Image: Anthony Romagnano, Untitled (four figures), 2020, greylead pencil and Prismacolour pencil on paper, 55 x 39.5 cm.
Anthony Romagnano’s world of colour is vivid, dynamic and unexpected. In antacid pink, in sea green and lime green, and every shade of blue, in colours we describe as autumnal and high-summer shades, this is life in technicolour. A shaken kaleidoscope.
For 17 years, Romagnano has been a studio artist at Arts Project Australia, Melbourne. A prolific and focused maker; Romagnano returned to the studio as the city emerged from a marathon coronavirus lockdown — effectively, a stay-at-home-order — that endured for more than three months and which saw Arts Project suspend its in-studio activity for more than 150 artists. Now, Romagnano is once again in his seat by the window overlooking a busy inner-city road and plane trees, a divisive staple of many Australian city streetscapes. Arts Project’s ground-floor gallery has been adapted into a second studio space to meet social-distancing requirements and the cathartic power of Romagnano’s rainbow work feels more vital than ever.
The attempt to describe colour, and its relationship to emotion, to shape and to music, has likely produced some of the most transcendental (purple) prose in the canon of art-historical inquiry. Colour is all around us and yet, as a sensory experience, it resists, perhaps overflows, our attempt to organise it through language. It is little wonder that we have to cross over into adjacent sensory modes — taking the temperature of hot and cold colours — and reach for metaphor and allusion to describe its effects.
I am drawn to a work Romagnano made this year, a plant study in which elongated green (British Racing, pea and acid) leaves extend from a thin black stalk. Green, in its variety, is not however the dominant colour. Instead, it is yellow, which the artist has applied in thick, flat blocks of colour, breaking up the picture plane and commanding attention. Yellow, for Goethe, gladdened the eye:
“the heart expanded and cheered, a glow seems at once to breathe towards us.”
Joseph Albers, it is related, saw yellow as the colour of “curing, caring and uplift”, while Kandinsky, heard in yellow the sound of a "shrill horn” or the ”high-pitched flourish of trumpets”:
“yellow, in any geometric form, if gazed at steadily, disturbs its observer, hurts him but also stimulates him.”
Green, conversely, Kandinsky equated with equanimity and restfulness; the colour summoning the image of a “fat, healthy, immovably-resting cow”. Kandinsky’s colour theory, drawn from his 1911 treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, described not only colours but also patterns of perception and of geometric objects. Yellow moves toward the viewer, outward from the picture plane, while other colours recede. Yellow is connected to dynamic, interesting shapes. This classification was based on Kandinsky’s subjective feeling; a synaesthetic apprehension that saw a circle as blue, a square as red and, in the acute angles of a triangle, the luminous, eccentric energy of yellow.
This intuitive, subjective application of colour, as well as the relationship forged between colour and dynamic, interesting shapes, is key to Romagnano’s practice. Although he always starts in grey pencil, drawing freehand from a reference image, it is through the intense application of waxy, Prismacolour pencil, blocking out space across the entire page, that the work achieves its vibrant saturation. The effect is almost jigsaw-like. Or perhaps the work recalls — in its more geometric moments — a stained-glass window. Vivid cells of colour extend to the very edges of the page and are held in place by fragments of rectangular and irregular lines.
“He goes through pencils like nothing else!”, remarks staff artist Peter Douglas. Romagnano’s grip upon his Prismacolour pencil is particularly tenacious. He colours intensely and with incredible focus. Arts Project staff note that he sometimes needs encouragement to take a break from his laborious and physically taxing process. But each project, once begun, is pursued until completion. The work is finished when each cell is assigned a colour and the mosaic-like structure of the picture plane is filled.
But how does it begin? Arts Project Australia is furnished with an expansive reference library and the source material Romagnano draws upon is varied. Pop culture imagery dominates and he does well with images that invite him to flex his particular talent for pattern: be it spotted animal hide, verdant plant life or the whorls of a retro Dad Jumper. Recently Romagnano has enjoyed working from a book of Tim Walker’s fashion photography and has also become more proactive in selecting the images and references that reflect his interests and personal aesthetic. But it is the artist’s enhancement, his total transformation of the subject that is striking.
The reference or what he uses hardly matters, it is his interpretation that is so distinctive. The subject is transformed; it becomes something else entirely.Staff Artist, Art Projects Australia
There is a cue in the work that also suggests we should look beyond the subject, and that is the lack of hierarchy between figure and ground. “He doesn't just have a figure or an object floating around in space”, Brown explains, “It always connects with the space around it”. Object and scene are treated equally - and equally translated into bold fields of colour. Romagnano places one blocky patch at a time, progressing patch by patch and from edge to edge until the colour world is total.
This play of colour and line, contrasting and complementary, is also independent of any descriptive function. Figurative source material and even recognisable subjects (Romagnano does a great line in 80s musicians) are abstracted, made luminous and strange, through their translation into intense pigment and energetic shapes.
Joanna Bosse, a curator from Melbourne who has collected Romagnano’s work, remarks on the “glorious, saturated effect” achieved through “densely worked pencil”:
I really enjoy the intensity of colour, the richness of pencil pigment, and the ease with which Anthony creates works that joyfully communicate a sense of interconnectedness.Curator
Romagnano’s work is held in noted collections Australia-wide; he has exhibited in both national and international group shows and in 2021, he is one of nine Arts Project Australia artists selected for collaboration with the clothing and homewares collection of Australian lifestyle brand Gorman. The technicolour range ‘Anthony’s Palette’ translates his double portrait John Howard, Dalai Llama, 2011, into a range of bedding and napery. The world leaders, rendered without physical characteristics, meld into pulsing blocks of pure colour.