A foreign body in this world



Mario Dalpra is a cosmopolitan – a traveller, yet whose approach to distant lands is way off-track from the usual visual and behavioural habits of travelling. His association with all the countries and places he goes to deliberately and indeed vehemently excludes taking over the foreign environment on his own terms. As Adorno once expressed it: culture hammers everything into a similar shape. So why should an artist be interested in assimilating the culture and aesthetic vocabulary of the country in which he happens to be at the moment? If influences are sometimes perceptible in Mario Dalpra's work, they materialise as distant reminiscences. They are generated from a subconscious stratum, in the same way that everything around us forms our own creativity, ideas and life. Whereas earlier it was Australia, Japan, Tasmania or the USA, it is now India that has become his second homeland, at least for six months in the year. But homeland, said Ernst Bloch, is a polarising concept, "something that shines into every childhood and yet nobody has ever been there." A quest for a supposed paradise, not infrequently located far away in countries that supplied the imagination with pictures it could form into dream landscapes and coded metaphors. This yearning has always motivated human beings to travel, to seek enlightenment and expansion of the mind's horizons. For Ernst Bloch, the joy of travel consists in temporary escape from home without any additional claims, yet nothing is more exotic in foreign lands than the foreigner himself. Even the artist admits that despite family ties, he remains a foreign body in this world, the social order of which is an enigma to him. Despite all eagerness to communicate and open up to people, the stranger – simply through the European lifestyle he bears within him – is a loner, gaped at, occasionally derided. Yet, off the track of familiar daily routine, this leads to an inversion of his own order of perception. A certain precision of vision, a conscious observation of things and actions – even those that are prosaic and everyday – marks the itinerant artist's creative process, seldom like a travelogue in contemporary art. The traveller, through his location in another environment, rather seems to be thrown back on his own resources. Alienation, according to Ernst Bloch, generates a kind of subjective, temporal dimensioning of space, so that  "space becomes the medium of change, the potential otherwise shown only by time."


Ejected from the necessities of everyday routine, time becomes infinite, and the scope of such space offers the opportunity – but also the danger – of drifting. Mario Dalpra counters this with discipline and the creation of his own daily agenda: rules that supply a kind of framework for sounding out creative energies. Thus, over a period of six months, he produced a sheet a day – always in the same format and almost in the same technique. Simply the strategy of not considering what external form the composition demands, or of getting by on the colours available at the time and in the place, generates the contemplation, concentration and charged energy to resist the superficial temptations of the exotic. In working on this series of drawings, Mario Dalpra developed his own rhythm for reproducing time sequences, time segments and variations of an aesthetic idea. His approach to the plane – to the blank surface of the paper – works like a balancing act between gesture, meditative tracking and exact form. Mario Dalpra transfers his composition to the sheet with the intense immediacy inherent in the medium of drawing. The complex pictorial tools of his characteristic mixed technique using artificial resin, pencil, wax crayon, acrylic and coloured pencil demonstrates once more that a traditional, historiographic differentiation of genres no longer works. The contrast and/or synthesis of painterly and graphic forms determine the composition. Here Mario Dalpra's drawings manifest relationships in manifold ways: those that are purely aesthetic, existing between the individual graphic and painterly elements and the free spaces between them, and those that ensue from the inherent contents of the rendering. The sheets produce neither an effect of spatial depth nor show a true compositional centre. The individual parts appear to act far more as equivalent identities next to each other or with each other in the picture. The observer is witness to a stage set, the stage shaped by the paper format, a backdrop against which forms and colours perform their encounter.


Sometimes the approach seems more narrative, but usually the sheet works like a brief instant allowing the viewer insight into another spatial dimension – into an action far away from his own reality. This also shows that Mario Dalpra places the objective and technical conception of the composition above the mimetic expression of a person's inner state, even when the series of drawings might also represent a kind of note in a personal diary, and the subjectivism of stroke, the graphic, individual touch of the artist has a major part to play in the aesthetic effect of the composition. The graphic elements – above all in combination with occasional text insertions – in one way suggest a reference, guide the eye of the observer and take up the discourse. However, the desire to express something definite and the pleasure won in reproducing the aesthetic considerations immanent to medium and paper size are equally balanced. Mario Dalpra does not allow the colours every licence, nor the graphic forms, which he places in the service of the narrative.


The colours are layered over the drawing as homogeneous planes, or they edge into the picture as barriers from above and below. Whatever, they define the spatial dimension and raise the drawing to a certain level. Their hue, whether dark or light, and their arrangement on the plane reinforce the effect of the figures. Sometimes they seem to hover in between, thrust themselves with a lightness of being away from the opaque ground of colour, while in other sheets they are enclosed by the colour. The spots of colour push their way into the middle of the picture threateningly; the movement towards the figure is physically palpable for the observer and elicits discomfort: "It is not enough to be free" the artist signals and draws floating, female figures into the ground of the white centre of the composition. Heads hanging on unattached strings. They remind one of Klimt's water nymphs, likewise of the Witches of Eastwick, who embody a polarising combination of seduction, eroticism and implicit disaster. In contrast, "Dog in action" is more humorous. A rather ungainly animal tries time and again to thrust against gravity, to lift off and move close to the red spot appearing at the top edge of the picture. While we are tempted to conjure up children's tales here, like those of the incorrigible little lamb who tries again and again to buck his way up to the sun, other sheets are far more dramatic. They show figures falling, evoking the fall of Icarus, or the encounter between man and woman in all its possibilities, mostly entwined about each other, or holding each other – stopping each other. Not infrequently, the female figure seems to take the lead, determine the direction, the man dragged with her as they cling to each other. Other creatures perform extreme contortions. Occasionally, the path through the coloured stripes breaking through into the picture is blocked and the way back cut off. "It is behind me!" Mario Dalpra writes into the picture and visualises the mute cry of the creature. So the experiences made by the artist on his own inner journey are not always pleasant. But is it legitimate to link the story of the pictures with the artist's autobiography? Hasn't it much more to do with "stories that are never real, imagined and inherited", as one Australian journalist wrote on the works of Mario Dalpra. The fabulous beasts, at first glance romantic and also naive in impression, tempt one towards associations in which interpretation, experience and memory are mingled. The rapid twisting round of their heads conveys complex emotionalism and state of being. But after looking at them for a while, Mario Dalpra's drawings prove to be incredibly exact compositions of intensely concentrated quality, each detail relating to other details. At the same time – perhaps especially so – it is a composition targeting the region that encompasses Not-Being-Able-To-Speak, which Augustine described when he said, "When someone asks me, I know it, but if I wish to explain it to someone else, I don't know it."


© Silvie Aigner 2005 
Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung, Frankfurt am Main, 1959 
Klaus Kufeld, Die Erfindung des Reisens, Vienna, 2005