Whoever messes with confirmed positions of the late modern age shall show me where his risk is.
Neo Rauch in an interview with Alison M. Gingeras, 2002
No doubt the artist is the child of his time, but unhappy for him if he is its disciple or even its favourite.
Friedrich Schiller, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter IX
In 2013 a painting’s topic seems to be subordinate in regards to formal questions. The definition of art has been stretched for a whole century. Consequently, this stretching has been undermining the legitimacy of content in the most prestigious and traditional form of fine arts in favor of maximum freedom. Where figuration and visual narration had been able to keep their position, today you can find a dominance of mystification, lack of commitment in regards to content and vague insinuations. A distinct narrative is often viewed as devaluing because of its restricted room for interpretation. Still, the verdict of traditionalism, political passivity and anti-avant-garde sticks to figurative art. Based on these assumptions, what is to make of a visual world that shows scenes of the modern world that – at first sight – get by without fissures?
In pop music a thematic series such as Cyril Massimelli’s “Lounge” paintings would be described as a “concept album”. It is not a body of work that only originated in a specific span of time, but also a collection of different pieces that reflect a specific interest. This might be a certain view of the world, or a personal philosophy. In regard to its relevance you can talk about this collection’s substantial core but also about the comparative discussion of contrasts. As a result of the artist’s personal experiences in Berlin’s nightlife he developed the idea of the variation of a typological principle: the “Lounge” discharges its original function as recreation or waiting room via a setting for primarily passive leisure and becoming a symbol of contemporary urban living through its polymorphy.
Thus, as an artist Cyril Massimelli is not only working with brush and canvas. A foundation and a very important part of his work is the methodical search for motifs. The sequence of his topics is a work of his mind before it becomes detailed art. The idea creates reality, as the artist converges different spaces with virtuosic brushwork and light sources, as well as a similar-acting cast of characters – spaces such as a glamorous rooftop, an airport terminal, private premises, bars and the entrance hall of a bank. By these means, a new level of meaning occurs: the sole piece not only ties together formally (through the artist’s own style) but also semantically with the remaining works. The artist’s arrangement is his alone – as precise as necessary, yet indefinite in order to leave room for curious attention. Is this only about the description of the world surrounding us? Or about a claim for utopia? Or even about debunking polemic? These maintain the observer’s basic questions. The “Lounge” is a stage for all kinds of current peer groups – the transit-jet set at the airport, the happy few at parties and stylish bars gathered for relaxed festivities on the rooftop overlooking an imaginary city by the sea, or the customers in a glamorous entrance of a bank. In contrast to these settings the “Roma Lounge” (2013/14) shows a situation outside in between trailers. On all levels everybody is equally relaxed or is waiting patiently for whatever. Time stands still, conflicts fade out, and details are being reduced. It is a world without conflicts, an indifferent world at first glance. Does this mean under these presumptions our ideals are lost in unattainable artificiality?
The “Playground Lounge” scene (2007) may appear like Edward Hopper’s bar in “Nighthawks” (only a few hours earlier), whereas the “Panorama Lounge” (2007) on the other side is dominated by a view at a societal utopia – Adidas shirt meets ball gown – where a few seated women recall a conversation piece from around the second to last turn of the century.
Hopper’s protagonists’ lostness occurs over and over in a modern way and in different variations – e.g. in the “China Lounge” (2007) the vibe of inner estrangement resembles Tim Eitel’s pictures. You get the impression that all of a sudden the guests are being forced to converse with no amused exuberance on sight.
Cyril Massimelli being an urbanite of the 21st century, as well as a painter with an expertise in art history draws very subjective analogies. In combination, his picturesque descriptions deliver observations of our current relaxation culture in correspondence with painted biblical and secular banquets of the 16th century (e.g. Paolo Veronese’s monumental banquet scenes). The best example is “Relax with Mr. B.” (2013) that shows a host in shorts raising his glass. Although his pose shows a striking resemblance to Michelangelos Bacchus_his body rather looks like Mantegna’s Bacchanal with Silenus. Here, he is standing in the midst of a variety of guests that are placed in between a DJ and a waiter right by a swimming pool as if it was an antique relief.
