The artwork of Cesare Berlingeri is something between painting, sculpture, and design. The artist—who was born in 1948 in a small hamlet called Cittanova, which is located in the southern Italian province of Reggio Calabria—comes from an unexpected background: church decorator and set designer. Much of his art is intimately tied to this work, but it all began with a struggle as a young man from southern Italy.
“He was born in a place where there is not a lot of opportunity, so he went north to find it,” says Franco Valli, president of Valli Art Gallery in Wynwood, which currently represents Berlingeri in the United States.
When the artist arrived for a promised job, he found out it was totally fake. He eventually found a job as a church decorator in the Italian region of Piedmont, and the 20-something artist was able to start saving money and making art.
By the late 1960s, Berlingeri was hanging out with a group of influential artists, philosophers, and poets in Rome, including the acclaimed painter Tano Festa, who Valli says was “one of his most important friends,” and had a big impact on the artist up until Festa’s death in 1988. As Berlingeri’s social world broadened, so too did his aesthetic horizons.
In 1968, a year marked by intense cultural and political activity, he travelled around Europe, met other artists, and realized the radical departures that contemporary art was making. Before this trip, he was painting mostly abstract figuration and shapes in the vein of Picasso and Kandinsky, but the travel seemed to have triggered something in Berlingeri—”his inspiration was the travel,” Valli says. After the revelatory trip, Berlingeri started employing his art skills in Rome as a designer of sets and costumes for theater and television.
The theater was where the artist started to experiment with large-scale painting and gestures. “One day, when he was working in the theater,” Valli says, “He made a big sky—a big blue sky for the scenographer. When the performance was done, the assistant started to fold the sky. [Berlingeri] started to think, ‘Oh my god, they’re folding sky.’”This moment would change his entire perspective on art.
The artist started to focus on material itself: instead of applying the art to the canvas, the canvas became a work of its own. He started folding canvases into painted sculptures, or art objects, or 3D-paintings (they’re open to interpretation). His work as a set designer started integrating conceptually with his fine art practice, and vice versa.
In 1976, Berlingeri worked with Rai TV, the Italian national public broadcasting company, on several productions. From circus costumery to the massive re-creation of a historic flood in a small town in southern Italy, the artist developed large-scale urban interventions, including “Trasparenze” in 1978. A series of works that pushed the boundaries of the canvas by exploring their penetrability and borders through folding and other alterations, these became the artist’s signature moves that would come to define his work.
His work then started to gain more international recognition. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Berlingeri was invited to participate in exhibitions from Milan to Tokyo, all the while he maintained a thriving theater practice in Italy. As the artist remarked in an exhibition catalogue from the time, “In the theatre, I was able to create large pictures that moved on the stage. I gave free rein to my desire to make the stage into a dynamic painting.”
Today, Berlingeri is still perfecting his method of combining the theater and the painting. He works with several assistants to fold massive canvases, work which is physically demanding and intellectually daunting, and does so, supposedly, without falling into the trap of serial production. “Every piece is a unique piece, one of a kind,” says his gallerist Valli, “but the technique never changes.”
The artist, while maintaining and building upon the same method since the 1970s, still manages to avoid uniformity in his oeuvre. “He never repeats the same color,” Valli adds. “Every time, it’s something different.”
Valli sees poetry in the artworks that relate to Berlingeri’s early life of traveling. “When you move from one place to another, you probably take a big blanket and you put all your stuff in it. He started to think about every artwork as a travel from one place to another,” the gallerist says. “You put your memories inside it. The canvas is closed by the fold.”
Rather than relocate to a larger metropolis, Berlingeri lives and works in Taurianova, a small municipality in Southern Italy. Rather than travelling, the artist decided to settle in a familiar region close to home, a place that once contained very little opportunity.