Mauro Piva has been making figurative paintings since the turn of the 21st century. In his most recent work, his engagement with the medium of painting has expanded from two to three-dimensions, in predominantly watercolour, acrylic and gouache-on-paper works carefully excavated with a scalpel and peeled apart, so they carry a sculptural quality. His solo show at Galeria Leme also includes two painted aluminium sculptures in the shape of his own mixing palettes, and a vitrine-held painting that references a display of Henri Matisse’s cut-out colour tests at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
At first glance, many of the works on view appear to be leftover scraps of paper and used paint trays – the reclaimed and reframed waste materials of artistic process. However, they are all meticulous representations of the tools of the trade – bits of masking tape, colour-test swabs and paint splatters – that Piva paints on single sheets of paper. These self-referential representations are more ideal than real: their colours and forms don’t always exactly match their original referents, though Piva’s sources are made clear by the works’ titles: Homenagem (teste de cores J. Albers) I (Tribute [Colour Test J. Albers] I, all works 2016), for instance, is a near-faithful reproduction of a Josef Albers colour test. Other works reference the papers on which Caspar David Friedrich, Ellsworth Kelly, William Kentridge, Elizabeth Peyton, William Turner and Piva himself tested their hues.
By representing fragments of other artists’ processes, Piva questions how the identity of a painter is constructed. Is Piva’s hand still present in a meticulous reproduction of another artist’s detritus? Whose markings are these, and can we still even consider them colour tests?
The exhibition at Leme also includes a number of paintings of Piva’s own creative debris, titled as ‘Self-portraits’, such as Autorretrato como godets (Self-Portrait as Mixing Palette). As in his reproductions of other artists’ materials, Piva has attempted to remove subjective expression from his own brushstrokes by painting realistic representations of them; by terming the resulting works ‘self-portraits’, he effectively declares his own identity commensurate with the instruments and materials he uses to complete these paintings. Is a painter only as much as his palette?
The works at Leme collapse terms commonly used to describe and distinguish paintings as well as their makers: they are simultaneously figurative (they represent real objects in the world), abstract (the reproduced marks are non-representational) and expressionistic (these marks are copied from preparatory sketches). By bringing the ephemeral materials of the creative process to the foreground and giving them a greater role and permanence, Piva highlights the self-referential nature of modern painting and the importance of process to his craft. For him, art is process and process is art.