to skin / peel /
remove an outer layer
Pelàda forms part of Cass' ongoing series concerned with sea-rise: in this case looking specifically at the plight of Venice & the Venetians. The works – isolated details of the city – at once celebrate the city's deceptive crumbling charm, whilst simultaneously raising concerns over its future, and the damage caused by the rising level of both the Adriatic, and mass tourism.
**** The series received four stars from The Scotsman | Review Text
The paintings that make this collection are windows through which an alternative look at Venice is offered. These exclusively front-facing works present an exaggerated two-dimensional aspect and feature no glimpse of sky, nor do they describe grand façades. Many are paintings upon paintings — their previous brushwork, marks and details evident under the surface — echoing the actual textures of this city’s layered hide. The majority of the pieces aim to reflect what is most fittingly labelled ‘everyday’ Venice.
Historian Fernand Braudel describes a city’s history as ‘often present in a detail’. These oil paintings (many of which are painted upon aged papers, pasted onto reclaimed boards) examine a complex city through a lens that focusses on the smallest elements and components. For it is by way of the minutiae — the fragments of Venice’s skin, the surfaces of its canals — that the city’s story might be told and the layers of life revealed (as illustrations of doorplates, shop-signs, and buzzers demonstrate). Bricked-up doors, signs upon signs, nameplates over nameplates, an erosion spreading from the water up, and salt-assaulted bricks: “Venetian houses as we see them today are the product of countless transformations, reflecting the cultural, social and historical mutations of The Serenissima” [Giulia Foscari: Elements of Venice]. What period in the history of Venice are we witnessing now, as Venetians rapidly leave their home city?
Many of these works look down, becoming isolated examinations of the zone in which canal meets building (home) or polluted lagoon surface. Venice is a reptile struggling to shed: while its upper skin has no chance of renewal, thanks to increasingly inelegant pastings designed principally to direct tourists, its lower parts rely on restless and frequently agitated rising water to help loosen an uncomfortable outer crust.
Venice has been (and is being) ill-treated on all fronts. Italy (and Venice, specifically) is regarded the world over as a place of tremendous cultural importance. We have witnessed just how quickly and catastrophically Italian towns — and the myriad architectural pearls they are made of — can ‘disappear’, as in the case of the 2016 earthquake destruction in the centre of the country. Venice is today being destroyed not only by its age and the weight of all it has lived through, upon its plunged wooden-pile foundations, but also by the inundation of visitors, water taxis and giant cruise liners that visit each and every day. On top of that, Venice is also a direct and vulnerable victim of rising sea levels: it is fact that global sea rise is impacting the Adriatic. In 2017 UNESCO will decide whether or not to place Venice on its list of endangered heritage sites [update: decision delayed].
I am aware that as a visitor, I have little right to comment or speak on behalf of the city’s inhabitants. But as an environmentally conscious artist, I consider it my responsibility to mention the various stages of research that go into each body of work. In a recent Pulitzer Centre podcast, many Venetians who remain claim to feel that their city no longer belongs to them. One describes Venice as a “dying city amongst the waves of the Adriatic”. Venetians are concerned that they will soon end up being seen as an embarrassment in the eyes of the world, if government does not right its wrongs and atone for ignoring (often in the most despicable of ways) these issues, if residents do not stop leaving their homes, if the city succumbs absolutely to its celebrity status.
Street names and directional signs (often vandalised by locals so as to mislead tourists) are sprayed gracelessly to buildings in oversized stencilled font; harsh stabilising chemicals are injected into mortar; anchors are stapled through stone to grab hold of subsiding walls; agitated water eats away at the city’s ground floors. Venice’s skin therefore — the surface that we see — is in a constant state of transformation, and almost all of today’s modifications are negative and irreversible. Contemporary artists can either ignore the reality of the Venice of today and nostalgically recreate a past that no longer exists, or meet it. And though the paintings assembled here inadvertently celebrate a certain brand of crumbling aesthetic charm (the style to which I am most drawn), at their core lies a more serious message.
The paintings that form Pelàda are observations: they celebrate the joy of the everyday through the most mundane of functional and often overlooked elements. At the same time, many of the pieces — in particular, those that illustrate the waterline and lagoon surface — aim to establish themselves within the consciousness of the viewer, jolting the brain and asking for reconsideration as something more than a decorative outer coat of pastel-shaded skin (the palette used in many of these works).
Ex ungue leonem the proverb proclaims: from the claw [one comprehends] the [whole] beast. David Cass’s Venetian paintings operate with similar inductive power, providing us a set of visual microhistories of this redolent city.
On wooden panels lush with palpable paint—corals, grey-blues, and reddish browns that invoke the plastered facades and steely water—we encounter the quotidian surfaces of many-layered Venice, details of deliberate though understated design and, equally so, of the multifarious accidents inflicted on weathering plaster and stone. Doorbells and nizioleti (those white rectangles on which street names, or directions, are inscribed), iron reinforcing clamps in walls, the characteristically red house numbers, a cropped bit of window-sill or door frame—all these offer us relief from Ruskin’s daunting invocation of the Doge’s Palace as “the central building of the world” and of Venice as the crossroads of world cultures. We are allowed to reconstruct Venice from the traces of design so thoroughly imbued into surfaces that seemingly random fragments acquire status as compositions. The experience resembles that of wandering the city itself as disoriented (despite the frequent directional arrows on the walls) pedestrians, blinkered amidst tall alleyways fixating as we amble on the manifold messages left at eye-level. The ubiquity of water prevents it from orienting us; we meander, both foot and eye.
The forms and the letters jostle on their panels, re-enacting the Renaissance paragone, the comparison between the visual and the verbal. The painterliness of Cass’s surfaces mimics the textures of rough painted plaster or, alternatively, invokes the famed impasto of Titian and his fellow artists. At times the free working of the paint verges on the non-representational, at which point, ironically, the insistent line weeded out of the painter’s repertoire by Giorgione (following Leonardo), is reasserted by Cass, in his case the sharp horizontal that separates water from wall, liquid from solid, a line that threatens to dissolve more readily than it resolutely defines.
Venice is the antipode to modernism, a place of peeling surfaces and eroding thresholds, balanced precariously on those unseen and untrusted wooden piles, pounded into mud by the first settlers, refugees from the mainland. Now its inhabitants flee back to the mainland, while the Adriatic threatens to take back what it once had lent. Brigadoon-like, Venice has both travelled through the centuries as though preternaturally shielded from modernity, and has now reached a point of particular danger. Cass’s work heralds the deterioration and, in subtle ways, highlights the plight of the sparse natives, their names still affixed to many of the doorbells and their starkly simple protests against the cruise ships inscribed on the walls. His paintings both acknowledge Venice’s timelessness and accede to Venice’s status as highly endangered—though primarily they allow us to see the city, a city so freighted with the memories, as a place where art can still be made, on the basis of seeing rather than remembering, and moreover, where art can be made in a distinctly contemporary mode, finding abstract qualities in the empirical world and empirical qualities in abstraction.
Patricia Emison is the author of several books on the Italian Renaissance, most recently The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory (Cambridge University Press), and Leonardo (Phaidon Colour Library).