“Making the imageresurface from the matter” / Vanja Strukelj
On my return from Tirana, the image of that child stuck in the tube of a tyre floating on the water [fig. 46] came back to my mind like an obsession. It may not have been the picture by Orion Shima that at first glance most impressed me, certainly not one I appreciated most for the quality of paint layer or composition. Yet I could not get it out of my head. And looking back now, it was not just power of suggestion.
I had seen some of Orion’s early work and had been strongly affected by the large abstract painting exhibited at the National Gallery in Tirana, by the rigour and plastic strength of the wall. At Petrela a few days earlier, where Arturo Calzona and GrazianoMangoniand I had come to work on the work of AlushShima, Orion had pulled out and paraded his large dramatic landscapes of 2011 as if they werestagesets. It was impossible to escape the fascination of those vibrant textures, those dilated forests, illuminated by the presence of solitary animals but, at the same time,not to notice the continuity of his research during the previous period.
In the Tirana studio, a different dimension opened up instead, a perspective, a gaze out onto the world, somehow disarming in its apparent reduction to a minimum and at the same time charged with almost magnetic attraction. The nimble figures of boys clinging to rocks or perched in trees, or caught in the rapidity of a dive seemed to open up a door on the “real” and then close it again immediately. This sort of alienating game called into question, as it were, the spatial and temporal dimension.
Retracing the itinerary of this exhibition, I therefore tried to check the sense of that initial impression, going back to pick just a few key moments in the investigation of this Painter; I use that word deliberately because the road trodden by Orion Shimauncompromisingly and without hesitationfollows the road of painting. This is the scope of his experimentation, the definition of field, this the choice, whichin a perspective that is not only individual, takes on the specific value of a challenge.
After all, we can imagine what it must have beenlike for a young graduate of the Academy of Tirana in a year of radical change such as 1993 toembark on a new conquest of the territories of painting, starting from Abstract Expressionism;from the liberating gesture, and the canvas as part of an unlimited area. A tabula rasa, like that of Kandinsky – and the precise reference that Orion Shima makes in his interview is not accidental – from which to reconstruct a new language. We cannot assume a young eighteen year old in the early nineties to have been aware of the critical opposition of Greenberg/Rosenberg but perhaps today this opposition, or at least a reflection on the impact of Greenberg’s definition of modernism can still be useful. That said, the impression is that Orion looked right away at de Kooning rather thanat Pollock, or at least that the question of “controlling” the brushwork was fundamental immediately. It is clear, however, that the meeting that opens a new horizon in his research in the nineties is that with Tàpies. Here too what Shima says isilluminating and we realize the importancecomparison with the Catalan artist takes on; an importance well beyond what may seem like explicit references of form. On one hand, talking with Tàpies undoubtedly means putting into play “the idea of matter as an existential reality”, but on the other mainly recovering the dimension of historical memory and, therefore, also of a cultural identity, which in itself impresses subject and space.
When Orion says he “found” the walls of Tirana in the works of Tàpies he means, I think, just that. Giving new thickness to the paint surface, working it plastically with graffiti, engraving it with newly found architectural geometries means takinginto account stratification, the density of the image, of its weight,so to speak. It is in this different temporality, in this duration that matter finds its order and spatial organization. The wall [figs. 7, 8] begins to outline regular compartments, to be divided up specularly [Fig. 6], to define a spatial box [Fig. 11] almost as if it bore the imprint of a memory: the gutted houses of the city, the landscape reflected in the water, the emptiness of a room. Mirror (2000) [fig. 5] seems to intensify the dialogue with Tàpies, standing in an unstable balance between Forma d’armari inclinada (1968) and Armariof 1973. The piece of everyday furniture drawn with precision, almost affirming itsobjective and domestic dimension, but not wide openand displaying its contents as in the series by the Catalan master: the colour – a vaguely Kline-like blue – the flat surface of the mirror, seem to contain and calibrate any internal tension.
Soon, however, it is as if this material dimension, this wall, begins to crumble to pieces, to allow a new access to portions of nature, as if, to quote Orion himself, the painter was able to “make the image resurface from the matter”. Think of Landscape in the Dark (2002) [fig.14], in which the thick brushstrokes allow the image of a meadow to emerge from the dark background, Lightings in grey (2004) [fig.16], in which the lumps of colour seem to actually configure in the landscape. We think again of the comparison between a work such as Earth Triangle(2002) and Triangle 2[fig.10], in which the enclosure of the triangle defines the contours of the land, first bare, then luxuriantly covered with a carpet of flowering plants.
The old photograph (2004) [fig.15] opens yet another front; with an intentionally diptych-like effect,this time a panoramic view is projected onto the canvas. The relationship with Roman pop and early Schifano might not be misleading, but the reference to photography above all leads back again to a dimension of memory: the surface of the painting that becomes impressed like an old photographic plate.
