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Nostalgia for the unknown


I have known Paolo Pessarelli for a very long time. I have followed with interest his truly distinctive work over the years, rooted as it is in his two souls, the artist and the economist. He is a refined artist who has never given up his quest. Art is an existential need to him. This short book accompanies the opening of the artist’s new atelier in the Santa Giulia district in Milan, which is a great opportunity for him and the audience to appreciate his works in the best possible way. A great art installation made of photographs of people dominates the exhibition from the main wall of the atelier. Two-hundred-seventy-five photographs of people from the past make up the installation. Is there any relation between them? There is none. Pessarelli found these photographs and picked them out from market stands and in small antiques markets. The photographs moved him so deeply that he decided to rescue them, bring them back to memory and turn them into something different.

His work involves a kind of ritual. In times of speed and fast living, rituals tend to fade away, as emphasized notably in the interesting essay by the South Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. It is a matter of time and time is one of the beating hearts of the artistic quest of Paolo Pessarelli, a private man who also keeps an open attitude towards the world. No one owns the photograph when the story begins. In most cases, the subject of the photograph is no more, so are his family and friends. That is why that image, that portrait end up in the hands of a tallyman after going through a lot, then taken to street markets along with thousands of other similar objects. Yet those faces have an expression, those people wear clothes and hide secrets that we can only imagine. Sometimes there are words written on the back of the photographs, sometimes it is a simple postcard like back in the day, but it is also possible to find little inscriptions on their front. Pessarelli has come across them on market stalls during his journeys around the world while pursuing his adventurous search for iconographic subjects. He is struck by a character, a man, a woman, a child. There are few elderly people, though. Maybe because they do not represent the future. The photographs catch the attention for they want to be picked and this reminds me for some reason of Fire-Eater’s puppets in Pinocchio. The huge puppet-master picked them to cast them into the fire and so they pulled back. Here, on the contrary, the photographs show themselves, they come forward to be picked by Paolo. Once purchased, the artist takes them to his studio, scans them and chooses the details that arouse his interest. Each photograph has a face in it, that’s for sure. They may be medium close-ups, either half- or full-length portraits, this may vary, but a face is always there. Some expressions are not so easy to forget. The characters create a harmonious counterpoint in which the individual prevails, no matter what.

I would like to emphasize that the artist’s choice is decisive; this is where the dialogue between the two figures begins, an exchange between the trace, the recording, the sign of the face on the paper and the eyes, the gaze and the attention of Paolo. From here begins a journey that makes the artist grow fond of the different images. In this respect, the artist likes to quote a passage from Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet: «Ah, no nostalgia hurts me as much as nostalgia for things that never existed! The longing I feel when I think of the past I’ve lived in real time, when I weep over the corpse of my childhood life - this can’t compare to the fervour of my trembling grief as I weep over the non-reality of my dreams’ humble characters, even the minor ones I recall having seen just once in my pseudo-life, while turning a corner in my envisioned world, or while passing through a doorway on a street that I walked up and down in the same dream.». The people we stare at did certainly exist, analogue photography does not lie in this case, but they did not exist for Paolo, who is touched by them and feels nostalgic when looking at them, just as we do when we look at them. Being nostalgic of nostalgia is maybe one of the most heart-breaking feelings we might experience. I think I can hear their voices, sense their distance and go beyond those images. This is where imagination comes into play: the voice, the scent, the story of life’s events. Did those children grow up into men and women? Were they meant to be children forever? We’ll never know. Some works by Christian Boltanski and Lena Liv come to my mind. Here, work focuses on a time and on situations that were never experienced. However, while the works of these two artists relate to people belonging to a group, to a specific situation, Paolo’s works deal only with individuals. Through them, we return to ourselves.

