Felice Varini was born in 1952 in the town of Locarno, on Lake Maggiore in the Italian speaking south of Switzerland. “I had a wonderful childhood in both town and country,” he says. “On the one hand, lakes, rivers, mountains, and on the other, the busy little tourist town of Locarno.” Today he lives and works in Paris.
We meet in Browns’ south London studio on a cold January morning [Varini’s work will feature in the latest of the design studio’s series of publications tying in with its curation of the Howard Smith Paper lecture series, see below]. All the surrounding streets are cordoned off with police crime-scene tape. There had been a stabbing the night before.
It’s a long way from Varini’s idyllic childhood, yet he manages to bring a touch of southern European warmth to London’s grim ambience. He is friendly and relaxed but you sense a sharp analytical brain; if he thinks he is being misunderstood, he will let you know.
It’s an intellectual sharpness that can be seen in his work: Varini’s dramatic works of art are pieces of visual theatre that require meticulous planning, faultless execution and a singular vision. It’s no coincidence that he started off as a theatre set designer. A Varini artwork is an event that takes place in space: you witness it like you witness a theatrical performance – viscerally.
Talking to him it’s hard to equate the man with the severity and technical perfection of his work. I begin by asking him about his education: “Education is a big subject,” he says. “I would rather talk about the influences I encountered as I grew up. I was very attracted by everything I identified as being artistic: this included the workshop of a sculptor almost next door to where I lived, the paintings I discovered in the public places of Locarno, the churches filled with all kinds of iconography – the primitive icons acknowledging favours received and the more evocative religious historical paintings, too – plus the sculptures scattered over the town, among them those by Jean Arp.”
One of Varini’s formative influences was the work of the Argentinian born painter, sculptor and theorist Lucio Fontana. His first encounter with Fontana was at an exhibition in 1962 at an avant garde gallery in Locarno, a gallery that was to prove critical to Varini’s development as an artist. “Fontana, whose work I could not understand at all,” recalls Varini, “enabled something to start moving within me. I subsequently discovered abstract art in the works of Malevich, Mondrian, Pollock, and it is certainly because of what I began to perceive and interpret at those moments, that my work took form.”
But it was while making and painting theatrical scenery in Geneva (from 1972 to 1978) that Varini became aware of what he calls “spatial volume and the benefits of treating it as such”. And when he later moved to Paris to work as an artist he discovered that the picture frame and the atelier were too restricting: “I could scarcely see myself shut up in a studio turning out canvas after canvas,” he notes. Instead, Varini began to think of architecture and urban landscapes as his new canvas. “The space, volume, materials, and the light these places of all kinds offered,” he explains, “were and still are a rich variety of reality off which I can make my pigments ricochet.” From then on, Varini’s field of action was to become architectural space and, as he puts it, “everything that constitutes such space”.
It’s easy to see why graphic designers are attracted to Varini’s work. Designers expend lots of brainpower making two-dimensional space look three-dimensional. The surfaces of posters, the pages of books, even the screens of computers and TVs are depthless, and so when designers need to create a sense of a third dimension, they have to use graphic tricks and illusions. Colour can suggest distance; layering techniques can suggest whether something is deep or shallow; perspective can be used to suggest scale.
Varini, however, does the opposite: he makes three-dimensional space look flat. By going out into the physical world, and painting two lines on two different surfaces so that when viewed from a certain point the two lines appear to be on the same plane, Varini is creating a thrilling illusion. But for Varini, it’s not a trick. It’s a way of seeing and understanding space. Just as graphic designers are master of two-dimensional space, Varini is a master of tri-dimensionality – to use a favourite term of the art philosophers.
I wondered if Varini felt any kinship with graphic design. After all, he is Swiss, and the geometric forms used by the Swiss graphic masters are plainly visible in his work. “It’s true that in my youth in Switzerland, I soaked up graphic design,” he says, “which at the time seemed to me natural and obvious; it was only at the end of my adolescence that I realised its quality and its importance. This has without doubt shaped me, in the same way that we can be shaped by our mother tongue.”
