Reaching the sky, conquering the sun: The work of Alessandro Fogo

Italy. Milan. 2018. Otto Zoo Art Gallery.

The visual language of Alessandro Fogo is mystical, metaphorical and ambiguous. In the painting At Eden’s Gate, a tall figure cast in shadow stands at a threshold, seeming to gesture with one hand while in the other a glowing orb hovers. Is the figure leading or blocking the way? Are the protruding headpieces horns or a crown? What is lurking in the deep shadow in front of the figure and what does the approaching snake signify? Each of these motifs is imbued with deep archetypal symbolism, which the Italian painter acknowledges as cultural touchpoints, but also seeks to imagine afresh, stripped of associated meaning and open for new interpretation. Alessandro is interested in the semantics of objects; dissecting and refiguring the meaning associations we ascribe to familiar forms. Working in rich colour palettes with saturated hues and expressive but deliberate brushstrokes, Alessandro’s paintings are simultaneously cerebral and emotive. They draw the viewer into their maze-like narratives, like David Lynch films, where nothing is as it seems and something could mean anything.

Unlike most young artists, Alessandro has opted to live in the small Adriatic town of San Benedetto del Tronto in ‘Provincia Italiana’. Beside the obvious advantage of lower studio rental and general cost of living, he says that living outside of the main urban metropolises allows him to paint more authentically, uninfluenced by trends and art fads. We spoke with Alessandro about his training in Venice, the Italian art scene and about art as a form of faith.

photo by Paola Angelini

AMM: What is it about painting that keeps you excited and interested in the medium?

AF: I am interested in painting as a medium that enables artists to deal with a dimension that doesn’t exist, and the practice’s ultimate output is something completely timeless. Painting is a very personal creative process and an intimate form of expression. What I find particularly interesting is what and how a painting can communicate to those who look at it in every era.

AMM: What have been some of the major lessons you’ve learned in your development as an artist?

AF: Building greater self-awareness and self-critique throughout the years definitely helped me a lot in my path. Experience and an intimate knowledge of your work allows you to identify the moment when it’s time for a painting to leave the studio, and I do think deeper self-awareness also helps recognising the next steps in one’s artistic development. Especially with painting, I think that patience is particularly important, and, by nature, I am not a patient person at all, but I have learned to give myself and my work time. I basically have had to learn how to deal with myself.

AMM: Studying painting in Venice must have been an incredible experience. Can you share some memories or experiences from your time there?

AF: Actually I did paint in Venice but my BA there was theoretical. I studied at Iuav Visual Arts which is a university focused on studying everything related to Contemporary Art and this helped me to achieve a quite strong critical thought before starting to focus only on my practice later on. But during my last BA year I decided to rent a studio in the Giudecca, an island in front of Venice, with other artists from the Accademia to finally work beside other painters. I had to take the ferry several times a day to get frames and canvas back and forth from my flat to the studio, still a rather surreal experience. I think that Venice is a good place to stay for a young professional training. You are surrounded by the masters of the Venetian school like Tiziano, Tintoretto, Canaletto and many others but at the same time there are a lot of contemporary inputs from the Biennale and the Pinault Collection, just to name two of the biggest ones. Everything compressed in a small island.

AMM: In your paintings figures and familiar objects seem to have ambiguous meanings. Please tell us about your symbolic visual language.

AF: I am interested in working with the semantics of objects. I am fascinated by how much an object can really tell us about its history and function. Objects, even if removed from their original contexts, often maintain some sort of definite aura, but they become ambiguous, religious and sacred objects especially. There is a huge potential for new narratives to be born from objects such as these. I often try to imagine how an alien would react and what they would think if they were all of a sudden standing in front of the sacred relic of St Anthony’s tongue in Padua’s Cathedral, witnessing the pilgrimage and seeing it in the majestic context it is presented in. As human beings, we attach such strong meaning and power to symbols, but if we forget for a moment our cultural background, we see things, objects as empty, meaningless containers.

Only a big stone, oil on canvas, 200 x 250 cm

AMM: Your paintings seem to depict complex psychological scenes. What are your interests in mythology, mysticism and ritual?

