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Ugo Ronfani

UGO RONFANI

A YOUNG PRINCE IN THE EMPIRE OF SIGNS

There exists a plastic thought not less important than the scientific one.

Art is not only a mean of expression and

communication, it's also a way to knowledge.

PIERRE FRANCASTEL - L'art et la technique

"Here in Japan there is, everywhere, a special organization of space. On the road, or traveling by train across country-sides and mountains, I can see backgrounds blendings with fragments, fields juxtaposing to fields - both in the rural and in the visual sense -: fragments of tea-plants, pines, mauve-colored flowers, a patch-work of black roofs, lanes, scattered low-rise houses. No fences, except very low ones. Yet, not for a moment do I miss the horizon (nor its dreamy taste): no desire to fili my lungs, to swell my breast, so as to re-assure my own Self and feel like the center of the infinite. Faced by the evidence of an empty limit, I feel limitless, but in a humble, non-metaphysical way... From the mountain slope to the next block's corner, everything here is habitat, and I am always in the most magnificent room. This luxury is because places bere bave no other limit except the uve sensations they inspire, the dazzling signs they shed: space is no more defined by big, uninterrupted walls, but by the abstraction of visions (of sights) focusing on me... One would think that a centuries-old technique lets the landscape reveal itself in pure, rough, fracture-like hollow meanings. An Empire of Signs? Yes, if it means that these signs are empty and the ritual is godless...".

I recalled this excerpt from "The Empire of signs" by Roland Barthes while in the studio of Luca Dall'Olio, young painter living in Chiari, near Brescia.

 

I was looking at some canvases he had painted in 1981, after a trip I was looking at some impressed by the improvement in quality they showed: as if the formerly scattered elements of a painting born as figurative-naturalistic, and then gone through a transfigurative stage, had, at that moment, gathered into a loose unity of language, fairly balancing forms and contents.

The explanation to this probably laid in Barthes' words reported above, suggesting the existence, somewhat magical, of a "Japanese space" able to offer to a "young prince" like Luca Dall'Olio an Empire of Signs much beyond touristic impressions: a dazzling manifestation of "pure meanings", crack of a symbolic system ill-interpreted for centuries and finally perceivable as individuai knowledge. Barthes admitted, further on, that Japan "had flashed on him several lightnings and put him in the condition to write" (he described it as a body vibration, a quiver leading to that "word emptyness" which is the starting point of writing: "the way Zen, all senses omitted, writes about gardens, gestures, houses,-flowers, faces, violence..."). Similarly, Luca Dall'Olio had gained from the Japanese experience enough strength and light to create, in the "emptyness" of his previous painting, such works as those facing me, where signs had rid themselves of cultural and symbolic wastes to melt into pure pictorial matter, before having the time to "grasp".

It was as if, following the trip to Japan, Luca Dall'Olio had freed himself of all academic notions, to plunge into that blissful state of "artistic alienakion" described by Renato Barilli in his essay on post-modern art "Between presence and absence". He reports an anecdote told by Marshall McLuhan: an expedition of Western anthropologists in Bali asked the natives to give a definition of art. But the Balinese, eyes wide-open, answered they could not give such definition, because, to them, everything they did, they tried to do it with art.

Work as art, life as art: wasn't this "artistic alienation" the philosopher's stone of our Renaissance golden age? After transforming art into a fetich, a "separate product", the West had had to send its anthropologists to one of the last earthly paradises in the "undecipherable East" to re-learn an ancient truth: that everything man does, if well done, is "artistic". As Carlo Belli, back in the Thirties', maintained in his Aphorisms, all art definitions are minently tautological: "Painting is painting, and sculpture is sculputre, just like A is A. Art is Art, and nothing else but itself". These words foretold, with much advance, what would have become the manifesto of conceptualism' and nouvelle critique's major exponents, Joseph Kosuth and Catherine Millet.

Back to our main subject, I repeat my conviction that just as Barthes had discovered Japan to be the "country for writing", able to free him from Western semeocracy's slavery, so our young artist has lived in the Japanese space as in a Zen garden, abandoning all irritations and refusals bis old painting had fed on.

