“Firmament of Time,” Justine Neuberger’s first solo show in Italy, takes its title from a book by Loren Eiseley, a twentieth-century American anthropologist who privileged a contemplative approach in his writings about the natural world. In six small-format oil paintings (all works 2020), Neuberger recasts her own surroundings as a dreamlike realm in which perspectives morph and narratives meld. Boasting a palette dominated by yellow, blue, violet, and pink, the canvases abound with rich symbolism and references ranging from the Renaissance to vernacular art. For example, in Our Path—Darkenu, a group of figures—perhaps versions of the same person?—emerges from the turbulent surface of the canvas. Against the unstable background, the detail of the portraiture evokes El Greco, while the subject matter explicitly references the journey undertaken in the eponymous Hebrew folk song.
There is something grotesque about the way in which Neuberger portrays her characters, who often appear masked. In Night We Broke into Sugar Hill, carnivalesque costumed figures prance about in pointy hats. They are engaged in dubious acts, dancing erotically and embracing one another, their faces monstrous or blurred. Similarly, in Only the Void, a woman wearing an exaggeratedly long prosthetic nose holds a letter and a long-stemmed rose in her hand. On the page, one can just make out a snippet of the Paul Celan poem from which the painting takes its title. At the center of Tights and The Director’s Seat, female figures perform a dance or a striptease in an officelike setting. But for whom? In both of these paintings—seemingly variations of each other—the director’s chair remains empty.