Simply titled ‘Solo Show’, Thomas Braida’s exhibition at Monitor in Rome – the first in the city to showcase this Italian artist, who is central to the country’s resurgent interest in figurative painting – features a mixture of mythic, historical, genre and still-life paintings that demonstrate a profound commitment to art-historical research and connoisseurship.
There are 49 paintings on display, made over the last two years and representing Braida’s move away from the psychedelic and bacchanalian motifs employed in earlier works. While a sense of enchantment remains, these new paintings present less a dream-like landscape of the mind and more an investigation into the history of painting. One wall is hung, salon-style, with 34 small painted works of varying genres, together forming a large rectangle. Sumptuous still lifes are installed alongside waterfalls, a nude and a nature study of two toucans in red (Rosso tucano, Red Toucan, 2015).
Amid the references to mythology and history, Braida’s distinctive ability resides in interpreting the history of European painting in terms of variations in mark-making. At points, the fluidity and carnality of his paint evokes Chaïm Soutine or Francisco de Goya, such as with the large-scale Fighe di legno (2015) that depicts two nude women emerging from, yet still deeply entwined in, a gnarled tree, which arches over a lake at sunset. The work’s title, which translates as ‘pussies of wood’, plays on a derisory Italian expression applied to chasteor sexually disinterested women and,like many of Braida’s titles, it conjures further connotations. Here, the reference is seemingly to the myth of Apollo and Daphne in which the nymph, devoted to perpetual virginity, is pursued by the amorous god; calling out to her father, the river god Peneus, for help, she is transformed into a laurel tree.
In contrast to Fighe di legno’s fluidity, Hercules versus C. Rex (2015), a depiction of Hercules fighting off a wild dog, employs a drier application of paint, while the flowing curves of Pietà enorme (Enormous Pietà/Great Pity, 2015) demonstratea more functional application of paint, eschewing impasto in favour of simple forms and strong composition. This latter work depicts Christ being taken down from the cross, which is, of course, a celebrated art-historic genre, although a touch of contemporaneity can be seen in the modern dress of Mary Magdalene and a female figure on the far right, who appears to be taking a selfie with the assembled group.
Braida’s eclectic practice presents a challenge for those critics who dismiss the resurgence of figurative painting in recent years as superficial. He is one of a number of young painters working today who are able to demonstrate why the medium is still exciting.
In La battaglia del grano (2015) – a battle scene named after Mussolini’s economic policy, the ‘Battle for Grain’ – Braida deftly interprets the tendency of baroque masters (and later, for example, of Goya) to render human facial expressions and gestures out of an internecine weave of abstract marks. Here, the horror of war can be seen in the anguished expression on the face of a disembodied head, whose dead materiality is evoked through the density of layered paint (on close inspection the face literally falls away to reveal abstract splodges). Elsewhere in the same painting, a ripped trouser leg exposes raw flesh, which looks like a large ham hung in a shop display. Such closely observed human moments, conveyed so poignantly, confirm that Braida knows painting like few others of his generation.