Pasquale Cuppari: “Celebrating Light”
The capture of light is central to the attention of Italian-born, New York City area-based painter Pasquale Cuppari, whose accomplished show of abstract paintings may be seen as a homage to luminosity. As much a poet as a painter, Cuppari pays close attention to the lyricism of a surface that both internalizes and reflects illumination. His treatment of the surface is based upon a heavy layering that results in a rough exterior, nearly equal to a low-relief sculpture. While Cuppari does work out rough images in his art, they are usually part of an exterior that seems to contain light from within. Inevitably, after living near New York for more than fifty years, the artist demonstrates the influence of the New York School. Yet his work cannot be said to example action painting in the form of abstract expressionism. Instead, Cuppari’s determination to be independent in his active study of the attributes of light links him to visionary artists as well. One rarely sees a surface as complex as exists in his art, whose attributes celebrate the effects of light with different materials. Even the small amounts of sparkling material cannot be experienced as decorative; rather, the sparkles serve as foci of light, casting it back toward the viewer in one position and seemingly dying out as the audience moves past the composition. The combination of effects makes him a terrifically independent artist, someone whose work is not like those of other painters. This independence and originality are evident throughout his painting.
It thus is more effective to consider Cuppari’s accomplishments as indications of spiritual exploration instead of the presentation of action painting’s process. The depth of the painting is emphasized, counterintuitively, by the examination of its surface qualities, which seem to advance and recede as the person changes his position. His art proposes a generosity of feeling in the hope that the same emotion might affect the onlookers. This is not a pessimistic or world-weary premise he is painting; instead, it is a joyful process predicated on the intricate usage of materials, central to Cuppari’s method of painting. The artist himself describes his methodology as follows: “Working horizontally, I flood the canvas with transparent layers filled with iridescent bits of metallic, dried paint chunks, sparkle, and glitter, which are intended to create a feeling of celebration.” Cuppari looks to “a spirit of 21st-century happiness,” which allows the viewer to excavate light itself. The idea of light as a physical property approaching the dense reality of an object is key to Cuppari’s esthetic. A mature painter, Cuppari is rare among his counterparts in his refusal to mourn or be saddened by the seeming decline in art from the middle 20th century to the present. Indeed, he celebrates life in all its current forms, the ethereal especially.
How does he celebrate? By working in contradistinction to contemporary notions of materials as well as ideas. Glitter’s properties amount to acknowledgment of light rather than the inclusion of something merely ornamental. And the surface itself is far deeper than a thin edge; Cuppari works with transparency that extends to the canvas itself, so that the entire painting may be seen as an exterior, one of unusual depth. Just as he subverts postmodern pessimism with canvases observing a joyful playfulness, so does he undermine notions of surface by creating art that is more or less entirely an exterior. In both cases, the usual associations we have are met with their seeming opposites, not because Cuppari takes an interest only in confronting the so-called pious verities of the mind but because something highly original can be done in contrast to received notions of what works, or is acceptable, in painting. He remembers that the creation of art is a joyous experience, as well as being an intuitive process that leads the artist further and further into a realm of his own fashioning. Rather than lead with his intellect, Cuppari chooses emotion to formulate his paintings.
The paintings themselves orchestrate a full spectrum of feeling. While they are given different titles, it is fair to see them as a related sequence, circling around the theme of the infinite. With such high ambitions, the paintings reveal Cuppari’s inner nature, his preoccupation with spirituality, what he calls “the glorification of light.” There are those among us who may not feel fully comfortable with such idealism, but this reveals a shortcoming in the viewer rather than a difficulty in the art. For example, in Aquila dorata (Golden Eagle), one first sees only an abstraction, silver flashing toward the edges of the painting with a golden passage in the middle. Then, after looking at the painting for a bit, the viewer begins to see the general outline of a golden bird, whose flight is carrying it across the field of the painting, with its wings extending vertically from the bird’s body. The surface of the composition is so dense with materials as to merit lengthy study of its effects. It feels as though it is encrusted with small jewels, which fracture and bounce back the light that illumines them. A tour de force of application and chosen materials, Aquila dorata clearly shows Cuppari’s love of the world of nature, which is infinite and endlessly enjoyable.
Indeed, nature’s infinite changes and highly varied effects comprise the main text of Cuppari’s imagination, which recasts the attributes of the natural world into a deeper and deeper consideration of light, key to the artist’s esthetic. In Cuppari’s art, light is both a major theme and a luminous artifact capable of transforming the object at hand. Inevitably, light itself becomes the subject of record, being the source of all things. Light is part of the pleasure we take in the world, but it also necessary to our existence. Cuppari captures both perceptions in his finely tuned compositions. In Nel mio cuore (In my heart). the encrustrations are even more pronounced than most of the other canvases. Green and yellow are built up in a deliberately raw manner; and in the bottom center, a bit of red serves as the heart. Here, as in the other paintings, Cuppari risks sentimentality in order to make a wonderfully emotional painting. But he escapes the epithet because his surface is so strongly configured with bumps and ridges and crevasses, which result in a very strong painting devoted to emotion. The rawness of the esthetic allows Cuppari to concentrate on his feelings, which after all used to be the basis of an artwork’s merit. Although he eschews the overintellectualization of art, this does not mean he is a swooning romantic, or given to transparent feeling. Instead, his work combines craft, emotions, and ideas in paintings that become memorable attempts to capture the ineffable.
If it is the ineffable that Cuppari seeks, it would make sense to understand his art not only as a series of objects, but also as a process. The serial conditions of his paintings remind us that he is in fact a very current painter, a person familiar with the serial repetition of the minimalist painters and sculptors. The remarkable reddish-yellow painting entitled Verso il sole (Toward the Sun) seems to be burning right before the viewer’s eyes. With a center of bright yellow, and a pronounced area of red on the bottom right, Verso il sole gleams like the light of the sun, which is mentioned in the name of the painting. The painting renews its force again and again as its surface changes in the eyes of the passerby moving in relation to the composition. Here, as happens in most of Cuppari’s art, we see a complex, luminescent surface that demands concentration from the audience. While the artist emphasizes surface, it is an exterior of remarkable depth. Reds on the upper left and right nearly frame the passages of yellow that so beautifully communicate passion and the search for spirituality. Beauty is sought as a concomitant of light, which seems nearly to spill out from the canvas. So it happens that light is not only an effect of Cuppari’s decision-making, it is also the center, the fixed goal of the painting itself.
The recent diptych Argento (Silver) is slightly different than the other paintings in that it rejects multiple hues for the single color, silver. It looks like pools of light are gathering on the surface of the two panels, which are punctuated by bits of paint or grit or both, and which have received the silver color but which also demonstrate an affection for the rough surface so important to Cuppari’s practice. The light illuminating the painting from above is duplicated by the exterior of Argento, which proves to be a tour de force in a near low relief. Yet this work is clearly a painting and not a sculpture, despite its surface irregularities. It makes sense to pay attention to the details of its surface, which are compelling and quite beautiful. Again and again, Cuppari registers his appreciation of life by celebrating its most ethereal aspects. He makes sure that the painting makes sense as a study of light, which is to be viewed not only as art but as part of a larger communion with the beauty of nature. His paintings reward both the brief glance and the longer study because the surfaces are of a piece as well as being giving evidence of fascinating, discrete passages of paint. His gift is one of compulsive beauty, without which he—and by extension, all of us—would live bereft of light.
Jonathan Goodman is a freelance art writer who teaches at Pratt Institute. His emphasis has been on sculpture and Asian contemporary art. As a poet, he has twice won grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He would like to thank Pasquale Cuppari for his help and interest.