Riccardo Barletta


“So, therefore painting is a philosophy”

Leonardo da vinci

Mario De Leo was born of a farming family in Puglia. He grew up in Ruvo, a fIourishing agricultural centre producing vegetables: wine and olive oil. But there is another, less well-known face of Ruvo di Puglia, that of neolithic finds, ceramics of the Apulian period (IV C B.C.) and of the verticalism of the Romanesque cathedral, touched by northern influeces and ornated by decorations sculpted with Lombard, French and even orientaI motives. AlI this must have permeated De Leo, meekly, in mysterious ways. His destiny as a farmer was interrupted by his moving to the north, his first job that of errand-boy. This was followed by a metal-working job, hard enough to test his limits of resistance, but tempered by political and trade union activities. Within this anthropological framework, the artist’s liberation evolved intuitively, on two interconnected levels, music and painting. Certainly his having first frequented a school for cartoonists and then for advertising design helped to refine him, but the essence of De Leo’s change to culture was his strong interest in music.

The world of sounds and of that ancient language which is dialect, gradually directed him towards an expression of sentiment and balance of form.

The underlying pull towards images and painting could thus survive, reinforce itself and finaly manifest itself completely. Like hot coals hidden under a layer of ashes, painting has gradually become a purpose of life for De Leo, a fire burning inside while apparently cool, tied up as it is with the evasive metallic microscopicity of electronics.

2. The anthropological voyage of De Leo, conditioned by precise biopsychic commands, has a perfect internaI coherence right from the beginning. De Leo does not accept the “patronage” of his fellow citizen Domenico Cantatore, because he senses that he must make it alone, even at the risk of “a kick in the face”. To the orthodox “southern” master Guttuso he prefers the absolute master, Picasso; the true archetypal “mediterranean” artist of our century. He loves the Russian artist Kandinsky, who is a lyrical link with the orient and a bridge towards the outer space. In other words De Leo’ s painting does not appear to be conditioned by fashions or tendencies, because he, Southern immigrant farmer with a lower level education – does not belong to the accultured ethnic group of painters. His is an existential humanism, devoid of trumped up modernisms. Proof? When he creates a work of large dimensions with printed circuits which does not convince him, he does not throw it away. He takes it by car to the Navigli and there he burns it. Why this tiring and complicated procedure? Here we touch the generating element of the artistic pulsion. The mythopoeia which characterizes our artist is of an alchemist type, that is, based on the sublimation of heavy, brutal material. This sublimation must first occur as an internaI process, within the painter-alchemist himself, so to speak. If the latter does not virtually sense the “fusion” of lead into gold, it causes him a moral and psychic fall. A sort of interior secular “sin”. Therefore the object of such a “sin” can only be destroyed by purifying fife. The liberating sensation produced by the fire – of which De Leo speaks specifically in the interview – is a testimoniaI of the basic alchemical process of this type of creativity, entirely piloted by that demanding steersman which is the spirit.

3. Other two elements should help to explain Mario De Leo’s creative procedure. At the Sesto San Giovanni dump site, he may have the impulse to pick up an electronic card lying in the rubbish while at the same time feeling an apposite impulse dictated by revulsion. Thus he follows his friend’s advice: “It’s when something is disgusting that you must take it”. Wise teaching, really alchimistic, because it is precisely that which is dissociated and rotten that can be transformed and become spirit. Another important element is the “fusion”. By way of example it appears in a work of 1986, published in the catalogue of De Leo’s first one-man show at the Osaon Gallery. It’s the wicker basket, made from olive shoots, on which De Leo has placed a windscreen-wiper and chrome automobile strip, entitled: “City rhythms on a traditional Apulian structure”. The enchantment of the piece lies not only in the unusual match, but also in the ovaI shape: a metaphore of the cosmic egg, germ of alI creation, and at the same time of the philosophical egg, that is, the hermetically sealed vase in which the Great Work of the alchemists is carried out.

The variegated colours of the wicker surface are the colours of the rainbow, that symbol of the various stages of conscience and interior transfiguration. One can immediately understand that both in the title of this work of De Leo’s, as well as in the arduous and courageous choice of material for this bricolage, he specifically used the fusion of “his” two cultures. The traditional, arcaic agricultural one and the acquired, modern tecnological one. Therefore osmosis of natural-nature and artificial-nature, isotopic and isomorphic, in the context of an “imaginative conscience”.

4. The “rational conscience” recognises objects and concepts; the “imaginative conscience” recognises perceptions and images. The first is a product of “homo sapiens”, the second of “homo primitivus”. The “imaginative coscience” is mostly a primary and transmutative conscience, therefore needing to utilize ecstatic rhythms, the polysemy of images, the grace of marvel, glimpses and prospectives of the indefinable, of the inconsistence of the antimaterial, of the abyss of the quantic void. This is the privileged habitat in which dreams, fairies can introduce themselves, slices of memories which the artist meekly draws from ambulatories, porches, vestibules, galleries, inner courtyards, closets, cubby-holes and basements of the subconscious. In recent years Mario De Leo has worked hard, with patience and professionalism, to strengthen his “imaginative concience”. The focus of his work consists of the admission into the picture’s surface of material coming from electronics and computers. It’s a case of the overturning of the poetics of waste, of recycled rubbish, of the readymade, also practised by him. That was poetry of destructivism, of a social and existential kind. The actual poetry is based on a “constructivism” rather different to the classical one which was logical and rationalist. De Leo’s “constructivism” consists of combining materials, born of electronics and of coputers., with a sign vocabulary of a pictorial extraction. The result is an interlanguage, a vigilai Esperanto, rich in – magic and suggestions. It’s surely a post-modern situation; fused in it are abstractionism and painting-object, conceptual and poor art, symbolism and archetypology. AlI this research, conducted with notable aesthetic flair, has as it’ s ultimate goal the showing of a “universal epitome”.

