INTERIORS / Grand illusionist of Spitalfields: Ricardo Cinalli cares nothing for architectural correctness. His Georgian house in the East End is all his own work. He took Dinah Hall on a somewhat unsettling tour

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The Independent Culture
WHEN someone says they live in Spitalfields it conjures up an immediate picture of their habitat - Georgian splendour within, urban squalor without; candlelit evenings spent comparing your original 18th-century paint scrapings with the neighbours', perhaps partaking of a suckling pig . . . (Of course the picture changes if it's a Bangladeshi talking - it's difficult to appreciate the Georgian proportions of a room when you're sharing it with 10 sewing machines and their operators).

The hard-core Spitalfielders, the real architectural aficionados who have been there since the early 1970s, despair of the damage being done to original panelling in the sweatshops while the 'incomers', those who subscribe to Elle Decoration rather than the Georgian Society, worry fleetingly about those doing the sweating while at the same time conscious that it all adds to the 'colour' that makes Spitalfields such a splendidly aesthetic place to live.

Ricardo Cinalli, an Argentinian artist, fits into neither of these categories. He has lived under the shadow of Hawksmoor's Christ Church in Spitalfields for nearly 20 years, so he counts as one of the founding fathers, but there is something that sets him apart from the rest. And it is not just that with his damp curls plastered over his forehead and his washed-out T-shirt he looks more like a footballer than the typical Spitalfields architectural academic.

Of course, the main difference is that Cinalli is not English, and perhaps this is why he does not have the same almost incestuous relationship with his house as others in the area - he is less emotionally involved in its historic past and so more inclined to create rather than re-create the interior.

The guided tour comes with none of the messianic zeal that you get from other Spitalfielders - no pausing to scratch away the paint on the landing to show you the original pigs' blood paint underneath. In fact, he seems curiously detached from the house, almost as if he were living on a different plane, as he leads the way to the very top up a gloomy, tight squeeze of a staircase off which any doors are kept firmly closed. Short of going to a rebirthing session this must be the closest you get to reliving your birth traumas . . .

Nestled under the eaves, the kitchen is disorienting from the start, just by virtue of its position. It must be a struggle coming up the stairs laden with Sainsbury bags but then a quick scan of the kitchen shelves reveals that Cinalli is not a domestic animal. 'Shopping?' he says, his expression caught between astonishment and revulsion, rather as if he had been asked about his daily bowel movements. 'I don't go shopping.'

Most people feel at home in their own kitchen. Cinalli seems slightly uncomfortable in his, as if he would rather be somewhere else. Perhaps it is because he feels the need to be on the defensive here, where the brush has been wielded with more decorative than artistic intent. In the 'serious' art world it is obviously not done to prettify chairs, but while Cinalli distances himself from this superior attitude to 'decoration' he makes it clear that the subject does not consume him, that we are not here to talk about the colour of his walls. The kitchen, with its trompe-l'oeil chickens painted by a friend, is 'just a room like any other' he says, and somehow the moment to tell him that, actually, I was rather hoping to discuss the colour of the walls, that indeed my livelihood depends on people like him talking frankly about their walls, has gone. There was nothing for it but to go along with the idea that this is an interview for an art magazine and hope to pick up a few decorative crumbs on the way.

Down one flight of stairs Cinalli is on happier ground: 'This is me,' he says, opening the door on what might prosaically be described as a bathroom with ensuite bedroom. He might be persuaded to talk about the colour of the walls here, but that would seem rather perverse given the monumental nature of what is fixed on to them. Enormous heads with blank eyes, chunks of architecture, part of a huge marble foot . . . Fleetingly you wonder whether the British Museum is looking emptier these days, but of course this is all Cinalli's work. To call it trompe-l'oeil would be feeble; it is an 'art installation' he says, a piece of artspeak which in this case is fairly literal. But, in fact, one doesn't need words to distinguish this kind of work from the ghastly 'Tuscan view' trompe- l'oeil common in Chelsea dining rooms. Cinalli has taken chunks of plaster and painted on to them with pigments, adding painted shadows to the shadows already cast by the pieces fixed to the wall - achieving a much more powerful effect than painting straight on to the wall. There's something very humbling about these giant fragments - particularly when you are sitting on the lavatory.

Fortunately Cinalli does not feel quite so overpowered by his own work. In fact, as he points out, the blank eyes of the classical heads make them easier to live with. This is not out of prudery - it is just that their unseeing eyes 'make my relations with the bathroom easier - you don't get tired of it because they are not looking at you; it is more passive'.

