An Artist Sends Himself Wandering Through an Imaginary City

Paolo Ventura, "Piazza Monumento" (2015), hand-painted photograph with collage, 50 x 58-1/2 inches (all photos courtesy the Weinstein Gallery unless noted)
Paolo Ventura, “Piazza Monumento” (2015), hand-painted photograph with collage, 50 x 58-1/2 inches (all photos courtesy the Weinstein Gallery unless noted)

MINNEAPOLIS — Italian artist Paolo Ventura may have never designed a theater set before taking on Carousel at the Lyric Theater earlier this year, but a new exhibition at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis suggests that he has an innate theatrical aesthetic, creating works that jump out at you, inviting you to participate in their peculiar stories.

La Città Infinita summons you into a world that’s both bleak and curious, filled with intrigue, loss, and magic. The surreal landscape Ventura creates flummoxes and confounds, creating an engulfing existential narrative.

Originally a fashion photographer, Ventura gave up the business in 2004 when he moved to New York City. He began to use his photography background in combination with his painting skills, creating elaborate dioramas that he would then photograph. In projects such as War Souvenir (2006) and Winter Stories (2008), he uses himself as the model and central character.

Paolo Ventura, Diorama from 'Carousel'
Paolo Ventura, untitled diorama from ‘Carousel’ (2015), mixed media, approx. 30 x 20 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In La Città Infinita, Ventura takes this process one step further. After creating a scale model of his mythical city and photographing it, Ventura uses collage to add cut-out photographs of himself and other models into the scene, then creates paintings of the finished product. You wouldn’t necessarily know that the canvases began as photographs.

In the series, Ventura portrays a character who would not be out of place in a mid-20th-century Italian neorealism film, complete with black suit and fedora, wandering around an abandoned city. Each of the images tells a story, though there isn’t a through-line or narrative arc that holds them all together. Rather, the infinite city can be likened to a David Lynch drama: You might not always comprehend all of the different plot threads, but they are nonetheless delectable.

Paolo Ventura, "La Taccola di Mare" (2015), hand-painted photograph with collage, 50 x 58-1/2 inches
Paolo Ventura, “La Taccola di Mare” (2015), hand-painted photograph with collage, 50 x 58-1/2 inches

In one picture, a rosy-cheeked Ventura grapples with a man holding him at knifepoint. They’re fighting at the corner of two cement walls — the same corner that’s seen in a different picture, in which Ventura holds his arm protectively around a naked woman, though the buildings behind the walls are different in the two pictures.

Ventura’s character appears with musicians and carnival characters (some of whom are borrowed from his Carousel set), or simply walking, his body hunched over, toward ominous stark buildings with words such as “Cinema” or “Eden” written on top.

Done in a gray and brown palate, Ventura’s hand-painted photographs are made up of squares of different muddy hues, adding to the flatness of the images as a whole. The cittá appears groundless: buildings hover in the middle of nowhere, seemingly untethered by gravity. There are even chalk lines surrounding their lower edges, as if construction had begun but was never completed. The rest of the landscapte is populated with trees that look like they’ve been borrowed from the set of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: bare and ghostly.

Paolo Ventura, "Una Domenica" (2015), hand-painted photograph with collage, 50 x 58-1/2 inches
Paolo Ventura, “Una Domenica” (2015), hand-painted photograph with collage, 50 x 58-1/2 inches

The only color in these paintings come from small splashes of red — on a flag, or the letters on a building, or a juggler’s nose — and the occasional use of turquoise. The two saturated colors pop out of the dismal scene, creating a sense of playfulness.

These works are cinematic, theatrical, and illustrative. Viewing them, you feel as though you’ve walked into a (rather eerie) storybook where you can stroll around for a while, long enough to get a taste of Ventura’s eccentric imagination.

La Città Infinita continues at the Weinstein Gallery (908 W 46th Street, Minneapolis) until November 14.

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