A destination for international New Contemporary Art in Rome, Dorothy Circus Gallery was founded in 2007 by the passionate and savvy Alexandra Mazzanti. Mazzanti brought her extensive knowledge of both art history and contemporary art to the table, coupled with her keen awareness of pressing social issues. Dorothy Circus Gallery has not only hosted the solo shows of some prominent international artists like Ray Caesar, Joe Sorren and Kazuki Takamatsu — they’ve collaborated with historical Italian museums such as the Casa dell’Architettura in Rome and Palazzo Paesana in Turin, putting New Contemporary Art in dialogue with the established canon. Mazzanti’s latest endeavor is a social activism-oriented art project called “Spray For Your Rights,” a series of exhibitions that features street artists whose work speaks out on a variety of topics, from immigrants’ rights to feminism. We spoke with Mazzanti about the history of her gallery, her future ambitions and her personal art collection. Read the exclusive interview below.
View of the gallery interior.
When did you open Dorothy Circus Gallery and what was going on in Rome around the time that you opened your doors?
I opened the Dorothy Circus Gallery on 2007. At that time in Rome, and as well as in Italy, there were mostly art galleries focused on conceptual and abstract arts and every art show room was characterized by a cold and impersonal atmosphere.
In my opinion the art galleries were apart from the real artistic and poetic revolution of 2000 and most of all not connected to the real interests of the wide international audience of the modern, global culture.
The young artists were simply wiped out by the cultural establishment that favored exclusively artists and art movements already emerged and approved 20 or 30 years earlier, that were mainly supported by an Italian “closed circuit” art critique. Collecting art was just for the few rich and lucky guys while the figure of the young collector was almost absent.
Painting by Marion Peck from a group show at Dorothy Circus.
The crowd lined up outside of Dorothy Circus Gallery during an opening.
What were you doing before the gallery and what prompted you to get into art as a business?
I attended the Art Academy in Venice, I worked as studio assistant of several artists, I curated the scenery and doing photography for a theater and ballet company. At the age of 21, I became mother of my two children, with whom I started traveling all over the world and I started collecting art.
When I was living in Rome, I clearly realized that the youngest generation was set apart from the official cultural scenario and suffered from the absence of an original and stimulating art scene. I wouldn’t say that I really chose to get into the art business, but rather that I’ve been active part of an independent cultural system. I believed in a possible revolution of the art system and I’ve done my best to put in the art scene something new, something topical to be offered to everyone who was looking at the future. People were bored just like I was by the established cultural climate, which wasn’t updated and contemporary at all, and that has sent us away from the primary worth of art — which has always been a spiritual and therapeutic and educational matter.
I wanted to give room to the most vibrant avant-garde tendencies of figurative art, the art movements that are happening right now, as pop surrealism and street art. I always chose artists characterized by a strong identity, a revolutionary impact and a solid technical background, so that my gallery could easily become a fine art “popular” meeting point, but appealing to every kind of spectator (art not only for the highbrow but instead for the everyday people).
So the gallery to me, has to be an intimate, cozy and personal room, a place were art could arouse and evoke, with its magical power, the sense of dreaming, in an attempt to reconnect people with their subconscious in a newborn sur-reality. My job means a lot to me. It is not just business, but it is almost a mission: It’s about evolution and revolution, and I’m doing all my best for a better world.
View of Dorothy Circus Gallery from the outside.
Your focus is primarily Pop Surrealism and many of your artists are from overseas. Was it a challenge getting Italian audiences engaged with this type of art?
Though born and living in a strong historical heritage, in Italy the younger generations were mostly raised in a international-oriented cultural environment. Music, books, movies and art are mainly from abroad or overseas. So we love Verdi, Brahms and Mozart as well as Elvis, Neil Young, Kurt Cobain and Katie Perry. We have Fellini and Pasolini as well as Spielberg and Woody Allen. Italian children once went crazy for the Disney cartoons as they do for Japanese manga today. At school we study the classical art, from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance, and we are used to all his iconography and symbology. A surreal gathering of strange creatures living in the wood, or in the sky between the clouds: Angels, devils, cerberus, centaurs, nymphs, fauns, sirens, cyclops… I can say that for the Italian audience the hallmark of Pop Surrealism could be seen as a summary of all these imaginary elements.