«I believe that remembrance, the memory of forgotten people, wondering what their lives might have been are not the only theme at play when I choose old photographs, when I look at the faces, at the gazes, at the attitudes reproduced in my works. My work is undoubtedly grounded in these values but there is more to it than that. There is this present and future dimension, symbolized by the peculiar way those images manage to make parts of themselves resonate in the viewer. What’s more, they relate to the individual’s present experiences, thus allowing to process feelings and personal awareness that belong to the intimate sphere and can be triggered by an expression, the detail of a dress, a rebellious lock of hair or the posture of a hand. Through those images from the past, this particular legacy connects the souls of different generations, transcends time and conveys the strength we all need to build the future. It is this resonance, this force so alive and topical that make us nostalgic about people who have never met each other, because in fact they speak to us about ourselves, our values, our desires and our dreams». The images are scanned, then printed. The background is coloured with a gold pencil. The artist works on these ready-made background layers. Gold emphasizes the uniqueness of those faces, their sacredness, yet not in a religious sense, but in a sense of distinctiveness. Human life is unique and unrepeatable and, as such, sacred. Gold is a form of celebration. Here, again, we go back to the ritual. Pessarelli's work is slow, thoughtful, in sharp contrast with the historical period in which it takes shape.

In a world obsessed with innovation, the never seen before, achieving the amazing no matter what it takes, his work goes in the opposite direction. It is a ritual form where time is suspended, it just goes quiet, and you can recognise yourself by focusing on the other than yourself. To put it in the words of Byung-Chul Han, the images chosen by the artist establish a community with no communication, devoid of all the mainstream collective narcissism exemplified by selfies. The photographs are inserted in small plastic pockets together with neatly folded pages of the Financial Times that has been Paolo’s working tool for years in his previous line of work, whose peculiar pink colour he loves so much. Those pages that change every day and are outdated by the time they reach the readers' hands, have been for him, until quite recently, valuable aids, life partners, whose physical beauty he was able to grasp despite the apparent dryness of their content. «The newspaper stock market section contains numbers that represent a company, securities management, shares. Mankind is at work behind these numbers, even for one fleeting moment, because, in the meantime, these numbers have already changed». To quote a great Polish philosopher and sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, this is liquid modernity.

These pages portray a moment in human history, and beside them, the artist places an image fished out of humanity’s iconic maremagnum. No one knows anything about the person depicted, whose identity is forever lost in time because of death. After all, photography, according to Roland Barthes, is a non-dialectical medium, closely linked to death. The artist places the plastic pockets containing the photographs and the newspaper in boxes lined with newspaper sheets where they are neatly stored. In his quest, the artist can barely separate work from the rest of his life. It all has to make sense to him, but there are no strict conceptual rules when it comes to organizing his work. «The photographs I process, handle and then file away are my daily work. And I love it. When I choose the photographs, I am already thinking ahead to the time I will spend working with them».

The artist also works with newspaper’s pages, highlights the words with gold and graphically transforms them, as is the case with the stock market section with its prices of high-risk securities that require capital increase.

None of this would be possible without the work of man. The stock market, just like life, passes by, except when it grows into poetry. Whoever wishes to approach the artistic quest of Paolo Pessarelli has the chance to take part in this transformation and in the artist’s patient work on images and numbers, forever existing.

Angela Madesani



In my work I use old photographs purchased at flea markets; that's where they land after passing hands countless times, when the very last stronghold of the emotional chain also falls.

A sort of certification of forgotten people.

They are not an easy object to find; they are often thrown amidst the collections of postal cards or old themed postcards. The more careful secondhand dealers collect them in a box or offer them still contained in old, half-filled family albums. As I riffle with them in my hands, one by one, and the moment I look at those faces that no one can give a name or a story to anymore, through what I catch at a glance, in the detail of a tuft of hair or an earring, well, that's when I choose them. Or better, that's when we choose each other.


I digitize the photos from which I get a close-up of the face that I print on drawing paper; my work starts here, with the gold pencil. Strokes are sharp and incisive in the background, with a lighter hatch on the face, so as to create a veil. Gold to express the value, the desire to exalt each single story that face is carrying, gold that diffuses a soft light and creates a common thread among many individual stories. The pencil that runs on a shirt collar, on a barely hinted smile is the way I relate to each of them and establish a connection that makes them alive, again.


I file the photos to collect them, to welcome them according to an order that allows you to look at them separately, one by one, to rediscover that uniqueness that embodies the most authentic dimension, the soul. It is when I am filing the photos that I start using newspaper, the type of paper that has been my working tool for many years: ordered numbers that, as ephemeral as they are continuously changing and quickly losing value, still express the swarming of activities, businesses, the economy, the worldwide network of interests.


This paper gives life and warmth to the numbers because it wraps them with the color of the skin. The combination of sheets packed with figures with those faces that come from a forgotten past allows us to reflect on two dimensions: that of coded relationships, of exchanges that are somewhat standardized but also the extraordinary and powerful dimension of individual stories that can hardly leave a trace in the collective narrative and that I wanted to place at the heart of my project.


