Ask painter Vittorio Colaizzi how his work has evolved over the years and he’ll give you a succinct answer: mistakes, wrong turns and pigheadedness.
After going through a period he refers to as “painterly and light-infused third-rate Bonnard-ism” – French painter Pierre Bonnard was known for his bold use of color and a stylized, decorative quality – Colaizzi got a master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2000 and a doctorate in art history in 2005.
“Both of which exposed me to theoretical debates surrounding the so-called death or end of painting, which seems embarrassing now,” Colaizzi says. “But I can tell you, there was a real feeling of anxiety and inadequacy as we pitted technical or compositional problems against post-media, neo-conceptual, photo-based work.”
These days his work emphasizes the constructed nature of a painting, which visitors can see in “Ground Cover,” his new show at Eric Schindler Gallery. In these paintings, Colaizzi has left areas of bare canvas to acknowledge painting as a tradition of material craft. Even when bare canvas isn’t showing, he sees it as there by implication.
While he likes to think of them as assemblages, like flattened sculptures of canvas and colors, his most fervent hope is that they’re also pretty pictures. Given the colorful shapes and vibrant energy emanating off the walls, it’s hard to think of them any other way.
His choice of materials on which to paint is distinctive, born out of the research he did on abstract artist Robert Ryman, the subject of his doctorate and a subsequent book. Learning that Ryman worked on beige cotton canvas and darker brown linen – though he was far from the only painter to abandon the canvas’ natural color - took Colaizzi in a fresh direction. Captured by the look and feel of hardware store dropcloths, which were coarser and came in a variety of textures, he began using them as replacements for artists’ canvas.
The openness of his compositions is part of his intuitive response to this history.
“I have a friend who says it’s not really painting to leave bare ground, but it would feel dishonest to create a filled and closed-off space,” he explains. “I started leaving white grounds between colored areas and marks for a sense of light and air.”
Often, he builds up layers until there’s a plasticlike sheen that contrasts with the rough weave of the dropcloth, which he prefers to stretch loosely so it feels makeshift.
“Sometimes I leave it just one layer so it feels perfunctory, rushed, urgent, like the shape needs to be there,” he says. “I’m like a fake geometric painter, a gestural paint-slinging abstractionist who is faking being a geometric painter.”
In a Church Hill house, the Schindler Gallery has possibilities and limitations not found in larger, warehouse-type gallery spaces. As a result, Colaizzi considered the installation very carefully. He didn’t want a promenade effect with picture after picture, nor did he want to fill every available space with paintings. Instead, he and gallerist Kirsten Gray hung the paintings to form relationships with each other, the architecture and the space, so that the concentrations of action and expanses of space among the paintings seems continuous.
“I want to create little islands of attention and rests that alert viewers to the fact that they are here now, in a specific place,” he says. “But it’ll also be the viewer’s body in 2020 in a time of national and global crisis. I want that feeling of space and therefore place and therefore time and therefore ethics to come with my paintings to wherever they go.”
Colaizzi, an associate professor of art history at Old Dominion University, says it’s been 14 years since his last show. Yet the moment Gray saw the paintings, she saw their brilliance.
“The whole time I was looking at them, I kept thinking, this is a show about painting in its purest sense,” she says from the sunny gallery. “And as I was playing with placement on the walls, I realized this work made me really happy.”
One thing the artist has never been able to do is “paint a show.” While seeking the idea of visual and conceptual unity in an exhibition, he wants it to come from judicious editing and a unity to the work itself.
“I’d rather the show is a carefully honed selection of paintings that work together,” he says of the compromises often made to complete work for an exhibition. “That’s why 14 years is a good interval. Maybe not so long next time.”
Vittorio Colaizzi’s “Ground Cover” is on display through March 14 at Eric Schindler Gallery, 2305 E. Broad St.