What I have said sofar should be included into more generai observations on the meaning of Dall'Olio's taste for travels. This passion surges from the need to enjoy wide spaces in view of his work.

For all, especially for intellectuals and artists, the ratio time-space has changed. Nobody can ignote the massive process of time-space unification brought about by the electronic age.

 

The advanced technologies emphasize this feeling of contemporaneity and invite to the derogation of personal memory: the mass-media replace the "lived" and therefore limited space with the planetary, unpersonal space. This may hint at the advent of that "Balinese-Renaissance" utopia outlined by William Morris (work as game, invention and fun, saving us from the boredom of the machines). Premature as this might be, what is sure is that, as we are drawing near the third millenium, the artist tends to move like a surf on the long waves of the electronic age, just like Seurat, Cézanne and Gauguin had been surfers on the electro-technical waves.

The artist's arché has changed, replacing the exotism of the colonia! age (Rimbaud's Africa, Gauguin'Southerm Seas and Malraux's Asia) with the cultural environnements resulted from the totally mass-media controlled space. The artist, metaphorically speaking, is no more like Joyce's Ulysses living his experience inside the perimeter of a "Dublin of the soul", but rather like Homer's one, sailing beyond the Pillars of Hercules. He projects himself into a "cultural empathy" without boundaries, that rescues him from the "trance" of the origina! culture: "Once, most people accepted their own culture like a fate, like climate: now, the empathic awareness of many cultures is also a liberation from the same as from as many prisons" (M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy).

Luca Dall'Olio, after his studies at the Brera Academy, rambles inevitably through various contemporary trends (nouveau realisme, new abstraction, visual writing); he compares and opposes the country farm's elegy to the metropolis' epic (division of canvas in two parts: below, roots deepening in the fertile humours of the earth, alma mater; above, the cementa!, ghostly, sterile town) and, finally, comes to conceptual art. He starts travelling, and the visited countries become suggestions, at first, and then basical elements of his painting, showing that Dall'Olio belongs to his time and owns that "empathic awareness" of other cultures described by McLuhan.

His travel impressions (meaning by this ability of fantasy and reason to seize the anthropologic, ethologic and cultural elements of the various habitat) derive not only from Japan, but also from other countries in Asia, Europe, North Africa and America. The result has been "strong", new esthetic perceptions and variations of content. Clearly, the physical dimension of these works (that mixture of visual, plastic and chromatic caracteristics defined by conceptualist Lawrence Weiner as control object) has enriched the artist's imagination and led to the extensive, in progress production that stands as confirmation of a firm vocation.

Hence the hinting of the canvas to Morocco's conica!, lime-colored shapes or, at other times, to South America's murals, Malay jungle, or even water-lilies in a Berlin fountain. And, at last, the palm-tree, favored and recurrent theme, symbol of fecundity, representing nature's patient victory upon time and space. The palm as pure form, stylized, proposed as icon of an ecological crib, protest against the up-rooting from natural civilizations or — in the most recent serigraphic multiples — even symbol-object, plychrome, lacerating decoration thrust in the middle of a dull, barren world.

Many young artists, belonging to such trends as hyper-realism, pop art and new dada, find execrating motifs, now funny, now harsh, by looking at the history of painting with ironie criticism.

 

Others keep a regard innocent, their curiosity being for the present world as it is, careless of past memories. Dall'Olio is one of these. Travel is for him the answer to the quoi faire? affecting the painting of the Eighties', lost as it is in the vagueness of academic repetitions and exhausted techniques. Dall'Olio feels that art is an ongoing search for "somewhere else", for new geographic and human spaces, in order to "see" and "touch" other realities. He is a globe trotter, like novelist De Carlo: both look for signs and emotions in the present time, oblivious of imitative nostalgias. They always look forward, never behind. Valéry used to say that a good painter "should not paint what can be seen, but what will be seen". Dall'Olio tries to do so: he looks at the future with quiet optimism.

