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The smartphone era

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Date Minted:  April 15, 2020

Artist Description: Personal project

CohentheWriter’s Commentary:

When artist Federico Paoli isn’t centering his cell-shaded artworks around humans and the human form, he’s elevating other objects to the same level of reverence as in his more traditional character studies. Nearly all of his pieces are hinged around some central unifying image —a person, a machine, an animal— that is emphasized from its environment by a combination of color and compositional complexity. The subjects are brilliantly cell-shaded, with Paoli’s style emphasizing shadows cast, creases in skin, and the communication of nostalgia. I’m not sure why such a cell-shaded technique is able to capture nostalgia so powerfully. Perhaps it’s because the unique proportion of detail to fuzziness is reflective of our memory’s texture. Perhaps the cell-shading is a red herring, however, and the nostalgia is a result of Paoli frequently using nostalgic imagery in his pieces: comic book characters, Little League teams, situations that are quietly comedic or lighthearted. The smartphone era is an example of the latter, a situation which embodies nostalgia with its clever combination of lightheartedness and melancholy. But uniquely, it is also a piece specifically about nostalgia, or, even more specifically, our inability to appreciate our youth when it’s happening, no matter how grandiose and noteworthy that youth appears in the moment. Nostalgia, of course, is an emotion felt only in hindsight, from outside the lens of the moment itself. We as observers occupy the same position as the person looking backwards. Only it’s another’s nostalgia we’re looking at. Though doesn’t it feel strangely similar to our own? 

Looming over the composition just as he looms over the world within the composition is Frankenstein’s monster himself. Imposing, huge, and green-skinned despite being cast in shadow, he stands hunched on the left side of the screen, his gaze deadened, his sleeves rolled up, his suit black, his hands occupied by a soccer ball. He’s looking downward across the frame at a young boy —can’t be more than 8 or 9— looking down at his phone. The boy has either no idea that Frankenstein is standing in front of him or has no interest. Either way, the monster looks down expecting to play, I presume, and the boy, enraptured by a smartphone in his hands, is too busy. They are diametric opposites, these two figures: one tall and the other short, one human and one not, one real and one imaginary, one holding a connective tool and the other holding an isolative tool. Notice too how deadened the rest of the composition seems to be. The sky behind the two characters is a sad and listless grayish-beige. The ground underneath them is equally void of pop, as grass is painted over in the color of gravel, and even a small row of red roses is sapped of its sheen. The longer you look at the piece, more vital, heartbreaking details emerge. The face of the boy, his slight smile at whatever is on his screen. The face of Frankenstein blank and listless. 

So, obviously, this is a painful piece. The boy in his phone, amidst a very gloomy landscape, turning away from the avatar of imagination and play which, I presume, characterized a childhood. Frankenstein is an interesting figure to use here, just because it has a source outside the boundaries of general childhood exploration. But when I see him standing there, I think of all the aspects, not only of childhood, of creativity that he represents. Creativity cradling activity, and both being ignored because of the newfound avatar of sloth: the smartphone. The irony is entirely outside the boundaries of the two characters themselves. We look here and we say “HEY WOW! FRANKENSTEIN? HOLDING A SOCCER BALL? WHAAAAA!” It’s almost a parody of exciting and engaging content. But, congruently, we don’t see how much of our own world we ourselves turn away from when we’re distracted by our phones, and neither does the little boy, who seems perfectly content to remain off in his own little bubble. 

One thing I want to mention explicitly is the way shadows are used here. It seems as if shadows are always coming from the left side of the screen, overtaking Frankenstein’s back and the boy’s face, leaving the child’s expression and identity clouded over. There is, to me, a greater thematic relevance within that. The Frankenstein character, a product of the child’s imagination, is being cast back into a world of total obscurity from back to front. First the definition disappears, then the outline, then the form itself; all this the result of the imagination shrinking, filled in by the wet concrete of smartphone content. And the boy, engaged with the phone, is slowly losing the definition of his identity, clouded over as it is by a reflection of what he’s seeing on screen. Perhaps the two are equated, the identity with the creativity, and as one begins to go, so the other. But there’s such powerful melancholy in that quiet, slow, sourceless destruction. 

And all of this pain from a boy whose backpack is hardly bigger than his torso. 

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