Tom Porta talks about elective affinity, the contemporary closeness and distance of those who are close emotionally but physically distant and Gaijin, who gives the title to the exhibition, is a word that in Japanese means foreigner, a feeling, as the art curator Angelo Crespi writes «which is typical of the poet or artist, a condition at the same time of fragility, but also of continuous tension and openness towards the being of things»
The question comes spontaneously, especially to those who see for the first time the works of this artist. Why does he choose Japan?
He explains: «Japan contains many timeless syntheses. Aesthetic, ethical, spiritual. My generation has breathed some cultural aspects that were first adolescent but full of symbols and meanings. We were also children and teenagers who practiced martial arts with native teachers. I believe many factors, with no real outline, have contributed to the recognition of elective affinities between me and this country.»
The sense of unfamiliarity and affinity that moves Porta – and that is his strength – does not lead him to an attempt to ape the art or the habits of the natives. He observes and reports as a passionate Western observer of his own time. In his work there is no claim to comparison, nor pure imitation: «I am a man who has recently come and immediately left, ten thousand kilometers and one hundred and seventy years later. A ‘foreigner’.»
Tom Porta’s is not a naked curiosity towards an unknown culture but a tribute to a land he knows and for which he feels esteem and respect. He does not represent an invented Japan but a mix of gratitude, emotions and impressions he has lived and experienced.
In Tom Porta we find that sort of dualism that characterizes Japan itself in our imagination and that therefore seems to relive and possess all his works. A sort of aura of extreme freshness and extreme past: on the one hand, modernity and speed; on the other, tradition, a history that is always intact, slow, eternal.
Here emerges from the canvases a world that seems to have stopped in time but that exists and throbs with life, halfway between personal fascination and document. Here we find echoes of the lesson of japonisme or Japonism, which on several levels invested, in the second half of the nineteenth century in France, the intellectuals of the “avant-garde”: there are those who lived it as a passing fashion and those who instead embraced the traditions and customs of those lands so exotically distant and ethereal. It left the deepest signs in art, where it influenced and helped the consolidation of the Impressionist poetics. And the Impressionists, we know it, «despite being obstructed by the official culture, made a great change in the modernity of those years» as writes the art curator Angelo Crespi.
Tom Porta also has this ability to change the contemporary, projecting it back and forth in time and making it at the same time something current, historically dense and finally futuristic.
An example is then the choice, once again in art, of the 36 views of Mount Fuji that were made by Hokusai and today by Porta, but now that must be looked at with the eye of a contemporary visitor; an agile format, from plein air, which shows what must be seen and at the same time what must be tried.
Here again the rarefication of Kitagawa Utamaro’s geishas, here physical and at the same time ethereal women who seem to come out of an old photo, whose worn edges can not swallow them. They are not disappearing into the past because their grace is thus surviving time. And in fact we find ourselves as foreigners yet intimate with them; even when they are turned away and show us only the nape of the neck with makeup; or even when they seem to hide in the folds of their complicated and highly decorated kimonos, swirling with color and dancing; finally, when we can imagine only the feet gathered, because kneeling in prayer. They are a concentrate of peace, beauty, mystery, which Porta gives us back as a contemporary and therefore makes us closer, even if we always remain a little foreign and distant in front of them.
TRAVEL THROUGH TIME
The distance of Gaijin cannot be filled by research alone and faithful adherence to sources that, although useful, still need a language to reach others. The one chosen by Porta is painting, a physically and emotionally medium that inevitably fills that distance also with personal visions, not necessarily false, indeed rather adherent to the truth of the inner experience and therefore useful pieces to reduce the distance.
The power of Tom Porta’s works lies in the painter’s ability to impress a slow pace on the canvas, thus creating views that seem open glimpses of the past, of distant memories, of forgotten affections that we did not know could almost belong to us too. Looking into the cinematic depth of his canvases we discover new eyes and new links to distant imaginaries towards which we first perceive an urgency.
At first glance we are captured by the colors and shapes of kimonos, a pictorial challenge as Tom Porta admitted. Then what emerges is the restlessness that often accompanies reflection: who were those figures? Did they really exist? What are we try to discover about them? How much truth and present is there in their shyness and in that mystery that we feel so happy – and guilty – to violate?
Tom Porta’s style is very photographic but not in a hyper-realistic sense as contemporary art often offers us: it is for the choice of subjects and for the shots; for that black eaten by light and time, as happens on films; for the almost cinematic shadows of those glass presences in which we feel part of.
