Salvatore Emblema and ‘Transparency’ at BOSI Contemporary

Salvatore Emblema’s paintings are like Rothkos dipped in water. The vibrant colors usually centered around the canvas’ midlines drip out of bounds and lose saturation along the way. One is struck by the same purposivity of color in Emblema’s paintings characteristic of the Neo-Geo, Minimalist, and Abstract Expressionist works contemporaneously being produced. “Transparency” is a feat of artistic excellence, and it’s surprising that the show at BOSI Contemporary is the first one in New York chronicling the artist’s work. Emblema spent a year in the mid-1950’s in New York on a Rockefeller Grant, during which time he came to meet Mark Rothko. This was early in Emblema’s career, at a time when Rothko had already established himself as an eminent American painter. Rothko’s influence permeated Emblema’s work from then on, with confidence in using color characteristic of Rothko’s work then being adapted by Emblema’s unique pairing of broad brushstrokes with earthy materials. Twenty paintings and one instillation in the space on the Lower East Side chronicle the life and works of an artist better known internationally than in the states, a fact that BOSI’s invitation will hopefully change.

Emblema’s paintings use burlap as canvas and volcanic soil as detail; the coarse quality bridges a gap often created by abstractionism between form and matter, between a metaphysical beyond and the ground we walk and live on. In this way, Emblema works both in and against the post-war tradition of abstractionism and minimalism embedded in his historical time. The dense materials give rise to a certain thickness undergirding the more ethereal topcoats of minimal paint. His manipulation of the burlap’s fibers creates a physical clearing; some paintings become transparent, their canvas thinned until the space behind them can be seen. Emblema grew up in Terzigno, a small town on Mt. Vesuvius. I stepped up to “Untitled/Landscape (Paesaggio)” and sniffed to see if I could smell the ash and the earth of Pompeii. Regardless of where the materials are from, the paintings carry the invitation to create stories and histories. Art critic and curator Peter Frank says:

Emblema worked in relative isolation. He anticipated broader developments—like the French Support/Surface movement, for instance, or even Arte Povera—or backed into them. Emblema fit comfortably into none of them, seeming instead to lie across so many or to combine them even as he prefigured them. Emblema’s work rarely, if ever, entraps itself in a certain period. It clearly comes from an era, responding as it does to the existential and perceptual questions of the 1950’s and early 60’s, but it is never of an era.[1]

Slightly right of the center in one of his “Untitled 2005” series is a bundle of burlap that looks like it’s been clenched under a fist, held together tightly and leaving a trace of the human component the way blankets tussled in a bed or a lukewarm cup of coffee on the table feel intimately related to the person who just left. Moments like this in Emblema’s work embody an emotive and corporeal materiality that even the most acclaimed abstractionists sometimes fail to achieve. While the New York outside the gallery space moves into a rainy winter, the paintings feel like they were brought in after being left out in the elements, altered by the moisture but not destroyed. The exhibition evokes this emotional narrative and offers a silent strength in their resistance to destruction; Salvatore Emblema is here to stay.

Salvatore Emblema’s “Transparency” is on view through January 11, 2014 at BOSI Contemporary at 48 Orchard Street. A panel discussion on Emblema’s work is open to the public, and will be held on December 11th from 5-7 pm at BOSI.

– Amie Zimmer
All photos courtesy of BOSI Contemporary

[1] BOSI Contemporary



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