The first thing the perceptive viewer notices about the monumental watercolors of Salvatore Ventura is that the medium of watercolor is being coaxed to do something outside its usual domain. Watercolor has come to be associated with ephemeral nature because of its ability to record the effect of light and delicate subtleties. One thinks of the heroic watercolors of Turner.
When it has been used in conjunction with urban life or architecture, it has been primarily to record, to make notebook sketches. Ventura convincingly gives watercolor the task of delineating a stolid subject matter. The latent irony in his choice of medium, and the straightforward way in which it succeeds, adds to the power of his work. Imperfect details crop up: Ventura permits his translucent medium to bleed occasionally and selectively. This declaration of vulnerability only serves to call attention to the heroic use to which the artist is putting his medium.
Ventura understands the power that can be gained from compression. He works from photographs of entire facades but rigorously goes over the photograph with a framing device to isolate parts of the whole. By capturing only parts, Ventura confounds our usual expectations somewhat; though subject matter is omnipresent, there is a reduction to pure form, to geometry. In many respects Ventura is a geometric abstractionist.
But that there it a tie to reality cannot be gotten away from and this is the hidden strength of the work. This isn't abstraction but, as Ventura puts it, "cold hard reality." He goes on to say as a general philosophy, that "to some extent we're all involved in the hyper real," a phrase which captures the hard-bitten temper of our times. This uncompromising attitude works against the nostalgia that inevitably accompanies the use of grand edifices as exclusive subject matter. Ventura's cropping, using only a part of the whole, assures that the paintings won't drift into picturesqueness, but will have above all an elemental dynamism.
Letting part of a building stand for a whole is a very contemporary attitude. The emphasis is thus less on the recording of a particular building than on the artist himself controlling various ineffable but dynamic forces. Most of Ventura's paintings are titled, but tellingly when there are titles they hint at physical sensations. A painting which features the capitol of an ionic column is called Gravity; the supports of a balustrade of a stairway, highlighting an insistent modular arrangement are Rise and Fall; a prominent yawing arch with a deep interior shadow is enticingly called Threshold #1.
Strengthening the elemental force of the work is Ventura's treatment of shadow; he considers it, in his own words, as a separate object. It doesn't adumbrate the architectural detail but is on par with the solid masses. But there is an ineluctable de-stabilizing that goes along with giving insubstantial shadow so much weight. It underscores a primary point Ventura makes about his work. He declares that he is not painting utopia.
The most intriguing parallel for Ventura's art is the visionary art of the enlightenment in France. Architects in the 18th century envisioned remarkable buildings that exploited sheer geometry. By reducing spheres, cubes, and triangles to their essence, the architects were aiming at a sort of utopia, one far above the humanity of the day but something for humanity to aspire to. Ventura's work superficially resembles Enlightenment schemes, but it is clearly based upon the past and not in some envisioned future. His trick is not to make the viewer think of some romantic past but in his fortunate phrase to give "visual CPR to his subjects."
To resuscitate geometry is not the same as designing utopia, but it does aim high. Ventura will forgive the viewer who senses excitement when looking at his work; who senses that it more than cold, hard reality.
The buildings from which Ventura abstracts his compositions are actual buildings, mostly in St. Louis where the artist has a related job, recording architectural details for a preservation firm. His first work in watercolor, "Art Museum" is the St. Louis Art Museum building designed by Cass Gilbert, so began with a very high pedigree. He aspires to returning to a museum as subject. The well-known curves of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim are ripe for Ventura's treatment.
Ultimately, Ventura's work is important because it participates in a major, current art world dialogue. For the entire twentieth century the development of art has meant abstract art. Returns to representational subject matter have had the effect of refreshing abstraction when it became too theoretical. These days there is a genuine appetite for narrative content, which on the surface, would seem inimical to abstraction.
Above all artists know how to meet challenge innovatively.
Ventura provides all the pleasures of a rigorous geometric abstraction tied to a subject matter that at bottom carries great emotional weight. And his watercolor medium rivets attention as a kind of tour de force. Yet for all the diverse streams that feed it Salvatore Ventura's is exceptionally single-minded art. It knows what it is about and communicates with great poise and intelligence.
William Zimmer, Contributing Critic
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