2017 Essay | GoCM Contemporary Virtuousos

2017 Essay | GoCM Contemporary Virtuousos

Setting Stones: Perspectives on Contemporary Mosaic Art Practices

By Karen Ami

Pamela Irving
Fernando, 2016
Ceramic and marble on cement base
26 x 9 inches
Pamela Irving
Yolo Men, 2016
Marble and smelt
60 x 48 inches

The Gallery of Contemporary Mosaics (GoCM) is unique in the focus of its vision. Within its seemingly narrow material field, it fosters a broad creative conversation. The international community of contemporary artists working in the mosaic medium employs diverse approaches to process that are linked by a sensual tactile language evolved from our most primal beginning of stones and mud. Creating an order out of found and rendered materials is an intuitive but methodical process. The careful selection of stones, shards, glass or relics to embed in mortar transcribes our relationship with the world around us, creating an archive of recollection and permanence. 

Toyoharu Kii
Twisted Rope, 2016
28 x 8 inches

Today’s world is increasingly fast paced, focused on bottom lines and deliverables. For an artist working in mosaic, the creative process inherently breaks with the restless pace of the outer world and provides a slow and meticulous practice where material wisdom can thrive. From concept and design to sourcing and scavenging materials, preparation and cutting to the setting of tesserae in mortar, the process becomes almost like a meditation, requiring patience and reflection at every step. The constraints of the medium- hard and brittle substances- require deep consideration in order to translate the sensitivity of human expression.  

Toyoharu Kii
Once There Was a Green Hill, 2016
22 x 20 inches

There is a growing field of artists on the international stage that use mosaics as an extension of an art practice that began with drawing, painting and sculpture. Their disparate aesthetic sensibilities offer stunning contrast within the contemporary sphere, but they are bound by a common foundation in ancient mosaic technique and a drive to push the boundaries of the medium. These five artists represented by GoCM – Verdiano Marzi, Dugald MacInnes, Pamela Irving, Toyoharu Kii, and Carolina Zanelli – are unique, internationally acclaimed artists whose works explore the immense potential of mosaic to speak today’s aesthetic language. Their distinctive approaches to process illustrate the breadth of contemporary expression that is possible in a medium often overlooked as a historical footnote.

Verdiano Marzi was born near Ravenna, Italy, the capitol of Byzantine mosaic. He began his classical education in mosaics at the age of eleven at the local Istituto Statale d’Arte per il Mosaico. The classical and regional influence of San Vitale and Galla Placidia can be seen in many of Marzi’s portraits and abstract landscapes, and in his use of gold and lushly colored smalti glass. However, as a young man in his twenties, Marzi began to gravitate toward the contemporary, studying in Paris and developing a personal practice influenced by early modern painters such as Amedeo Modigliani and Giorgio Morandi. In his Paris studio today, he works off of energetic studies and drawings, translating them into vibrant mosaics with a painterly sensibility. His gentle use of line evokes the same tenderness and movement as his works in pencil. Many of his works reflect on the metaphysical or address morality through political and humanitarian subjects. In the 2015 mosaic Prayer, he expresses his hope for peace, through the fear for the safety of his son after the Paris nightclub massacre.

Dugald MacInnes is an artist based near Glasgow, Scotland. He has been fascinated with geology and rock formations since he was a young boy growing up off the west coast town of Oban, Scotland. He works almost exclusively in Scottish slate that he personally collects, washes and cuts by hand, and his subject matter works both in contrast and cooperation with the brittle grain of the stone. MacInnes favors compositions that are abstract and rigidly geometric, but he employs a startling finesse that mimics the delicate strata of ancient sediment and dramatically showcases the natural color variegation in the stone caused by mineral deposits. These subtle grid formations are born out of the seismic events that have created the landscapes that surround him and in turn, they reveal his deep connection to his native soil.

Dugald McInnes
Untitled, 2015
Scottish slate
33 x 33 inches

Australian artist Pamela Irving creates mosaic as part of a decades-long art practice that began in through her sculptural ceramics. Her dynamic and colorful paintings, prints and sculptures are often satirical and convey a deep sense of humor and fantasy. A collector herself, she was attracted to the monumental installations of outsider artists Nek Chand of India and Raymond Isadore of Chartres, France. Reclaimed and broken materials inspired Irving’s earlier sculptures and intricate surface treatments. Her paintings and prints often follow conceptual narratives that carry forward into her mosaics, which typically employ a picassiette technique to replicate forms and characters such as the Empress Theodora or Yolo Man. As these characters are reincarnated across multiple artworks and series, they are augmented by the recycled materials that are incorporated into each individual work. 