So we have a strong familiarity with the figurative. From the colorful Roman affreschi to the dark madonnas of Caravaggio and Antonello da Messina, and more with Rembrandt, Goya, Renoir, Waterhouse, Klimt, Magritte, Tamara de Lempicka… from here we could easily move on to the Pin Up Art, to Warhol, Lichtenstein, Basquiat, til the present days of underground arts and Pop Surrealism. I strongly believe that he who loves Watteau and Fragonard, Lancret and Bouguereau could get a crush on Ray Caesar’s artwork, he who loves Renoir and Redon could easily appreciate the feel of Joe Sorren’s work.
In the mystical sets of dark details of the 16th and 17th-century art, as the masterpieces of Bosch and Brueghel, the Aertsen’s “Macellaio,” the De Ries’s “The Tree of Life” and the Provost’s allegories, we could find the classical roots of the Mark Ryden’s “pop and pink” body of work. The “Creatrix” sprouts from Van Eyck e Schongauer madonnas, as “The Magic Circus” is a personal rendition of Miro’s “il Carnevale di Arlecchino.”
As I found it extremely spontaneous to appreciate the beloved and familiar pattern of the modern spirituality and the otherworldly vision of Pop Surrealism, I felt just as cold and aloof from the abstractionism of artists such as Pollock, Klein, Burri and Fontana. Their acting for a deep fracture from the classical art is so very distant from my sensitiveness and emotionality.
Digital artwork by Ray Caesar previously exhibited at Dorothy Circus Gallery.
Alexandra Mazzanti and Ray Caesar.
How has your taste in art evolved over the years of owning the gallery?
My taste in art is solid and stable, but I’m always looking for new proposals as well. I try to offer to my vast audience new and unseen art experiences, and I put a lot of efforts in choosing the proper theme of every single show. I love to explore the possibilities of the marriage between popular art and social issues, to promote and to stimulate a greater social awareness through the beauty and the magic of Pop Surrealist and street art masterpieces.
Alexandra Mazzanti with artist Afarin Sadeji.
Could you please talk about a couple of the most memorable past shows or projects that you’ve done at the gallery?
Back in 2010 I curated a vast collective art show at Museo Carandente, in Spoleto. It has been a turning point for the Pop Surrealism art movement here in Italy, since before it was yet labeled simply as “low brow”. With more than 50 masterpieces on displaying I was able to reposition Pop Surrealism as one of the most interesting and lively present day avant-garde movements, getting a lot of press reviews and positive feedbacks from all over Italy…
In 2013, with the group show titled “Green Blood,” we promoted a possible connection between art and environmental awareness, and we raised hefty funds for a worthy animal shelter in Sicily.
A few months ago here in Rome we had the Ray Caesar’s solo show with his brand new series, and meanwhile, in prestigious Palazzo Paesana in Turin, we had a comprehensive retrospective exhibition. For both events we had a fantastical success, with a impressive audience and raving TV broadcast and press reviews. For the Roman venue alone we totalized a figure of more than 6,500 guests in two months, the Ray Caesar opening evening was such a successful event, that the street was jammed and there was a long queue of people waiting to get inside. That is quite an amazing success here in Italy for a private art gallery.
In May 2014, we have proudly realized a gigantic murals with Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra, with a colorful and photorealistic work dedicated to Pakistani female activist Malala Yousafzai.
Alexandra Mazzanti and Tara McPherson at the opening of McPherson’s show at Dorothy Circus Gallery.
Like you mentioned, Dorothy Circus Gallery has put on several museum exhibitions. Do you think New Contemporary Art and Pop Surrealism are becoming more accepted by more traditional art institutions?
I worked very hard on this matter, and I think is worth fighting for. Traditional art institutions are sometimes a little closed minded, and not always updated on what’s going on in the “real” world. It’s very important to get into the official art system since it is necessary to reach a vaster audience and to consolidate artists’ renown worldwide.
