October 29, 2014
The work of Salvatore Emblema, recently on view at Santa Fe’s David Richard Gallery, defies conventions, connecting abstract oil painting to textile-and-fiber arts and Arte Povera. Using dethreaded burlap canvases, painted with pigmented ashes and soil, Emblema created works that suspend color between the viewer and the wall on a translucent scrim. Emblema writes of his preoccupation, “Could ‘transparence’ be a new word for painting? I think so. And if it is true, then we should work hard, because one day we will conceive painting without body, made up only of lights and emotions. Without any canvases supporting them, without any lies justifying their existence.” In his work, he achieved what other artists of his generation, particularly Jules Olitski, had aimed for: the ability to transcend painting and simply float color in a dazzling spectacle before viewers.
In Untitled 0307 (1976), the thin grid of burlap fibers supports a color field of Mars red, cascading from the painting’s top and edged with white toward the middle. Emblema’s variations on the density of the fabric’s weave creates further colors—pale beige, tan, sandy, and nearly white—just as different openings allow the white of the wall behind the artwork to be more or less visible. The dethreaded canvas’ cruciform patterning is counterbalanced by the painterly application of color, reminiscent of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, whom Emblema met on a visit to New York in the 1950s.
In other works, such as Untitled 1926 and Untitled 2172 (both 2005), Emblema uses collage to create further layers. Stitching whole burlap strips painted with tinted soil onto dethreaded and stained burlap, the artist extends his manipulation of the surface as a form of mark-making, both by reductive and additive measures. In the latter painting, a line of pink stitches runs horizontally across the middle of the canvas, which is also dyed pink. In the center of the painting run three horizontal strips of fabric, each with a stripe of dry-brushed paint in blue or pink. The landscape-like abstraction bridges traditional compositional techniques and contemporary deconstructions of the painted surface by way of Abstract Expressionist imagery. Having moved to the United States in the mid-20th century, his work connects the old world and the new, and over the years has created space for artists, such as emerging talents Ethan Cook and Sheila Pepe, to be explored.