Gouged, scratched, scumbled, beautiful

ENRICO Donati's recent paintings seem both millions of years old and as modern as anything painted this year. On the one hand, they resonate with primal memories of geologically distant times, of an age when saber-toothed tigers and our earliest ancestors roamed the earth; on the other, they partake of distinctly modern ideas on how an artist should produce art.

Donati's paintings are enchanting works, with textures and colors so sumptuous and vibrant that no reproduction can do them justice, and with such a wonderful physical presence that one cannot resist reaching out to touch their timeworn, scarred, and pitted surfaces. These surfaces are fashioned from generous portions of carefully ground quartz mixed with paint and medium, which are then molded and troweled until they become up to one inch thick. They are then incised, gouged, scratched, and scumbled to resemble the walls of ancient caves, calcified deposits, or the rough exteriors of boulders.

But that's only the beginning of it, for these richly textured surfaces are always positioned so as to act in maximum dramatic counterpoint to smoother, more purely painterly areas, and to give particular emphasis to colors that run the gamut from hot reds and purples to cool blues, delicate ochers, pinks, grays , lime yellows, and soft greens.

All this, however, is only Donati's shrewd and seductive way of gaining our attention before introducing us to the mysterious and provocative things and ideas he wants us to see and to share with him. Without our quite realizing it, he leads us from surface charm and sumptuousness to deeper dimensions of wonder, and ultimately to the central questions of life, death, and eternity that have engaged him and dominated his art these past 40 or so years.

The recounting of a crucial and illuminating experience Donati had on the beach at Dover in 1949 should illustrate my point. He found a smooth stone, cracked it open, and discovered a perfect fossil inside. Although small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, it yet seemed charged with endless implications about the meaning of life, and about the significance of the universe itself.

As he wrote later: ''To me the stone is the most pure form of the expression of nature. . . . It is the element that contains the greatest antiquity and is, at the same time, the purest in its shape. It contains something in its depths that is still alive. The fossil, in particular, has an incredibly animated inside form, while regular rock has a more animated outside shape. The fossil carries the whole cycle of creation, destruction, and rebirth within it. Nature has destroyed the life it once was and has reincarnated it in a new life that will have perpetual existence. This is essentially what I try to do in my work.''

This image of the fossil embedded within rock does indeed relate to many of Donati's most recent works. Not only do they seem incredibly old, they also seem to present secrets and enigmas for us to unravel. We may not sense this immediately upon first seeing his work - thanks to its extraordinary surface charm - but it will gradually become apparent as we study his paintings and get to know them better.

The remarkable thing is that these secrets and enigmas remain intact no matter how intently we probe his paintings for their hidden meanings. The reason , of course, is that these works are in themselves enigmatic. Like the Mona Lisa and de Chirico's earlier paintings, Donati's best paintings embody mystery and do not depict it - as would be the case with an illustration or a painting that is not art. As a result - and I for one am glad of it - the secrets locked up within his paintings will never be known to us.

At the same time, Donati has forged his art so expertly that we keep right on thinking we are just about to get to the heart of the matter, and to discover once and for all what his art is really all about. But of course we never do. We may come close, may feel that we finally understand - only to realize the next time we see the work that there's still a great deal that eludes us.

Now, only an artist can keep a painting (or a poem, play, novel, or piece of music) so perpetually alive and challenging. Only an artist can fashion images that pulsate with energy or keep asking questions as long as they physically survive. Others may paint pictures, write poems, or compose musical works that delight or entertain for a moment but that then shrivel up and die like a balloon from which all air has been withdrawn once their charm and entertainment value have been exhausted.

All true art is capable of repeated exposure, be it a landscape whose sense of light and life never dims, an abstraction whose forms perpetually interlock with exquisite precision, a portrait that never ceases to reveal new nuances of character, or a painting like Donati's that never stops being beautiful and mysterious.

Donati's paintings incorporate evidences of intense geological activity; archaeological fragments and allusions; rich, sensuous color; primitive calligraphic inscriptions; the calcified remains of tiny sea creatures; references to embryonic forms; and numerous hints that more wonderful things are hidden beneath earth's surfaces than anyone can imagine.

This is an art that reveals, that induces insights, that moves the viewer to share the artist's awe at life's mysteries and unfoldments. At the same time, it insists that we accept Donati's paintings as enigmas, as evidences of something beautiful that we simply will never fully understand.

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