Mary Cinque: A Phenomenology of The Human Habitat

Mary Cinque, 017 Odeon Tottenham, acrylic on canvas, cm 100 x 100, 2017

Mary Cinque is an Italian painter, graphic designer and blogger working and living in the Amalfi Coast. Her works – joyful, bright, colourful painting and drawings – are inspired by this place, as well as her heritage, background and travels. Mary spent her childhood between Italy and Ethiopia. Before moving back to the Amalfi Coast this year, she has lived in Naples and Milan, where she attended academies of fine art; and Philadelphia, New York and London where she improved her artistic skills and style. Alongside making art, she works as an illustrator and graphic designer, collaborating with selected brands, working on artistic commissions such as illustrations, labels and showroom design.

Cinque’s art develops themes connected with what makes us essentially humans: our habitat – the buildings, the streets, the cities – our bodies, what we eat and how we socialise. Art, in Mary’s paintings, becomes a powerful instrument of philosophical investigation which reveals who we really are by questioning our habits, observing those characteristic traits we share as a species, often without realising it. The artist looks at human beings from a different perspective, making interesting and significant what can seem normal or banal to us in our everyday life: the buildings that populate our cities, the streets we walk, people sitting across our table at a café, strangers on the bus.

In this nutshell interview, Mary Cinque explores some of the most relevant aspects of her art and reflects on how it offers an intriguing and informative perspective about the way we live as human animals.

Mary, your art is colourful and vivid, it mixes human and urban subjects by making use of various techniques (oil painting; pastel drawing, markers, “digital” drawing, print-making etc.) and materials (canvasses, magazine pages, an I-pad screen). How do you choose the means with which to develop an artwork and how do the different materials and techniques influence what you want to convey, if they do?

Different subjects call for different techniques. Buildings and urbanscape are always acrylic on canvas, while I prefer to depict people using a quicker, immediate approach, like the one that I can get with markers and oil pastels or digital painting.

Mary Cinque, Bread and Butter, digital painting, 2017

By looking at the main themes of your art, it is possible to notice what seems to be a tension. On one hand, you portrayed the stillness and artificiality of urban landscapes and buildings (e.g. Spaccanapoli, the Barbican), on the other you have been interested in depicting “normal people”, little places of your neighbourhood, coffee shops and markets. What motivated you towards these choices?

I have asked this question to myself before, as the difference is very clear and it has to do with the places those artworks were inspired by. In Italy, I used to focus on neat buildings, that represented a repose from the chaos I seem to perceive everywhere. When I moved to London, I didn’t carry my acrylics and canvas with me because I wanted to be inspired by the city, and I wanted to be ready and open to new techniques. At the very beginning, I started using Japanese Tombow markers (a tool that I discovered in Philadelphia in 2006 and never abandoned since) to quickly capture the too many beautiful things going around me. Most of these beautiful “things” being London colourful humans.

Coming from a small countryside town in Southern Italy, the people that animate the streets of London are mind-blowing. No one cares about what the next person can think about them and it is just refreshing that everyone has far more important things to worry about than how people dress. On the other hand, it’s so nice to see people willing to express themselves and their belief and heritage through clothing!

Mary Cinque, At the British Museum, digital painting, 2017

All was new and fresh and inspiring to me, so I knew a new technique would soon come. I used to go to the Adidas studio on Brick lane at the time, where, at the end of some gym classes they used to have some kind of workshop. That evening it was an art workshop, where the leading artist invited us to depict bunches of flowers using one of the many tools that she provided.

After few days I went to Great Art in Shoreditch and bought all the bright Sennelier oil pastels that took my fancy and started making art with them. I was working at the British library at the time and made several portraits of my colleagues and library goers. The Swiss Gallery Palü saw them on my Instagram profile and asked if I wanted to be featured in their next group-show. After that they invited me to go to St Moritz to make some drawings inspired by the local people, then that would have been part of my solo show, and they wanted them to be made with oil pastels. Almost 4 years later I am still using them.

