The geometric harmonies of Serena Barbieri
Updated: May 2
Today I'm talking about a young Italian artist, Serena Barbieri (https://serenabarbieri.art), whose abstract works made of simple lines and shapes immediately fascinated me. As she says, her paintings want to communicate quietness and harmony, and that's what I found. Serena was very friendly and gave us a great chat to talk about her views and inspirations.
Hi Serena, could you kindly introduce yourself to our readers? How did you approach art?
I am Serena Barbieri, born in La Spezia but grew up in the green Mugello, near Florence. I graduated in Biological Sciences in Florence but soon after I decided to change my path. I moved to Venice to study Visual and Multimedia Arts at IUAV Institute and then I arrived in Porto, Portugal, where I earned a master's degree in Contemporary Art Practices at the Faculdade de Belas Artes of the University of Porto. I owe my first contact with art to my grandfather Giancarlo, who is a painter, and when I was a child he worked as a decorator in the family carpentry shop, where they made handcrafted furniture in Florentine style. Sometimes I used to stay with my father in the workshop and it was in those moments that I spent my time watching my grandfather draw, paint on the furniture, create special colored tints, perform the golden lacquering and many other ancient and precious techniques. In that workshop, art was blended with the know-how of the craftsman and the brilliance of the alchemist. Perhaps this is why I still love to create my own colors by mixing the necessary ingredients and assembling my canvases.
What led you to settle in Portugal? What do you love most about this country?
I always say that I came to settle in Portugal by accident, or at least it wasn't in my original plans. The first time I visited Porto was the summer of 2013, on a trip to celebrate my first graduation. I didn't spend many days there but I felt that it was a city in fermentation, a place where something was happening and a certain process of renewal was underway. In 2015 I was attending IUAV in Venice and I found myself having to choose my Erasmus destination. The choice was between Berlin and Porto, so between the renowned and trendy city (especially for artists and creatives) and Porto, a distant city that I honestly hadn't thought much about anymore. Once after class I asked one of my professors, the artist Luca Trevisani, who at the time lived between Berlin and Italy, for his opinion. His answer was lapidary "Berlin is saturated, you should have gone there ten years ago". Okay, so I decided to go to Porto. And it's already been seven years since that day! I love this city for the possibilities and experiences it has offered me so far. The thing I love most about this country is above all the pace of life and the friendliness. On the street, in the cafes, at the supermarket, everywhere, people seem less nervous than in Italy, then of course they will have their problems, but in general everyone seems more relaxed. The Portuans are very self-ironic and have a very strong sense of pride and belonging to the city (touch anything but Porto FC!). It is uma cidade que oferece abrigo, it is a city that offers a safe haven to those who pass through on their journey.
For example, here, after only a few days in a cafe, they treat you like a friend, and even when I needed help with my business, buying colors or equipment, even though I didn't know the language very well, I always found a great willingness to help. This makes me feel good and helps me both in my artistic activity and in my daily life.
You have a degree in biology, how did, or still do, your scientific studies influence your artistic expression? Does biology inspire you in the design of the forms you make?
Getting my degree in biology has been one of the greatest satisfactions of my life. It was not an easy path but the knowledge acquired, the study method, the dedication to work, the scientific thinking and approach, which now belong to me, are priceless. Fortunately, the scientific side is still part of me and it is thanks to this attitude that I have always realized and characterized my works. If a few years ago the scientific approach allowed me to classify, categorize objects or create three-dimensional systems of installations, today I find myself inside a two-dimensional discourse closer to the schematic illustrations, for example, of molecular systems and machines. The shapes I use are basic geometric shapes, they belong to everyone, what interests me is to create series of systems in which these elements are in balance with each other, that form logical visual sequences or at least make sense to me.
Your style, especially in your most recent works, is distinguished by the use of many "simple" forms that create a complex whole, can you explain your feelings related to your works?
Simple shapes such as square, circle, triangle, rectangle, straight and curved lines are the basic elements to start any construction. Then they merge, couple, detach, recombine and organize giving life to new visual systems each time and the possibilities are endless. In art as in life, I don't like frills and speeches with too many words, what I look for is simple, essential and powerful. My constructions are "good", they try to convey positive feelings, peace and not chaos, life and not death. While I am working on a painting, I am calculating in my mind the relationships of strength and balance between the elements, I am arranging and manipulating the conditions to arrive at certain symmetries, I am predicting and experimenting with color combinations, I feel my brain full of energy in a perpetual carburization.
I like to think and know that those who find themselves observing one of my paintings, receive a feeling of calm, quiet and pleasantness, I do not want to communicate anxiety or feelings of anxiety.
I have seen that in the past you have also made sculptures, collages and installations, while now you are more oriented towards painting. Have you found in painting the best way to express yourself or do you plan to experiment with other art forms in the future?
When studying in a contemporary art oriented course the focus is more on certain media, like installations, video, sound, photography or hybrid systems. As long as I was a student, I also experimented with these languages and learned a lot. Since the end of 2017 I felt the need to use more accessible and tangible mediums, so I switched to the two-dimensional, through collages and the various studies made on the subject. Thus began a very long series, still in progress, of exercises in composition and discovery of various textures and materials. Painting is the most intimate means of expression available to an artist, each painting brings with it the result of the processes of encoding and transmission of what has been previously assimilated through our bodies. In painting and drawing I feel totally at ease, the work depends on me getting my hands dirty, it starts from scratch and ends with my own work. For now I feel painting as the most suitable medium for my expression, but soon I would like to try my hand at wood sculpture.
With sculpture do you always want to keep your abstract style?
Yes, taking my works as a reference, I would like to develop them in three dimensions, to get a work observable from all sides, as if they were many paintings that change depending on the point of view, but included in a single creation.
