Nicola Samori’s Rereadings of Old Master Oils are a Revelation

Gazing at Italian painter Nicola Samori’s new work might bring to mind Auden’s famous opening from “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering, they were never wrong, the Old Masters.”

Think of Michelangelo’s self-portrait in his Last Judgment fresco — a rubbery visage staring blankly out from drooping, flayed flesh, representative of the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. Painters from time immemorial have felt a kinship with the human body, particularly when working in oil, which dries like skin and seals the viscera of their compositions underneath. (You can see an exaggerated version of this effect when a flexible scab develops over the liquid contents of an old can of house paint.)

Samori bases much of his work on Renaissance imagery and brings classical aplomb to his figures. But having been born in 1977, he is separated from that world by the revolutions and revelations of modernism. The camera took away the necessity for painting to represent human beings and their events, and soon thereafter abstract art liberated raw color and form from any narrative demands. Yet no less a paragon of abstraction than Willem de Kooning declared, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented,” because painters know that their medium, lithe and organic, can never be completely divorced from the meat of existence.

So study the face in Samori’s D’Oria (2014), an oil painting on wood based on a 16th-century portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo of the celebrated Genoese admiral Andrea Doria. In his updated version, Samori allowed the top layer of paint to congeal over the viscous layers beneath and then gently tugged, perhaps with a flat hand, upon that painted face, creating in the surface actual ripples that eerily echo wrinkles in the depiction of Doria’s neck.

For the original portrait of Doria, Sebastiano appropriated Michelangelo’s showstopping gesture of God’s finger extended toward Adam and took it a step further by rotating the hand outward, as if the esteemed admiral had some essential spark to impart to the viewer. A half-millennium later, Samori has zeroed in on that divinely inspired digit and destroyed the illusion of his own painted representation by having Doria’s finger drag a blue furrow through the picture plane, with labia of red pigment erupting on either side. Samori has said, “Before a new painting comes into being, an old one has to die”; here he plays the role of creator by transmuting a dark, staid portrait into a haunting, conceptual hybrid.

A pair of smaller works hanging side by side traverses the life of Jesus in veils of pigment. In Orrery, Christ’s deposed body is engulfed in a halo of what might be clear plastic, a modern evocation of a being who entered humanity’s consciousness when he (briefly) lost his own. Even more impassioned is The Golden Child, in which the Madonna is riven with gray blotches and white scratches, and the future Lord incarnated as gouts of gray and yellow paint. “It is amazing,” Samori has explained, “how strong the feeling is that an intact form triggers the instant it is shattered. It happens with our body, it happens with objects, and it also happens with the history of art.”

Francis Bacon, who worked during a time when abstract painting was even more dominant than it is today, once said that his paintings were “an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.”

Similarly, Samori brings to paint what martyrdom supposedly affords the faithful: On the far shore of injury, suffering, and death comes something thrillingly beautiful.


Legitimate Business

Sweet Jesus, what is happening to Mulberry Street?

John Gotti is on lockdown in a federal prison, so he don’t come around much no more. Jackie Nose, Joe Butch, Handsome Jack, and Gotti’s other cronies seem to have permanently hit the mattresses. At the Andrea Doria social club, the front of the venerable institution has been partitioned into a cigar store (but, thankfully, the shop is run by a convicted felon). Even Umberto’s Clam House, where Joey Gallo got clipped, has been relocated to a side street.

In this crazy climate, it should come as no surprise that the new boss of the Ravenite
Social Club is none other than Amy Chan.

Of course, you don’t have to be a former Ravenite regular to wonder: Who the fuck is Amy Chan? Is the mob so desperate they are now inducting women (and not even Italian ones at that!)?

In fact, Chan, owner of an eponymous clothing boutique, is the new tenant in the ground-floor commercial space at 247 Mulberry Street. The five-story building was seized by federal marshals last year as part of a forfeiture action connected to Gotti’s 1992 racketeering conviction. The wiseguys were evicted, and the property, which also has 18 apartments, was sold for $1.03 million to Eric Hadar. The developer also owns the Studio 54 building, so could the Plato’s Retreat property be far behind?

Before a recent gut renovation, the Ravenite’s exterior featured a brick facade, two tiny windows, and a storm door. Inside, wiseguys found a wooden bar, several tables and chairs, and some framed photographs. The low drop-ceiling made it seem like you were entering a shoe box. For all its lore, the Ravenite had the feel of a Massapequa rec room. But who has time for spatial concerns when you’re busy fixing the price of concrete or deciding whether some snitch should be garroted? Really, do Mafia clubhouses have to be designed by Rem Koolhaas? Though, actually, that might not be a bad Wallpaper* project.

