Text published in the magazine “L’Espresso” 8 – 11 – 2013

Kounellis: A Painter

“It is by lending his body to the world that the painter transforms the world in painting.”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Eye and Mind [L’Oeil et L’Esprit], Gallimard 1964.

When Kounellis is asked to define his (difficultly definable) work, he often answers: I am a painter. Why a painter? Why not take refuge in the dimension of the artist, which (these days) would seem more reassuring? And why call his works, which have contributed so massively to overcoming the strict spatial and linguistic contours of painting, ‘paintings’? An attempt to answer these questions logically or descriptively would prove sterile and futile if our wish is to understand his work and that which, through his works, Kounellis asks us to interrogate. If Jannis Kounellis calls himself a painter, what it means is that we should rethink painting not merely as tool of representation – or, as Modernism had it, even of expression – but as a poetic mode and method through which to judge and at the same time construct the world. A shift is required, from seeing painting as a technique which ‘frames’ the world, although it may do so in the diffused space of the real (as in Spatial art), to seeing it as an experimental practice which invests the body of the painter and his skills with a responsibilty to give poetic sense to the world, and not an understanding. In doing so, the painter also gives us a spatial perspective, and hence allows the world to continue to exist.
Therefore, in spite of what may initially appear, Kounellis’ practice which he terms painting isn’t simply a form of painting expanded into space, stretching out like a canvas which unravels into eternity. In fact, Kounellis’ painting is such because, locating its origin in the indistinct poetic space of the crux between the self and the world, it goes on to operate a transformation of space into image, so that physical space too becomes the picture of representation, of the mise en scène of the work itself. He does this because, through his strong sense of composition, Kounellis is able to give value to objects to the point of returning them to their original status, to their efficacious, powerful form – one lost, humiliatingly, through time or through use. But at the same time there is always a distinct awareness – Kounellis’ eagle-eyed gaze – that it is precisely time and use which intervene in the world of objects, and which charge them with humanity. The gesture Kounellis performs in affirming and composing this valorisation is a powerful one, and one too often mistaken for a gesture violent or political in nature (political in its degraded, that is in its utilitarian, sense). In fact, Kounellis’ work always displays tremendous harmony, love, and sense of beauty, mixed with a consistent desire to be for everyone, to give himself to everyone at the risk of being devoured. This is why Kounellis is a painter: he is one for whom the rush to image-making is a unique and precious public activity.

Alfredo Pirri