Tom Porta | FOCUS

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The only true voyage of discovery, the only bath in the fountain of youth,would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.

 Marcel Proust, The Prisoner (1923)




Tabi no haji ha kakisute.

When travelling, shame should be thrown away, says a Japanese proverb.                                 It is an expression with multiple possible interpretations. When travelling you mustn’t feel shame for your errors and your fragility, you can feel free and capable of expressing your passions, or of measuring yourself against your fears and your limits. In the same way, however, once returned you must free yourself of the events and failures that you have lived and go on without carrying them with you.


Tabi (足袋) is a word that holds together many things and they all bring us back to its most poetic meaning, chosen to give the title to this exhibition. It seems that it derives from the term tanbi, second skin. In its everyday meaning it also indicates the traditional Japanese socks with the slit at the front, designed to fit the thong sandals usually worn with the kimono.

White Tabi, 2023, acrilico su tela, 70x70 cm

Originally they were made of leather, and they were worn by the wealthier classes, but also by the samurai. It was thought that the split toe promoted balance between heart and mind. Jika-tabi are the ankle boots that Japanese gardeners wear when tending their greenery; as light as a second skin, with a simple and non-invasive structure that protects what is underfoot and which also allows physical and spiritual contact with the soil and with nature.

When one decides to undertake a journey, footwear is often the first and most important choice and luggage. It decides the destination, and vice versa. We soon become aware, however, that the sense of a journey lies in the internal change and not in the physical movement. And that the true luggage is more emotional than rational.


It manifests itself as a lack and is also nourished by much fear. Often we lack an inner, emotional destination and look for a geographical one, or vice versa. Often we fear the departure, other times we are terrified of staying. Often we are afraid of taking the wrong road, other times of choosing the wrong destination. Will I really find what I imagine and what I want? How often do we fear returning, having to do it, being able to do it, home or elsewhere.

Every journey produces a form of suffering. It is a balancing act between identity and otherness: who am I, where am I going, what place am I destined for?

The adrenalinic possibility of rediscovering and testing oneself is accompanied by the fear of getting lost and dissipating; or, on the contrary, to remain the same as before.

Then there is the fear of forgetting, which produces a fierce attachment to memory, and which leads to a passionate attempt to make a museum of sensations and objects to keep that goal always present around and within us.

Tom Porta also holds together many things.

Porta Tom, Two girls, 2023, acrilico e foglia oro su tela, 100x100 cm

It is a stratification that emerges visually from each work, which in turn carries a lot of pictorial and emotional material. If on one hand every detail is sharpened with clean, confident lines – and with almost cinematographic and synaesthetic lucidity – on the other, every canvas expresses great complexity, in the application of colour, in the quick brushstrokes, in the overlapping of perspectives and planes. The artist’s inner world, the pain that transcends his lived experience and the imagination of his generation, inevitably remain caught between all those layers. And we too remain entangled as spectators, because Tom Porta’s works give us the gift of belonging.


More than other equally distant and complex countries, Japan has the ability to arouse wonder. The originality of its culture and its social structures, as well as the resilience of its traditions leave us amazed or disturbed. The digital world and technology make it easily accessible to us through a screen every day. Japan is already here, it will always be here, just a click away, just over a few millimeters deep. How could we then really understand such an impalpable land?, we ask ourselves. And yet, the artist’s profound attachment to that faraway world, that painful sense of absence and always renewed closeness, overwhelms and transforms us. In a time like that in which we live, where we have lost any sense of transcendence, fear and worries of loss have no geographical boundaries or established goals and the poetic journey of Tabi offers something that goes beyond the lives of each of us, transporting us to a higher place than the real world.

Porta Tom, Bushido, 2023, acrilico su tavola, 120x80 cm

Tom Porta accomplishes this strange and surprising miracle by which from a very personal point he can lead us to universal and shared sentiments; and Japan, in his works, recovers a uniqueness that screens fragment.  We discover new eyes, new bonds, a new urgency.

Tabi is not just an exhibition, it is a departure and a return in continuum. Tabi is the entirety of works, and every work is Tabi, a journey. From the sketch, to the preparation of the background and of the materials, the first strokes to bring out the contours, then the definition of shadows and lights; finally the varnish, which immortalizes the past instant and seals it, destining it for the present. Porta’s images are certainly not gloomy ones, and indeed the chromatic element triumphs, the beauty of the detail, the dreamy atmospheres, the silences full of joy or solemnity. There are gardens where internal torment can find peace and resolution because Porta has held together the earth and sky with rapid brushstrokes of azure.

