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Cristina Canale: The Encounter

Luis Pérez-Oramas | 2021


When we cease to ask ourselves what art might be and instead ask ourselves when it might be, when it occurs, we find that it always comes to be an encounter, in an encounter; and when we cease to ask ourselves when painting came to its end — among its infinite deaths —, we simply notice that painting continues to exist, as a 'metamorphosis by addition' [1], surviving itself, often in antithetical fashion, and absorbing its seminal configurations into its newest manifestations, as a hybrid entity, “larval” and incessant.

Every time this happens, as with any form of art, it happens in an encounter. A painting — a work of visual arts — is always an encounter, it exists as an encounter: spectorial encounter, scopic encounter, encounter of gazes.

It is thus extremely important to understand the frontality of painting, painting as a frontal agency of visuality: the fact that painting in its countless iterations, from the ancient and cavernous to the most recent, including when the effect of painting surpasses its conventions and comes to exist in artistic forms that are no longer painting, the dimension of its facial power transpires: it is the face of the pictorial surface, the faciality of painting, painting as a visage that gazes at us, even when there are no longer distinguishable faces or figures represented therein.

This faciality of painting has never been more potent than in works where there is barely anything more than a surface obtuse with pigments, as in the famous Black Square by Kasimir Malevich. And it is precisely there, where it becomes possible to argue that — buried in pigments — lies our culture's most frontal face: the iconic Mandylion, the frontal visage of the Vera Icon, the face of Christ, a matter that the author himself elliptically indicated as he presented the work for the first time installed on the superior angles of a room, a sacred place where old orthodoxs from Russia used to place their icons.

Cristina Canale's most recent work seems to question this facial dimension, this frontal agency of painting, as if she were developing a system, a treaty of faces: they are portraits, often frontal, and also frequently devoid of expressive details, pure faces that look at us, like figural metonymies of painting itself.

The sovereignty of portraiture in western art does not reduce itself to the portrait genre. One can assert that the sovereignty of portraiture in western art embraces the entire realm of images, as if all images were, potentially, portraits of someone or something, a matter that photographic techniques and digital imagery have taken to paroxysm. In face of the rapture by these ephemeral images that characterize our contemporary world, Canale’s painting conveys a slow gaze, summoning us to an unhurried and repeated encounter with her faceless visages, with her profiles, and with the frontal density of chromatic matter where they take form.

Imago was, in ancient Rome, the name given to a funerary portrait, to the effigy of an absent one. The fact that, in our languages, this word became the absolute denominator of all images remains intriguing. Through his studies in Christian iconography, Hans Belting has reminded us that the Greeks used the word prosôpon both for a mask and a face, terms related to theater. This etymology and its theatrical roots vanished in Rome. Prosôpon was thus what we look at, the object of our gaze, what we have before our eyes, what looks back at us. The prosôpon offers itself to the gaze, by contrast to the mask that Romans called persona and that covered or concealed the actor's face. The Roman funerary imago was the mark — the casting — of the natural visage of someone who had died, their facies, their face. It was therefore, a face without individual expression, like Cristina Canale's portraits of some of her feminine characters: facies without vultus, without facial expression. [2]

The deliberate absence of vultus — that is, of facial expressivity — in Cristina Canale's portraits is compensated by the painting's complex chromatic apparatus, as if the architecture of form and color that gives them presence on the painting's surface could supplement their lack of expression. Prodigiously expressive in spite of their faceless faces these portraits remain an enigma that inquires us through the frontality of painting. It is painting that looks at us.

Among Canale's most recent works, there are some portraits of particular significance in that they feature a surprising — and novel — lateral dynamism. Faces depicted in profile emerge and mark the laterality of the pictorial field through their action, through their effect: it could be a cloud of breath, the smoke of a cigarette, a gaze that does not meet ours, but that nonetheless summons it.

The fact that the portrait's visages do not apprehend us frontally does not attenuate whatsoever the agency of the works' system in interrogating the faciality of painting, on the contrary: they define another dimension for the encounter, particularly activating the edges, their lateral resonance, their potential capability to determine space beyond its material limits.

This lateral dynamism, oblique, explosive, vital, energetic, appears to be a new feature in Cristina Canale's repertoire. A work titled The Encounter — a depiction of two characters in profile facing each other and set in a colorful atmospheric context, within a rich chromatic galaxy of undefined forms — hybrid, seductive, warm, uncertain in which a fetal figure seemingly appears — could be an emblem of these new works. It synthesizes the sensorial encounter through which the world unfolds for us, where the visible and the living are engendered, where the face- to-face in painting comes to life as its frontality apprehends our gaze. Cristina Canale's new and ample works embrace this immense cosmic ambition, with unprecedented plenitude.


[1] Vdr. Emanuele Coccia: Metamorphoses [Paris: Rivages, 2020], p.80
[2] Vdr. Hans Belting: Le masque et la personne du Christ in La vraie image [Paris: Gallimard, 2007], p. 71 sqs.

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