For many people who see Varini’s work only in reproduction, it is often assumed that his work is graphic trickery; coloured lines and shapes added digitally to photographs of architectural space. If this was the case, then anyone with basic software skills could make a Varini. “A graphic designer would have no difficulty in doing it,” he agrees. “The tools are available to everyone. I use them too in the preparation period. But what is fundamental to what I do, is the experience of space and the physical confrontation between the viewer and my painting, and that is impossible to reproduce artificially.” As he says on his website: “These spaces are and remain the original media for my painting. I work ‘on site’ each time in a different space and my work develops itself in relation to the spaces I encounter.”
Varini’s preparation is meticulous: you sense that the journey is as important as the destination. “First, I use a method which enables me to face reality,” he explains, “which consists of using one or more points of view which I place in the given spaces, and by means of which the shape or shapes appear. Once I have decided on the modus operandi, I begin installing the apparatus – projectors, lasers or whatever. The projections are made in darkness, then a tracing is made on the different types of material which make up the chosen space, and finally I turn to painting.”
Is Varini a trickster, an illusionist in the tradition of Escher and Arcimboldi? He is adamant that illusion has nothing to do with his creative intentions. “What is referred to as illusion is neither my subject nor my question,” he says. “What I am looking for is to produce paintings, derived from geometric positions which, by virtue of their encounter with architecture, break out producing a quantity of totally abstract forms beyond all narrative or symbolism.”
If we approach a ‘real’ Varini work we find that there is always one vantage point that shows the work in a particular way – the way that it is usually photographed. But if we move to another position, we see the work in yet another way. Does Varini consider that there is only one viewpoint from which to look at his work? On his website he has this to say: “The vantage point is carefully chosen: it is generally situated at my eye level and located preferably along an inevitable route, for instance an aperture between one room and another, a landing… I do not, however, make a rule out of this, for all spaces do not systematically possess an evident line. It is often an arbitrary choice. The vantage point will function as a reading point, that is to say, as a potential starting point to approaching painting and space.”
Varini points out, however, that the viewer will struggle to find the vantage point: “This point is so precise that it is almost impossible to check with the naked eye,” he says. “It can be found using a camera. Hence, each view, taken from any vantage point, will be correct in my opinion. The painting will exist in the totality of views one can have of it.
I use the point of view as a point of departure, and not as a conclusion.” Clearly the camera with its ability to maintain a constant viewpoint and with its ability to flatten space is crucial to Varini’s work, but in fact, the camera is secondary. What matters to Varini is the physical space and his intervention onto it. “My painting is created directly where it is exhibited,” he says. “That is the only place where you are in the presence of my work. The photograph remains a photograph. I never take it myself, I call on a professional photographer. I work very often with André Morin, a photographer from Paris. These photographs are never sold as works of art or as documents. There was a time when I did sell them: That enabled me to earn a living. But at that time, I confused the work with the image of the work derived from it. That is behind me now, it was a stage on my journey.”
Today, if you want to own a Varini he will give you the equivalent of a musical score which will enable you to make your own version. “At the moment of sale,” he says, “I provide the purchaser with a certificate and a description of the work, specifying the conditions for it to be put on show. This consists of noting that my paintings appear in a specific space for a solo or group exhibition, and when the exhibition is over the piece can be bought and shown in another space, provided it matches the characteristics defined in the certificate. This can be carried out as many times as one wants, if the characteristics of the location allow. We can compare this to what happens in musical and theatrical performance. With a score or a script, we can interpret or perform.”
But why buy when you can do what unscrupulous plagiarists do and simply ‘make their own Varini’? The man himself is sanguine and generous about his imitators: “It pleases me to find influences in the work of other artists which might be directly derived from my work,” he says. “It confirms me in what I do, and can even enrich me. On the other hand, I find it intolerable to be faced with works claiming to be artistic, which are nothing more than unacknowledged copies pure and simple of what I produce day after day. It is heartbreaking to see artists without any real personal agenda, who, for one reason or another, adopt such an attitude.”
It is lunchtime so we walk to a nearby restaurant. All around us the police crime-scene tape marks out the urban contours of this corner of London. It’s as if Varini had placed them there and we are walking through one of his artworks. Except, the colours are dismal and the atmosphere is heavy with chilly menace. Not like Varini’s work at all, really.
Felice Varini will speak at BAFTA on March 27, as part of the Howard Smith Paper Lecture Series. He is the sixth speaker in the series, which is curated by Jonathan Ellery/Browns. Browns also design a journal to commemorate each lecture, each with a profile on the speaker by Adrian Shaughnessy. This article is an extract of the profile featured in the Varini journal.