Paolo Pessarelli



When economy becomes a support for art and art manages to give a meaning to economy

The recent works of Paolo Pessarelli by Angela Madesani



Personal history is most of the time fundamental to grasp the quest of an artist in all its entirety. This is indeed true of Paolo Pessarelli, an economist by background and profession and who, for obvious reasons, holds the Financial Times in his hands every day. An absolutely incomprehensible newspaper for non-professionals: written in very small characters, full of letters and numbers, which refer to the situation and destinies of the world, printed on pink paper like other newspapers of that kind. Actually, when people read them, those numbers and those words are already outdated, they no longer have an objective value, they are a proof of what happened yesterday, today is in progress. We live in real time. The pages of the most influential economic newspaper in the world are Pessarelli's works' support.

The numbers are illegible, the letters too: they become empty signs. It is a collection of the memory of the macro-history of the world, that of politics, of the economy on which he places the photographs of normal people, collected in flea markets. Hundreds of micro-stories that he fished out of nowhere, saved from a kind of eternal oblivion. In fact, those people who lived fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, are probably already dead, indeed are certainly already dead, with their images are more alive than those sheets of paper. Thus the apparent nonsense becomes a stimulating, intelligent aesthetic operation. It is an attempt at conservation, with no archival or scientific intent, rather a sentimental one.

The people, the common people, the students, the military, the girls, the seamstresses and the employees pass by his work which gives them a little eternity. Objects, photographs, indices of reality, are the only thing that remains of a person even when actual memory of that person has faded. The artist's reflection recalls the research of Christian Boltanski, even if here the atmosphere is different, more tied to the contingencies of our time.


The investigation is aimed at reading the great history that does not reflect each and everyone's feelings. Destiny is nearly always forgetfulness. Let's think of time without the possibility of recording the images, of the hundreds of millions of people who have passed through, without leaving anything behind, their experience lost.


And, again, the reference to the world of economics, to the eternal struggle, to competition without rules. An interesting relationship is created in his work between the black and white images of the photographs and the color of the newspaper, to create a sort of pictorial contrast, because Pessarelli is in the first instance a painter.


The core of Pessarelli's work is the reflection on the falsity of history which mostly represents human aggression, beyond normal. Likewise, Perec and his concept of infra-ordinariness. We only talk about trains when they derail, about workers when they go on strike. The attempt is to restore the dignity of certain episodes.


His becomes a great library of memory in the manner of Hrabal, where the codes are confused, change their original destination and he basically instills some sense, with subtle and intelligent irony, to what is useless. The artist manages to give a new existence to the characters fished out at random from the stalls of secondhand dealers, who are called into play to act one more time and he makes fun of the serious and, in the end, insignificant newspaper economy pages by changing their linguistic value .


Each and every one of us must have experienced the situation of finding, buried in a drawer, an old postcard from our childhood, handwritten in awkward, naive writing, at times corrected by the mother's more skillful handwriting, with the greetings of our little friend or girlfriend of the time, during the summer.


Who knows? Who knows how things turned out? Beauty, perhaps, is just not being able to know everything. Paolo Pessarelli, strenuous researcher, collector of other people's memories, through the photographs found on the stalls of flea markets, in other people's drawers, perhaps even in his own, has found one that gives the title to the main work of the exhibition that we are going to present here. It is a document sent in 1912. A Spanish child wrote it.


The postcard starts with these words: Mi querido José, my dear José, with a touch of tenderness. It is a typical image of the time: two children in a tender attitude. The sender is from Malaga, the recipient is from Barcelona. They had met at the sea. The tone is childish. It is a normal situation, there is no exasperation.


And Pessarelli is interested in this normality: the normality of everyday life, where everything flows. We could snatch the title from a successful French film: Life is a long, peaceful river, but, I would add, not always and not so peaceful. Individual stories come out of this normality. Thus the postcard is reproduced then placed at the center of this medium-large size work. The rest consists of the reconstruction of a shelving housing more than a thousand pages of economic newspapers: the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Il Sole 24ore with their paper in shades of fleshy pink, which recalls the skin of the human body.

