Fred Bilanzola’s Side Show

by Bryce Kanbara

    Some of Bilanzola’s paintings are disarmingly set in the welcoming domiciles and social places of his Italian-Canadian background; yet, they raise a curtain on the unhappy, frequently wrongful human behaviours in which, in mind and deed, we all are complicit. We can detect the lyrical cadence of an Italian accent in Bilanzola’s themes, but what he’s talking about is universal woe. Some of these paintings are windows we don’t really want to look through. Bilanzola’s pictures are frozen narratives that roll out a cascade of grim characters and situations.

He introduces us to home-made wine, hunks of cheese, espresso steamers, head-shawled grandmothers, lusty Mediterranean men and women, and background images of the hills of home. His paintings of people in settings with the customary appurtenances from Italian households may prompt us to regard his work as an opportunity to enter his ethnic context – like being invited into an immigrant family’s home for supper or to one of their community events. We’re drawn out of the security blanket of commonality. However, these are the props and backdrops for Bilanzola’s brooding personal agenda and his take on the murky values of the larger world. Beyond the friendly kitchen, there are dark corners in the mind’s cellars and attics.

Pursuing a sense of identity through Italian-ness is a useful tactic for self-expression. For Bilanzola, it’s mostly an accessory to the more dramatic pursuit he’s on. The wine and cheese deliver a "foreign accent" to his paintings, not meaning. Bilanzola creates an atmosphere of ethnic familiarity and then assaults us with images that are psychologically enigmatic and conjure embittered, contemporary moral issues. Italian-Canadians, too, would not feel comfortable spending time here.

Our excursion into a Bilanzola painting quickly reveals how he constructs his agitated surroundings. The spaces are compressed and his people are thrust on one another. The generalized style of drawing and flat colouring make us think of comic book art. Despite the visual simplicity in Bilanzola’s handling of his figures they provoke our consternation about what they’re doing; his paintings are easy to see but not so easy to read. They are as immediately gripping and can be as mysteriously unsettling as a Fellini film, a de Chirico metaphysical painting, or the fevered, village visions of the English painter Stanley Spencer. Or, they may be as wrenchingly disturbing as the between-the-Wars works of German Expressionists such as George Grosz and Max Beckmann. Variously-scaled figures populate the scenes, and questionable happenings—some of them beyond depravity—are underway.

The shallow depth of the paintings makes them stage-like, or, to maintain the reference to comic strips, frame-like. The drama is played out in circus-rings, ballroom floors, outdoor and indoor village settings with mountainous backdrops and forbidding clouds. The scenes are confined, harshly lit and the shifting perspectives and compositions give them the insecure footing of dreams. He imposes his accumulated knowledge about art history into these claustrophobic scenarios, sometimes twigging our recollections about ancient mythologies and of the impact of particular masterpieces. There is an earnestness of purpose in these collisions of subject matter. He seems to be getting at complex issues in an individualized and complex way. His scenes feel internalized, bordering on nightmarish.

His personages are painted with near bland generalization. They’re smooth, wooden, without much idiosyncratic detail, almost anonymous in their features. If they retain a faint familiarity, it’s because Bilanzola wants to bring us in close enough to check; we’re invited to take a look but we’re denied intimacy. Despite the intense physical and emotional engagement of the people in his pictures, their faces are indifferent. The work is enthrallingly ambiguous.

When an artist’s life is unexpectedly halted in its prime, the trajectory of his work similarly ends. Vanishes. It’s as if Bilanzola was stopped in mid-sentence. We can only surmise what he was going to say next; the paintings leave us in anxious speculation of the mental and emotional circumstances he depicts, and we, as viewers, are denied reconciliation of those provocative themes.

Bilanzola graduated from university in the mid-eighties with a class of fervent "new figurative" painters. For a time, a group of them (Bilanzola, Lisa Wohrle, John Kinsella, Judi Burgess, Paul Ropel-Morski, Janice Kovar, Paul Cvetich, and occasionally, Ralph Caterini) exhibited together as The Contemporaries. Their themes focused on the human condition and in varying degrees they were inspired by German Expressionism. Clearly, some of the graphic violence in Bilanzola’s paintings and prints owe much to the agonized imagery of Max Beckmann and George Grosz.

Apart from the fascination with German Expressionist images of moral decadence and terror, we wonder what did those early images mean to Bilanzola and why should they matter to us at the turn of the 20th Century? He uses them as a launching point for his own responses to universal social inequity and injustice. Distanced from the horrors of the First World War which had profoundly transformed Beckmann and his contemporaries, Bilanzola turns to local and international news stories of his own day. He employs the disquieting methods of his forebears allegorically. As a result, his works tend to come across as more illustrative than experiential, more commentary than outcry.

As shocking as the image of a man swallowing a woman head-first (Free Trade) may initially appear, its impact is mitigated by its title. And, compared with its art historical antecedent, Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children, it’s emotionally remote. Even the atrocities being enacted in Bilanzola’s most sinister-looking paintings are diminished in their visceral wallop when we recollect the raw brutalization of women and men in works by Beckmann. Bilanzola walks a line that is neither prurient nor outraged. It’s black humour.

In She Said She Saw It in a Dream, a bestial security officer carrying a club flashlight escorts a woman in black who exposes one of her breasts and looks down to the ground at a lifeless infant (hers?). In the background seated jurors cover their faces and opposite, a judge wields a gavel. In "…We Will Continue After a Message from our Sponsors" the scene is a circus big-top but there is a levitating soldier leveling his rifle, a man and a woman working the trapeze, an over-sized cannon mouth below about to shoot up a human cannonball. Media Side Show, another circus picture, shows a naked woman (is it a corpse?) hung upside-down before a man in a clean apron holding a knife, a naked hoofed man clutching (raping?) a naked red-haired woman, three tenors flinging their arms in unison as they hit a high note, and from the top edge, a supine, winged figure who must be Icarus, tragically falling. A camera lies in the foreground, but there is no one to document the scene.

Bilanzola is influenced by forceful art historical precedents and, in the process of assimilating them, he wrestles the demons in all of us. By modulating the emotional volume, through the generalized treatment of forms, he presents psycho-sexual tensions and aberrations with detachment, as if they are object lessons in humiliation, masochism and abasement. He seems also to be struggling to establish his moral position. Religious magnates are satirized as debauched and stupid, a Jesus figure is held down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians and nailed through the hand, and every scene, even the ones representing festive activities, is joyless.

The three-painting series, The Suitors, features an Amazonian woman as queen-bee in a white and black dress and she’s surrounded by drone admirers in black formal attire. She’s unattainable, and there is, surely, an acute anxiety at work here that accedes to the formidable power of women. In one painting the woman is planted sturdily at centre-stage, hands akimbo, the suitors lined up diminutively behind. In another, she is dancing and not only leading, but dominating, her hapless, back-stepping partner.

Bilanzola’s paintings are furious panoplies of objects, people and situations, all infused with a ringing sense of art history. There’s an abiding sensitivity for humanity in them that ranges from his close observations of Italian Canadians to his perceptions of the cruelty human beings perpetrate on one another. Unlike his artist predecessors, he is not bearing witness; he’s making art that is consciously metaphoric in an age when metaphors are constantly exploded by reality. He’s working from conscience.


Now, enjoy the artwork of Ferdinando Bilanzola.  °

[Distillate © HA&L + Bryce Kanbara.]