Mary Cinque, At St Moritz, oil pastel on paper, cm 30 x 30, 2019, (Courtesy Galerie Palü)

The City, which seems to be the natural habitat of human beings in the 21th century, is one of the crucial elements of the reality you observe and investigate. Among others, you have depicted London, Naples, Los Angeles. What interests you of cities? What do they represent for you?

I started depicting the cities when I was living in Naples, a city so chaotic that I needed to look at something peaceful. I was then drawn towards neatly designed buildings. At first these architectures were a chance to play with lines, shapes and colours – my cities always being almost abstract – it’s all about the inherent quality of the paint.

The kind of buildings I chose, on the other hand, represents a strong political statement for me. Apart from the Barbican and, later, Sampson House, the majority of buildings that I depict are featureless, simple, well-built buildings that because of their humbleness are often perceived as ugly or overlooked. But these kinds of building are the best ones to live in. I believe in the “form follows function” principle and I want to invite my audience to reflect on the notion of beautiful and ugly. I guess in the end all my art is about questioning the notion of beauty. Very few of the buildings in my paintings have been chosen because they are iconic and famous, most of the time I find out about their story only after I choose to depict them.

Several years ago, I started a series of markers on paper that I called “Lifelines” where I drew what I saw from the bus travelling from my hometown in the countryside to Naples, the closest big city for me at the time. With that series I wanted to highlight how we design our lives, how we choose to live and in which kind of buildings. Cities are a reflection of the relationships among people.

Mary Cinque, Lifelines, marker on paper, cm 21 x 15, 2009

From what you could understand through your art, do you think “the City” is a concept without borders? Or a city is a different entity in different countries? Is this our real natural habitat or is it just an answer to some contingent necessities of our time?

I am so glad you asked me this, as this is something that changed over time in my work. All my cities paintings were once just entitled “titled”, followed by a number, because my aim was to highlight what all cities have in common instead of what makes them different. However, when in 2014 I painted “Spaccanapoli Boogie Woogie” (a nod to “Broadway Boogie Woogie” by Piet Mondrian), a very iconic view of the city, I thought that it would have been impossible to conceal that that was the view of a specific city. Not any city. That made me realize that my research was changing, developing and going towards a new direction.

I used to think that the city was the place where human beings flourish, but I started to question that lately. I guess this has to do with me ageing too and how we, as humankind, are realizing that we need to correct many of the things we made so far and the way we built the city being one of them. I know that there is nothing like living in a big city at a young age. The stimuli and the cultural opportunities that a city offers, the open-mindedness of the people is something unparalleled that I hope will stay with me now that I have retired in my tiny countryside home.

Mary Cinque, 017 Barbican, acrylic on canvas, cm 80 x 80, 2017

Your art “feeds” from urban atmospheres and crowds. However, during lockdown this experience was transformed and has been made impossible due to the restrictions for Covid-19. Interestingly, you’ve found yourself to spend these strange times in the Amalfi coast, where you now live, and you have experimented with a different theme: natural landscapes. Does this communicate something different from your more usual urban subjects?

I went back to live in Italy, in Agerola, in November 2019 and, after a few months, the pandemic forced us at home. I have personally been very lucky, as lockdown gave me the chance to focus on my art, inspired by the many photographs I took in London. In a way, it felt like I was still there, but with the added bonus of a sunny terrace and none of the cultural and social engagements of the city that would have prevented me to wholly concentrate. I often joke that lockdown has been my art retreat.

After that, I started some new works inspired by the landscapes of the Amalfi Coast. This is a subject which I have rarely approached before. However, after three years in London, in which I looked at the Amalfi Coast from the perspective of foreigners, I found depicting these places very stimulating. I like to feel foreign in a place, maybe because I don’t give anything for granted. So, this opportunity to observe the Coast as if it was not my own home, but as if I had to discover it and celebrate it, helped me to see it and draw it in an unexpected way.