Renato Barilli, in his above mentioned essay, underlines how, to the Western way of thinking, the work-of-art concept equals to "performance" and "separate product". To this, certain contemporary behavioural trends — such as body art, happening, land art, minimal art, pop art — oppose the idea of "artistic behaviour", that's to say the "immediate" enjoyment of the artistic event, without turning it into an objective product.

There is also a third group of artists refusing this "behaviour or work of art" dilemma, but wanting both. Dall'Olio is among these: he is conscious of the opportunity to uve en artiste, accepting "wordliness" and progress. He is aware that — as Renato Barilli says — if "one does not behave in the emptyness, closing inside one's Ego", one cannot create in it either, referring to what Merleau-Ponty called "thought of the presence". Which does not mean a plainly esthetic registration of phenomenologic data, but their elaboration into mental-intuitive associations being both perception and understanding, in the sense Husserl gave to these words.

I will add that in Dall'Olio's painting there is a Baumgarten-like "sensitivity" that links behaviour (i.e. active presence in the reality) and work of art and that, unlike intellectual knowledge, considers the particular, practical data rather than the universal, abstract ones. We could speak of "mild conceptualism" since, for the time being, this sensitive cognitio is present in his painting at an unconscious leve!.

His mature, defined style can probably be explained as a "thought of the presence" stimulating the unconscious, an acceptation of reality in spite of a continuous transfigurative temptation.

As critic J. Pierre Jouvet said, "in his painting a tree is a tree, a sky is a sky: but it is a different tree, a different sky.

Everything is upset, re-organized and transferred into a fabulous reinvention". Dall'Olio is an alert witness to his time, surprising fact in a man that, because of his young age, might stili be indulging in a fabulous, aimless dépaysement. Whereas his is always a "conceptual fable" built on stern structures.

Hence the coherence and rythmical steadiness of his work, in which the geometrical forms reflect the choice of a poetical-conceptual order. Hence, the achievement of a harmony suggesting — when it does not risk a certain formalism — a contemplative serenity, an ataraxic vision of life, quite unusual in a young man. And, finally, no more technique contamination, to show that Dall'Olio needn't borrowing any more, but can express himself through his own means. Should I try a psycho-analytical explanation of this painting? I already said it stems not only from a superficial dialectic between reality, fantasy and concept, but it is rooted in the activities of the unconscious. As another critic, Giannetto Valzelli, has observed, in the earliest canvases one can perceive "Narcissus' breath animating the enchantment fountain", the stili indefinite Ego-Es relation appearing in a diffused, innocent pantheism. Also, the clear, recurring cut between upper and lower part of the canvas, between superficial and subterranean, larval world, conveys an almost too easy interpretation.

It seems as if this double landscape were Dall'Olio's small theater, in which to stage, cum figuris, the movements of the unconscious. This would also explain the execution's ralentis, the pointilliste technique, the repeated arabesques and networks, in fact a "patience" in the picture's composition propitious for that "emptyness of consciousness" from which the unconscious comes out. The slowly assembled images — mosaic skies, entangled vegetation, stylized conurbations — are all revelatory signs. A series of "symptoms" and "clues" quite legible: Eros'throbs symbolized by palms soaring against the androgynous flatness of empty landscapes, obsessive and hypnotic repetition of forms, or even, for a certain time, winking mirror fragments.

I won't go any farther with this psycho-analytical exploration, because I think the interpretation of art and culture is entering a post-freudian stage — that is, we are coming to acknowledge the existence, in art works, of variables hardly justifiable through psycho-analytical science.

After ali, an artist has the right — may-be even the duty — not to sacrifice his creativeness to the alter of psycho-analysis. Dall'Olio simply keeps telling his story through his painting, describing the world such as his young eyes see it. Trying to define himself, he said something that particularly impressed me: "Everything for me is life, passion, strength".

That's probably the reason why his fabula de lineis et figuris has the power to transmit those dazzling signs and vivid sensations which, according to Roland Barthes, are at the origin of esthetical emotions.

Milano, Gennaio 1986 

 

Ugo Ronfani

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