, history always comes into the painting in this way.
So, the History of Art is very important in your work?
Yes, it is.
My thesis at Brera Academy (which I consider as my first work even though it was just writing) discussed the difficultly of being unable to feel, as an Italian artist, like an orphan—like an individual apart from the cannon of other painters.
But, of course, the History of Art is a specific field into which I aim to operate, and I’m happy and honoured to be operating within it. I don’t share the compulsion of avant-garde artists to break the rules of what has happened before because I feel that great art connects humanity in a non-temporal way. There is no ‘better’ art. There is no ‘progress’, as there might be in science. Of course, every epoch has specific things that they connect with, but I think what art really points at is something that is not confined to a historical moment. It is contingent to some more permanent aspect of being human. Using paint somehow helps me tap into that. If I started to use a medium that has never been used before, that might imply that I think I’m better than what happened before. Painting, however, is a very specific field, and I’m honoured to be a part of that. So, in a way, I might correct your question: I’m interested in a history of painting, rather than a history of art.
Yes. And, in a way, the history of art was the history of painting for a long time.
True. Although, just to clarify I don’t think that art can only be made by painting because, of course, it’s a free ground. But I choose to operate in that field, so that’s why I’m talking about the history of painting.
I want to go back to your fear that you were being extrapolated from the work—your concern that you were unable able to really recognise yourself within the work—before you returned to painting. Although your paintings aren’t always called “Self-portrait”, the male protagonist in them is usually yourself. Obviously, self-portraiture is a very specific genre in the history of painting, so I was wondering where your interest in that genre stems from and also, how you see yourself within it.
It wasn’t a choice that I made. It just happened. One of the reasons I give to people is that I’m just easily available to myself! I’m not trained as a painter so I need to find a way to make the painting work, and it’s very difficult for me to do that without something to look at. When you want to paint figuratively you have to look at things. You have imagination, of course, and you can connect the details from different sources (I use photographs and images taken from the internet and other drawings I make). Still, if you want to go into details you need to see things first hand.
I don’t work with models in the studio because I don’t have a technique that allows me to use a model with confidence. So when I want to have someone in this pose [mimics model raising an arm uncomfortably] I only have access to myself.
Some people have told me that they don’t buy this! I have to agree, of course: there is probably something more that this practical reason. Maybe it goes back to my need to feel a sense of urgency. And it certainly has to do with expressing myself—both connecting with myself physically, and connecting with part of me which is more spiritual Addressing my figure is part of this research. I don’t see it much as psychotherapy. It’s more like a meditation in which I look at myself and establish a connection with things that trigger my emotions.
Also—this is the third point—by the use of self-portrait, I can allow myself to do things which I don’t necessarily do in daily life. There is a performative mise-en-scene in most of my paintings that allows me to explore particular emotions in the hypothetical space of the painting. These are real emotions in the sense that they literally occur in me when I do the painting. But they do not necessarily occur in me in my everyday life.
So, maybe I produce self-portraits in the sense that the figures in my paintings often physically resemble me. But, in a way, they are not self-portraits because they portray a life which I do not live in reality.
Read the second part of this interview here