On the first floor is the living room - at first sight a more conventionally typical Spitalfields room with its walls covered in panelling that Cinalli salvaged from a synagogue that was being demolished. But this is not a fogeyish re- creation of the past: the atmosphere is heavily laden with the brooding imagery of Latin American Catholicism - Jesus meets voodoo. Silver bowls of pigment sit on the piano like sacrament on the altar against a backdrop of wooden heads by Pandora Melly and heavy devotional South American statuettes. You can picture Cinalli sitting here in the candlelight playing . . . what? 'Tangos.'

Unlike some of his neighbours, Cinalli avoids authentic 18th-century dust - the house is spotlessly clean, suspiciously so. It is hard to imagine him doing anything as quotidian as boiling a kettle, let alone picking up a duster. But, on the other hand, neither can one envisage him entering into anything as grubbily contractual as a relationship with a cleaning lady. Sure enough, someone comes in to clean and iron once a week - but, 'she has a wonderful voice, so when she has finished I sit down and play and she sings'.

With that filmic image lingering in the mind, he leads the way down the birth canal to the front door; you think you are about to be delivered into the outside world when, abruptly, he pushes open a door to the left. Suddenly you realise that the tour has been stage-managed to heighten the intensity of this moment.

The house falls away into a huge room of brilliant, almost painful, white light. Nothing prepares you for this - the contrast between the claustrophobic gloom of the house and the searing brilliance and soaring space of the studio is awe-inspiring. The effect is like walking into a sacred place, a cathedral of light. Add to this the enormous crucifixional painting and the spire of Christ Church framed in the glass prism roof and you are practically on your knees. Familiarity has not dulled the experience for Cinalli. 'Every day,' he says, 'I enter here with a tremendous feeling of respect - it is like walking into a church. Some people feel that work-space should be outside your home, that it is contaminated by domestic space. But this is like walking into a different world - the geographical distance does not matter. I have a different relationship with this room - there is an energy concentrated here.

'This is my heart and soul,' he says in a rare moment of expansiveness, implying that the rest of the house is just arms and legs. And indeed, when you are here, the other rooms just fade away like the body in his painting while Cinalli himself becomes more real, more anchored than he seems upstairs. Gone is the restlessness, the impatience - this is where he wanted to be all along, here where there is no danger of being required to discuss the colour of the walls.

And here where he works, in the centre of the cube and directly under the glass pyramid roof, is a gesture far more romantic than historical re-creation. Glazed over in a square on the floor are relics of the past which were unearthed during excavation work on the studio. Fragments of 17th- and 18th-century china, unidentifiable bones, oyster shells, wig curlers and, best of all, a small perfume jar from a shop in Paris which obviously came with the Huguenots who, persecuted for their faith in France, brought their weaving skills to Spitalfields in the early 18th century.

Incarcerated in the ground where they belong, these small clues are a poignant link between past and present. 'And my washing machine is hidden behind these cupboards,' says Cinalli, perversely breaking the spell by tossing in, at last, an unwanted domestic titbit. And the walls? They're white.

Ricardo Cinalli's work can be viewed at Beaux Arts, 22 Cork Street, London W1, 071-437 5799.

ADDRESS BOOK

SOURCES OF INSPIRATION

Christ Church, Fournier Street, Spitalfields, London E1: 'Not particularly aesthetic but very strong architecturally and I never tire of it. Everybody here unconsciously relates to it because it is a central point, a constant in their lives. To me it is like the spine of Spitalfields.'

Sir John Soane Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC1: This architectural gem is where Cinalli takes visitors from abroad. Famed for its use of natural light, it also has a plaster cast room which has obvious similarities to Cinalli's bathroom - 'which is interesting when our roots are so very different'.

Villa Palagonia, Bagheria, near Palermo, Sicily: Spectacular rococo villa with garden filled with sculptural grotesques, dwarfs and monsters.

Millesgarden, Lidingo, near Stockholm, Sweden: Another garden of sculpture with 'magical studio'.

San Sebastian Cathedral, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: A 'totally crazy' 1950s building - a masterpiece of that period. 'It looks like a spaceship has landed in the middle of a car park, but inside it is something special for its simplicity and sheer bravura.'

Museu Chacara de Ceti, Estrada do Asude, 764, Santa Tereza, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Cinalli's favourite art gallery, an old private house filled with modern art and spectacularly set high on a mountain between the jungle and the old city of Rio.

FAMILIAR HAUNTS

Cheshire Street Flea Market, London E2: 'Sometimes I get up very early on a Sunday to go to this market - very East End, very atmospheric.'

Zwemmer, 24 Litchfield St, London WC2 (071-240 4158): One of several good art bookshops in this area.

L Cornelissen, 105 Great Russell St, London WC1 (071-636 1045): Most of Cinalli's paintings are created using his unique method of pastel and layers of tissue paper, but when he does need pigments this is where he would find the best selection. Even for non-artists the shop interior, with its glass jars brimming with alchemy, is a visual treat.

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