Art Review: Nitya Brighenti, Vermont Supreme Court Gallery | Art review | Seven days

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In a solo exhibition entitled “Cities and Deserts”, currently at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery, Osvaldo Nitya Brighenti features paintings of landscapes, cityscapes and portraits. Some works represent distant places – Benares, India; Band-I-Amir, Afghanistan — with a hint of hazy exoticism; others, the familiar rooftops of Montpellier or an overgrown sinkhole in the artist’s former backyard in Hawaii. A self-portrait shows a mustachioed man with white hair draped in animal skins.

What enhances the interest of these mainly traditional paintings is the interaction between Brighenti’s art and his writing. Cities and deserts are rendered in paint, but he does not think of either in the literal sense. His poetic artist statement begins with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche comparing famous men to cities; he goes on to suggest that a desert is “not just a stretch of sand, but rather a suspension of the dominant culture.”

Likewise, Brighenti’s minimalist poems expand the ways of seeing the paintings they accompany. The combination of word and image reveals an artist immersed in literature and philosophy, who paints the ideas, places and people that matter most to him.

“La Voragine” (“The Chasm”), for example, uses dense brushwork to depict a profusion of plant life at the edge of an indistinct hole in the ground. If the painting itself is underwhelming, the accompanying label invites the imagination to dig deeper: “The abyss”, as Brighenti calls the hole, “straight across this island / and through the unconscious / to transcendence / and I will fall there.”

Brighenti was born in a small village in Italy and earned a master’s degree in architecture in Venice in 1974, according to a biography on Robert Paul’s website, the Stowe Gallery which represents him. The architecture, however, was just a job, he recently told the Herald of Rutlandwhile “painting has always been my main focus”.

He studied with a painter in Trieste, Italy, and continued his artistic training at the Art Students League in New York and the Tsering Art School in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Although it’s unclear where he acquired his nickname, “Nitya” means “always, eternal” in Sanskrit.) Brighenti has lived and traveled all over the world. He moved to Vermont in 2017, after 15 years in Hawaii, and now lives in Barre.

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"Band-I-Amir 1"

Among Brighenti’s original influences are two 19th-century Italian painters: Guglielmo Ciardi, known for his traditional landscape paintings of his native Venice; and Silvestro Lega, who created realistic portraits. Brighenti’s work often goes abstract in thick brushstrokes to form moody backgrounds, but his overall approach is equally representative.

This classic style can sometimes contain radical content. “Herzen” is one of Brighenti’s portraits of nihilists, anarchists, populists and radicals that appeared in his 2018 solo exhibition titled “Storm” at Studio Place Arts in Barre. Russian writer and thinker Aleksandr Herzen (1812-1870), known as “the father of Russian socialism”, slumps against a table, his head resting on a palm, his brow furrowed in concentration. Around him, the brushstroke is a frenzy of scratching and scribbling, as if evoking Herzen’s own passionate writings.

“Detournement 1: Hands Down” and “Detournement 2: Dearskin Glove” (yes, “dear”, not “deer”) depict two clasped hands and a yellow-gloved hand, respectively. Since a hijack is an art-related or publicity-related prank used by radical groups to subvert mainstream culture, the subject matter of the paintings seems pretty bland. But Brighenti’s poetic label suggests that it is a stylistic subversion aimed at modern art: “To cross the path of modern art / to check and revisit ancient poetics, / for example Caravaggio or the ‘ tenebrist’ Ribera… / is it advantageous?”

Many paintings intertwine memories of Brighenti’s past travels and his immersion in literature. “Band-I-Amir 1” and “2”, a diptych of a young man in a dewy Afghan desert, recall a visit the artist made to this “dusty” region when he was young. In his artist statement, he adds: “Rimbaud, our hero-poet, wasn’t he also fed up when he said ‘shit for poetry’ and went to the Harar desert?”

A label accompanying “Vierzehnheiligen”, a vertical diptych showing the nave of a baroque church in Germany, imagines “Gogol’s Nose is dressed as an officer / stands in this well-known cathedral […] and it is impossible to stop it.” In the corner of this JMW-Turneresque rendering, a shadowy face can be seen.

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"red desert"

The few watercolors on display demonstrate remarkable skill, and the medium seems more suited than oil to Brighenti’s cityscapes. The watercolor diptych “The Burning Ghats 1” and “2” captures the buildings that clutter a ghat in India – the steps leading to a holy site on the Ganges – with the eye of an architect.

In the watercolor “Rutland”, the late afternoon shadows in the foreground lend interest to the central composition of a church and a street.

“Cities and Deserts” is as interesting for what it reveals about the imagination, readings and travels of a seasoned artist as for the works themselves. Brighenti’s life appears to be a movement, as do the cities and literal deserts in this exhibition: he writes about the place on the Ganges that can never be found again due to flooding and Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan that he once saw the Taliban destroyed in 2001.

Obviously, Brighenti found more stability in the Green Mountains. As he writes in his artist statement: “In Vermont, I found ‘common ground’ – returning to the countryside where I was born.”