Private Ceremonies, Diane Dal-Pra's first solo show at Massimo De Carlo gallery, is a tale of contrasts, told through a poetic examination of our relationship with objects and the implications of latent states of consciousness.
Through the gallery's window, the first contact with the exhibition is foretelling of Dal-Pra's power in handling and subverting fixity: a single 24x19cm canvas, evocative of erotic feminine rituals, promptly teases our curiosity and dares us to get closer.
Having the Reinassance and the Maneirist movement as ongoing formal references, Dal-Pra's work at Massimo de Carlo is charged with a new multi-sensorial dimension which instantly took me into the intricate scenes of traditional Dutch painting. This underlying memory was specific to the work of Nicolaes Maes and his Eavesdropper painting series, where domestic settings and a feeling of imminent disclosure feature consistently.
The main character, an eavesdropping maid, draws the viewer into the narrative through her gestural hush and direct outward gaze. Acknowledged as a third-party presence, the viewer becomes directly involved in the scenario and even an accomplice to it.
Transversal to Dal Pra and Maes' works is the powerful magnetic pull our invading gaze of the scene seems to create. The difference at Private Ceremonies, however, is that we are never acknowledged as a spectator: the characters depicted are consistently hidden between transparent curtains, bed frames, glass vases, or simply turned away from us. Clueless of our presence amidst their intimate rituals, our role as a spectator becomes a secretive, invasive one. Figuring as an uninvited guest, as if entering a riddle, the contingency of disclosure makes us complicit in the unfolding narrative of the exhibition.
This game, marked by eavesdropping tendencies, unveils the private implications of space and its dweller's relationship: a constant tension between secrecy and disclosure, invading eyes and objects, which separate and connect. This complexity of territories and their limits is pushed through an impulsive dialogical curiosity between the audience, the frontiers of the canvases and the many spatial spheres inside the works.
Dal-Pra's investigation of spatiality, however, is not done through the wider maze-like confines of rooms and walls. Instead, it draws on the condensed space in between the body, blankets and translucent sheets, where the many scenes, so reminiscent of late-night doom scrolling, establish the realms of inside and outside, public and private. Blurred by ambiguity, these layers define Dal-Pra's journey from material representation to ethereal dreaming through a suspended sense of time. Here, the artist finds an opening between being in and out of a dream, where the late-night elastic silence and its imminent break set the pace of the narrative.
Similarly to the disclosure effects of the wooden stairwells in Maes' work, the attention given to materials and textures in Private Ceremonies also highlights their auditive qualities and their elemental risk of giving our presence away. Titles like "Long White Noise" and "A Muffled Sound" are suggestive of this dichotomy in which the paintings are actually not silent - they are filled with the possibility of sound: the wooden bed frames can creak, our body can touch the curtains, and so on. The key to entering Dal-Pra's work lies exactly in this imagination of possibility - where the idea of a present and immediate future is instantly set in motion. This addition of an unfolding timeline triggers the construction of a cinematic filter, unlocking the moving quality of the works on show. This particular aspect is heightened by Dal-Pra's change from acrylic to oil, allowing the many textures, surfaces and the spaces in-between them to gain added dimensions, where we can wander more freely, for longer, get dangerously close.
Eavesdropping, however, is not the only feature reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch painting, where the constant use of symbols serves a purpose of pure visual identification and confirmation. In Private Ceremonies, the use of semiotic language- both through gesture and objects - is, in turn, one of reconstruction of meaning. This is made possible not through visual representation but instead through the overarching insomniac time quality in Dal-Pra's works and allows for a certain distance between the real and the abstract. Like in an early dream-like state, the objects depicted become images, a representation of themselves, which we perceive rather than see.
In "The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens", social theorist Brian Massumi distinguishes between two modes of perception: the actual form and the abstract dynamic - dimensions that are always intertwined in our perception of the world and are inseparable. To explain his argument, Massumi refers to the art philosopher Suzanne Langer, for whom fully perceiving an object is experiencing its qualitative elements such as volume and weight through its form. This doubleness of seeing, both bodily and visual, is central to understanding Massumi's argument on perception: form activates our body to sense the movement or dynamic of the object, which dictates instantly our relation to it and its relation to us. We don't need to touch it to know its material, nor do we need to go around it to understand its shape or size- "the perceived shape of an object is this abstract experience of volume". Through this suspended bodily experience in perception, aided by the silent qualities of the works, Dal-Pra clears the way for archetypal deconstruction and for its consequent reconfiguration of semantic possibilities.
Brilliantly negotiating the tensions between representation and reflection, seeing and being seen, between silence and the break of it, Private Ceremonies becomes a multi-sensorial experience where looking, and listening become active and co-dependent agents of Dal-Pra's surreal narrative, not only outside but especially inside the canvas.