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Installation view, ‘Richard Long: River Avon Mud’ (2016) at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill (image courtesy Galleria Lorcan O’Neill)

ROME — Mentioning Rome to most people evokes, in no particular order: ancient ruins, stunning palazzi, romantic dinners, and good weather. In reality, La Dolce Vita, which made so many foreigners fall in love with the city (or really, with a certain idea of the city), is little more than a slogan to Romans today. Long gone are the days when Rome was an international cultural center and the National Gallery of Modern Art could upset parliament with its shows. Important contemporary art museums like MAXXI and MACRO have been affected by a lack of government funds and institutional destabilization. Yet Rome offers a worthwhile gallery scene that’s too often disregarded, by locals in particular.

Among many other talents, Italians have a unique tendency to feel sorry for themselves. This attitude comes with a sense of immobility that’s very dangerous to the cultural life of a city. While it’s true that the Italian economic crisis has yet to be overcome, and that the art scene in Rome can’t compete with other European capitals, Roman galleries are still capable of offering a good range of exhibitions that have been growing in quality in recent years. I spent a day in the capital, visiting some of them.

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January Blues, Frutta

Installation view, ‘January Blues’ (2016) at Frutta, Rome (photo by Roberto Apa, courtesy Frutta, Rome) (click to enlarge)

Opened in 2012 by then 25-year-old James Gardner, who hails from Glasgow, Frutta gallery runs an ambitious program, mostly representing artists in their late 20s and 30s. Frutta’s artists are extremely active on the European scene, their work is smart and bold, their shows are always well curated thanks to collaborations with international curators. Among others, the gallery represents Jacopo Miliani, who makes elegant performance and installation work; the American Stephen Felton; and Gabriele De Santis, who recently turned the Parisian Galerie Valentin into a striking changing room. Thanks to Frutta’s cutting-edge profile, Gardner — who in 2012 was a newcomer to both the city and to running a gallery — has managed to establish the space within Rome’s art scene, no small achievement.

Frutta is famous for its hermetic presentations. Because of that, the current group show, January Blues, might intimidate beginner gallerygoers. The press release has been replaced with a poetic quote from William H. Gass’s On Being Blue (1976), and there is little apparent connection between the artworks. Once again, however, De Santis’s work stands out. His witty installation “Il cielo in una stanza quando piove” (The sky in a room when it’s raining, 2016), features two opened umbrellas, one pink and the other blue, whose handles are caught in an embrace while a famous Italian love song plays. The nostalgic lyrics and melody are subtly mocked by the inanimate couple, whose love story is reminiscent of the surrealist meeting of objects described by Lautréamont.

Luisa Gardini | 1965–2015, Federica Schiavo Gallery

Installation view, ‘Luisa Gardini | 1965–2015’ (2016) at Federica Schiavo Gallery (photo by Giorgio Benni, courtesy Federica Schiavo Gallery, Rome)

Federica Schiavo rediscovers the work of Luisa Gardini (b. 1935) with a solo show that’s also a retrospective. Gardini is a little-known member of a group of artists based in Rome whose careers started during the 1950s. Under the guidance of masters such as Cy Twombly, who moved to Rome in 1957, and Alberto Burri, Gardini developed a deeply research practice concerned with formal issues. Her works employs an array of modernist techniques, especially collage and assemblage, to look into the relationship between written and drawn signs. Gardini shared a starting point with many Italian postwar artists: she reelaborates influences from Abstract Expressionism in the climate of European existentialism, developing gentle and refined formal solutions.

Although the limited space of the gallery interferes at times with the appreciation of the artworks, the show manages to do justice to Gardini. The exhibition is an important step in the rediscovery of an artist who, in the past, has consciously decided not to show her works for years. And Gardini herself is a strong addition to the gallery, which has been representing emerging artists since 2009.

