A colorful life
Luigi Lambertini

Sergio Zen is a painter who loves a secluded lifestyle. The colours of his palette, the lines of his thoughts, together with meditation and memories that later live again through pictures and images as though reborn.
Painting, as a method? Not at all. Said in this way it may sound restrictive even inappropriate. As an objective then? There is no doubt about it, even if… but is it really necessary to carry on so technically? Why not trying following a less precise process?
Let us then say that Zen’s paintings represent a vibrant succession of realities perceived and expressed in painting after painting. If this is true in general, it is even more evident in his works of the last decades. It is the result of a subtle meditation transformed into an unexpected and happy state, or in other words, in painting as a source of joy.

Vicolo Valle,15.  The studio is crammed with paintings that are leaning on the walls almost completely surrounding the easel. The studio is on the ground floor of a tiny old house located in what were once the outskirts of Valdagno. Not far away, a stream with an old water mill and further down, where the city ends is the countryside. At first sight it seems that Zen’s world is contained between these walls. Let us stop for a moment, certainly this is not a nostalgic trip around one’s own room. At least not entirely. Let us explain this concept.
Zen’s paintings suggest a world that surmounts the boundary of the place from where they are created. Of this there is no doubt. But to surmount, is it not the same as saying to go beyond? It is obvious. But pay attention! The painter here is harking back. Therefore why not speak about an intimate circumnavigation that from the outside finds here its landing place? Would you agree?

At first it is essential to cast your eyes upon this part of Veneto. Here the gentle slopes of hills alternate with the crops and orderly rows of trees. There are lights and colours that in the succession of seasons turn from soft and shaded to blazes of resounding intensity. Changing from a delicate green to a brighter hue, to fiery red tones to a deep black, and thick pastes of ochre to a multi-hued blue and to triumphant whites. Sergio Zen has indeed been inspired –  by being a son of this area - from the fascinating kaleidoscope that presents itself every day in front of his eyes.
And he will not be diverted from it even when abstraction will prevail.

Retired painter but surely not isolated. On the contrary. It is enough to consider attentively his paintings from any period they belong to. Even at the beginning when in the early sixties he left the first stage of a definitely figurative style, he began looking around in order to identify the foundation that would later develop in his style of working.
“Casa di campagna” (1961)  (Countryside houses) is an eloquent witness referring to the concrete abstract of the “Gruppo degli Otto”, that nine years before, had been presented at the “Biennale di Venezia” (an art exhibition held every two years in Venice) by  Lionello Venturi.
The landscape, grasped at once, is marked by a progressive increase of intensity and vigour. Ochre alternates with green solemnly and calmly. Precise and dense brushstrokes shape intersecting surfaces. Reality rather than being disowned is idealized. Shapes in their gist are at the limits of abstraction, at least as a starting point and then they find in the paintings new concreteness. It seems that the artist wants to lead us beyond that harmonious whole.
The same applies to other paintings, I am thinking about “Paesaggio marino” (1963) (Seascape). Zen has painted this, adapting it without disowning his relation with nature, he has created an overall effect of exalted hints. The result is a succession of feelings. The combination of lights, colours and shapes are such to create in a figurative way a similar expression of chromatic moods.
Despite being only at the start, Zen has detected the basis for what his poetic will be and with significant results.

It is not sufficient though to paint and make experiences on canvases. It is necessary to widen the horizons and discover the art world. The instruments used up to that moment were not enough anymore, therefore in order to be fully aware of the cultural debate and especially to be able to evaluate directly the results, Zen often travels to Venice and Milan.
His objectives. First, to deepen the knowledge of the past in order to examine the art work more congenial to him, he spends long hours in picture galleries, churches and wherever he can find some other significant paintings. The same can be said for the  collection of contemporary art that  museums, The Biennale di Venezia, Marzotto’s prizes and the main private art galleries, especially those of major importance, can offer. In the meantime together with two other friends, painters as well, he establishes an art gallery in Valdagno called L’Impronta (The fingerprint). It becomes a tangible cultural point of reference, through the organization of various exhibitions it will reveal to be an useful instrument to meet some of the most avant-guarde representatives of today or, otherwise, in order to have the possibility to borrow some paintings from other qualified art gallery managers. In fact the paintings for the opening exhibition of De Luigi, Fontana, Music, Licata, Santomaso e
Vedova, were all coming from the “Il Traghetto” of Venice.
In the course of these years, trips have become even more frequent with the consequent interchange of ideas and impressions. If this is generally useful, for Zen it is fundamental. What really matters to him is the implicit significance and the quality of the paintings and this does not involve only a formal-technical aspect. The secrets of paintings conceal those of the soul. They are their agents. We need to be able to examine them, to catch the meaning and the taste. Only in this way, working out its message, it is possible to enrich and at the same time defend our own autonomy. Only in this way will it be possible to avoid the snares of evident dependency and the simple imitations.
Zen is very keen on being aware of the development of art in its various expressions regardless of the ideological concepts particularly emblematic in that period. In other words, beside painting, he carries out an accurate research of both history and art criticism. All of this is recorded in the diary that the artist has written since those years. Published in 1998 with the expressive title “Nessun giorno è senza colori” (No day is without colours) it thus represents a useful method to deepen the knowledge about the painter and his work.