More over, in Italy we live in a unique and peculiar art scenario. Rome itself, as well as Florence and Venice, is an art masterpiece. Beauty is all over, so much that people sometimes get so used to it and forget about it. So it’s really a double dare to emerge with a new proposal as could be a Pop Surrealism-dedicated art gallery. After few years of struggling, now things are getting better and better as days go by and the future looks bright. The gallery itself is well-known and credited, my work as curator is appreciated as a “prime mover.” I’m proud to tell you that one of our beloved Ray Caesar single varnished artworks is currently displayed beside an original Caravaggio in a prestigious art collection here in Rome.
View of the gallery at Scott Musgrove’s opening.
A favorite Mark Ryden painting of Mazzanti’s.
Can you tell us about your personal art collection? What are some of your favorite pieces and the stories behind them?
When I was young I inherited my family art collection, a set of female portraits, mainly from 18th and 19th-century Italian and French painters, including my great-grandmother’s portrait, Alice Delonnoy. I get lost wondering about the glamorous lives and challenging beauties of those mysterious ladies. Years later, while surfing on the net, it happened that I found some art works that I felt deeply familiar with, since there was a resemblance with what I was used to see displayed on my house’s walls.
At first it was the almighty Mark Ryden that caught my attention. I felt in love with his works. I already had some vinyls from “Sympathy for the Devil” records, with their amazing covers. Then I saw “Saint Barbie”, “Rosie’s Tea Party,” “Sophia’s Mercurial Water” and I found myself thinking, “Wow, that’s at the same time, exactly me and my daughter!” Some years later I was finally able to acquire the little masterpiece titled “Bear Girl.”
Then it came Joe Sorren, an artist that I really appreciate. I felt a strong affinity with his “Portait of the Devil and his Fingers,” but I didn’t succeed in buying it. Years later, scheduling his solo show at my gallery, I finally had the chance to talk extensively with Joe Sorren about his art and I told him how much I loved his Impressionistic touch. I showed him a picture of me and my children, and he offered me him to paint a commission out of it. In this big portrait I’m pictured as a cat, observing my two young children playing, all of us roosted on a tree. He precisely caught the climate and the nuances of the relationship between my children and me.
I especially love the art works in which I could observe all my multiple moods and all the different characters of my personality. Sometimes I feel just as the Marion Peck’s “Lady Clown,” a seductive lady but with a funny face. Other times I’m her “Submerged Deer,” hanging in the balance between drowning or re-emerge with a hop. Or truly I’m the mother that always beside her son, as in the Natalie Shau’s portait “Alexandra e Romeo.” And for real I can feel everyday my subconscious just like the little red ants crawling on me as in the Ray Caesar’s “Bejeweled.”
Through the years I precisely realize that the identification process totally replaces the commissioned portraits or the one-time family photographs. I think that what we seek in an artwork is a little bit of ourselves as we know ourselves or as we would like the others to visualize and to remember us. We tend to appreciate art works which in some way include our historical, cultural and emotional life path, as an imaginary family tree.
Joe Sorren doing a book signing at Dorothy Circus Gallery.
Are there any future projects you are excited about and would like to share with us?
I’m working right now on the third volume of Dorothy Circus Gallery’s catalogue published by Drago publishing, featuring the 2013-2014 exhibitions, I’m excited about the whole editorial project, and I’m looking forward to see the completed trilogy at the bookstores.
As I previously said we just had Eduardo Kobra in Rome working on a huge mural artwork, the portrait of Malala Yousafzai, the young social activist working to promote access to education for women in the Middle East. This mural is the first step of of a series of social activism-related art projects called “Spray For Your Rights.” My goal is to impart powerful social messages by working with different street artists whose work speaks out a wide range of topics, and by collaborating with the City of Rome’s communications department and hosting a concurrent gallery show on the selected topic.
Kobra’s mural and exhibition at Dorothy Circus, “Peace,” was the first step and it has been a huge success. For this series of events talking from women’s rights to racial discrimination, the next step scheduled for October 2014 is about Diversity, meaning both the people with disabilities and immigrants, in order to arouse the sensitivity toward those who are set apart from dominant society. This second step will also aid a cultural project for people affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Kobra mural featuring a portrait of Malala Yousafzai.
Kazuki Takamatsu’s solo show at Dorothy Circus Gallery.
Portrait of Alexandra Mazzanti by Natalie Shau.
Miss Van mural outside of Dorothy Circus Gallery.