Then the gazes, which seem to have been captured by chance; sometimes they are turned away, absent; other times they are smiling as if their daily life did not concern us. Tom Porta’s canvases seem instantaneous, but it also seems as if after a second they would turn turn their faces towards us and come back to the present.
Each subject makes us witnesses of his time and at the same time aware of ours: they seem fixed in their historical reality but traveling to reach us.
HE IS NOT JUST “THE ONE OF KAMIKAZES”
TTom Porta is definitely an eclectic character. For the strength and undeniable peculiarity of his pictorial cycles, where historical sources and contemporary impressions are mixed, critics have found the most varied names to define him.
Someone called him an “apocalyptic painter” even “post-atomic“, others “survivalist“.
The reference was to the series of evocative canvases of the Extinction Agenda project, depicting world “status symbol” buildings (such as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, or even San Siro Stadium in Milan) completely destroyed by time and remains from a dissipation of humanity (cfr. Guido Morselli) which seems inexorably close.
These definitions are perhaps not very fitting, as the artist himself has recognized, and certainly simplistic, which nevertheless have the power to be remembered. They also underline the strong link with the imaginary genre and cinema, that art of which we have already recognized the pictorial traces and which, as Porta himself says, «remains, in its essence, the art form that I feel most similar after painting.»
Cinema and photography are therefore useful to seize the moment, history and emotion. Here then we consider him as a photojournalist of painting, in particular with references to the solo show Inferno (1914-1918) that in 2015 led him to exhibit at the Famedio in Milan seventy works recalling the First World War through the visceral juxtaposition with quotes from Dante’s Inferno. An operation that hovers between historical research, journalism, movie composition and personal emotional suggestion: «it’s a bit like Star Wars.»
Other people remember him as “that of the kamikazes“, for the highly successful cycle “Shinpu Tokkotai Project” inspired by the Japanese special attack corps of the Second World War, known to most as kamikazes. Porta has generated a real repertoire of soldiers, taken from the documentation of the time, and has accurately reproduced their appearance, while managing to grasp the extremely present and real aspects. Once again we can find in those works the desire for a factual and at the same time cultural narration, and again the interest in “the human factor”, for individual events and the life behind those faces portrayed and those sentences written with care. Porta himself said: «I studied two years before starting to work. I managed to find the photos taken in the bases before the mission, the face of those who were aware that it was their last day. I made 140 paintings, then after four years I could not go on. They had gotten inside me.»
Other definitions for this artist have emerged with the most recent works: “light-hearted storyteller“, or even “cosmopolitan warrior“.
When Porta turns his gaze to history, he does not do so with anachronism but with a deep sense of actuality and as a man of his time.
It is worth mentioning, for example, in this quick review of his works also the solo show “The BoX – Beauty Overkill” of 2016. Skulls, always the same but always different, continuously branded with the most pop symbols of our contemporaneity – from Facebook to Pink Floyd, passing through Superman, Louis Vuitton.
A fascinating and surreal gallery, with that unavoidable sense of historicity and presence that allow us to take a look at both the past and the present with all the fluency of this artist.
ROCK ‘N ROLL
One of the definitions that may suits the best is rocker. Tom Porta is rock in the way he crosses worlds and times, that is, with that ease and simplicity that is attributed to the guitarist while running on the strings of his guitar and that hides a concentrated passion and veneration for the things he carries inside.
Rock does not necessarily mean distorted sounds, but everything that is authentic, emotional, true. No wonder that, among the great passions of this artist, in addition to Japan that he portrays so often, there is music. But also superheroes, comics, All Star Converse, engines. In an interview, of which we propose some passages, he has told about this life as follows:
«I’ve been playing guitar for 36 years. I grew up with Kiss, thanks to a lightning strike at the age of 12. Disguised, made up almost like comic book characters, but with a guitar in hand. After two years, at 14, my first classical guitar. Rock and roll was my life […] especially American rock, like Van Halen, who achieved success in Italy around the early 80s. […] I studied guitar in California but then my destination was New York. My day came when, after reading an ad on Village Voice, I decided to audition for a guitar position in a band. There were 250 participants, in the end they chose me. […] In 1994, back in Italy, I became passionate about photography and published a book. After having archived my old work, thanks to the advice of a friend, I start painting. I understand that it is my way, I paint incessantly, my great adventure begins.»