Orion Shima continues, however, so far, to work on the dimension of the surface, exploring the inexhaustible riches of the microcosm enclosed within the canvas. But it is as if this world becomes progressively animate, discovering itself in new shapes and new examples, in a process, however, wholly within the painting and its history. No derivative citations, though; Shima stays away from the processes of post-production. If at times he seems tempted by a multilingualism or a stylistic mimicry, his investigation then moves along a track that is much more defined. His forests, for example, continue to have the organic energy of Pollock’s dripping, although now the sign is constantly “controlled”. At the same time, however, they evoke the imaginary of romantic and symbolist painting. In The Forest [fig.21], for example, the colour texture seems almost that of the watercolours of Odilon Redon, but now the space expands, the forest stands as an ideal diaphragm the observer can cross. Yet he is never tempted bytheatrical illusionism. The viewer finds himself involved in another visual game, penetrating deep into the forest despite the precise awareness of its surface dimension, indeed he penetrates precisely because it is a painted surface. After all, a similar effect of the perceived instability of spatial ambiguitywas already evident in Reflection 1 (2010) [fig.23]: the theme of the specular reflection [Fig. 36, 37], of the double, once so dear to the culture of symbolism, is reactivated in order to build greater observer involvement. In Dream (2011) [fig.37] the animal looks and lets you watch, while the high line of the division between water and land amplifiesthe sense of suspension in the uniformity of the application of colour. In Throughout the landscape (2011) [fig.27] Orion creates a more complexdispositif, with several of the things that he will focus on in the years to come. This time we observe from behind the deer, which in turn is looking at the forest and a canvas about to be painted, a canvas/wall, with regular, geometric contours: we,in turn, stand motionless and suspended to assist what inevitablywill become an”allegory of painting”. Of course this is not a reference/transcription of the work by Vermeer (o Velàzquez?), but I think Orion Shima has elaborated, during his own individual journey, the meaning whichthat work has come to have in the contemporary art debate: the continuous re-definition of the role of the author in relation to the “art” of painting, and at the same time the addition of the onlooker’s gaze. The surface of the painting is also the field of action of a looking game: Foucault’s lesson, his reading of the dispositif of Las Meniñas continues to be vital. The suggestion of romantic evocation, the vision of the sublime spectacle of nature in the paintings of Friedrich is not lost in the context, but at the same time, as suggested by Riccardo Caldura about a work from the same series, there is the idea of the fragment, a kind of semantic shift, which nevertheless still places the problem of representation at the centre.
Equally interesting in this perspective is the study of Untitled (2011) [fig.29], with the ambiguous reflection of a fox in the large shadow cast on the wall, almost as if it were a huge icon: this time inside a spatial box where it is not clear just how far we are included.
That same year, Orion Shima painted another large canvas, which shows how intense his reflection on the meaning of his own work is at this time. Now the writing is in some ways almost cursive, fast, with a closer relationship to the photographic “imagination”, almost a solarized polaroid. The elements of the composition symbolically summarize the factors at play in the contemporary investigation of the painter. The regular structure, marked by the demarcation line between the water and the woods, the emphatically parallel trunks of the trees build a grid into which are interwoven patches of colour thatalmost as if in a school exercise formally announcetheir dripping, while the monochrome strip of the wateris traversed vertically bygrey drippings. Almost hidden, in a misaligned position but vertical connection isthe figure of a boy intent on drawing: drawing what? Us, looking at him? What are we to imagine on the other side of the river?
On the other hand, the idea of the wall continues in its relationship with the landscape to play, even in its multiple meanings, a central role in the painting of Orion Shima. In The Wall4(2013) [fig.38] it assumes the specifically structural purpose of horizontally defining the picturebut, above all, of hiding from view, blocking the sight, denying any spatial breakthrough, swallowing pavement and street and excluding the observer. The Wall, (1913/2013) [fig.40] instead, marks yet another direction in his inquiry, suggestive of a focus on Italian painting, from Sironi to Carrà: this time the insistent vanishing point of the wall establishes a spatial breakthrough that seems immediately contradicted, however, by the dense brushwork and chromatic uniformity that reduces any difference between the colour fields of the land, sea and sky.
In 2009, The splash [fig. 19] raises another issue: the dive, which also appears in different variations in the most recent paintings, is an opportunity to investigate the relationship between figure in action and landscape as it takes into account the dynamics of movement, and in particular the relationship between body and the natural element. In this painting the problem of the return to figuration is addressed frontally, so to speak, putting to the test the mimetic skills of the paint, with that almost virtuoso effectof the taut and elastic body that seems to explode on impact with the water surface. In By the sea (2013) [fig.47] the relationship with photography returns. Not as a tool forgrasping realitybut rather as a filter for memory. In The Observer[fig. 48], instead, there is still a suspension, which, not coincidentally, is linked to the theme of looking and the shifting of the standpoint of the youth with his back to us and us, the viewers.
It is clear, however, that the gaze of the painter increasingly focuses on places and situations that are, as it were, barely of the everyday; “on the threshold”; and the reference to Benjamin, which Arturo Calzona makes during the interview might well be one of the keys to understanding how a reflection on painting stretches its horizons to become a reflection on the condition of modernity.
And now we come to the image of the child stuck in the tyre tube; an image the practical realism of which makes alienating, wholly incongruous when compared to an iconic and pictorial context that increasingly leads us back to symbolism, from Böcklin to von Marées. It is an effect that is already emerging, for example, in Boys by the river (2012) [fig.44], where just a few details, the green beret or the blue swimsuit, are enough to undermine from within the mythical microcosm of the landscape.
Once again, the observer is directly called into question.He himself is placed on the threshold between reality and imagination, between the‘surface’–of the paintingand the waterand the three-dimensional breaking through. It is so then that he is magnetically attracted, compelled to plunge into the depths of the water yet at the same time aware of his detachment as an outside observer, poised between the fixity of vision and its duration. With,in mind, perhaps, on one hand Bill Viola and on the other Miquel Barceló. Whatever the case, in a state of waiting, in a moment of conscious suspension.