Paolo Ventura: Eclipse at Edwynn Houk Gallery

©Paolo Ventura, Giardino Primaverile, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery

In subject matter, if nothing else, the Italian collagist Paolo Ventura resembles his compatriot Giorgio de Chirico. Both artists depict small human figures against large, and largely empty, cityscapes. And they both have a deep interest in the relationship between the human figure and space. But where de Chirico’s famous paintings, like The Enigma of Arrival, are openly melancholic, Ventura approaches his subject sideways: peopling his works with clowns and musicians, rendering his skies in deceptive, almost innocently light hues.

It’s like watching a comedy acted on a surrealist stage-set. At the bottom left corner of Giardino Primaverile (2017), for example, a father and son play a game of piñata. The piñata is cherry-red; it hangs from an elegantly flowering tree. If that were all, the scene would be idyllic. But the two stand in a barren, almost entirely depopulated patch of land with two rundown buildings. They seem to be playing on the edge of some abyss.

The works on view through November 11 at Edwynn Houk Gallery are jigsaws of thick paper panels, each roughly snapshot-sized, and painted in dreamy, washed-out watercolors. The panels are usually monochrome: they stand for bits of empty sky, barren roads and fields, patches of water. They come to form bare cityscapes or beachscapes, though those terms are too emphatic. Ventura doesn’t aim for verisimilitude – the opposite, in fact. His scenes are resolutely two-dimensional: backdrops for dreaming, landscapes of the mind.

©Paolo Ventura, La Cercatrice di Conchiglie, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery

Ventura then inserts photographed human figures into these scenes. The figures come in two sizes. The first, as in a de Chirico, are tiny, roughly on scale for a single panel. The second, far larger, comfortably inhabit the frame of the work like figures in Magritte. Neither are appropriated cut-outs. Ventura took the photos himself, using models but also shooting family members including his twin brother and his wife. There are even some self-portraits.

Sometimes, as in La Cercatrice di Conchiglie (2017), an image of three bathers in the ocean, the casting, posing, and pasting is seamless: it’s as if a real photograph was just painted over. But more often, Ventura reveals the seams in his fiction: figures are posted in unlikely positions. And there is a general sense that they are lost, that their situation is as absurd as the clothes they wear.