The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by the Sandro Chia Archives.
Executed in a bizarre composite of styles mixing figuration, abstraction and Futurism to create a powerful, strange and seemingly cross-cultural language of pictorial metaphor, Neophyte is an important semi-autobiographical painting made at a crucial juncture in Sandro Chia's career. Painted in 1981 at the height of the heady period when Chia had suddenly risen to fame as one of the leading exponents of the Italian Transavanguardia and the 'new spirit in painting' that was then emerging in Europe, it is a work articulating the twin emotions of euphoria and angst that the artist has admitted feeling at this time.
In 1981 Chia was only a recent convert to painting, having formerly worked for many years in a conceptual manner under the influence of Arte Povera. 'Everything about concept and minimalism was so pure,' Chia recalled, 'we had to do something forbidden, impure, and vital' (Chia, quoted in Sandro Chia, exh. cat., Berlin, 1992, p. 240). Neophyte is one of several of Chia's paintings from this seminal period that depict a lone, central and heroic figure seemingly lost or wandering through a magical land of fantastical colour and myriad detail. Most of these figures are metaphorical self-portraits representing the romantic fairy-tale image of the artist/hero engaged on a quest or pilgrimage in a strange and fantasy-filled world. In Neophyte this artist/hero figure stands at the centre of the canvas framed by two other figures gently pushing him towards an abstract abyss of cross-hatched colour. One of these figures, holding a crucifix and rosary, is presumably a priest, the other, bearing a knife seems to represent his antithesis.
An initiate or a beginner, the neophyte is, in the context of Christianity, the term applied to a newly ordained priest. For Chia, the role of the priest is very similar to that of an artist. 'The artist', he told Wolfgang Fischer, 'has to have certain ingredients that go to make a priest. Like for instance, this special relationship with God or a metaphysical entity. The priest is supposed to be one step closer to God than anybody else. And for this closeness to God he gives up certain worldly pleasures. He pays his dues' (Chia, quoted in Wolfgang Fischer: 'Ten Unusual Questions for Sandro Chia' in Sandro Chia: New Work 1986-7, exh. cat., London, 1987, p. 8).
Describing many of his paintings from this period of breakthrough and international recognition as being pictorial allegories of an artist trying to find his place in the world, Chia has said that many of these were also deliberately mocking of the ridiculousness of the artistic pursuit and expressive of his own unease and even frustration at being labelled an artist - a label that he felt leaves him isolated and full of existential angst.
In this context, with its triumvirate of figures standing on the edge of a colourful abstract abyss, Neophyte appears, in part, as a humorous post-modernist take on the seductive power of abstraction and the vertiginous fear of the newly successful artist not to betray his integrity. Echoing the composition of Umberto Boccioni's famous work, The Noise of the Street Enters the House, the hesitant neophyte seems nevertheless compelled to enter into this new domain, for as Chia has repeatedly pointed out, the artist, by the nature of their practice, is always condemned, like a holy fool to remain an initiate (or neophyte) wandering forever on an endless and mystical voyage of discovery.
'In my studio, as if in the stomach of a whale... my paintings and my sculptures appear...like the undigested residues of a former repast and I recall the phrase with which Goethe opens his introduction to the magazine Propylëion: "The youth who begins to feel the attraction of nature and art believes that a serious effort alone will enable him to penetrate their inner sanctuary: but the man discovers after lengthy wanderings up and down that he is still in the forecourt"' (Chia, quoted in Sandro Chia, exh. cat., Amsterdam, 1983, unpaged).