“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of the privileged” by Andrea Limauro (2018)
“The physical impossibility of death in the mind of the privileged” by Andrea Limauro (2018)

Mare Nostrvm, Latin for “our sea,” takes the deadly migration of refugees across the Mediterranean as its theme. Andrea Limauro employs interrelated traditions of Western art to sanctify the crisis as a great tragedy, and that serves to position his own identity. Originally from Rome, Limauro divides his series into four “chapters” best “read” in sequence, much like the iconological frescoes found in chapels of Renaissance Italy. While following the works’ narrative order, viewers may also be reminded of the Stations of the Cross, or the series of images in a Catholic Church that follow the moments along Jesus’ path toward crucifixion (Limauro references this, again in its Latin, as “via crucis”).

It begins with four paintings on war, the normative factor by which so many refugees are compelled to embark on their life-threatening journey across the sea. In “The Fourth Punic War,” Limauro infuses tiny images of ancient Carthaginian ships with the contemporary cargo of crowded refugees, and sends them across a bubbling pattern of blue-green toward Italy. As clever as this picture is, laden with broad areas of iconicizing gold leaf, the first painting in this chapter, “I can see you,” stands out in the exhibition. Both menacing and beautiful, the dichotomies of its flatness and depth, texture and color, image and pattern, complete a strong representation of compositional arrangement.

Gold leaf, the language of sacred icons, is used throughout each chronological mini-series (war, voyage at sea, death, and arrival). Limauro is also indebted to ancient Roman mosaics; even in his purely acrylic work, there is a glittering flatness compounded by the minuteness of brushstrokes and complex values, recalling carefully placed tesserae. In the final two stations of Limauro’s narrative, “death” takes a much more somber color palette and “arrival” does not illustrate a successful passage but a metaphor for the inevitable destination that humanizes us all, regardless of national affiliation.

It is unclear whether Limauro’s use of photographic images within the paint are a substitution for skill or the appropriation of recognizable material in order to conjoin art with the everyday, mediated world. It’s a more conceptual approach than narration, which seems to be Limauro’s strategy otherwise. Nevertheless, he seeks to invest viewers’ full empathy into the migration crisis, ending with a split- screen video as a coda to the exhibition.

On the right of “Club Med,” partiers dance with all the expected decadence of rich young people on a yacht. On the other, crying children are rescued to safety from an inflatable raft. It would seem heavy-handed, if Italy’s right-wing politicians hadn’t recently shut ports to migrant rescue ships, with lives reported lost at sea almost weekly. Limauro’s work is well researched and necessarily emphatic, an urgent consideration of the Mediterranean as our modern mass grave.

At IA&A at Hillyer to Oct. 28. Hillyer Court NW. Free. (202) 338-0325. athillyer.org.