Dugald McInnes
Fragile Earth (Xenolith), 2015
Scottish shale43 x 43 inches
Verdiano Marzi
Smalti, glass and dalle de verse
59 x 39 inches

Toyoharu Kii, a Tokyo native, originally attended Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music to study painting and drawing, but was soon captivated by mosaics after a period of foreign study in Florence, Italy. As an artistic pioneer in Japan, where mosaic is an often undervalued art form, Kii nows uses painting less as an independent practice, and more as a springboard to develop mosaic compositions. His work is highly recognizable in its strict monochromatic execution and characteristic use of negative space or interstizi between tesserae. Using his traditional ink paintings as a blueprint, the placement and precisely cut shapes of his white marble tesserae create a sense of airiness, fluidity and rhythm that animate his compositions. Kii also frequently plays with undulating substrates in order to exploit the homogeneity of his palette and highlight subtle interplays of light and shadow, teasing rich complexity out of a deceptively simple aesthetic.

Carolina Zanelli, like Verdiano Marzi, is an Italian native trained in an Italian mosaic school. However, her formation at the Scuola Mosaicisti del Fruili just north of Venice was a departure from the antique method from the start; she has experimented with a wide range of styles and techniques. In recent years, her early background in architectural decorative installation has come back into play in an ongoing series of works that challenge the inherent fixedness of stone set in mortar. Inspired by mosaic paneling, Zanelli turns the premise on its ear by affixing tesserae to flexible, transparent silicone sheeting that can yield and bend, or be suspended from above like a textile. She enhances this effect by creating elongated shapes that evoke flowing movement. At the basis of all her work runs a thread of playful contradiction.

Verdant Marzi
Silenzio, 2013
Smalti and stone
19 x 16 x 1.5 inches

Mosaic art has offered an expressive medium for the human condition for over 4,000 years. From river rocks embedded in mud, to ceramic cones ornamenting the pillars of the city of Ur, to the murals of Pompeii and the treasures of Byzantine Ravenna, mosaics have borne ongoing witness to history. However, mosaic is more than a historical artifact, it is a living art form that continues find relevance in contemporary subjects and audiences. As these five artists and their broader community demonstrate, there is a need for texture and tangibility in art that mosaic offers with abundant, evolving complexity.

Carolina Zanelli
Flexible Grass, 2012
Venetian smalti and transparent silicone
33 x 33 inches

Luca Maggio, curator, art writer and critic, and editor at Mosaïque magazine, said of Verdiano Marzi’s work that it is “achieved with ability and with the intent to cover every millimeter of surface that still, given the arrangement of the single elements, does not hide but increases the fragmented effect of the mosaic: therefore it does not deny the nature of the middle, it exalts it is not painting; it is ultimately mosaic.” This spirit is a key component of all of these artists’ works: a capacity to transpose contemporary gesture with breathtaking nuance. They neither abandon the formal principles of design and composition thought to be the sole province of painting and drawing, nor recoil from the challenge presented by seemingly unyielding glass and stone. Rather, the practice of mosaic-making today requires a profound comprehension of multiple artistic disciplines and a sense of spontaneity and surrender, allowing the natural physical properties of the media to guide experimentation.

Contemporary mosaics break with many of the aesthetic rules and expectations of their forbears, just as 20th century painters developed an entirely new aesthetic language to speak truth to modern life. But nonetheless, there is an unbroken line of expressive instinct and material intelligence that has carried through from the most ancient stones laid in mud to today’s most sophisticated works. In Maggio’s words, “the unity of the final mosaic image is given by the relationship of fragments. And this is exactly the image of the reality, that which appears compact to our eyes… The mosaic is the reality.”



Karen Ami is an innovative artist and founder and Executive Director of The Chicago Mosaic School, the first and only first Not-For-Profit school for Mosaic Arts Education outside of Europe. She is a curator, advisor and lecturer on contemporary mosaics. Ami is an respected and award winning artist; her works are in museums, institutions and private collections, here and abroad.    


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