Tom Porta is a varied personality as varied are his passions and the subjects to which he pays attention in his art. What always emerges, and is perhaps what distinguishes and gives strength to his works, is the strong sense of gratitude towards his own myths and therefore towards that personal experience that he imprints on the canvas.
It’s sufficient to peek at his Instagram account to discover that wide-ranging background of experiences that make his works appear so fresh and current, even when animated by figures of a century ago. There is a desire to create a sense, to embody history like those, portrayed by him, have done, whether they are geishas, samurais, suicide bombers, red Baron Manfred Von Richtohofen, or stars and stripes rock stars: Lemmy Kilmster of Motorhead, or David Lee Roth. His works live on a genuine ambition full of a sense of responsibility towards these idols.
That first principle, that love at first sight of a twelve-year-old Porta, was also definitively imprinted on the canvas: to that demon from which everything has sprang, the artist has dedicated a large canvas, then exhibited as a protagonist at Art Miami in December 2019. The reference is to Gene Simmons, aka The Demon, founding member of Kiss.
Just in 2019 the End of the Road World Tour began, the farewell tour with which, in July 2022, the American band intends to definitively say goodbye to the world music scene.
That great portrait is a dedication, perhaps a hope, certainly an icon: consecrated and at the same time deconsecrated, because it is as immortal as it is alive, noisy and happily still so present in the flesh. Being self-confident is the imperative of our age, but it is heartening to discover cases in which this security goes hand in hand with respect for those with whom one measures oneself. Seeing Tom Porta with the emotional smile typical of the fan refreshes the spirit as much as his works do at the first meeting.
Browsing further in his Instagram account, suddenly we see skies full of light and electricity; or again, the sea, the foam of the waves, the trees, the shadows. Strongly photographic works, small formats such as the 36 Mount Fuji on show at the exhibition “Gaijin” but made during the Covid lockdown, that give to the canvas the sensations of the historical moment he was living, those strange moments of an extremely uncertain life from which to be inspired once again.
Also his studio expresses the myriad of imaginaries from which he draws: models, comics, books, catalogues, sculptures, magazines, vinyls, helmets, concert tickets. Someone called him a Gothic soul who lives in an art cave, a batcave. Someone called him the superhero of painting. He also wore, on the canvases, the clothes of superheroes.
“When you pass the test of time, it should make you think. Whitesnake, Motley Crue or Judas Priest, time passes but hats off to them. Even in art it is like this, I think of Velasquez and Caravaggio, because the mastery of technique, even if complex, is simple, it is at the service of expression, having the ability to do something well.”
Porta is a soul of calm and storm, sometimes elusive, with a deep desire: to live fully, both in the past and in the present, a bit heroically, a bit as a survivor of dissipation; gather all these inputs and imagine the future.
The easel is his comfort zone and discipline, a place of thought where to channel all the energies, placating them, trying to synthesize beauty in a world of chaos.
It is only by putting together all these visions that we come to understand the peculiarity of Porta and his most recent works, whose delicacy is richness because it comes from a hungry but aware and respectful eye, which feels, lives, paints its passions in such a fully way to make us feel them, as a foreigner, even a little ours.
Tom Porta was born in Milan in 1970 and, since his childhood, he has shown a strong attitude towards drawing and art in general. He graduated as Art Master and began a successful career in illustration and photography. He has lived in Italy, Germany, France, Japan and the United States and, since the very beginning of his career, he has chosen to merge his life experiences into his own paintings. Since 2003 he has chosen to abandon illustration and photography to dedicate himself only to painting, quickly gaining a prominent position in the Italian art scene. Besides being mentioned among the top 100 Italian artists (2007), Porta’s artworks are published in important publications such as “500 anni di pittura italiana” (500 years of Italian painting) and in Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues. His work focuses on the history of 1900 by using past as a mirror for present. The artist is also attracted by the passing of time that he tells through objects and places chosen in order to invite the viewer to embark on his personal journey within present and future memories. He has taken part in many solo and group exhibitions, including: “W.A.R. – We are Restless, the unheard soldier scream” at Palazzo Ducale in Genoa (2011), “Inferno” at il Famedio del Cimitero Monumentale in Milan for the hundredth anniversary of World War I (2014), “Icarus” at Terminal 1 at Milan Malpensa Airport (2018) and “Inferno” at Pirelli Skyscraper in Milan (2018). He lives and works in Milan.