- "The Storm"
In a solo show titled "Of Cities and Deserts," currently at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery, Osvaldo Nitya Brighenti presents paintings of landscapes, cityscapes and portraits. Some works depict distant locales — Benares, India; Band-I-Amir, Afghanistan — with a hint of hazy exoticism; others, the familiar rooftops of Montpelier or an overgrown chasm in the artist's former backyard in Hawaii. A self-portrait shows a white-haired, mustachioed man draped in animal skins.
What heightens the interest of these mainly traditional paintings is the interplay between Brighenti's art and his writing. Cities and deserts are rendered in paint, but he does not think of either in a literal sense. His poetic artist's statement begins with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche comparing celebrated men to cities; it goes on to suggest that a desert is "not just a stretch of sand, but rather a suspension of the dominant culture."
Similarly, Brighenti's minimalist poems expand ways of seeing the paintings they accompany. The combination of word and image reveals an artist immersed in literature and philosophy, who paints the ideas, places and people that mean the most to him.
"La Voragine" ("The Chasm"), for example, uses dense brushwork to depict a profusion of plant life at the edge of an indistinct hole in the ground. If the painting itself is underwhelming, the accompanying label invites one's imagination to excavate more deeply: The "abyss," as Brighenti calls the hole, "goes straight through this island / and through the unconscious / into transcendence / and I will fall into it."
Brighenti was born in a small village in Italy and earned a master's in architecture in Venice in 1974, according to a bio on the website of Robert Paul, the Stowe gallery that represents him. Architecture, however, was just a job, he recently told the Rutland Herald, while "painting was always my main focus."
He studied with a painter in Trieste, Italy, and pursued further art training at the Art Students League of New York and the Tsering Art School in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Though it's not clear where he acquired his nickname, "Nitya" means "always, eternal" in Sanskrit.) Brighenti has lived and traveled all over the world. He moved to Vermont in 2017, after 15 years in Hawaii, and now lives in Barre.
- "Band-I-Amir 1"
Among Brighenti's original influences were two 19th-century Italian painters: Guglielmo Ciardi, known for traditional landscape paintings of his native Venice; and Silvestro Lega, who created realistic portraits. Brighenti's work often goes for abstraction in thickly applied brushwork to form mood-evoking backgrounds, but his overall approach is similarly representational.
That classical style can sometimes contain radical content. "Herzen" is one of Brighenti's portraits of nihilists, anarchists, populists and radicals that appeared in his solo 2018 show called "Storm" at Studio Place Arts in Barre. The Russian writer and thinker Aleksandr Herzen (1812-70), known as "the father of Russian socialism," slouches against a table, head propped on a palm, brow furrowed in concentration. Around him the brushwork is a frenzy of scrapes and scribbles, as if evoking Herzen's own impassioned writings.
"Detournement 1: Hands Down" and "Detournement 2: Dearskin Glove" (yes, "dear," not "deer") depict two folded hands and one yellow-gloved hand, respectively. Given that a détournement is an art- or advertisement-related prank used by radical groups to subvert dominant culture, the paintings' subject matter seems pretty tame. But Brighenti's poetic label suggests that the subversion is a stylistic one aimed at modern art: "Crossing over the modern path in art / to verify and revisit old poetics, / for example Caravaggio or the 'tenebrist' Ribera... / is it advantageous?"
Many of the paintings blend Brighenti's memories of past travels and his immersion in literature. "Band-I-Amir 1" and "2," a diptych of a young man in a rosy-hued Afghani desert, recall a visit the artist made to that "powdery" region when he was young. In his artist's statement he adds, "Wasn't Rimbaud, our hero-poet, fed up as well when he said 'merde pour la poesie' and went to Harar's desert?"
A label accompanying "Vierzehnheiligen," a vertical diptych showing the nave of a baroque church in Germany, imagines that "the Nose of Gogol is dressed as an officer / showing up in this well known cathedral [...] and it is impossible to arrest him." In the corner of this J.M.W.-Turneresque rendering, a shadowy face can be discerned.
- "Red Desert"
The few watercolors on display demonstrate notable skill, and the medium strikes this reviewer as better suited than oil to Brighenti's cityscapes. The watercolor diptych "The Burning Ghats 1" and "2" captures the buildings crowding a ghat in India — the steps leading to a holy spot on the River Ganges — with an architect's eye.
In the watercolor "Rutland," late-afternoon shadows in the foreground lend interest to the central composition of a church and street.
"Of Cities and Deserts" is as interesting for what it reveals of the imagination, reading and travels of a seasoned artist as for the works themselves. Brighenti's life seems to be one of flux, as are the literal cities and deserts of this exhibit: He writes of the spot on the Ganges that can never be found again due to flooding and the Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan he once saw that the Taliban destroyed in 2001.
Evidently, Brighenti has found more stability in the Green Mountains. As he writes in his artist's statement: "In Vermont I have found the 'middle ground' — returning to the countryside where I was born."