Painting always depicts itself as a reflection through the artistic medium. Being aware of that fact, the artist looks backwards in order to describe our world today. Painting has a history. Also, we don’t do anything else than our forefathers – in life as in art. Although, in comparison to the protagonists of the old masters there is not too much mythological, symbolic or spiritual superstructure, Cyril Massimelli’s gatherings don’t differ substantially from the Italian Renaissance master’s get-togethers. People sit, stand, camp, eat, drink and talk. Here and there, the service staff acts as a marginal group in the scenic and spatial arrangements, an exposed back (“One Hour”, 2007) brings Titian’s paintings to mind, the clever composition of architecture creates the setting for the event. Several aspects – the distance to the display, as well as the character’s dimension – are similar to the multi-figured compositions of Venetian paintings from the 16th century giving the “Lounge” scenes a stage-like impression. We find bright local colors just like Veronese’s. Also, the predominant night setting favors the elaborate lighting control, as well as the staged emergence of specific characters. In the foreground of “Berliner Atmosphäre” (2006) the light comes from the middle of the chair and illuminates the seated group of people from below and the back. This being a subtle formal citation that derives from the innovations of the Roman baroque painter Carravaggio.
We can see: It does not have to appear as a step back to search for something new in the past. Even more, does art rather not retrieves its almost lost legibility? Looking at Cyril Massimelli’s work as a discussion about painting as a mean of expression, one can say it results in a subtle pleading for the extrapolation of this artistic and traditional medium. Just like the corresponding historic paintings we come across an ideal world behind glass suited for observation but not for habitation or use. The Imagination of a theoretical world confronts us with the question of how realistic our personal utopias are.
Looking at one of Veronese’s banquets today, the biblical scene reveals itself, e.g. in “The Wedding at Cana”. At the same time you are looking at the painter’s time, noticing the Zeitgeist through garment, architecture, and narrative conception. In his “Lounges” Cyril Massimelli occasionally cites specific modern architecture such as Richard Neutra’s “Kaufman House” in Palm Springs for his painting “The Displaced Swimming Pool” (2008). Generally, the “Lounges’” architectural composition appears to be profoundly idealized with regards to a popular post-modernist mix of retro-modern and historical pieces. This, as well as the shown fashion – e.g. in “One Hour” the casual juxtaposition of glamorous and relaxed modern, cocktail dress and flip-flops – are only to examples of how the pictures address blatantly obvious the sign of our times and the vision of the 21st century. What else is being reflected? Do we see a report of contemporary existence in general? Or criticism of fashion, social structures or wasted youth?
Does the scene of the “Venus Lounge” (2008) deliver the basic message, where a stripper is being stylized to a fetish by the light, quite in the same way as the android fetish-woman of Fritz Lang’s silent film classic “Metropolis”? All other characters seem to deliberately turn their back on the visual and the architectural center… Is there a symbolic interpretation for the surreal interfering signal of the open sky that the visitors in the bank of “Money Jungle” (2013) don’t even notice? Also, what is to make of the simple existence of the “Roma Lounge”? Despite all the presentation’s apparent precision and clarity we are confronted with a series of inconsistencies all-around that are as deliberately placed as the image details. The rooms are accumulatively furnished. It is the composition’s dramaturgy rather than the shown events that captivates us. There is not the one captivating detail; rather captivating is the combination of details much like a design store in which everything seems desirable: a detail that is placed in a daily life setting will never be able to take along this original aura pars pro toto of its original setting.
Everywhere groups of young people present their bodies in a way that reminds us of a canonized repertoire of familiar nude display from art history – a catalog of pose and gestures. Faces converge to an aesthetic norm which strips down individuality. The facial expressions are predominantly relaxed. We do not see a social spectrum but a rather homogenous group. Even the mix of character in the “Airport Lounge” (2008) – a family, a businessman, Arabs, and frequent travellers with laptops – does not, despite the random selection, establish an impression of regular everyday-life observations as you know it from a Heinrich Zille drawing.