Alessandro Roma: One foot in the world and the other in the stillness, z2o Sara Zanin Gallery

Installation view, ‘Alessandro Roma: One foot in the world and the other one in the stillness’ (2016) at z2o Sara Zanin Gallery (photo by Sebastiano Luciano, courtesy z2o Sara Zanin Gallery) (click to enlarge)

Alessandro Roma’s first solo show at z2o Sara Zanin Gallery features works on paper and paintings characterized by the artist’s particular approach to composition: Roma fills in his paintings and drawings with overlapping cutouts and painted parts in the shape of leaves. The outcome is a highly fragmented visual experience that’s not immediately easy to access. The decision to paint the walls in the first room bright yellow, however brave, doesn’t seem to add anything to the works, deflecting attention from them instead. On the other hand, the last room, painted blue, feels harmonious and invites visitors to stay and browse the artist’s sketchbooks, which are shown alongside his paintings. Working site specifically and dynamically with the gallery’s space seems to be encouraged at Sara Zanin Gallery, and has been since its opening in 2007.

Thomas Braida, Monitor Gallery

Installation view, ‘Thomas Braida’ (2016), Monitor, Rome (photo by Giorgio Benni, courtesy the artist and Monitor, Rome) (click to enlarge)

Monitor launched in 2003 and gradually established itself as one of the most interesting galleries in the city. In January 2014 they opened a space in New York as well. Thomas Braida is now debuting in Rome with a strong body of paintings, following his first show at Monitor Studio in New York last January.

Braida defines himself as a painter, a word the artist carefully employs to relate himself to art history and tradition. His themes are often drawn from classical mythology and biblical episodes, with nods to fantasy imagery.

The artist’s paintings feel like they might have originated from a hypothetical conversation with the German Neo-Expressionists of the late 1970s and ’80s; indeed, Braida’s hometown, Gorizia, at the Italian border with Slovenia, has long been in contact with Central Europe. Braida’s canvases are extremely rich, his works loaded with paint: walking through the gallery, I was pleasantly surprised to notice the smell of fresh oil paint still lingering in the air. With regard to certain art market trends, Braida couldn’t be less fashionable, which is exactly why his canvases are so appealing.

Richard Long: River Avon Mud, Galleria Lorcan O’Neill

Installation view, ‘Richard Long: River Avon Mud’ (2016) at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill (image courtesy Galleria Lorcan O’Neill) (click to enlarge)

The immaculate Galleria Lorcan O’Neill was opening River Avon Mud, a solo show devoted to Richard Long, on the evening I visited it. The museum-quality exhibition includes some pieces that Long made by applying mud from the River Avon in Bristol, his hometown, to large panels and paper. Long has been turning his nature walks into art for decades, reworking his outdoor experiences in the studio by combining geometric forms and natural materials. In particular, Long favors mud for its tactility and simplicity. The exhibition also features a dazzling floor sculpture made of basalt stone from the Italian Alps.

Lorcan O’Neill has represented Long since opening in 2003. Along with him, the gallery represents other established artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Tracey Emin (who had her first solo show in Italy there) and Jeff Wall. The Irish-born O’Neill worked for the famous art dealer Anthony d’Offay in London before deciding to open a space in Rome. Placing himself off the beaten track of the art system gave O’Neill the space and time to work on the identity of his gallery, away from the pressure of the British capital. It turned out to be a winning strategy.

The roster now includes an interesting combination of young Italian and British artists next to big names like Francesco Clemente and Luigi Ontani. Two years ago, O’Neill relocated his headquarters to the center of Rome, to the converted 17th-century stables of Palazzo Santacroce. The baroque carved-stone fountain in the private courtyard reminds visitors that, in spite of the white cube style of the space, they could be only in one city in the world.

Although Lorcan O’Neill is now one of the most international and important galleries in Rome — if not in Italy — the affable dealer keeps a low profile. In the best Roman tradition, his team is very friendly and helpful; I couldn’t help comparing their warm welcome to the conceited staff working for some of the big galleries in London and New York. Despite countless issues, there is added value to running a gallery in Rome.

January Blues continues at Frutta (Via Giovanni Pascoli 21, Rome) through March 5.

Luisa Gardini | 1965–2015 continues at Federica Schiavo Gallery (Piazza Montevecchio 16, Rome) through March 9.

Thomas Braida continues at Monitor Gallery (Via Sforza Cesarini 43a, Rome) through March 12.

Alessandro Roma: One foot in the world and the other in the stillness continues at z2o Sara Zanin Gallery (Via della Vetrina 21, Rome) through April 16.

Richard Long: River Avon Mud continues at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill (Vicolo dei Catinari 3, Rome) through April 30.

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Francesco Dama

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.