Paolo Ventura at Weinstein Hammons Gallery
by Mike Curran
When the first stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, we barely had time to consider the implications before being reminded that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague. That anecdote became a sort of call to arms, inciting creatives to churn raw material out of this global catastrophe. And so, though we are only a few months into our varying degrees of lockdown in the United States, the idea of a “quarantine diary” already seems cliché.
Then there is Paolo Ventura’s Quarantine Diary, a series of paintings created during the height of Italy’s coronavirus crisis—a selection of which is now on view at Weinstein Hammons Gallery in Minneapolis. Ventura made a new work each day from his studio in Anghiari, Tuscany, where the artist fled as the virus overwhelmed his hometown of Milan. In contrast to the widely circulated images of deserted tourists sites and Italians singing from balconies, his subject matter is stripped down to the washed-out details of daily routine.
Ventura’s ability to represent the contours of life under lockdown without reverting to tired tropes makes Quarantine Diary a unique contribution to our understandings of these times. For instance, on March 18, he hints at our collective disconnect with a painting of a charging cord snaking its way along the floor, attached to nothing; on April 9, a constellation of hair rests on the bathroom tile, suggesting the common experience of learning to barber at home. The realities of quarantine seep through the collection, reflecting how the pandemic manifests in our lives: something forever looming but rarely conspicuous.
As I looked out onto West 46th Street from the front window at Weinstein Hammons, I was unsure myself if the pandemic existed here. At the opposite corner, three non-masked colleagues squeezed around a table enjoying lunch; an older man in a crisp polo—also maskless—brushed by with his dog, an arm’s length from two teens on bikes. Without the hand sanitizer stationed at the gallery’s entry or the woman getting her forehead scanned at the dental clinic next door, the coronavirus would have felt elsewhere.
The virus became an illusion within that window frame, which is fitting for Ventura, for whom the space between illusion and reality is comfortable territory; his practice blends painting, photography, and set design to create imagined worlds based on family lore and childhood memories. In Winter Series, Ventura fabricated a faltering circus at the outskirts of a fictional northern Italian town. With The Automaton, Ventura transported us to Nazi-occuppied Venice, its network of canals and footbridges the lone signifiers of a city otherwise transformed under a thick fog.
Ventura’s commitment to inventing these heavily atmospheric worlds borders on the obsessive: he first draws an elaborate sketch, then paints backdrops, adding in flea market finds and miniature dolls; he then takes polaroids, reviews the composition, and rearranges again and again until it feels right, often inserting himself in the final image. Out of this meticulous process comes a cohesive scene made of disparate parts, its ruptures with reality only apparent after careful review.
That precise process was impossible to replicate in Quarantine Diary. When Ventura fled Milan, he left his photography equipment behind; the only materials on-hand at his Tuscan studio were a set of acrylic paints and massive sheets of 50” x 40” packing paper. Despite the lack of supplies, Ventura maintains control over his confined environment. Through cataloguing his daily life on a blown-up scale, he breaks the chaos of the coronavirus crisis into palatable chunks; by including the date within each work, he instills structure upon flattened days that otherwise blend together.
From my position in the United States, I find myself longing for the order, and accompanying calmness, found in this series. On the day I write this, the U.S. reported 53,440 new cases, compared to 190 in Italy. Quarantine Diary provides welcome reprieve, presenting a world where burden is shared, and neighbors—of whom Ventura paints many—offer comforting presence. Meanwhile, in the U.S., our house is on fire and, led by an administration that presses onwards at all costs, we can only seem to look out the window and wish the flames away.
Ventura’s attention to his immediate surroundings reminds me of a recent episode of NPR’s Consider This, recorded when virus-related deaths in the U.S. surpassed 140,000. In that segment, Dr. Elke Webber, a psychology professor at Princeton University, proposed a new way of conceptualizing the disorienting loss. She stressed the importance of interpreting the impacts as locally as possible. “One way of doing it,” she suggests, “would be to say, ‘What towns and cities in the U.S. has COVID wiped out at this point?’ If you live in New Jersey, that would mean that Paterson is gone.” If you live in California, Pasadena is gone; in Ohio, Dayton is depopulated. If suffering must be made personal to resonate, then the intimacies of Quarantine Diary—delicate hair woven through the bristles of a comb, the soles of shoes—might help us reconcile with the virus’ impacts.
There are flaws in this logic, of course. Depending on where you live, if you apply the death toll to your own context, you may lose sight of the pandemic’s disproportionate effects on Indigenous peoples and communities of color. At the same time, if we take Ventura’s diary as definitive, then we disregard those who did not possess the mobility to flee northern Italy at the outbreak’s onset.
Despite those limitations, Quarantine Diary emerges as an essential exhibition. To weather this crisis and the others sure to come, we do not need another King Lear, or any other masterpiece for that matter. Instead, we need artists who show us alternative ways of looking, inviting us to discern reality from illusion. When Ventura calls attention to the quiet corners of his home, we find our own footing and the virus starts to feel surmountable.
On view by appointment
Photos courtesy of Weinstein Hammons Gallery