Porta Tom, Japanese Garden, 2019, olio su tela, 150x150 cm

There are Geishas from a golden and unforgettable age who seem extraneous to the dimension of time and space, and their mysterious essence lies in this. When they turn the napes of their necks to us, hiding their faces, we smell their perfume. There are the samurai, ancient warriors, heroes devoted to their mission with sacredness: we perceive their steps, we feel the ground shaking.

In all the works that sense of attachment to the destination rings out with force, a love that aims to bridge the distance, to pay homage to a time when life seemed simpler, kinder, more elegant, deeper, more real. Every element embodies that precious past in the present, making it evident, immediate. However, we also clearly feel, as if it were ours, the emotion of unresolved journeys, the overflowing nostalgia, the fear that the memory will fade and the work will be lost just a moment after having looked at it.

Porta Tom, The Golden Line, 2023, acrilico su tela, 150x150 cm

The fear that the samurai will really come through the canvas and run away from us, leaving us alone in the dust. The apprehension that evening will eventually fall among the trees and that those women will hide themselves forever from our gaze. Each canvas tells of burning passion but also the fear of lost things, never to be found again and also, painfully, never to be forgotten.

There is both sadness and beauty in looking at things that could fade. The danger, which is also the great power of this artist, is to never be able to forget them. Tom Porta’s works remain present in our mind’s eye for a long time. We will always return to that feeling of involvement, a bit irrational. We will always recognize that mixture of desire and pain. We will always find our ancestors there too. Some journeys have the capacity to disrupt your existence: only then have you truly been elsewhere, to return a changed person. Tabi is Tom Porta’s journey without shame, the fundamental drive and the tangible desire, which in the end also become in some small way our own. Every canvas is a suitcase of memories, visions and emotions. It is the luggage of an artist, prisoner spirit, who left for Japan and from there, perhaps, never really came back.


TABI THE JOURNEY is an exhibition that allows us to enter the world of Tom Porta on tiptoes and without infringing on it. However, to recognize the profound implications and the complex imagination within these works, it is necessary to look into the rooms in which they first see light. Only by taking a step beyond the threshold of this artist’s studio, in fact, can one fully understand in a clear and lightning-fast vision what lies beneath the surface.

Milano, Ortica district.

Encased in a brown leather armchair, Porta carries the weight of many things. An attentive and voracious artist and collector, he lives and works in a space full of objects with which he has a visceral connection – as if they were simulacra, or rather testimonials, of his world and his identity.

You had to build your passions little by little, he says. Today they are like fashions that pass quickly. Today young people no longer see the world that is behind us, they have lost their sense of depth.

Lo studio di Tom Porta

Porta inhabits the collective imaginary of the ‘70s and ‘80s, where love does not exist without research. The universe of his generation is all in this loft, a timeless constellation that can be crossed simply by climbing the stairs. Here he holds his memories close, gathering them together like a family.

There is a lot of metal, but also many books. Flag and hachimaki of the kamikaze pilots triumph on the walls, a testimony that here becomes presence. There are some kabuto and tosei gusoku of the samurai, and also some katane. He shows the very detailed tsuba, and the handcrafted handles. From the lining he extracts the blade: the soul of those heroes, that which really needed to be protected. A little further on, Captain America’s shield. A geisha peeps out from behind the unlikely portrayal of Ben Grimm, the Thing from the Fantastic 4, rocky superhero with a gruff appearance, a kind soul, and extraordinary strength. On a bookshelf, Japan meets the Marvel universe, which meets the Star Wars universe… It is a crazy journey. 

Lo studio di Tom Porta

In the living room we find the easel, an infinite number of colors, the strictly green Kawasaki and the tools of his trade, not just brushes. There are paintings and sketches everywhere. Godzilla action figures, in chronological order, instead wait in a display case upstairs, together with the guitars. In the kitchen, a view of watercolor landscapes by Joseph Zbucvic: in the morning he awakes with eyes on other worlds. In these spaces lives also his passion for airplanes, which came from his grandfather, and which has resulted in some of his most famous paintings. There are many illustrations and also small-scale models in their original boxes: the concentration of a dream.

He shows his travel notes, small works that he does for himself, for fun, to free himself, to set out in a thousand other directions. He tells of how in ’88 he left for the United States, only a few things in his luggage, of which terror certainly was one. He shares a happy memory: Milano, Piazza XXIV Maggio, “The forgotten soldier” by Guy Sajer: he made a choice, perhaps the first piece of them all.

In this rediscovered land of his, a batcave not far from the airport, Tom Porta has planted his soul. All his many layers, created not out of a desire for exposure but out of a need for belonging and recollection, are his armour, his power, his responsibility.


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 Chriestie’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.