Ex ungue leonem the proverb proclaims: from the claw [one comprehends] the [whole] beast. David Cass’s Venetian paintings operate with similar inductive power, providing us a set of visual microhistories of this redolent city.
On wooden panels lush with palpable paint—corals, grey-blues, and reddish browns that invoke the plastered facades and steely water—we encounter the quotidian surfaces of many-layered Venice, details of deliberate though understated design and, equally so, of the multifarious accidents inflicted on weathering plaster and stone. Doorbells and nizioleti (those white rectangles on which street names, or directions, are inscribed), iron reinforcing clamps in walls, the characteristically red house numbers, a cropped bit of window-sill or door frame—all these offer us relief from Ruskin’s daunting invocation of the Doge’s Palace as “the central building of the world” and of Venice as the crossroads of world cultures. We are allowed to reconstruct Venice from the traces of design so thoroughly imbued into surfaces that seemingly random fragments acquire status as compositions. The experience resembles that of wandering the city itself as disoriented (despite the frequent directional arrows on the walls) pedestrians, blinkered amidst tall alleyways fixating as we amble on the manifold messages left at eye-level. The ubiquity of water prevents it from orienting us; we meander, both foot and eye.
The forms and the letters jostle on their panels, re-enacting the Renaissance paragone, the comparison between the visual and the verbal. The painterliness of Cass’s surfaces mimics the textures of rough painted plaster or, alternatively, invokes the famed impasto of Titian and his fellow artists. At times the free working of the paint verges on the non-representational, at which point, ironically, the insistent line weeded out of the painter’s repertoire by Giorgione (following Leonardo), is reasserted by Cass, in his case the sharp horizontal that separates water from wall, liquid from solid, a line that threatens to dissolve more readily than it resolutely defines.
Venice is the antipode to modernism, a place of peeling surfaces and eroding thresholds, balanced precariously on those unseen and untrusted wooden piles, pounded into mud by the first settlers, refugees from the mainland. Now its inhabitants flee back to the mainland, while the Adriatic threatens to take back what it once had lent. Brigadoon-like, Venice has both travelled through the centuries as though preternaturally shielded from modernity, and has now reached a point of particular danger. Cass’s work heralds the deterioration and, in subtle ways, highlights the plight of the sparse natives, their names still affixed to many of the doorbells and their starkly simple protests against the cruise ships inscribed on the walls. His paintings both acknowledge Venice’s timelessness and accede to Venice’s status as highly endangered—though primarily they allow us to see the city, a city so freighted with the memories, as a place where art can still be made, on the basis of seeing rather than remembering, and moreover, where art can be made in a distinctly contemporary mode, finding abstract qualities in the empirical world and empirical qualities in abstraction.
David Cass conjoins the randomness of the snapshot with the picturesque allure of paint and paper textures, the blankness of surface with the evocativeness of names and numbers, and the stillness of nature morte with the promise of a Venice that might again become vibrant.
—Patricia Emison is the author of several books on the Italian Renaissance, most recently The Italian Renaissance and Cultural Memory (Cambridge University Press), and Leonardo (Phaidon Colour Library).