Economy newspapers, which are the working tool he uses everyday in the pharmaceutical company where he works, represent the macro-history, that of yesterday, made of numbers, work and strategies. These newspapers contain texts about the world, stories of large industrial groups, of companies of varying depth, which in turn are made up of many people with their own micro-stories. That is, photographic image, trace, proof, memory of life.


Almost every evening, at home, Pessarelli folds the newspaper sheets, like a sort of secular ritual. It is a daily gesture, a mantra that becomes value added. In other works on display, newspapers folded page by page, with their flawless graphics, with their boring contents, are inserted in transparent plastic pockets: as if he were able to block, suspend those stories that belong to everyone. In an apparently retro atmosphere, the artist speaks loud and clear to our present time.


A way to rise up against standardization, globalization. His works emanate stories of individuals. They collect forgotten aspects of humanity, through images, which become a trace, an index of reality. The stories he tells are in most cases impossible to accurately reconstruct. One must be satisfied with sensations. Of course, his is not a universal story, since photographic images are taken only after a certain date. It is, however, a great archive showing the differences between individuals. In the work, which gives the title to the exhibition, it is the story of two people who bring our feelings back to that dimension of individuality, which should be one of the most important values ​​of our time. He is sending a clear message through his art: even in times of globalization we can stay true to ourselves.


A practice of small gestures, apparently unimportant, can be transformed into an antidote against the weight of what surrounds us, against the homogenization of phenomena. His work goes deep, it requires a long observation time to be understood in its entirety, it is a clear, yet firm response to widespread superficiality, to the inertia to go beyond the skin, the appearance of things .


Art should not be a luxury for a few, but a possibility that everyone should have to express sensations, emotions, both as users and as protagonists. And the protagonists of his works are not those few who went down in history, who left an indelible mark in the collective memory, those of I Sepolcri by Ugo Foscolo. They are the majority, the people, those whose name no one will remember , the face, history, but they are also the ones who with their deeds, easily celebrated rhetoric aside, have built the world day by day , hour by hour. In this way, the strength of the content can go beyond the mere economic value of the object, at a time of audience, of shopping, when only what reaches the highest price in auctions becomes of any interest.

by Angela Madesani

Ancora 1


Art is an angelic, geometric mood (...) Modulation is what matters, not modeling.

It is not a play on words: modeling comes from model-nature-disorder; modulation from module-rule-order.  

Fausto Melotti


For Paolo Pessarelli, order has become a categorical imperative. Unyielding and peremptory, the young Milanese artist found in the rule the coordinates of his pictorial work. Abandoning improvisations, forgetting the free and indomitable brush strokes of his early years, Pessarelli now focuses on an austere composition, free of misleading smudges or pressing chromatic orgies. For him, creating has become synonymous with harmonizing, in the most classic and ethical sense of the term. The pictorial field has become the place where distances, events are measured, the abscissas of the visual spectrum are traced, the lines and cartographic points of an increasingly predictable and standardized world are noted down and "catalogued".


Geometric calculations and binary graphs give shape to behavior maps, and from them phenomenal intensity indices are measured, data is collected and life diagrams are constructed. These almost monochrome textures are born out of an increasingly pressing need for structure and synthesis, from a need to mark, divide and select the time of life into consecutive instants, in rhythmic sequences.


But not just that. It is the theorizing of a possible philosophy. If you will forgive the comparison, it is like when you are in front of a piece of music: there are those who are satisfied with savoring the whole melody and those who, on the other hand, feel the need to deal with the score, to read single notes, to see the breaks and the detachments of each instrument. They are two legitimate attitudes, that however imply two different approaches.


Pessarelli has embraced the latter, albeit with some small adjustments. Thus, within parallel tracks and thin orthogonal lines, his challenge to the world wears off, but is not over; his unfinished attempt to define a theorem whose postulates remain to be proven. Also because, between the theoretical dictates and their practical implementations there is a margin of unpredictability, of risk, of deviation: the mind. It is here that Paolo's investigation finds the most fertile ground and lingers. That's when the theoretical intentions and convictions come back into play, often with a crash.


A range of infinite possibilities and differences opens up between the world (which Paolo feels increasingly stereotyped and conformed) and his perception. Faced with an anonymous serial system, the individual interacts with his own singularity, with the weapons of his mind and spirit. This makes the difference: it makes the axiom less obvious, perhaps more vulnerable, but certainly more bearable, less predictable.