Where the Ravenite was dark and foreboding, Chan’s new space is bright and inviting, the essence of a trendy Nolita boutique. A wall of windows now faces the street and the 1000-square-foot shop’s smooth white walls are illuminated by small halogen fixtures. On Saturday morning, the Diva soundtrack provided the store’s aural ambience.

And while the prior tenants tended toward Brioni suits, Members Only zipper jackets, and the pre-Prada black tie­black shirt combination, Chan is fabulously fashionable. On Saturday, she came to work in a military-style fur hat, fake fur vest, lingerie top, leather skirt, sarong, and boots with a stiletto heel. In a space where life-and-death decisions were often transmitted with a nod and a shrug, it should be noted that Chan was also wearing a shrug— the black acrylic variety.

Chan, who has signed a 10-year lease for the Mulberry Street space, declined to discuss her rent. But whatever she is paying, it is far more than Gotti was charged by Gambino soldier Joseph “Joe the Cat” Laforte, who owned 247 Mulberry Street prior to last year’s seizure. Asked about her knowledge of Gotti and the Ravenite’s history, Chan said, “I knew about Sammy the Chin.” Which is to say that she has spent more time tracking fashion trends than Mafia machinations.

For her part, Chan seems unconcerned about the storefront’s pedigree, joking at one point that she might introduce a “Gotti collection.” In fact, one piece in her handbag collection already might fit that bill— it is a plastic, leopard-skin purse in the shape of a handgun.

Neighborhood reaction to her arrival, Chan said, has been uniformly positive. One man came into the store last week and asked her, “Do you know what this space used to be?” When she said yes, the visitor then helpfully began to point out where such items as the Ravenite’s card table used to be positioned.

Born in Hong Kong, Chan is a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who has previously worked as a shoe designer for Candies and at Esprit, where she served as design director. Four years ago, Chan launched her own design business, which has grown to include her handbags, skirts, jackets, and assorted accessories. Calling herself a “virgin retailer,” Chan said that she will continue to run a wholesale business from her Garment Center headquarters, an operation that counts Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Fred Segal, and Henri Bendel among its customers.

Chan points to a personal business equation that states “harmony + progress + happiness = 8.” In the Chinese culture, Chan said, the number 8— the product of two perfect circles— represents good fortune. In a strange coincidence, Gotti’s old Ravenite slogan was something like “larceny + perfidy + hubris = 80 years.”

While Ravenite habitués’ wives (and girlfriends)— many of whom still love Lycra— may not appreciate Chan’s luxe designs, they should still stop by the shop on New Year’s Eve for a demonstration of the new Velvet Goldmine makeup line. Sure, that glam ’70s look is hot, but the decade holds other charms as well. Those were the pre-RICO days, when Uncle Neil ran the Ravenite and Mulberry Street seemed like the center of the world.


Cigar Bar

It is the question that continues to perplex the would-be cyberbusinessman: just how do you make money off the Internet?

For Lawrence Amoruso, the answer has been simple: sell cigars, and lots of them.

The Little Italy businessman, who last year opened the Three Little Indians cigar shop on Mulberry Street, isusing the Net to help cash in on the nationwide tobacco trend. Visitors to Amoruso’s Web site will find price lists for humidors, lighters, ashtrays, and a wide selection of cigars.

Amoruso, 38, proudly notes that his bustling shop, in a year’s time, has ”become famous all over the country as having one of the best selections of cigars around.” Indeed, his Web site offers all the brands (Cohiba, Arturo Fuente, Bahia, Davidoff) and sizes (robustos, Churchills, tubos, double-coronas) that a discriminating smoker would want.

And Amoruso has made it fairly easy for electronic shoppers to make a purchase. When you settle on a smoke, you can call a toll-free number and place your order, which will then be delivered by either UPS or Federal Express. All you have to do is give Amoruso your credit card number. As his Web sitepoints out, the businessman ”proudly” accepts Diners Club, American Express, Visa, and MasterCard.

And therein lies the rub.

Amoruso is a convicted felon–a credit card cheat, no less–who launched his cigar business only months after completing a federal prison term. In 1994, Amoruso pleaded guilty to charges that he was part of a ring that used stolen credit card numbers to make scores of unauthorized transactions, many of which were illegally run through an apparel company Amoruso then operated.