The method adopted in order to reach the chromatic and compositional resonance of these last decades, developed from the sixties, painting after painting through several experiences.
From that point a dialectical link that surely required some revisions, although short, which enabled him to detect the expressive methods that has led him to a happy maturity.
To give some major information, we should mention works as “Paesaggio” (Landscape) 1964 and “Lungo la strada” (Along the road) of the following year. In the first of the two works the backgrounds are animated by definite underlining and scenic structures. In the next painting, the whole of such pauses and revivals change in a more categorical linear structure. A dazzling intersecting and a marked highlight of shapes prevails.
Like rhythmical compositions, they represent the finishing point as regards the following works, despite the still stuck formal establishment,  “La vigna è verde” (The vineyard is green) 1966 and  “Volo notturno” (Nocturnal flight) 1968. Here we are in front of a prelude of one of Zen’s outstanding paintings “Notturno” (Nocturnal) also 1968. The echo and resonance among black structures of dense and emerging blue go beyond the mere transcription. They introduce us in dreamy throbbing and puzzling dimension.
Zen’s research carries on in every direction. And now new scenic structures animate the composition in a greater scale. Moreover it is possible to notice a different articulated dynamism that in “Incendio notturno n° 2” (Night fire) 1969 aims to a constructive uprightness. In the series of tempera paintings “Paesaggio dall’intimo” (Inward scenery) 1970, the signs becomes gesture and colours fluctuate overlaying with various intensity.
 The same can be said for “L’estate” (Summer) and other “Paesaggi” (Landscapes) all 1970, from which more works follow with quick and clear cut brushstrokes as “Opera n° 32” (1974) and “Volo azzurro” (Blue flight) 1975, and especially “Verso sera” (Toward evening) 1977 that we can consider as a type of summa. The result is varied and definite. It seems to be in front of chasing and sudden gust of wind caused by the excited dynamism pervading the painting. Colours dazzle and interweave. They go from bright red to white up to a softer blue verging to grey, sign of the impending night.
That is not all. Between the end of the seventies and the beginning of the following decade, Zen makes a sudden change of turn with a series of collage on canvas: "Venezia Giudecca" of 1979, “Per fare un ritratto ad un uccello” (To make a portrait of a bird) of the same year, “Notte di primavera” (Spring night) 1980 and “Presenza nel tempo” (Presences in the course of time) 1981, "Mare di luna" (Moon sea) 1983. The rhythm does not depend anymore on the signs and on the orchestration of colours, rather it depends on the open spaces and the way of painting which, considering the future outcome of Zen’s works makes a sense of an important harbinger of what will happen afterward, when having abandoned collage work, Zen will go back painting in his natural and exceptional way of expressing himself with paint brushes and colours.

At this point, why not allow ourselves a retrospective parenthesis to conclude the discussion we did not finish about the cultural interests of the artist and his reflections on painting? As you might remember it had to do with a direct comparison with other artists’ works, or with a continuous verification that allowed him to better understand what was more appropriate for him and to find a background to work on. So, in which artists was he more interested in? We can start – he himself never hid it – from Afro and Santomaso and then carry on with Birolli, Pollock, Gorky, De Kooning up to De Staël and Kline.
Before continuing with the examination that leads us up to what in recent decades constituted a fine expansion towards abstract style, it is useful to take a step backward and analyse, together with  the evolution of his way of painting, the developing of Zen’s thinking. In the painting entitled “Nessun giorno è senza colori” (No day is without colours) let us ponder on a record written in 1966.
Referring to the paintings lent by Gianni De Marco for the first exhibition of the Valdagno art gallery, and to the new works displayed at the Marzotto’s prize, Zen lingers over a painted paper of Scanavino. “With his nervy and thick marks as an X-ray picture - he will write – he makes me think of the pain of life”. Then a sudden turn back, an enlightening declaration: “All signs I paint on canvas, all colours I use are always present in nature.”
Considering not only the works of those times, he had many strings in his bow to state the above. But why quoting it exactly at that moment? First of all, because the link between the artist and nature has never been interrupted. But has not this concept already been pointed out? Surely, but we should now give emphasis to the complexity of the relationship that has always linked Zen to nature. Even when he was presenting more concrete references – here is the heart of the matter -, he tended to put his work in an, as to say, eccentric position because of the determined refusal of any realistic image.
The main point of the concept is hidden in the statement “They are always present”. In other words, Zen implicitly confirms that despite a persisting of references to the reality, in which he is really involved, he does not want to make an obvious representation. What more evident demonstration but not the next paintings? They will, moreover be a gradual harbinger of the paintings in which will prevail a marked tendency for further figurative abstraction works, as a result of a relaxed “dimension of memories, as dissolving pages” (1967).

