The shifting viewpoints of space

A visitor approaching the city of Bellinzona in Switzerland a few years ago would have been confronted by an unusual sight, of bright red lines that spread across the city’s old fortifications and hilltop castle. These unusual arc-like shapes, which changed according to the angle from which they were viewed from something like red tape attached to the site to an autonomous, geometric shape suspended in the air, were in fact a site-specific painting by the Swiss-born artist Felice Varini. It was commissioned to celebrate the inclusion of the city’s fortification system on UNESCO’s list of patrimonies of humanity. «Segni,» as the work was called, was yet one more example of Varini’s original work, with its distinctive use of painting and its inexhaustible capacity to challenge one’s visual perception. A challenge of the same kind meets the viewer at Felice Varini’s one-man show currently on view at the Xippas Gallery in Athens. The exhibition includes three different works (all of them paintings) consisting of geometric shapes and made specifically with the gallery’s interior architecture in mind. Varini is a painter, but of an unusual kind: His paintings are not painted on a single flat surface but in three-dimensional space. They are complementary to architecture, real space and in some cases, our urban experience. Although paintings, they are inherently transformative, turning to sculpture or freestanding planes according to the angle from which they are viewed. They shift from the illusory to the real; from the real to the virtual, from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional and back again. Either they frame the surrounding architecture, or define it, or seem so completely detached from it as to constitute a surface that stands between the viewer and the surrounding space. For each different shape to emerge, the viewer needs to shift perspective by physically moving through the interior space. From a specific point, the painting will look like a two-dimensional, vertical surface confronting the viewer. From another point, the same painting will have a wholly different, three-dimensional effect. In describing Varini’s work, transformation is probably a key word. So is engagement, his work’s capacity for drawing the viewer in and making him explore the work in its various manifestations. Part of this transformation occurs when what at first glance may look like painterly fragments are tightly pulled together to compose a whole and clearly defined geometric shape. Interestingly, the artist does not indicate the angle from which the image can be viewed, letting the viewer enjoy the visual discovery instead. In «Tous pour l’angle rouge,» for example, what one first sees are concentric circles that recede back into space in a spiral-like shape and with a swirling movement. But if viewed from a specific point of view, this same shape becomes a perfect circle consisting of inner rings and standing as a solid yet weightless pictorial plane in space. A similar transformation occurs with the rest of the works: The effect resembles the visual, Renaissance-old trick of anamorphosis, but in real space instead of on flat canvas. Moreover, contrary to the traditional anamorphic image, which is usually a distended, pulled-out form (the skull in Holbein’s painting «The Ambassadors» is the most famous example) that seems normal when seen from a specific angle, Varini’s initial forms are not based on distortion but fragmentation, on isolated parts painted on architectural structures that come together when seen from a certain vantage point. As in anamorphosis, the optical techniques used by Felice Varini are based on a methodical study of geometry, perspective and the proportions of space and are used to show the tricks that vision and appearance play on us. It is as if Varini wants to make us conscious of the visual complexity that surrounds us. He also draws attention to the complex nature of representation and of painting. Varini expands the latter’s two-dimensional quality into space, presenting it as an integral part of our three-dimensional surroundings. Although Varini is chiefly a painter, he also makes use of other devices such as photography and mirrors. Part of his exhibition at the Museo Carrillo Gil in Mexico in 1999, for example, consisted of placing huge billboard-like photographs on the rooftops of a selected number of the city’s buildings. The photographs mirrored a view of the city as it could have actually been seen from the position in which they were placed. True to reality, yet slightly paradoxical, these images turned a vista into a point of view and expressed the artist’s broader interest in spatial relationships and our awareness of them through representation. Blending scientific precision and artistic imagination, the works of Felice Varini reveal a space somewhere between the real and virtual, the objective world and its manifold appearances. They are paintings spread out over and through buildings or interiors, which gradually grow on the viewer and both become animated and animate the surroundings as one walks through them. The illusions they produce are measured and clever enough to go beyond an easy superficial effect, and make a sophisticated and engaging impression. Varini’s art explores space, representation and visuality. This seems to be highly relevant to the present, especially as the spread of computer-generated imagery has fabricated new modes of representation and visual space, thus creating new challenges for our visual perception. Varini adds to the challenge. Felice Varini at the Xippas Gallery (53D Sophocleous, 210.331.9333) through Thursday. The show will reopen in September. A theoretically probing book on the work of Varini, which, like his art, is designed to produce a trompe-l’oeil effect, is available at the gallery.