He may have a penchant for riding motorbikes, but Eolo Paul Bottaro is a sucker for tradition. After spending time downing espressos with the Melbourne-born Sicilian artist at his marble dining table, it’s hard not to become swept up in his ways
Drawing from the traditions of the great Renaissance painters – Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian and Caravaggio – Bottaro performs his craft at a time when the popularity of figurative painting has long been suppressed under the dominant, conceptual art forms and new media.
It’s not just his style of painting that Bottaro is a rallying for the public to re-evaluate. It’s also the traditional techniques that ritualise the process of producing paintings – what he calls “the journey” – that starts long before paint touches canvas.
Like the old masters before him, Bottaro begins by mixing his own paints from pure, hand-ground pigments. Walking into the second floor of his studio is like entering into the storage cupboard of the Indian Holi festival. Glass pots of powdered colour vie for attention. Bottaro travels the world to unearth the correct pigments from their habitats: Titian reds and ochre browns from Sicily, lapis lazuli, turquoise blues from Turkey.
This ode to traditions doesn’t stop with the preparation of his paints, extending to the preparation of his raw linen canvases as well. Bottaro also follows the traditional method of priming the linen, by adhering to a 300-year-old gesso recipe (a recipe he customises for his own purposes). After four coats of gesso, he then adds an opaque organic pigment for coverage. Then, rather than using a white canvas to paint upon, he prefers to paint on colour which gives his background a mid-tone to work upon.
Bottaro’s age-old methods are increasingly rare in current art practice. Yet Bottaro believes in benefits of such techniques – not only for himself, but also for young artists he taught while completing a stint as a high school art teacher. When his students prepared the canvas in this way, he noticed that they had much more respect for the implement and thus their artistic process, rather than viewing it as just another canvas they could discard if something went wrong. It is Bottaro’s old-school approaches and emphasis on colour theory, composition and drawing that led Top Arts finalist for 2013, Alexi Bouras to apprentice alongside him and learn one-on-one, rather than attend the VCA.
Although the Renaissance style is never far from Bottaro’s brushstrokes, this is not to say his work is archaic. On the contrary, there is a particular modernity about the scenes Bottaro conjures up. Although some of his paintings are re-workings of lost masterpieces, the narratives invoked are very contemporary in nature. In one painting, three Aslan like lions share the canvas with a white-haired bikie who is about to ride through the graffiti-adorned tunnel at Merri Creek (just around the corner from Bottaro’s studio). This is a deliberate homage to the great Renaissance artists before him. “It’s basically me stating the fact that they did the same thing; they really claimed their sense of place. If somebody lived in Florence, but originally came from Umbria, they would put the mountains of Umbria in the setting” he explains.
Like any true Renaissance man, Bottaro doesn’t just stick to painting. Sculpting, drawing, printing and frescoes are the other mediums his art comes through. And when he’s not making art, chances are you’ll find him on one of his beloved Italian motorbikes. “My passion for cars and bikes is connected to my passion for good design. I find a sense of freedom from being mobile, and I find that same freedom in the act of painting.” And like any true rebel, his sense of freedom is of utmost importance.
Eolo Paul Bottaro’s latest exhibition Paper Tales is a survey of the last eight years of his prints and works on paper. Launching on Thursday May 16 from 6.30pm to 8.30pm, the exhibition will be held at Montsalvat until June 16.