Marco Petrus | Michele Bonuomo, The calm beauty of Marco Petrus’s Vele
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Michele Bonuomo, The calm beauty of Marco Petrus’s Vele

in Marco Petrus Matrici, Marsilio Editori, Venice 2017

Marco Petrus is a painter of cities. Cities without inhabitants, without desires, passions, dramas, and contradictions. Marco Petrus investigates, classifies, and reinvents city fragments in which public and private, intimate and collective history is frozen into a pure and elementary, and therefore universal, form. His is a vision free of both picturesque sentimentality and enervated political or social discussions. He follows an aesthetic order and an idea of time that is outside the conformism of a misunderstood contemporaneity. The “pure time” he searches for when representing a piece of architecture is one that can be measured in a painting consisting of organised marks and forms which are, first of all, the generative code of the very architecture he considers and, therefore, the matrix of the form of his painting. By doing this, Petrus transforms a constructed fragment into an emblem that, reduced to an absolute formal abstraction, at the same time contains the secret of his art and also – in a subliminal way – the memory, history, and story of a place which, if immediately revealed, would run the risk of giving to us, according to momentary expediencies, either tranquilising analyses or circumstantial rhetoric.
After years of having catalogued in his pictorial map the forms of painted architecture derived from Italian cities (above all from Milan, that “rises” in the buildings of Muzio, Portaluppi, Terragni and other masters of the “magnificent and progressive results” of a twentieth century that was still positive and purposeful), Petrus has applied his painting system to Naples. Furthermore, he has applied it to a place and to forms of architecture that have become emblematic: certainly not because they have become a part of some sublime and tragic idea of beauty that has so often captured the imagination of painters who have gone there, but because of the tragic experiences of a situation that has been denied both beauty and the sublime. By choosing as the subject for his painting the Vele buildings of Scampia, Petrus has hit two closely connected targets: to reform a method of investigating and representing a cityscape – unforeseeable and, until now, impossible to represent due to that way of thinking that has condemned Naples to always be an enchanting temptress. And, at the same time, and due to these very limits on representation, to force his painting to develop an expressive and formal absoluteness, one free of the limits of description or of a narrative reduced, for cynical and facile documentary purposes, to be the basis for a television fiction series or a pulp story but that, in the illusion of being politically correct and exemplary, actually condemns the city to insignificance. Both Ca’ Brutta by Giovanni Muzio in Milan and Franze Di Salvo’s Vele in Naples, despite their opposite fates, embody the code of the silent discipline that for years Petrus has been undertaking: in other words, a painting that in its measuring and control of states of mind, searches for form and duration; an undertaking uncontaminated by smug rhetoric, and one that – as in this case – can give back dignity to and redeem a place and lives that, obviously not for their own fault, are forced to bear the stigma of degradation and incivility.
When looking at the formal results of this latest series of paintings by Petrus, it comes to mind that his is today one of the most lucid and rigorous forms for “posing Naples”. And, in the face of all the city’s potent evocative content, probably this is giving painting itself a new possibility. The statements that Petrus has made with his “scores”, composed from the visual inquiries he has made into the Vele buildings of Scampia, is reminiscent of another “statement”, perhaps an unwitting one but certainly very much ahead of the times, made by Thomas Jones in the summer of 1782 in his painting A Wall in Naples, a small canvas now in the London National Gallery. All the sorrowful fascination that Naples had exerted on this Welsh painter, who was undertaking his Mediterranean Grand Tour, is concentrated into a simple geometrical grid articulated by a tuff wall that almost overwhelms the picture, a grid that is highlighted above by a blue rectangle representing the sky and by a small white fragment of plastered wall. The central element of a balcony, from which hangs an incongruous white strip of humble washing hung out to dry, only goes to accentuate the abstract articulation of the overall view. The rest is silence. There is no background noise to distract attention from this symbolic and formal synthesis of the city and, as a result, it is more perhaps true and profound than the many descriptions of the times. “Sky and houses, embedded in the most pure forms, as compact and resplendent as a modern De Staël […]. Details that certainly are not enough to explain the perfect cadence of this tiny study, one that has the supreme clarity of classicism but with one radical change. The image is not the synthesis of ideal fragments but the totality of a real vision that cannot be dismantled” (Anna Ottani Cavina, Terre senz’ombra, Milan, Adelphi, 2015, p. 347.). This small painting by Jones is, then, a matrix that allows the painting to halt the pure time of the form, that absolute order and primary cold beauty that, with stubborn and obsessive clarity, Petrus too has so skilfully harmonised in his painted scores.
So Marco Petrus then is a painter of cities without background noise, of places that present themselves to the eye without exploiting narratives that, even if they clarify a momentary state of mind, are anyway destined to be reductive and fragmentary. The stories we can expect from Petrus’s urban scenes can only be those that all of us, by entering this kind of theatre of absence, bring with our own presence and decide to represent. His painting, as though in a silent presentation without any dialogue or explanatory captions, is structured in a formal order pushed to the extremes of abstraction and completed by defining matrices that push against the limits imposed by a reality that never goes beyond what is plausible. As though in a game made with Lego bricks, Petrus – by composing and dismantling, following a method and order that are his own – assembles pictorial visions in perennial transformation, and in this way searches for a formal rhythm and balance, which become the substance of the representation itself.
In the Neapolitan paintings, by leading the whole representation back to geometrical matrices articulated by colour, Petrus makes sustainable even the vision of forms that until now have made us think of anything except beauty. He has found in his paintings another idea of beauty, one that is calm and measured and necessary both to Naples and to painting. Always and for everybody. Towards the end of the optimistic and enlightened eighteenth century, no one apart from a Welsh visionary would have thought that the beauty of Naples could be enclosed in that dull wall of tuff illuminated by a slender and abstract strip of blue sky. Today, in a pessimistic and confused period, Naples is unexpectedly beautiful even in the Vele buildings in Scampia. Those silent paintings by Marco Petrus.