Artistic representations of Italy’s idyllic landscapes are as ubiquitous as motor scooters weaving through the streets of modern Rome. A Flavor of Italy, a new exhibition at New York City’s CPW25 Gallery, is an American nod to this tradition. The show’s 100 artworks portray the standard Italian fare: Tuscan olive groves, Venetian canals and terracotta villages; but the exhibit also offers much more than your typical Italian cypress tree glistening under a full moon. With a whimsical eye, juror Zoe Randall has curated what she describes as “not a collection of keepsakes and snapshots but the lingering flavors of Italy.” The result of which is the blending of old and new, beautiful and fanciful in hues as vibrant as saltwater taffy and as demure as umber.

The blind-juried group show is the eighth exhibition for Il Chiostro, an American-based artist retreat offering both novices and established artists an opportunity to refine their skills while savoring Italian culture in some of the country’s most striking regions. Il Chiostro, founded in 1995 by Michael Mele and Linda Mironti, has hosted close to 3,000 participants in the one-week workshops set in convents, monasteries and old farmhouses in Florence, Venice, and Tuscany. “I think Italy has a romantic appeal to many people,” Mele explains. “They have in their heads what it’s all about, and then discover that Italy is also a very modern country. In America, we don’t have that contrast, and I think that’s what inspires many.”

Time’s Relentless Melt

Indeed, many of the exhibition’s photographs harken to the romance of Old World Italy, and yet they depict an inherent nod to the country’s cultural struggle between past and present. There are gondolas and motor scooters; basilicas and nightclubs; stone walls and concrete slabs; canal houses and McMansions; all visual reminders that one’s present can quickly slide into the past.

Cameron Bloch’s photograph, Sisters in Florence, portrays such a struggle. While treating themselves to a gelato, three Catholic nuns, covered from head to toe in ritual garments, peer into a shop window displaying maid uniforms cut above the knee. In the foreground sits the quintessential mode of modern Italian transportation — the motor scooter. A long-time photographer and writer for the Associated Press, Bloch explains, “I look for unusual juxtapositions, like the nuns’ fascination with uniforms quite unlike those they wore themselves… what often makes a photograph different and exciting is the story it tells.” The everlasting story in this photo might well be Italy’s beloved gelato, made popular by the Medici family in the late 1500s. Modes of fashion and transportation may come and go, but it’s hard to imagine Italy without the luscious treat.

In her seminal work, On Photography, Susan Sontag described the act of taking a photograph as participation in “another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” An image becomes a motionless palimpsest with the demarcations of past, present and future encapsulating a singular moment of time.

This can be felt in Palazzo contarini del Bovolo by Sindi Schorr, where an architectural span of 600 years plays out: a 15th century palace with an ornate spiral staircase and arcade, a 19th century brick and mortar dwelling, and 21st century scaffolding erected for the palace’s repairs. In the foreground is a wrought iron fence, an inanimate object seemingly desperate to delineate Venice’s cobbled history. Were Schorr to return today, however, this stark juxtaposition of new and old would be lost — the scaffolding has been removed; the arcade preserved. But for Schorr, photography is more than just the mise en scene, “I can go back to the same place another day or time, but the same image or feeling I had won’t be there. Even if the scene is the same, the feeling has changed, the light has changed, and I have changed.”

Randall, the owner of Chace-Randall Gallery, describes the successful street photographer as one who wields both luck and talent. “It’s in the eye, the seeing and seizing of a chance, yet perfect, juxtaposition. Whether in street or nature photography, I look for the photographer who possesses acute aesthetic awareness within his or her lens.”

Il Chiostro’s workshops are designed to enhance artists’ skills and the variation in those skills — be it luck, talent, or a combination of both — is noted in this group show. Some works fall short of what Randall calls “aesthetic awareness,” while others such as those by Bloch and Schorr magically negotiate between the timeless and the chance. Stumbling upon them is like finding an exquisite jewel.

The Whole Food

It’s no wonder that Randall was chosen to jury an exhibition that focuses on flavor. She is known to many as the epicure of her small Catskills hamlet of Andes, New York. The night before her gallery openings, she hosts intimate dinner parties where the menu offers a soup of cod, fennel and red pepper, wild mushroom risotto simmered in a young Chardonnay, and a vanilla-honey yogurt poured over hand-picked wild berries. Randall selects her produce as carefully as she selects her works of art. And for this show, she has drawn together a cornucopia of mouthwatering shots.

A Flavor of Italy evokes emotional responses to both the specific and unspecific culture of food. What we eat is heavily laden with notions of comfort, sustenance and nostalgia. American chef and food writer James Beard once said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” With the advent of social media, food has drawn people from distant cultures and cuisines into a global share-and-tell session. Countless blogs and Web sites are dedicated to the novice’s penchant for photographing cheeseburgers, ragout, huevos rancheros and pierogis. The public’s obsession with “shooting” their food has even led some Manhattan restaurateurs to post “no photography” signs in their dining rooms; while others, seeking free publicity, provide links to professional photographs of their most popular dishes, hoping diners will upload them to their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

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