Mary Cinque, Villa Rufolo panorama, oil pastel on paper, cm 29,7 x 42, 2019

You have travelled a lot in your life: Ethiopia in your childhood, Naples and the Amalfi coast in your youth and adult life, Milan and the North of Italy as a student, London and California more recently. And you have produced remarkably different art in different places. How does the place where you live and the culture you experience influence your artistic practice? Did you feel that your identity as an “artist” changed while moving from and to these places?

I often tell this joke: that I started travelling before I was even born, because mum and dad hacked a Volkswagen van, made it an RV, and went on holiday in Scandinavia when mum was pregnant with me. My need to travel has been with me ever since. Every city gave me something and the fact in itself of travelling keeps feeding my art. I never thought there is only one side to things, I guess this is where my idea of many kinds of beauties comes from, too.

I was born in 1979 and grew up watching Disney movies first and Hollywood classics later, I am a product of the American soft-power on Italy, and, as a teenager, I was obsessed with the U.S.A. Add to this the fact that my grandfather moved with his family to NYC when he was a baby and always longed for the city when he was forced to come back to Italy. I fulfilled my dream to live in the US when I went to Philadelphia for 3 months: this had a huge impact on how I see myself as an artist and on my art practice. Same goes with living in London and then having done several group-shows in LA. The way people from the UK and the US see and deal with art is very different and nearer to my sensibility than the way Italians do. In fact, as a young artist in Italy I suffered a lot for the heavy baggage we, as Italians, have to bear: this is a country where it feels like there hasn’t been another artist after Leonardo and Michelangelo. I find it short-sighted and sad. This belief is reflected in every aspects of Italy, a country that doesn’t take any risk, doesn’t innovate and ultimately doesn’t believe in its people.

Mary Cinque, Broadway market London, marker on paper, cm 24 x 18, 2017

A final question. Your art seems to me really directed towards unpacking and analysing the most essential aspects of human life: as an ornithologist observes the habitat, the costumes, the anatomy of the birds, so your art scrutinizes the places, the everyday habits and the bodies of people. One of the most fundamental aspects of human life is food. This is something that we need for our survival, as it is for all the other living beings, but it is also something we find attractive, we want to make it sophisticated and beautiful like a work of art, we want to find physical and aesthetic pleasure in it, we strive to manipulate it and to create it in new super-natural forms. You have a special connection with food as subject of art: you have produced some works on coffee and on some typical food of your region. What does art have to do with food according to you? Can a good plate of food be a work of art?

I think I’ve been interested in portraying people eating or sitting at a restaurant or café since one of my painting teachers showed us “Babette’s feast”. Realizing how much what we eat and drink, and the way we consume these things, affects our mood and behaviour, has intrigued and fascinated me ever since.

Mary Cinque, At Violet, oil pastel on paper, cm 42 x 29.7, 2020

Although I didn’t fully understand food and its importance until I met my partner, an art historian and cook, I have always loved how artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Olafur Eliasson and Daniel Spoerri incorporated food in their art practice.

When I was asked by an artist friend to join her in teaching art classes in a disadvantaged neighbourhood in Naples, we came up with the idea or talking about art to kids through food. That experience reminded me of how heavily food is present in so many artists’ work and what a wonderful viaticum it is for talking about art to novices! Food tells so much about how we live and interact with others. It is so connected with different heritages and it is also a way to highlight what we have in common, it tells us about how the ingredients and recipes used to travel from one place to another. Ultimately it is something that comes from the Earth, goes into our body, affects our body and then goes back to Earth, a reminder of how we are ultimately animals, and all part of a cycle. And the best food, like art, is made with love and passion.

Mary Cinque, Sirvan, oil pastel on paper, cm 42 x 59, 2019

Giulia Corti

Giulia is a PhD student at King’s College London, where she researches on topics from Wittgenstein and Kant. She is from Venegono Inferiore, Italy.