Russ Pope Takes Us Through The Grapevine of Milano
I haven't been back to Italy since before the pandemic and have really missed my regular trips to Milan to show with Antonio, Alessandra, Aloisia, and the crew at Antonio Colombo Gallery. It took almost two years of conversation and planning to get the trip and show organized. The gallery let me curate this exhibit. I had asked Kimou Meyer and Nathaniel Russell if they'd please show with me in Milan, and thankfully they agreed. All of the art got packed, shipped, received, cataloged, priced, and photographed by the team at the gallery, so it was time for my wife Jennifer and I to pack and fly there…
Arriving in Malpensa, we bought tickets for the bus, which I've found to be the easiest, most economical, and comfortable way to get to Milan, then headed to the Milano Centrale train station, having taken a red-eye, to maximize the time available on that first day. A nice way to shake off the sleepy effects of that red-eye, we embarked on a short mile-and-a-half walk to our AirBnb near the gallery in the neighborhood of Stracciatella, a great area in Milan to stay. Once we dropped bags and changed clothes we headed to Antonio Colombo Gallery to check in on the show prep. Naturally, that meant lunch with Antonio, Alessandra, and Aloisia, our first good Italian meal to kick off our trip. Polishing that off, Jennifer and I headed to the Triennale Milano. The Triennale is quite a cool building, full of Italian design pieces, rotating exhibitions, and a beautiful outdoor space with lawn and seating, food, and drink. We spent the rest of the day wandering the city, through the park at the Sforzesco Castle, grabbing coffee, ending up at the Duomo, and eating pizza back at a spot
The next day was the release of a print I made for a place called Bar Basso, owned and run by Maurizio Stochchetto. The bar is a Milanese legend and has become the favorite gathering place for many in the design and fashion space. Bar Basso was founded in 1933 by Maurizio's father and has been staffed by old-school Venetian-style bartenders ever since. This place is famous for having invented the Negroni Sbagliato (delicious!) The bar, staff, and vibe are one of my all-time favorites anywhere in the world. I made a drawing of Bar Basso and left the bottom two bargoers' faces blank and had a short, closed run of 50 prints made. I signed and drew faces in for each print so that every single print was one of a kind. Some of the fill-ins were attendees that night and I also made a drawing of my friends Clare and Andrea's dog, Lou Lou, and also made a drawing of Maurizio, some drawings for ceramic and brass pins of drinkers (all of these drawings were blown up and hung on the windows for the night). We had a nice party. They hung some of the paintings I've made that Maurizio and Pia have been kind enough to collect through the years. It was pretty wonderful.
Amidst a thunderstorm, we finished the night off with pizza and a nice bottle of wine with Antonio and Allesandra. Thank You Anotonio, Allessandra, Pia Bianchi, Aloisia, Dialetta, and Maurizio for making this one happen.
The next day was our Antonio Colombo Gallery opening. Jenn and I made stops at Fondazione Luigi Rovati to see their collection, walked through the arts district to buy some small Italian travel brushes and stock up on some colored pencil colors that I needed. Jenn loves the Brera Botanical Garden, so we made our way through, enjoying Spritz's and more coffee to get ready for the opening.
The show's title, Through The Grapevine, was short for “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Early on in the art-making process, Nat, Kimou, and I shared about 15 songs each with each other so that we'd have an inspirational mixtape of tunes to work from and add a loose theme to the show. I had included Slit's version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in my mixtape offering, and Kimou suggested using that song as a show title… voila!
Even when you work hard at assembling a group of folks that make great art, and you plan to fill the gallery space in a smart way so that it looks really nice, it doesn't always work. I do think there is a bit of luck involved at times, and this show really came together. Nat and Kimou made such beautiful work and the gallery staff stretched, framed, and hung everything so nicely. I was and am proud of this one; I hope that doesn't sound conceited. I assure you that I don't usually walk around thinking this way. The team of folks involved really made this one come together though. The opening night was packed, people seemed to enjoy all of the art, and artists' work sold, which is always nice and so helpful for all involved.
We had a long beautiful collectors’ dinner with the gallery staff and some wonderfully talented Italians who all had amazing careers and lives that were fascinating to hear about over the long dinner as we unwound from our opening. Thanks to all who were there, you know who you are.
Jenn and I have tried to save time for a trip to Cinque Terre more than once on a Milan trip, and this time we actually made it happen. We took the train from Milan to Cinque Terre which was about two and a half hours of beautiful scenery, then landed in one of the prettiest, most picturesque, Wes Anderson-style movie set-looking places I've ever visited.
We rented a place in Monterosso al Mare, one of five villages that are basically only accessible by footpath or train once you've arrived. We stayed here for three nights. My words won't do this area justice, so have a look at the photos and give it the old Google image search test if you'd like. The home had three levels, a living and kitchen on floor one, sleeping on two, and a rooftop with ocean view on three. It was full of paintings made by the brother and was certainly built by craftspersons. It's definitely one of the coolest homes I've ever rented. The beach here was beautiful and felt luxurious. It took me a minute to relax and not be self-conscious about the perfectly placed matching umbrellas, chairs, beach food, and drink service. We spent half of one day here, swimming, eating, laying on chairs, and relaxing. I did see Todd Francis's spirit animal and made a drawing.
I have to call out the best dinner we had while in Cinque Terre, at Miky Ristorante. It was a beautiful, thoughtful dinner with service, presentation, quality of food, and overall vibe all off the charts. Each day we took the train a few minutes to the neighboring villages and walked them pretty much in their entirety.
Riomaggiore was beautiful. We walked from sea level at the train station all through the winding streets and up the stairs to the top to look out over the sea. Pretty flowers, succulents, so many amazing views, and a great painting on a wall were just part of the vista. I saw this super stylish older woman everywhere in the town; up top, down low, talking to everyone, so I made a drawing of her. I also saw an older Euro trecker at the top whose kit was so good he needed to be drawn as well. From one spot, I was able to get a view of the village tucked into the hillside with a rock jump spot and a painted train that people had gotten up on, jamming into the tunnel on the hillside.
Manarola was gorgeous as well and we had a really nice Mediterranean-style lunch and some lemon spritz on the top of the hillside. I'd say Vernazza was the busiest and most touristy of the villages. It had some brighter colored buildings and was beautiful too, even though it seemed a bit more packed in with folks.
On the morning of day four, we took the train back to Milan to do a couple more days before heading home. Exiting the train, I saw another older man with a step-through frame commuter bike and days supplies strapped to it. I think this is a theme for me, seeing older folks, active and mobile, seemingly enjoying life. I had to make a drawing of him.
On our last full day in Milan, we made our usual trip to the Prada Fondazione. It was interesting as always. We enjoy the permanent collection and the Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce. From the Prada we made our way to visit my favorite museum in the city, The Museo Del Novecento. I really love this place and have hundreds of photos I've taken here. Both the permanent and rotating exhibitions are always on point. The black rose painting by Jannis Kounellis was particularly wonderful and a giant mixed media collage called The Wall by Alighiero Boetti was amazing. Our last Milanese exploration was the cemetery, which we'd never visited. I have never seen anything like this, acres of a sculpture exhibition among the dead. It was beautiful and strange all in one, and I most definitely recommend it.
The next morning it was back to the bus to the airport and home to New England. I already miss Italy and look forward to my next trip. Ciao ciao, and grazie mille to all of our Italian friends and supporters. We are so thankful. See you soon. —Russ Pope
This article was originally published in our FALL 2023 Quarterly