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Painter Louisa Gagliardi’s Surreal Satisfactions

A glance at Gagliardi’s new paintings at Brussels’s Rodolphe Janssen Gallery

Looking at Louisa Gagliardi’s recent paintings involves a movement in two stages. First comes an appraisal of the overall scene, which tends to depict people or objects within the kind of domestic environment you might associate with a recently married, middle-class couple: a premium Ikea interior. Then comes a feeling of sinking through the surface, at which point other scenes begin to reveal themselves. This is an especially odd sensation given that Gagliardi’s are very flat paintings, rendered on a computer and then printed out in ink on vinyl, with additional touches of transparent gel medium applied by hand.

Gagliardi, who has a background in graphic design, started exhibiting paintings in 2012, transferring her digital-imaging skills from one discipline to the other. A small catalogue accompanying this exhibition shows paintings in different stages of becoming: one photograph captures the moiré effect of the computer screen on which the Photoshop eyedropper tool floats against a red patch; another depicts the same detail daubed with milky wet gel medium.

Louisa Gagliardi, Daily Jam, 2019, gel medium, ink on vinyl, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and rodolphe janssen, Brussels

Within the overall composition of these images, every surface is a potential frame for a vignette. The red area pictured in the catalogue is a plate of jam out of which a face and limbs emerge. In the same painting, Daily Jam (all works 2019), a Bialetti coffee pot doubles as a magic lantern in which two figures dressed for rain march in opposite directions. Steam from the pot clouds the pastoral view through the window, etiolating it from pastel green and pink into grey.

These are paintings populated by bodies seemingly cut from a single mould: each one is a gummy humanoid rendered as a rudimentary sexless silhouette, faceless and all soft edges like a gingerbread figure straight out of the oven. These ciphers are often sheathed in translucent jackets or clothes that match the colour of their basic bodies. In Palm Reader, large cupped hands hold four identically dressed figures wearing trousers, T-shirts and floppy hats. Hands, bodies and garments are all rendered in the same mortadella pink.

Louisa Gagliardi, Palm Reader, 2019, gel medium, ink on vinyl, 1.4 × 2.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and rodolphe janssen, Brussels

When Gagliardi does paint faces, they are elusive or heavily deconstructed. The eyes, lips and skin in Strained are disparately reflected in the shiny surfaces of a chromed colander and kitchen tap. In La Chaleur (Heat), the glowing embers of a barbecue produce plumes of smoke that resolve themselves into a trompe l’oeil face licking its lips. These images refuse to commit to fixity, both in terms of their narrative meaning and their technical state: even though each painting is unique (thanks to Gagliardi’s application of gel medium), the digital files from which they are printed still exist and are susceptible to replication, transformation and corruption.

For all their nebulous effects of transparent clothing, glass, steam and smoke, these paintings have an accessible and pleasingly naïf style. There are surreal tropes here that echo those in the oeuvres of Hieronymus Bosch, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte but, while each of those artists marshalled their version of phantasmagoria to serve a theological or philosophical purpose, such intent seems absent from Gagliardi’s works. I didn’t find anything particularly disturbing, or moralizing, about the surreal slippages in these bourgeois environments. Instead, these scenes have the quality of innocuous daydreams. The title of Gagliardi’s exhibition, ‘Side Effects of Satisfaction’, also has a double meaning. While it posits contentment as a catalyst for the works on show, it also equates satisfaction with a drug. But if it is a drug, its effect seems to be to detach the user from anything outside this cosy version of domesticity, rather than induce them to envision a brave new world beyond.

Louisia Gagliardi, 'Side Effects of Satisfaction' runs at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen until 4 May 2019.

Main image: Louisa Gagliardi, Blue Tan (detail), 2019, gel medium, ink on vinyl, 1.6 × 1.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and rodolphe janssen, Brussels

Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer based in London, UK. Her book Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration is published by Phaidon (2017).

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