Domenico Gnoli exhibition, New York

Domenico Gnoli exhibition, New York

A slice of 1960s la dolce vita has just touched down at Luxembourg & Dayan on New York’s Upper East Side, and the natives should be delighted. Domenico Gnoli, born in Rome in 1933 to a prominent art historian and his painter/ceramist wife, first made a name for himself as a theatre designer, even creating the set for an As You Like It production at London’s Old Vic in 1955. But by the mid-60s he had turned exclusively to painting and illustration, exchanging the large-scale optics of stage design for a perspective on reality that plays tricks with the minuscule.

In the next decade or so, shuttling between Rome, New York and Majorca (Warhol-photo-booth-style photographs of Gnoli and his wife, the artist Yannick Vu, show him to have been quite the Pop Art dandy), he had developed a mesmerizing body of work. In the Luxembourg & Dayan show, which showcases 15 of his 83 known mixed-acrylic-and-sand canvases for the first time in New York, his theatrical flair and surrealist attention to sartorial and domestic detail converge in images that owe much to both the sculptural qualities of early-Renaissance fresco painting and the sexy freeze-frames of Balthus.

His canvases, which can run to over 6-ft high, paradoxically zoom in on such relatively intimate affairs as a parted head of hair, or maidenly plait; a prettily prim top, held together with pearl buttons, or strategic pleats at the top of a gentleman’s pinstripes.

Post-coitally gentle are the outlines of a couple asleep under a quilted bedcover. Meanwhile, Brooks Brothers could make great use of his button-down ’Striped Shirt Lapel,’ 1969, which, given its vintage, nevertheless saucily brings the Wigged One’s everyday garb to mind.

Such images combine the exaggerated, dramatic gesturing of Gnoli’s abandoned stage craft - there’s almost always a suggestion of theater’s grandly draped curtains in his fabric and flesh studies - with the gimlet eye of a movie close-up (it’s hard to imagine that the director of  ’I Am Love’, Luca Guadagnino, isn’t familar with Gnoli’s art).

The artist, who died in 1970 at the age of just 36, monumentalised the mundane as if he was haunted by the Fascist architecture of his Roman childhood. Some kind of strange dreams seem also to have informed his tempera-acrylic-and-ink ’Monster Drawings,’ a bestiary done in 1967, six of which hang on the gallery’s fourth floor. Equally hallucinatory are the drawings of a snail that fills an entire sofa, and an ostrich outstretched in a limo.


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