Shaking The Hands Of A Painter

“One wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive––or deeply unlocking––of areas of sensation other than simple illustrations of the object that you set out to do. Isn’t that what all art is about?” – Francis Bacon in an interview with David Sylvester

Shaking the hands of a painter is a tricky maneuver because you never know where her hands have been. When you shake the hand of a businessperson, you can be sure they’ve been conducting business, the same way that you can be sure the hands of a nurse have been nursing and the hands of a thief have been stealing. But when you shake the hands of a painter, you cannot be sure where her hands have been; you cannot be so sure because the answer is always more complex than simply “painting.” So when Lorella Paleni greeted me with her firm handshake at the door of her studio, you can bet I was hesitant.

Where could the hands of Paleni have possibly been last? Photo: Chris Phillips

My ambivalence comes from the realization that paintings are never only paintings. Some people paint windows: frames from where to experience or peek into a different reality. Others paint hammers: tools with which to bring about change. Still others paint mirrors: reflective surfaces from which to better understand the self. And others only paint love letters: containers of devotion. When confronted with the question of whether her paintings were windows, hammers, mirrors or love letters, Paleni, without hesitation or third thoughts replied "windows." "Ah, gotcha," I thought to myself, "I have shaken the hand of a window cleaner."

Looking Through The Window

I can see the reason for answering windows: sometimes her paintings become frames that open up into exterior scenes or peek into interior spaces. For example, there’s a painting in her studio that features a seminude male figure washing his face with what looks more like paint than water. Simultaneously, the painting also displays light blue drips on its surface, which also appear more like paint than water. This piece, Lorella tells me, is one of her favorites––or the one in her studio that she’s more satisfied with.

Lorella Paleni next to her favorite painting in the studio. Photo: Chris Phillips

To my surprise, her paintings began to appear both as windows and mirrors: when you stand in front of a window inside a lit space as you stare into the darkness outside, you may have noticed that, to avoid a complete reflection, you have to stand close enough to the window in order to see the outside through the silhouette of your figure. This is how Paleni’s paintings appeared to me: a space between the inside and the outside bridged by the self.

“Up here, losing it” acrylic and oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

Our conversation then turned to the idea of experiencing paintings as “events.” She tells me that she wishes to bring the viewer to a state free from conscious thought yet full of presence. A place where one feels more than one thinks; where one sees more than one looks and where one is both present and absent simultaneously. You know the feeling: it’s like staring at your reflection in the water––a conflation of the surface material, the self and time. “It’s about creating a moment that feels timeless,” she says. 

The Pink Rhinoceros In The Room

One of the most noticeable characteristics about Paleni’s windows and mirrors is her deployment of animal imagery. Fawns, pigs, birds, whether literal or symbolic, populate her work. But the one that sparked my interest the most was the a little painting in the corner of the room with the pink rhinoceros and a circus trainer. It must have been the relationship between the animal and the human constructed the artist that attracted me: rhinoceros can never possibly be trained against their instincts, can they?

Paintings by Paleni (notice the pink rhinoceros) Photo: Chris Phillips