For his role in the scam, which was uncovered by Secret Service agents, Amoruso was sentenced to 18 months inprison and ordered to repay four credit card companies a total of $467,100. He was also sentenced to two years probation, which continues until early next year.

But in a freewheeling conversation with the Voice about cigars, computers, and credit card fraud, the voluble Amoruso assured that consumers would not be scalped by Three Little Indians. And, in fact,the Voice did not uncover any consumer complaints about Amoruso’s operation.

Asked whether he thought customers, if they knew of his criminal history, might think twice about parting with their credit card information, Amoruso said, ”I understand what you’re saying and there is some validity to it, but…should I put on my Web site, ‘By the way, I was involved with some people that had bad credit cards and stuff, so you might not want to order a box of cigars from me.’?”

Noting that, as a teenager, he was arrested for drivingwhile intoxicated, Amoruso wondered whether that bust should have precluded him from ever again getting behind the wheel. Referring to his felony rap, Amoruso said, ”I’m not embarrassed over it, because something happened. I was stuck in the middle and there was nothing I could do.” Sometimes, he said,”you just gotta keep your mouth shut and then that’s the end of that.”

While Amoruso’s release terms allow for his probation officer to order him to ”notify third parties of risks that may be occasioned by the defendant’s criminal record or personal history or characteristics,” the cigar salesman said that he has not been directed to make such a disclosure. Amoruso, who lives on Grand Street, said probation officials are well aware of his business pursuits: ”I see them every two weeks….The parole officer is on Mulberry Street every single day, he’s got plenty of stops over there.”

Inlight of his fraud conviction, it would seem that credit card companies would want nothing to do with Amoruso’s latest business venture. That is assuming, of course, that they are even aware of his involvement in Three Little Indians. Amoruso has apparently sidestepped that sticky problem by making sure that agreements with credit card companies do not bear his name, only those of his partners. ”The thing is in their name, it’s not in my name,” he said.

In addition to his retail business, Amoruso also hosts occasional ”cigar parties” at Florio’s, a Grand Street restaurant owned by his father, Ralph, a partner in Three Little Indians. According to a law enforcement source, as part of his fraud scheme,the younger Amoruso illegally secured the credit card numbers of some Florio’s patrons and used them to make unauthorized purchases. Neither Ralph Amoruso or Florio’s was implicated or charged in connection with his son’s operation.

Shortly after leaving federal custody last May, Amoruso opened Three Little Indians at 140 Mulberry Street, in a storefront that has long been the subject of law enforcement scrutiny. The cigar shop occupies the front section of the venerable Andrea Doria social club, a longtime hangout for members and associates of the Gambino crime family. For years, the club served as the headquarters for family captain Joseph ”Joe Butch” Corrao. Gambino boss John Gotti was a club regular who often hosted weekly dinners inside the Andrea Doria, which is far more spacious than the Ravenite Social Club, located a few blocks north.

Despite his shop’s location inside a wiseguy haunt, Amoruso said he has ”nothing to do with any of the John Gotti crap because, number one, that was never John Gotti’s club. ”Anyhow, he added, the club these days is only visited by a handful of harmless pensioners who sit around playing cards. ”Regardless of who used to hang out there or what, if someone was killed in a building, does that mean the building is a bad building?”

But Amoruso hardly shies from the Mafia aurasurrounding the Andrea Doria. ”I mean, don’t get me wrong…people eat that shit up!They love it!” In fact, after a 1990 Gotti acquittal, Amoruso gushed to USA Today thatthe crime figure ”appeals to the evilside of people. People wish they could do what hedoes, but are too scared to do it.”

Amoruso, who works seven days a week in hisstore, has seen his business swell with the launchearlier this year of his Web site. A self-taught Macintosh user, Amoruso said he sometimes stays upto three in the morning answering e-mails from across the globe, notes soliciting prices and availability of certain cigar brands. To further familiarize himself with Web workings, Amoruso noted that ”I just bought Claris HomePage 2.0.”

The Three LittleIndians Web site, which lists a toll-free telephone number, triggers upwards of 50 calls aday and 20 mail orders a week, said Amoruso, who has recently shipped products to customers in Australia, Hawaii, and England. The businessman added that he expects to soon upgrade his Web site so that customers worldwide can order online, 24 hours a day. Cigar aficionados will only have tokey in their credit card information and mailing address to place an order.

But this sensitive financial information, Amoruso assured,will be protected from prying eyes by the most advanced encryption software available.