Among the many schools and movements defining twentieth century art, geometric abstraction and surrealism represent oppositional tendencies. Successors of the Dutch master Mondrian, the geometric abstract painters of mid-century renounced both gesture and extraneous content. They maintained the two dimensionality of the painted surface and championed the right of the painting to mean nothing other than itself. Seeking a pure and unmediated form of aesthetic response, they generally settled upon relationships of color and geometric form.
The surrealists, on the other hand, maintained the time-honored concept of the painted canvas as a "window" to the world, but the world they depicted was the landscape of the subconscious mind. Emanating from the intellectual circle of Andre Breton, surrealism sought to liberate the images of the subconscious through means ranging from induced hallucination and automatic writing to Max Ernst's famous frottage technique. In the prominent figures of de Chirico, Magritte, and Dali, surrealism became the main refuge of representational art in the middle of the century..
Bill Santelli stands with a foot in each of these major artistic traditions. Certainly the main elements of Santelli's compositions are geometric: squares, rectangles, triangles, circles and lines intersecting at various angles. In combining these basic forms to create more complex and often recognizable objects, such as stars, arrows, numbers, and words, Santelli seems to assert the primacy of geometric forms as the building blocks of visual understanding. Like the geometric abstract painters of the 50s and 60s, Santelli gives these forms a life of their own through contrasts of bold coloration. In "Point of Departure", for example, the whiteness of the triangles against the dark background allows the shapes to float free into a visual space entirely their own. One senses that the endpoint of Santelli's compositions is a condition of visual harmony established among the many shapes and colors.
Where Santelli departs from geometric abstract painters and their neo-geo successors is his refusal to accept the flatness of the picture plane. He creates a deeply recessive space of cosmological proportions. Within this space, forms existing on vastly different planes overlap each other or intersect our line of vision. Sometimes they recede in progressive diminution to multiple vanishing points. While the forms are geometric, the ambiguity and seeming enormity of the pictorial space is enhanced through amorphous washes of acrylic color. These contrast with the precision of the geometric forms to suggest openings into alternative spaces - or alternative meanings. At times, the artist explores use of the same geometric shape to render multiple spatial dimensions within the same painting. Most of Santelli's paintings contain circles of varying sizes inscribed onto the surface of the image. These lie on the surface and are reminiscent of technical or architectural drawings. In paintings like "What is the Distance Between the Eye and the Soul", these circles become broad concentric bands of color evocative of Jasper Johns famous targets. Still within the same paintings, these circles also assume a third dimension to become cylinders or, bigger yet, spheres suggestive of planetary bodies.
Santelli's concerns are not exclusively formalist, however. The artist populates his pictures with objects which are recognizable and charged with latent meaning. Among the most common are numbers and letters of the alphabet. The letters and numbers, together with other objects such as directional arrows and chain links, seem to have emerged out of the abstract geometric shapes. These, in turn, float freely in the pictorial space or coalesce into recognizable sequences, such as a binary sequence of ones and zeroes, segments of words and phrases, or the chain comprised of its links. But we always sense that this association of forms into recognizable and meaningful units is capricious and highly tenuous. The impermanence of this relationship between the sign and its meaning is symbolized by the seemingly chance collection of shapes and numbers to form the face of a clock.
The most pervasive visual metaphor for the fragmentary and evanescent nature of meaning is the artists manner of composition, whereby he layers images one upon another through repeated application of thinned acrylic paint. The result is a pictorial surface resembling a palimpsest. Forms created earlier in time show through the surface, providing elusive suggestions of meaning while, at the same time, obscuring the meanings of forms superimposed upon them. The device is analogous to the working of memory when reason is suspended by sleep. The recession in space is a recession in time as well.
In the end result, Santelli's forms are not the static absolutes of the geometric abstract painters. They are mutable and exist in a fluid space. The world of Santelli's paintings is akin to the dream world of the surrealists, the world at 4:30 a.m. It is a place of contradiction, where space is both asserted and denied and where images seem to struggle with one another for dominance. It is a place where context is established more by free association than by logical progression. The focus of Santelli's art is finally upon process rather than form, and the vantage point of the artist is that threshold through which visual images must pass in leaving their conventional moorings and seeking new meanings. To the commonplace question, "Do we dream in color," Santelli gives an unequivocal answer.
Santelli has received numerous awards and pursues painting as a full time occupation. A recent installation of his work can be seen locally at the University of Rochester's Simon School. Bill graduated from the State University of New Paltz. He lives with his wife, Margie, in Rochester.
Press Release, Oxford Gallery, Rochester, NY