Discovering the Visionary Cityscapes of Gjon Izano
Article published in Gallery & Studio, February/March 2006
Gjon Izano’s paintings possess a strident strangeness that puts such highly-touted young guns as Dana Schutz and Jules de Balincourt to shame.
However, rather than being a rising young art star with a waiting list of affluent collectors eager to latch onto the “next big thing”, Zano is a middle aged former art professor from Albania. Now living in New Jersey, he has an impressive resume of exhibitions, some in major museums in corners of the world where culture is continuous and enduring rather than instant and disposable. He is also an acclaimed theatrical set designer, credited with creating backdrops for major productions by the National Theater and the Theater of Opera and Ballet in Austria – a sideline that has obviously taught him to charge every inch of his canvases with high drama.
While Izano’s recent exhibition at New Century Artists, Inc., 530 West 25th Street did not generate as much art world buzz as rightly deserved. This consummate painter’s work came as a revelation to some of us who were not previously familiar with it and it seems only a matter of time before other critics and collectors unbeholden to the dictates of fashion catch on.
The overriding theme of the show was New York City, which Izano seems to see through a phantasmagoric lens. Baroque, gargoyle-barnacled Upper West Side and Wall Street building facades to melt and drip like deconstructing birthday cakes in compositions that appear on the verge of imploding under the sheer weight of the pigment that Izano piles onto his canvases. Here is a species of Expressionism as curiously subjective in the audacity of its distortions as that of Malcolm Morley, albeit informed by even more surreal anomalies such as stylized angels of a distinctly Slavic cast that mingle with more realistic rendered pedestrians. Also present among the thongs are members of the artist’s family, mythical figures and other in the traditional costumes of Albania seeming not at all incongruous, given the broad range of ethnic types one can encounter on any day in midtown.
“Folklore, songs, architecture and history surrounded life in a medieval city like my hometown,” Izano says of Gjirokastra, Albania, where he was born. And those memories appear to superimpose themselves on Manhattan in a manner that gives rise to haunting atmospheres, such as those in his epic canvas “Timeless”, wherein a voluptuous female nude, an archaic peasant leading a horse, and other incongruous figures are juxtaposed within a panorama of rivers, bridges, and a city skyline that combines elements of the old and new worlds.
In other paintings with titles such as “11th Avenue and 82nd Street” and “Broadway,” Izano’s mastery of chiaroscuro enables him to capture the way light plays on urban surfaces, casting long, devouring shadows, turning flesh and blood figures into ethereal beings as they dart through traffic or vanish into the colorful tapestry of signs and storefronts. Looming buildings, encrusted with gable, balconies, and intricate ornamentation afford the artist an opportunity to combine observation with memory and imagination. He indulges his penchant for impasto lie a mad pastry chef, turning the city into a tactile, succulent maze of sensual shapes and confectionery hues.
Meanwhile, gathering clouds appear pregnant with a sense of impending apocalypse as scrawny urban trees spread their claws, black iron gates loom ominously, and sidewalks swoop at angles that produce a delicious sensation of the vertigo in the viewer. Familiar Manhattan landmarks like the Flatiron building, The Stock Exchange, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral make cameo appearances in Izano’s paintings. Yet they seem simultaneously transformed into the medieval castles fortresses, just as the municipal spires and steep facades of the financial district morph into forms resembling mountainous terrains and poplar trees. Everything is constantly in flux.
Izano’s intrepidness as a colorist heightens the hallucinatory effect, with visceral reds, blinding yellows, and electric blues lending his compositions an emblematic abstract impact that makes them visually arresting, no matter how much detail he packs into each picture. Indeed, one of the pleasures of studying his paintings is discovering all the small dramas unfolding in different parts of the canvas.
In the painting called “The Baby,” for example, one seems to view the entire scene through the eyes of an infant and its mother on a stone stoop in the foreground of the compositions. Before them, the city unrolls its wonders like a vast carpet of intricate and dazzling design, making ine recall how the entire world was a circus, a fascinating spectacle, in childhood. Izano is one of the very few contemporary artists (the late Chinese American watercolorist Dong Kingman was another) who is capable of capturing such innocence of vision through paradoxically sophisticated means.
This freshness of perception is never more vivid than when Izano turns his gaze on some of our more fashionable neighborhoods, as seen in oils such as “Meat Market,” “Tribeca” and “The Family in Soho.” Seeing such places through the eyes of an emigre enamored with local color, Izano enables us to view them anew in compositions where the familiar is infused with sudden mystery. In “Meat Market,” for example, weathered brick building facades, fire-escapes, abandoned loading docks signify a neighborhood in mid-metamorphis from the home of packing plants and wholesale butcher shops to the city’s newest chic gallery district. By contrast, “The Family in Soho” captures the carnivalesque atmosphere of the streets where tourists and artists toting paintings swarm in and out of long-established galleries and boutiques amid colorful flapping flags. Transcending trendy travelogue by virtue of sheer painterly power, Izano invests such scenes with a sense of the eternal.
Baskkim Izano acknowledges the influence of Byzantine painting on his work, particularly in his fondness of “decoration”, anti-perspective, and stylization of the figure.” However, he filters such elements through an exquisite postmodern sensibility to create compositions which can only be called visionary in the very best sense of the term.
The exhibition was curated by Ana Matthiesen and the artist is represented by Saga Art Gallery.
- Byron Coleman
Art from Albania
Gjons oil paintings bear witness of an artist who, despite harsh conditions, has never lost faith neither in himself nor in the importance of art. His world of motifs is wide, open and manifold. The main themes are the creation of life and death and spanning these extremes is a mystical world rooted in Albanian folktales. There are symbols, odd imaginary animals, vegetation and landscapes, which do not lend themselves to immediate interpretation. It takes an effort and empathy for a world completely different from the one we are familiar with. However, it is a worthwhile effort, and even if everything does not become understandable and explainable, there is the pleasure of a skilful painter, who is not only an excellent craftsman but also masters a rhythmical abundance of nuances, a sense of plasticity and a superb coherence between the detail and the whole of the picture. Often you find depicted adjacent building and a medieval bridge from the painter’s native town of Gjirokaster in the southern part of the country, where ethnic groups have coexisted throughout the ages.
- H.P. Jensen, Art Critic, Jylland Posten (article excerpt), Denmark, 1994.
Powerfully lyrical and dreamlike, Gjon Izano's canvasses lend themselves to deeply personal yet universal themes of love, isolation, healing and forgiveness.
“…In the paintings of Gjon Izano we feel freedom. A new and intoxicating freedom following the long winter of communist dictatorship. In that chilling climate, while the other arts found ways of resisting – literature thanks to its long tradition in doing so and music thanks to its ability to hide behind the sound – painting suffered the most. The control exerted by they party’s apparatchiks and dim-witted bureaucrats was direct, brutal and merciless. Its fate was made worse when the tight-fisted control, especially visible prior to festive events when exhibitions opened in a climate of political hysteria. Nonetheless, some Albanian painters, with great efforts and sacrifices, were able to rescue the arts nobility even at times like these.
Gjon Izano is one of these painters. Now, utterly free, his painting breathes freely. And yet, in them, in these canvases, even in the midst of this heady intoxication, we feel and see clearly the anxiety that has just passed which seems will be felt for a long time after. Even so this does no harm to them and if anything it deepens their expressivity and the meaning of the freedom won. In Gjon’s painting alongside the intoxication we feel the fantasy of legendary myths and memories of one of the oldest people in Europe. This intertwining, this double freedom is his chance and it must be said in his case a happy one…”
- Ismail Kadare, writer.