In what he calls 'human landscapes,' the Brooklyn-born Staten Island painter Robert Civello, now in his late 60s, has created a collective statement he means to be broadly universal and representative. Yet he concedes he finds the finished paintings in this collective statement remote and mysterious.
Walking around Civello's studio in a converted waterfront warehouse building near the St. George Ferry Terminal, five miles across the upper bay from Manhattan, the visitor is struck by the sheer size of the paintings that make up what the artist calls his "Geography of Man" series. Civello says he's completed seven of a projected eleven multi-part canvases in this series.
The towering figures that comprise Civello's geography present themselves as pieces of the body --- heads; mid-sections; calves, ankles and toes. These pieces are meant to stack, positioned vertically so they add up to an entire person, though they never quite touch, never entirely re-assemble.
The most common joining-place is where necks broaden into clavicles and backs and shoulders --- so common, it occurred to this viewer to shuffle the head-and-shoulder sections of Civello's multi-part canvases, just to see the result.
The figures in these paintings are different from those in Civello's smaller paintings that I saw in 2008-09. The figures in those canvases often had flat, featureless faces without eyes, a lack that seemed to make the strong colors in those paintings especially compelling. Two or so years later, Civello's massive figures have eyes, but not just eyes; these eyes are hooded, clouded, averted, or piercingly present yet somehow remote.
Necks are bulkier than chests. The head of a penis protrudes from a kneecap. Some men have breasts like grapefruits; other chest-formations are merely suggested, more by the viewer's imagination than by the painter's hand. In one case, a flaccid penis hangs from its owner's breastbone.
Civello uses color not in a single surface application but through a building-up of successive layers of color underneath --- usually three layers, he says. The result is that colors, particularly colors of, on or in the flesh seem to move, combining and re-combining as the viewer looks at them. As the owner of a body long past its prime, I recognized immediately the exhausted folds and sags, the random lumps and bluish-purple discolorations that the artist catalogs on the surface of these tripartite canvases.
So Civello's is a human, or more particularly a male geography at a particular moment in time, when the body shows the cost of decades of staying alive. It is wrinkled and sagging, discolored and unlovely, un-sexy and straightforwardly sexual; even, in its unloveliness, erotic.
That makes the body as Civello renders it a purveyor of a particular human history, too, as well as a more generalized geography of gender; evidence of a particular life lived, recorded on and in the flesh.