Enigmatically titled In a Forgotten Tongue, artist Mattea Perrotta’s first solo show at Praz-Delavallade explores the power and potentialities of her precise dialect of abstract language. Using sweeping tonal forms that fuse monumentality with delicacy, Perrotta (b.1990) has developed a painterly discourse where personal memories dance in dialogue with the (art) historical legacies of many places past. With an inherently international identity allied with her profound synesthetic sensitivity, Perrotta’s practice is anchored in observation and absorption of all she sees around her. Intuitive curvilinear strokes investigate body parts such as the titular tongue; through the soft masses of her polysemic polygons, secrets are hinted at and associative meanings conjured. This type of abstraction is not dispassionate but imbued with stormy resonance. Named alternately in Italian and English, the 17 canvases and 3 textile pieces presented are each as sensual as they are intellectual; taken together, they set the viewer off on an equally erudite and emotional adventure. Ahead of the show’s opening, we stepped for a moment into Mattea’s poetic world, where shapes speak and colors feel, for a few words from the artist herself.
At this stage in your career, you have lived and worked all over the world from Berlin to Bogota, Morocco to Mexico City, but you’re originally from L.A?
Yes. I was born and raised in Los Angeles–my mom is American, my dad is Italian. I moved up to the Bay Area for college, [the artist has a BFA from UC Berkeley] lived in Oakland, East Bay, San Francisco, and that was quite similar to growing up where I did in Venice Beach, mirroring that history, that roughness, with the underground punk scene, hip hop culture, which were the elements that made up my essence when I was younger. Then I slowly, slowly made my way back to Europe through doing artist residencies as a ‘substitute’ for MFA programs. I think MFA programs are amazing and great, but I loved the notion of being able to have this shared experience in a new place, feeling a certain level of ‘uncomfortability,’ and at the same time learning about cultures and people. I think that doing it this way taught me so much more about life than being in a more formal and academic environment.
What is the medium of the works in this show, and where were they made?
These are oil paint on canvases in a variety of sizes and proportions. I like to use Sennelier oil sticks a lot as well - it’s like painting with butter, so nice. I created this series in Greenwich in London, where I was living at the time, in late 2022. I’ve been teaching at a University there, undergraduate classes in Abstracted Contemporary Painting at the Hampstead School of Art. But now I’m moving back to Italy, so that studio is now closed up, and the works have been brought over. I’m going next month to a residency at the American Academy in Rome. I’m really excited - so many artists that I admire have gone there. It’s one of the more scholarly programs that I have applied to, so I’m really looking forward to going there and being in that space, soaking that up. It’s definitely going to be a different vibe than what I have been used to.
Your own studio, that’s somewhere quite special?
My studio in Italy is in Naples. My family is from the same region, Montelongo in the Campobosso region, on the Adriatic side. It has 500 people, a farming town. It’s nice to be in a city that’s by the sea - and I feel like it has the same kind of essence as Los Angeles, just with the light, the colors… And a bit of the craziness that I was familiar with in Los Angeles growing up here. I don’t know, just the ‘mess,’ of it, having something not be so curated.
How does the show’s title, In a Forgotten Tongue relate to your own very international life history?
Each of the individual painting titles is very specific to the scope of each work; that’s something I can talk about for hours. So the overall exhibition title felt really important to me. I obviously grew up speaking English, I speak a bit of Italian, I speak a bit of French, I’m in different cities a lot. It can sound really pretentious having this sort of life experience; I fully acknowledge that, and I’m very grateful for it. But it’s really interesting to me how you can be in a place, and still have a struggle with communication or understanding, no matter whether you speak or don’t speak the language. So it’s about the ways in which we choose to communicate within a space, how that communication is received amongst strangers, how it isn’t received, how you can be in an incredibly crowded place and not be understood, and not be heard. Or vice versa. Where you can’t speak the language and instead you’re resorting to gestures with your hands, facial movements. You know, how your tongue is spitting out spit from you mouth, how it hides behind your teeth when you’re uncomfortable… All these things I’ve noticed being in different places, especially when I can’t express myself through words. It’s like ‘How can I express myself through my body, and my eyes, and make that communication and that relation happen with somebody?’ And it’s almost sometimes more productive speaking to someone in that way than actually using words. And so it’s also a question of ‘What is the currency of words, why are they so important?’ But yet the currency of these words have created tradition, which is something that we don’t really acknowledge so much anymore–what is the value of that tradition?
This show seems to be less figurative, and more abstract than many of your previous works that I have seen. What traditions or influences are running through these paintings?
The backstory of this is that in college I studied Renaissance painting, and I did a year abroad in Florence, and I when I lived there I was always studying more 18th-century and 19th-century artwork. But naturally, the effects of living in Los Angeles, being surrounded by that particular architecture, with the amount of Art Deco all around, I became interested in exploring Abstraction. I’m also a major fan of Picasso and that can be seen in all of my work. I wanted to try to find a way, now that I’m moving back to Italy, of combining my two heritages - my life of living in Los Angeles but coming from a background of Italian descent, what that is. So I thought, here, I can bring in my massive love for Renaissance painting like Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi and their color palette, and that very ethereal feeling, with something that might be more contemporary such as Cubism, which is also a great love of mine in painting.
And so a piece like 'La Vita, Altrove,' [‘life elsewhere’ in Italian] is kind of like a self-portrait, with a very Cubist box in the center of the piece, surrounded by this very visceral, baroque background, shows my ‘two selves,’ my ‘self’ being split amongst the two. Of my experiencing this more contemporary society through art, through Cubism, Abstraction, and Modernism, but juxtaposed with these cities that I have lived with their underlying history of being former colonial centers, like Rome or Paris or London. And how that has affected the world, in not-so-good ways as well. It’s kind of like a ‘love story’ of those two different sides of my being, and that is what this painting show is about. It’s about experiencing life through these different portals, and how that associates with language.
In Lo Straniero, The Stranger I can see one of the only recognizable ‘figures’ in the show. That’s also ‘you’ - the stranger who is the ‘adventurer' too, going on voyages through the world.
It is. I think that everyone can feel like that, like a stranger, an alien. Even being back in Los Angeles right now - it’s my hometown, I bleed purple and gold, I love, love L.A, but I really feel like a stranger here right now, it’s so surreal because the city is so different, and the pace of it’s different. Being somewhere that should feel so familiar, then feeling like stranger in that place is also really uncomfortable; you’re trying to find the ‘comfortability' within that, and if that’s difficult, it makes you feel very vulnerable. It’s so weird, I’ll see the most minimal thing, I’ll drive past my high school for example, and I’ll be like ‘Oh my God, I never would have thought back then that my life would take me down these paths.’ But yet, I’m still seeing things in exactly the same way that they were in 2003. It’s so surreal, you know?
This is your first show with Praz-Delavallade Los Angeles?
Yes, it’s my first time showing with the gallery, which is very cool as I’ve aways really liked their program. It’s actually my first show back in L.A. in five years, so for me this all just comes full circle, also with going back to abstraction. It’s where I’m from.
Photographed by Florencia Lucila