Nicola Verlato is a masterful painter, as evidenced by the impressive technique in each of the grand paintings of disastrous automotive accidents in his most recent show, Zero Gravity at Merry Karnowsky Gallery. Through impressive scale and dramatic composition, each painting engages with the legacy of Baroque painting, harkening back to masters like Caravaggio and Rubens. But what does Verduto convey beyond recognizable virtuosity?
Three of five of Verlato’s painted car crashes are loaded with some form of illicit activity, either direct or implied. In Take The Road To Nowhere a cherry red car spills forth four beautiful women in various states of undress, their bodies frozen in mid-air alongside a jettisoned opened bottle of prescription pills and an open Sapporo can. In Car Crash 5 four similar women cascade from a hot rod along with hundred dollar bills, a handgun, and a knife. One cannot help but suppose the suspicious paraphernalia flying around played a role in the accident unfolding in the painting. In this way the work comes across as a moralizing allegory warning against the consequences of reckless behavior, something akin to a D.A.R.E. or a M.A.D.D. commercial. Yet the problematic politics underlying these works doesn’t end here.
The mannequin-like women in Verlato’s works come across as beautiful objects in a composition; like the cars they are falling from, they are something to be looked at and not representations of real individualized people. We rarely see any of the women’s faces because they are covered by hair and flailing limbs, yet we are given ample views of their pert breasts, bared mid-drifts and long legs sprouting from tiny cut-offs shorts and skirts. To see these works as simply evidence of masterful brushwork, dramatic composition, and perhaps commentary on the unfortunate consequences of contemporary decadence is to brush aside the overt sexism at play. The problematic and regressively conservative politics embedded in these works fixes the women on display as objectified, absent any agency, marked as undesirable and dangerous by their weapons and intoxication, the creators of their own undoing, tumbling to their inevitable and death. Perhaps even more disturbing is that this violence is intentionally rendered beautifully without ever indicting the viewer as complicit or culpable.
However, Car Crash 4 works to rescue Verlato’s women as active participants in a kind of urban warfare. In this work a purple convertible careens out of control as its driver struggles to hold the wheel and her machine gun at the same time, her face contorted in a mixture of pain and concentration. The front passenger glances aghast at unseen pursuers. A third topless accomplice holds tight to the trunk as the car speeds away. But the primary figure stands firm and strong, her back to us as she deftly fires a single missile from a rocket-launcher in the direction of the Hollywood sign. While their actions may appear outside of the law, these women’s assertiveness, as evidenced by determined postures, facial expressions, and badass accoutrements, thankfully mark them as makers of their own story, creators of their own meaning, and not merely props manipulated to sell a tired ideology.