Looking at your works, it seems to notice an architectural aspect, let's say three-dimensional, which then evolved into more abstract and two-dimensional figures, is this impression correct?
Let's say I maintain multiple lines of work at the same time that interconnect and influence each other.
How do you "build" your paintings? Do you use stencils, or any special tools to get such clean and precise shapes?
Before painting, I always make a well detailed first drawing. The final colors on the canvas are the result of overlapping of different colored layers and textures. The definition of the shapes comes from the use of brushes in excellent condition, sometimes adhesive tape to define the backgrounds and contrasting shades.
As for the colors you choose, do you evaluate them as the painting grows or do you already have the overall picture ready in your mind when you start?
Usually at the base of each painting there are three or four drawings made on paper. The paper sketches help me to orientate myself in the larger space of the canvas, but later I add or eliminate elements seeking a new harmony more appropriate to the size and proportion of the canvas. The colors I generally use are pastel tones, often opaque. They are the colors I see around me when I walk through the streets of the city, the walls, the facades of buildings and houses. They vary according to the different moments of the day. My paintings are in part a transposition of what I have assimilated with my eyes, they are never fictional.
These colors you "collect," do you take samples, like photographs?
It depends, sometimes I'm struck by a juxtaposition, a contrast, and I want to reproduce it, I can take quick photos with my phone, but in the end, once in front of the canvas, you can't rely on a digital image on the cell phone screen. So I rely mostly on my feelings, and ultimately the right color comes along.
Looking at your works it is very easy to think about Kandinsky, was he an inspiration for you? Or do you have other "masters" that have stimulated you or still do?
I have an immense appreciation for Kandinsky but mainly for his texts and the role he played in the Bauhaus context. Since I have been painting my references are boundless. When it comes to studying and understanding the relationships between groups of colors, but also the fundamental elements of architecture, I draw on Beato Angelico, Giotto, Sano di Pietro, Piero della Francesca and other Italian artists between 1300 and 1600. Then there is the 20th century which is really too rich in references and interferences, impossible to summarize in a few lines.
In recent years I have become very interested in the Support/Surface movement, a French movement of the late 60s, especially the work of artist Jean-Pierre Pincemin, and the Co.Br.A. movement of the late 50s. In both cases I found the way of using "material " in painting incredible.
In addition, I have always found the illustrations of science books fascinating, especially those of chemistry and biochemistry. Without neglecting the illustrations of aerospace, cosmic, quantum physics, or science fiction.
I would like to add one more thing: in the atelier I am not alone, but I share the space with another artist. From the beginning, the spirit of sharing, observation and even the act of asking for others' opinions has been fundamental to the evolution of my work and to its success. It is fundamental to exchange knowledge with other artists and to be ready and receptive to any criticism.
I think it is essential to keep alert, curious and try to absorb everything, take advantage of all possible experiences, because they can always bring back elements of inspiration.
You are a young, established artist, and you can certainly be an inspiration to others. What would you like to say to those trying to approach art?
In my opinion you are not born an artist, you can certainly have a creative personality or however you want to define it, but then it becomes a matter of choice. You choose or not to pursue a goal, reasoned, and this applies to all fields. I chose late compared to the official school/academic training schedule. I chose after experiencing more. I would say that fortunately I officially approached art, as an artist, when adult. It was necessary to have a certain maturity and to have lived different experiences before to really understand the importance of that moment. Once the decision was made it was fundamental, and it will be forever, to work hard in the atelier. For me, the atelier is the place where I spend the famous eight hours a day (often more), every day. My favorite time and when I feel best is in the morning, but I continue to work until the evening. Sometimes I find that I'm losing precision in my strokes due to fatigue, and then I focus on sketching, or other elements that will be useful once I pick up my brushes again. And honestly, there is no other place I would prefer to be. Everything originates in the atelier, the atelier is my temple, and it is on this that the life or survival of an artist depends.
You chose this path, but when did you realize it would be your profession?
The key thing, when you want to live off your artwork, is obviously the art gallery. When you have your works in a gallery, which has to sell, you can think of living off your art. Although sometimes, and for some people, selling one's own works may seem to "belittle" them, and I too think that any work of art has an "infinite" value that cannot be enclosed in a number, the activity of selling allows me to make a living doing what I love to do most.
In recent years you have exhibited in Portugal, Spain and France, will we be able to see your work in Italy soon?
At the moment my works are exhibited in a gallery in Lille, France and two Portuguese galleries, one in Lisbon and the other in Coimbra. In Italy, if all goes well, see you in 2023!
I personally visited Porto last summer and was very impressed. Seeing your paintings and thinking about your connection to Portugal, I am provoked: haven't you ever thought of reinterpreting the famous azulejos with your abstract style, or maybe using those specific colors in one of your works?
The art of ceramics is part of Portuguese tradition and culture. In Porto there are so many ateliers where they make ceramics known, appreciated and made. I love to see the azulejos on the facades of the buildings and I also like to observe how the colors of the glazes change and evolve with the passing of the years and the weather. They are a fundamental characteristic of the city and make up its soul. On the other hand, unfortunately, I don't feel much affinity with this technique. The act of creation with ceramics differs from painting or drawing mainly because of a fundamental step, firing. Firing does not depend on the artist but on the kiln and, unless one is an expert potter, the final result of the colors can only be controlled up to a certain point. This lack of control, not knowing right away what color I will get at the end of the process, sends me into confusion. When I paint, I feel I have full control over what I'm doing, I completely dominate the work and its evolution. I don't want to close the door on such an experience, but before embarking on it, I need to study and prepare myself more.
We thank Serena again for her availability and friendliness, wishing her to continue her journey with further success and satisfaction, with the hope of meeting her in person in front of her beautiful works.