Even concerning this definition, also taken from his diary - and it is also appropriate to talk about the preceding mention about the “lake of memories” -, there is an acuteness to consider. Zen uses the noun “dimension”. He could
have avoided using this,  limiting himself in utilising the word “memories”. But it would have been a contradiction, because he was already clearly aiming  at verified memorial component, surely very different from an easy embodiment of self-memories.
In this regard the two “Notturni” (Nocturnes) of 1968 and 1971 are more than eloquent. In the first, an interweaving of realities can be noticed that, tending to unify, reach solemn refractions by means of a constructive formal invention. In the other painting the black that in the preceding one was vigorously standing out is now conversing in softer tones giving way to reflection and emerging lights.
In both works, the feeling of Zen’s existence, his way of translating memories and moods with the painting items is explained through the use of different types of canvas and by the choice and application of colours. The chromatic mix is not let on the loose unconditionally, but it is held back, or better still, disciplined. Emotion never prevails. Every painting is the result of a musicality that starts from a beginning, being born from a focal point, a sign, a hint of colour from a nucleus.

The relation between meditation, self-emotional control and freeness of expression that will come out with exemplary balance in the paintings made more recently, had greatly benefited from the brief but intense parentheses (1979-1981) almost exclusively dedicated to collage.
Let us go back therefore and start the topic from where we left off, immediately considering the technical aspects. The already mentioned collages “ Venezia Giudecca” and “Per fare un ritratto a un uccello” (1979), “Notte di primavera” (1980), Presenza nel tempo (1981) etc.) present, since they are collage, a significant peculiarity. The balancing mix of colours matches of course, with the elements composing the collage, thin strings of material that will later be applied. A series of values then follows.
First of all, without changing the characteristics of the material used, there is a relevant chromatic thickness( on this regard we could think of an osmosis between the informal and the Pop, as to say like Burri, from his transforming various materials in painting, like Rauschenberg). Furthermore,  because of the whiteness, of thematerial,  the fine harmonious blending that links it to the oil painting of the background stnds out, both because of the way the painter had joined the collage together and by the way he cut out and laid the various strings to the support. The margins are clear but at the same time as irregular as the surface that, at work completed, will present a wrinkleless of various sizes and shapes.
It is an exaltation to precariousness, or even to something ephemeral? Not at all. There is rather the temporary feeling of the time perceived with quietness and, moreover, the pleasure of creating images using the dense richness of the oils and the ductility of the materials used.
Feelings and thoughts flying free spring out from a new born reality. It is a reality that changes, as in a musical reverberation, in a counterpoint of whites verging to a rarefied and soft green, now changing to shaded blue and than contrasted to the clangour of black.
Life’s meaning has been translated in painting and entrusted to the canvas not in order to make us aware of something ending, rather of something continuing. It could be anything. Flights of birds, Venetians rhapsody, spring
breeze, or thoughts that migrate in time and space.

