Tuesday, 29 October 1996

Carlo Cesta: Romance Language

In his most recent exhibition, "Romance Language" at the Garnet Press in Toronto earlier this year (April 1996), Carlo Cesta unified the disparate influences and investigative paths that have characterized his work in the ‘90s.

Looking at Carlo Cesta's work over the years I have witnessed a consistent critical process at work. His critical method is at base visual and modernist: form is a fluid and elastic material for polymorphic play. He works, however, within the enlarged, post-modern understanding of form -- an associative, metonymical understanding -- where aesthetic qualities are inextricably bound up with symbolic and historical references. Pleasure in the manipulation of a form, in Cesta's work, is therefore also a process of transcending irony where representations are inverted, emptied and reinvested with meaning.

Cesta works in the places where art and utility meet -- where personal and group identities shape, and are shaped by contemporary urban, industrial culture. In the mid-80s with his monochromatic paintings of household appliances, he began an investigation into domestic symbols and the machinery of class. In the late 80s and early 90s, he began to explore the materials of skilled trade labour -- creating a non-objective, serial and bio-mechanical imagery. In a body of work entitled Industrial English (1994), Cesta began to make references to the Toronto Italian community in which he grew up, completing the triangle of class referents: family, occupation and ethnicity.

Romance Language juxtaposes the transcendental language of modernist form with the vernacular of class. The installation Romance Language (version) occupied the ground floor of the Garnet Press, and consisted of forty-one, two and three-dimensional biomorphic, geometric abstract and text-based works. Mounted floor to ceiling and wrapped around three walls, the installation recalled the early Suprematist installations. However, the wrought iron pieces, the sew-on fabric name badges, the texts phonetically transcribed in a fractured Italian-accented English, pointed in another direction. Instead of Suprematist aspirations of purity, infinity and the absolute we are back on earth, in Toronto's working class Junction Triangle to be specific, where there are no absolutes, only histories, contexts and provisional actions.

Cesta's sew-on, fabric name badges initially read as elegantly embroidered oval shapes. With a little bit of work the meaning of the words embroidered on the badges is eventually deciphered. These words and phrases are taken from a phrase book, compiled by former M. P. Charles Caccia in the 1950's, in which English words are approximated via Italian phonetics - i.e. to shovel becomes tu sciavol. The book was designed to assist recent immigrants in adjusting to their new environment; the texts refer to specific jobs, activities, tools and conditions that defined the working life of Italian immigrants to Canada in the 1950's and 60's. These are not abstract shapes, they are functional forms -- wash and wear class signifiers.

Fabric name badges are only one example of the very idiosyncratic media Cesta selects to communicate his ideas. The sheer variety of his materials and applications is staggering: adhesive foil tape, car underbody paint -- stencilled and etched -- mail box letters on sheet metal, polyurethane foam, tinted acrylic glass, melamine, and wrought iron to name only some. The materials are part of a sculptural kit of techniques and materials developed by Cesta requiring precise shaping and finishing.

One important and recurring form in Cesta's work is the gasket, the soft, flat material that acts as an interface where two metal engine parts meet. Cesta's gaskets are at once visual, rhythmic themes and emblems of trade labour. In Romance Language the cellular bio-organic form replicates, mutates, and evolves visually and symbolically. This metamorphic gasket may be a body-double for industrial humanity: a metaphor for the malleable, impressionable flesh of people caught in the gears of modern industry.

Carlo Cesta, Provisional Landscape, mixed media, 1996.

If modern industry was a functional model for the Suprematists through to the Minimalists, their aesthetic model was the laboratory. Sterile, removed of uncontrolled organic activity, the modern working space was the site of intellectual control, and of existential reflection. Provisional Landscape (in the upstairs space at the gallery) is an example of Cesta's method of introducing microbial viruses into the laboratory. The mixed media, wall mounted piece features a wooden disk with bevelled edges and punctured with small metal vents. Below this, a nickel plated horizontal structure looking a lot like a Donald Judd wall piece supports bottles of Mio orange soda pop. The disk is not abstract. It is vented -- it breathes. Hovering over a horizontal shelf it becomes part of a figurative landscape. Placing bottles of pop on the glossy polished shelf, Cesta plays the working class naive who mistakes a work of art for a piece of furniture. Poking fun at geometric abstraction and minimalist aesthetics, Cesta reveals Modernism as human and vulnerable -- a metaphorical construction.

The artist's most comprehensive statement to date, Romance Language is an exuberant gush of twisted, skewed, inverted, disassembled and reconstructed icons. It is also a densely layered meditation on personal, communal and social identity.

Gordon Hatt

from C Magazine, #51, October-December 1996, pp. 17-19.

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