A dense rain of thoughtful and enveloping light blues, a soft blanket of cold and neutral shades cover the surface of the paintings like a veil. From this background, on which Pessarelli lingers in tiny dashes, Euclidean orthogonality emerges a tight and inflexible grid within which everything happens. An infinite number of silvery squares sprinkling the space granted to him like stars in the sky. They do not come from chance, but from seriality.


They are not in disarray, but controlled by a precise desire for harmonic counterpoint, by a perfect correspondence of Cartesian points and coordinates. Perhaps these diamond shapes follow latitudes and longitudes that belong to the movement of the stars, to the hyperuranion , where, according to Plato, all ideas are collected together.


That's possible. Yet thanks to my small human dimension, to my innate need to fantasize, I have the opportunity to go further, to perceive this detached planning (necessary to go back to the first order of things) like something that belongs to me and that changes according to my own desire. I can then abandon myself to poetic fantasies, to fairy-tale images, to convince myself that that fascinating portion of blue is a shred of starry sky, or that those small geometric shapes are nothing more than the illuminated windows of a distant city.


What if those signs were the representation of electrical impulses, optical vibrations or magnetic fluxes triggered by someone wishing to communicate with me? Suddenly, everything becomes clearer, that approach that at first sight appeared to be cold and impersonal, distant and incomprehensible, is nothing more than a new language, whose rigidity shatters when you get in tune. After all, what are words: sequences of conventional letters or containers of emotions? It depends: if I know the meaning, they are emotions; if they belong to an unknown idiom, they are nothing but simple signs.


An opalescent, gaseous spot often appears at the center of the vision; a sort of oval and impalpable cloud which, depending on the space available, widens or narrows giving rise to an unexpected cosmic breath. It is an almost elusive, distant, barely perceptible beat, but it is there. And, if it is there, it means that there is life, even if those side curtains do everything possible to shut close and hide it from our view. Let us not be distracted: that light is a sign of hope. It is the truth waiting to be understood.


February, 2001

Lorella Giudici


Every man lives within a system of relationships that communicates through standard signals and is strongly characterized at all levels by the rules of simplification: when faced with the results of these simplification processes, man keeps measuring his own discordance with respect to those results.

The world chose to give up an enormous wealth of contributions while it is strongly committed to amplifying only a few, out of all proportion. It is a world among whose rules, in any context, there is competition, the struggle to stand out from the crowd; this impoverishes, distorts, perhaps compromises the authentic vision of how we feel because the sample selected by the simplification system is the least discordant compared to the standards and contains in itself the seed of aggression.


The moment when we all involuntarily record and perceive our connection with the system of relationships, with the rules of the world is when we react to simplification, when we interact with standardized signals. It is the moment when individual feeling is projected onto the signals and merges into them, creating unique, incommunicable combinations.


What remains - the form of standard signals - is a common denominator, universally evocative of individual emotions and instants. It is the symbol of a wealth, of an unfathomable but very powerful complexity, capable of attracting, of gathering great energy.


My quest is aimed at the recognition and recovery of all this ignored wealth; through it, I intend to affirm and remember the existence, the unique experience of individuals, thoughts, emotions and above all the places and forms where this feeling is projected, deposits itself, and is ultimately forgotten.


The difficulty in comprehension, typical of the art, may be seen as a reflection of this complexity and of this hidden energy, of the uniqueness of each and every man facing a reality felt as conventional and standardized. In this respect, the relationship between the effort at synthesis, of reduction made in the artistic process (and which makes it enigmatic) and the desire to communicate which is one of its key conditions, seems to me less paradoxical.


Paolo Pessarelli


VENTI (1986-1993)

The dreamlike aspect is the first filter used by Pessarelli in his relationship with the shapes. Embryonic signs trace out uncertain spaces that seem to closely follow the limits of precariousness as the original awareness. The colors emerge, soft and enveloping, as if cocooned in an amniotic fluid that flows along lines that are always oblique.


The lines overtake the edge of the canvas by pressing the surface of an already three-dimensional space, but, actually, they seem to indicate the loss of their extreme. Lights and shadows, suspended indications of one's slightly nostalgic intimacy, filter the pressures of everyday life.

"To me, representing is a passive ... active gesture" (Paolo Pessarelli)


excerpt from the text by Anna Stuart Tovini (curator of "Game Matrix" project created at the Colonna Castle in Genazzano, 1987)

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