When you turn away you rather remember spaces than characters. They appear as representatives of themselves. You may feel tempted to put people in the image that you know or that seem to fit. Also, you may wish to be part of the image yourself. Is it about uniformity behind the scenes of a worldwide, colorful façade, about an interface which usage devalues us to products? The quality of Cyril Massimelli’s society images – because that’s what they are, intended or not – lies in their ambivalences which is the result of the seemingly known, the enactment in a medium full of tradition, the elaborate composition, the perfect surface, and briefly touched systemic questions.
The images’ handy utopia can be refined, it’s literally spreading. A room for an adequate presentation of one of the paintings is not hard to imagine: design furniture, floor-to-ceiling windows with a view, wide as well as very smooth and fine surfaces. Also, a modern but simple museum architecture – almost a prototypical “white cube” – would be suitable. Where is the room for the observer in this scenario? What perspective do we take? Are we looking at a stage that was built for us? Are we taking part in another reality as guests?
Without a glance at photography the concept of the “Lounge” pictures would not be conceivable. Cyril Massimelli studied photography before he turned to painting. How does he see a relation between the two media? What has changed in our approach to photography and painting since the high times of realistic painting during the first half of the 20th century, the times of e.g. Edward Hopper? Photos became more and more common. Due to their omnipresence a photographic image is questioned less. Then again photos became a cause of media theoretical discussion about the general questions of reality and manipulation.
Painting on the other side emerges clearly as a way to deliberately distance us from factuality. In that way, Cyril Massimelli classically sketches, studies people and their posture with great sensitivity but has not been utilizing models for years. We read the images rather as paintings of the old masters than as party scenes of a TV show simply because of the fact that we see it through oil on canvas. Despite all of the details’ authenticity there is a clear distance between image and observer through a degree of idealization of the characters and interiors. Yet again, challenged by the obvious irony of “Roma Lounge”. Cyril Massimelli’s pictorial realism balances between being requested to identify and the prevention through the apparent distance. In the same way as Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” asks for the relation between the object and its image we are confronted with the question of either looking at a picture as a painting or looking at a whole story through a picture. Is the world standing still in the shown scene? Are we looking at the culmination of a series of events that we figured out for ourselves based on our personal and cultural experiences? Is it rather interesting to imagine the reason for this people’s encounter and what could happen in the picture’s scene afterward? Does the artist calls on fantasy and empathy or rather on our analytical capabilities?
What seems to be the better fit – comparing the picture with photography or film? There are remarkable similarities between Alex Katz’s societal images of the early 1970s and Cyril Massimelli’s oeuvre. Katz’s characters have always been compared to movie characters (especially the cool images of the then current French cinema of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol). With Katz you can also find the emotional detachment, the relaxed mood, the cool, and the lack of this particular moment of depiction in which the visual suggests to be part of a (cinematic) continuum. The photography inherent claim of the factual – the one truth and nothing but in one respective moment – can hardly be applied on Cyril Massimelli’s pictures. Compared with the certainty of photos his painting reveals itself to polemic depiction of the ordinary, prototypical, and perfection.
The artist itself speaks of “plausibility” as parameter. He stages an “as if”, intentionally using the characters’ exemplary typing so we can take their place more easily. Doing this not only creates a distance but rather offers an invitation to enter the images, participate in them, and disturb the long sleep of the solidified moment with a personal appearance. The images of the “Lounge” series exude a high energy. The artist lures us into a trap and makes the observer to a master being able to break the spell with its own emotions. There have been countless artistic speculations about what happened to the ideas of modernity. Now, Cyril Massimelli’s visual world and approach appears as a complex and interesting contribution to a revision of classic principles marginalized by modernism.
Johannes Schmidt, Dezember 2013