5. A summary of the universe isn’t something that can be told, but only suggested by empirical means. De Leo has gradually had to invent materials and tecniques for himself, so that the spectator can perceive a notion of the universe, not of a cosmological type as has often appeared in the past, but of a tecnological nature. Copper staples normally used to seal cardboard boxes; ceramic capacitors for electronic components; printed circuits soldered onto brass wires, backgrounds on canvas or board, obtained at times with graffiti, at times carved with a screw-driver; cryptic writing created with templates; small cones made from brass sheet and soldered; simulation of old walIs of Puglia; mixed line frames with insertions of electronic elements. So: alI these elements contribute to form the formal lexicon of De Leo’s work. The spectator is shocked, because instead of the usual line-drawing produced by soft brushstrokes, he finds the hard signs of metals protruding on the surfaces. Now they sparkle, now they curve gently, now they are rigid and sharp, now they seem to vibrate like musical notes in space. The spaces of the backgrounds – grey and light, pale blue and brilliant, sometimes red and full of germinative pathos are worked either with caoticalIy overlapping “sails”, or through cryptic alphabets lost in the infinite, or present a flat background juxtaposed to wings. The result is of spatial expansion, of subdued depth, of infinitesimal rhythm. In this universe rich in unlimited plots, swarming with darting particles, alive with stilI infant time-space, galactic and entropic spiritualIy, the spectator is lost and finds himself alone and atomistic, contemplative and afraid. The mechanism of the tecnological elements are lost in a Big Bang made up of light and mystery.

6. Regarding reliefs applied to the surface, Mario De Leo speaks of a “wilI to dial into the cosmos” and also to “dial into the imagination in order to escape from a static situation”. This poetry is in directly corresponding affinity, both with the end of our millenium, and with the individuaI and social metabolization of the present electronic-computer era. The language of the artist is obviously of a metaphoric type and his intention is to speak to the sentiments. In particular he avails himself of a mythopoetic Ianguage, characterized by the indefinability of the message. The spectator’ s deep perception is thus quickened, incited and excited, oscillating between the zenith light and the solitary timeless dim light. This program is carried out by De Leo with the consciousness of the artisan, the skill of the artist and the perspicuity of the philosopher. “Nature is not only aristocratic, it is also esoteric” wrote CarI Gustav Jung. Esoterism is apparent in De Leo’s symbolism. The figuration of the stairway appears, sign of a passage from one level to another or from one way of being to another. The figuration of the labyrinth appears, sign of imprisonment and also of possible liberation. The arrow, symbol of penetrating power is present, as is the sail or the sailing ship, symbolizing a crossing towards the kingdom of the spirit and the unknowable. There is the pyramidal triangle, emblem of life and of the ternary power. De Leo uses these symbols with discretion, without ever imposing them, almost in a “low voice”. But encircled as they are by the cosmos, they impose their presence anyway. The most important symbol, however, is the cone, brought into context with the cusp always pointing towards the infinite, sometimes painted in tender colours, other times realized in brass sheet. The only nonflat element, the cone presents its widest part to the spectator and thus it seems that he is being invited to enter. Like the shot of a magic bIowtube, it invites on a journey towards that which has no limits. Equally, encircled and dispersed with respect to the magnetic cosmos, vibrant with microwaves and dotted neutrinos as well as virtual entities invisible on the surface of the paintings, these cones invented by De Leo always juxtaposed according to geometries tied to cabalistic numerals-appear to us subtly as the black holes of mystery and at the same time as the black holes of beyond-human fascination.

7. To end, it’s good to mention the “atmosphere” that De Leo’s paintings provoke. His works don’t evoke actual cosmic landscapes, even though they’re in an abstract style. The sensibility and the culture of De Leo comes from beyond. In fact it concerns the most extreme musical heritage, that near to electronic music. One can feel the experience of the so-called pure sounds, in which division of tone and tonecolour quality are practically without end. De Leo’ s paintings are therefore “music” transposed on a visive level and of the most sophisticated and rarefied kind. Here is the lyrical basis of these works, in which colour is always discreet, never agressive but involving the deepest levels. How then to synthesize these paintings? We’re talking of “creation myths”, that is of cosmogonic fantasies which metabolize today’s most advanced tecnological element – electronic and computer – through the representation of an expanding universe. This implies a twofold sentiment, on one side oceanic and on the other mystic. The former metal worker Mario De Leo has thus been transformed into a guru of art. His voyage will go on, and as he declared at the end of his interview, so will his search for new synthesis. For him therefore, involved in the research of new purposes, the carismatic axiom of Leonardo da Vinci “So, therefore painting is philosophy” is stilI valid today.

Riccardo Barletta, 1995