At the end of the collage season, Zen goes back to painting. It does not necessarily mean there will be a complete break.  This is shown by “Incontro in collina” (Meeting on the hill) 1983  “Granada” 1986 And “Volo al tramonto” (Flight at sunset) 1987. The interacting between the flow of signs is fast - sometimes there are also frayed edges - and large geometrical shapes with borders that seems to be cut out. Every painting displays a rigorous balance.
The influence of collage works cannot be denied. There is, anyway, a considerable difference. In them the space between strings made concrete the creative process in its act of dividing, despite the unexpected scraps of materials that, not being rigid, was causing  not at all regular results at the crossing of blades. Other irregularities, always linked by sheer chance, - which realization was often chosen- derived from the subsequent positioning of the scraps.
In the paintings the relation between the idea and its translation is instead totally linked to the language of colours. While in the collages the strings and the colours, despite being distinct, are melting in a sum of endings that remain in the merging of two different valences (colour and material), in the paintings only  the palette’s law is in forge. The initial project, or better, the main idea from which the artist has been inspired, is enriched even by the development of chromatic chords. There is not the previous language between colours – materials and painted colours laid on the same surface even though being distinct.
The colour and the consequent shape of the image, have an architectural balance that the aplat make even more still. It is therefore possible to determine, by means of the explicit juxtaposition of surfaces, the depth of the picture and, despite avoiding every usual prospective fiction, the art work addressee is immediately drawn inside the painting and  involved in the atmospheres that the painter had caught and expressed.
As history can not be written only with dates –from that year, this happened and another era starts etc. - to choose a painting and to give to it a certain key role is always questionable.  This does not exclude though, that sometimes a certain choice and analyses, unless it is not too peremptory or instrumental, could be useful in order to illustrate better the artist’s evolution and, in the case of Zen, the versatility that distinguishes him in his scrupulous research.
It is not then a strained interpretation and neither a hazard if now I refer to  “Notte Andalusa” (Andalusian Night) 1989. In the painting we can perceive something that helps us to understand that the rigour built in the previous works are going to be abandoned as well as the aplat. The essential charge and the throbbing of the whole, if they were first linked to the past, will soon have a new life force in a renewed lexicon.
Zen is forging ahead with “Il muro dei ricordi n°1 (The wall of memories n°1) 1990, “Rosso incantato” (Enchanted red) 1990, and “Estate che cresce” (Arising summer) 1992. The images on formal and context level give even more emphasis to what had from the beginning been for the painter an overall theme running through his works: expressing through memories and meditation the reverberations of life. The colours and consequent hues are its vehicle and this song increases of intensity when tensions prevail. An example? “Difesa estiva” (Summer defence) 1994.
The light that shines through from the decreasing and soon after from the increasing of the flaming colours that compose the painting, is not an end in itself, it is rather one of the many lights of existence. We need to know how to detect it and it must be caught also in other paintings, when emotions and experiences, in strict union with the succession of brushstrokes, will show up even more in unison.

As in music, the pitch of the notes descend from the clef marked at the beginning or inside the stave, so every painting of Zen has its start from reality and from colours that, with the following rhythms at first definite and then shaded, it does not really matters if they are clear cut or jagged, renew themselves taking vigour from each other or calm down in happy harmonies. Painting born from painting and for painting. As for the parthenogenesis, from colours are emerging explorations that sink in the unconscious. It is a long rhapsody. Every painting suggests something new. Sometimes,- “Chiara presenza n°2” (Clear presence n°2) 1995 - it can be noticed an adding of quivers among the echo of cobalt blue and a sudden appearance of whites. In “Profondo blu” (Deep blue) 1995, framed by a black wing beyond which appears a swift blaze, sudden depths are even more impending. The silence of night is opening wide for our imagination.
Somewhere else- “Verso sud” (Towards south) 1996 – a fiery red lays down on what can seem to be a cradle of light. The contrast is evident but it correspond to Zen’s lexicon that often uses the language of the opposites. We could keep in mind “Per un solo giorno” (Only for one day) 1999 that displays a square shape inside its support, which it is square itself. A space inside a space not monotonous at all. On top a diaphragm of sudden touches, blue and black. A little below a swift piece that plays as a contrast. In the
middle, green fading having a water scent.
The atmospheric matter, or to be more precise, the perceiving of nature, includes again the existential one. Reality is expressed in the way, and with the same intensity with which it is being lived by the painter. The same can be said for “Canto notturno” (Nocturnal song) 1999 and “Dentro la notte” (Inside the night) 2000. The composition, though, present some variations. In the first one everything is managed with ascending rhythms; in the second one we can rather notice an overlapping of lights and shades of different origins that could even make us think, - despite risking to be misunderstood- to the simultaneity of moods aimed also by the futurists. Which – it is good to clarify- without any forced splitting up of shapes and of lines, rather with traits that have been often emphasized up to now, is possible to compare, because of similar placements of other paintings, always distinguished by lyrical profusions.
It so happens for “Stagione aperta” (Open season) 2000, where the rapid colour patterns move like reeds in the wind, or “Sera quieta” (Calm evening) 2002 with a transparent light blue alternated with red and white flashes beyond which we are moved to perceive evocative memories. But other paintings follow and with sequences, annotations and surrendering that have always as main objective the passing of hours and moments in their sensual developing. Here is “Stagione luminosa” (Bright season), blushing with radiance and, always in 2003, the vehement “Passionale” (Passionate). To reach down to more recent works what can we say of “Nostalgico” (Nostalgic) and “Rosso attivo” (Active red) 2004 – and "Turno invernale" (Winter Shift) 2005 ? Once again colour is life.