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Art Review: Self-taught artist's childlike works convey brutal honesty

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

By Leslie Hoffman

As Daniel Belardinelli turns the pages of his 2002 journal, a strong scent of dried nail polish wafts upward, hitting the nostrils of anyone paging through the book with an intensity almost equivalent to the force of Belardinelli's paintings themselves.

Daniel Belardinelli holds his 2002 journal open to a page where he has drawn what he heard on the tapes played for relatives of Flight 93, which crashed Sept. 11, 2001, in Somerset County. His uncle, William Cashman, was on board. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photos)

"Inside Out" also features ceramics by Ron Korczynski and paintings by Karl Mullen. It continues at 5831 Ellsworth Ave. through July 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, call 412-441-6005 or visit www.galleriechiz.com.

The self-taught artist from New York City keeps a journal by completing one drawing using nail polish -- he likes its consistency -- every day. At a reception for the exhibition "Inside Out," at Shadyside's Gallerie Chiz, he rapidly explains each drawing, flipping through the books excitedly, exuberantly, showing the artwork to anyone who approaches him.

"I was really into birds," he says of the 2002 book, pointing out images of songbirds on various pages. Stopping at another page, he says of the entry, which features a life-size feline next to a man, "This one, I like this one -- see, it's my cat."

Belardinelli has captured more somber subjects in the book, too. His uncle, William Cashman, was killed on Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. "I was supposed to be on the plane," he says. He'd planned to join Cashman to go hiking out West, but something came up and he couldn't make it. The day his family members were permitted to listen to the tapes from the downed plane, they had to sign a release that said they would not speak to anybody of what they heard.

"I wasn't allowed to speak it," Belardinelli says. "But I drew it."

The entry for that April date is frightening: It features a picture of a plane in the center, and then, like nearly all of the artist's drawings, words in childish print scrawled across the page. The words themselves aren't frightening; in fact, they're something any pilot might say to his passengers, but understanding the significance -- both public and private -- adds substance to the entry.

Belardinelli's journal entries allow him to comment on issues of magnitude -- such as his reaction to the anniversary of Sept. 11 and to the beginning of the war in Iraq -- on a purely personal and honest level.

Their compelling nature has led many a collector to offer to purchase them, but the artist isn't interested. "There's like a $30,000 offer already [for the 2002 journal]. I would never sell it," he asserts.

Individual works at the gallery sell for around $150 each.

While he doesn't address Sept. 11 or the Iraqi war in those featured at Chiz, his range of subject matter encompasses dark as well as more tongue-in-cheek commentary.

Though Belardinelli has been directly affected by terrorism, the message conveyed throughout his work is one of beating various addictions.

"Sex, drugs, love, pleasure, shopping, knuckle cracking, materialism, worrying, painting/drawing and complaining, etc." are among the personal, addictive "demons" Belardinelli lists in his artist's statement.

Instead of giving in to his cravings, he paints them.

Cartoon-like drawings with titles such as "I smell a shopping spree," "Not feeling very social or creative today" and "You can't control me with anti-depressants" are painstakingly illustrated with bright colors, intricate details and bold images.

In "Not feeling very social or creative today," the skull-like head expressing this sentiment easily captures all the humor and anguish present in this statement.

"Heads You Win Tails You Lose," a mixed media on sheet metal by Daniel Belardinelli, is one of the pieces in the "Inside Out" display of three artists work at Gallerie Chiz in Shadyside.

"He has a way of taking your emotion and everything you feel and putting it into a few words," says his wife, Marianne.

And it's true. The brutal honesty as well as child-like exuberance present in his paintings make his work succeed and give them universal appeal. But they're not appealing just on an emotional level; they convey an unorthodox sort of talent.

Trained as a lawyer and diagnosed with Attention Deficiency Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) when he couldn't pass the bar exam after three attempts, the artist says that at that time, as well as all through his life, he relied on his painting and drawing to express himself. His work has been classified as "outsider art" because he has never been trained as an artist.

His work was shown at the Outsider Art Fair in New York, a favorite of collectors, in January, and he's been invited to return next year. He's represented by the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York and the Galerie Bourbon-Lally of Montreal and Haiti.

For Belardinelli, his art is all about avoiding the rules. But it doesn't avoid the rules in a naive or immature way.

His paintings are meticulous; letters are sometimes lined with more than one color, and each line is neat and sharp. His images project from the page with boldness and intensity and though they are often extremely personal, others may also relate to them.

As Marianne Belardinelli says, "It's very scary to put that out there." But with the joyful and rhythmic quality Daniel Belardinelli's work expresses, it's clear he needs to.

Leslie Hoffman is a freelance critic for the Post-Gazette.

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