AF: I look at these expressions as archetypal foundations of contemporary culture. Since the beginning of time, human beings have always needed answers to existential questions and a dialogue with supernatural, invisible entities, which have had and still have so many names: God, cosmos, superior entity, and so many more, depending on one’s origin, beliefs and cultural background. All of these expressions and related traditions and customs share the same roots, as they are acts of faith. Even if these lack fundamental proof and truth, human beings believe. I think that engaging with paintings, and art more broadly, is an act of faith, too, and an innate human need.

AMM: What is your process of working? How does an idea manifest into a finished painting?

AF: I don’t usually start with preparatory drawings or with a clear idea of the finished painting. I often work through images and concepts associations organically, and each painting develops with time, usually as a result of a pretty slow process. I am particularly interested in questioning the ‘closed’, linear, finished image, and in producing work whose reading does not fit into pre-existing ‘interpretation boxes’. I want to keep my work as open to new readings as possible, avoiding being predictable, painting after painting, and striving for new solutions. Building layer after layer, descriptive characters of my subjects disappear and turn into archetypal presences.

AMM: What painting are you currently busy with in your studio? What ideas or concepts are you exploring in this work?

AF: I am working on a painting whose subject is a creature reaching to grab the sun, and I am toying with the idea of the sculptural representation of fire. I am fascinated by this kind of paradoxes and, as it is really difficult not to be predictable and obvious, finding solutions for pictorial representations is an interesting challenge. Reaching the sky, grabbing and conquering the sun and the stars, have always been a dream of mankind and a recurring theme in the literary and artistic output of so many different cultures, at various points in history. The concept of grabbing something so unattainable is poetic and cruel in its impossibility, and something very fascinating to me.

Small flame at the origin of the Universe, oil on linen, 50 x 60 cm

AMM: What is the Italian contemporary art scene like right now? Are there opportunities for young artists to exhibit their work? Do you feel like you’re a part of a community of artists?

AF: I think that there are many more opportunities and spaces for young Italian artists at present than there have been in the past couple of decades, especially for painters. There is, however, a very significant gap, which has to be filled, between the gallery network and national institutional venues and activities. It’s difficult, or rather impossible, at the moment, to see a young or mid-career Italian artist showing their work in institutional national galleries or public foundations in our country, and there seems to be no interest in meaningful investment in culture and cultural infrastructure, and even less in younger generations of artists. I hope things will change.

On the other hand, another phenomenon that I find rather interesting is that we don’t really have a close community of artists, but the most interesting voices, in my opinion, are those of artists who have decided to develop their work in small cities, villages and rural areas, the so called ‘Provincia Italiana’, as opposed to living in big cosmopolitan cities such as Milan, Rome, Turin. These artists are looking at, reviving and reimagining folk cultures, of which Italy is really rich, while developing diverse, individual and subjective research in response to what surrounds them, instead of falling into trends and following big monotone, homogeneous movements with one voice. I find this a really romantic act of resistance.

AMM: What are you watching, reading, listening to right now?

AF: When I am on a roll, I can spend months and months painting, often working on few canvases only, and I must keep my mind completely empty. Painting in this moment requires so much mental effort and concentration for me, and I cannot focus on anything but my work to minimise distraction. I do, however, watch every football match of AC Milan.

AMM: When you’re not in studio painting, how do you like to spend your time?

AF: I live in a small city by the Adriatic coast called San Benedetto del Tronto and when I am not in the studio I enjoy the incredible quality of life of this kind of Italian towns. I spend a lot of time with my fianceé, she is a painter too, and we take care of our cats and plants. I can say that to me it’s enough.

AMM: What’s next for you? Do you have any exciting projects coming up?

AF: I will soon take part in a group show in a brand new gallery due to open in a couple of months in London’s Fitzrovia, MAMOTH, and I am really glad and honoured to be a part of its first project. MAMOTH will open its doors for the first time at the end of February 2020 and the gallery will focus on international contemporary artists. My work will be shown alongside other young painters hailing from different countries, a very diverse and very mature body of work, despite the fact that all of us are young artists. I am very much looking forward to the opening. Later on, in October 2020, I will show at the Quadriennale in Rome, a show for Italian Contemporary Art, which has taken place every four years since 1927. I will be showing my work in a curated section dedicated to 10 young artists under 28 years old, and I am delighted to have been selected.

Find out more about the artist: www.alessandrofogo.tumblr.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Incenso, 80 x 100 cm, oil on canvas