Friday, 15 September 1995

Italica: "alla maniera italiana"

"Oggi, ch'indi riluce / languido lume é lacrimosa luce"
(Today, that begins to shine / languid flame and tearful light) 1

A legend richly detailed in Anglo-American and German culture is that of Italy as other. Other than where you come from – a place where streets are named after artists, where life somehow seems more vital, where passion rules reason. The 17th century saw the romanticization of Roman ruins by the townscape painters and the 18th century saw the Germans Goethe and Burckhardt stirred by the Italic. E. M. Forster's Room With A View contrasted the vital character of Italy with puritan and mercantile Victorian England and articulated the aesthetic discontent of generations of young northern aesthetes. Italy as other in the 20th century was the backdrop for a postwar North American coming of age party featuring cheap wine and the loss of virginity.

Italy as the place where you come from is another story of course. To be of Italian heritage and living in North America has been a different experience for each successive generation. To the immigrant first generation, North America was the other, a place of exile and manual labour. To the bicultural second generation, North America was the scene of cultural conflict. To the third generation, Italy may become little more than a cultural memory – a family album.

Italy as a source of myth, Italy as an ancestral home: is there an intersection where these two Italys meet? Is there an intersection for the millions of Italy's of the mind, of individuals, who belong to the Italic family, either through birth or through adoption? This exhibition is the result of my working with a number of artists for whom the Italic has some significance. Sara Angelucci, Carlo Cesta and Dino Bolognone are second generation Italian-Canadians. Jane Buyers and Julie Voyce are Italophiles of British ancestry. As curator, I belong to the latter group. My observations on this theme, the theme of a culturally specific characteristic, are naturally coloured by the lens of my own ethnicity.

Italy has always been a giant theme park for the visual arts and its art history is an obvious answer to the question of why contemporary Canadian artists would find it a source of inspiration. This influence is undeniable for any artist because the very idea of Italian culture retains such a vivid visual character. But historical models and references are really not the concern of this group of artists and none would list the subject of this exhibition among their primary, personal or artistic concerns. In short, this is not a demonstration of ethnic pride and nationalism or cultural shangri-las. Italica exists in a subtler form. Italica becomes an issue as part of an investigation into personal identity, or a reference in the rhetoric of materials, or as the exotic site of experience.

My own associations with the Italic came about rather by accident in my late teens and early twenties. Having grown up in North America I was used to the idea of people of different cultures arriving here to become Canadians or Americans. Different people wanting to live with us, wanting what we want. It was great for national pride and propaganda: Complain? Hey this must be a great place if everybody in the world wants to live here! But where was here? My neighbours didn't speak much English, but for what they could, I admired them. I was never forced to learn a second language. However, not in school, no job prospects, no vehicle -- here in those years was hour long bus and subway rides, vast windswept parking lots and industrial parks on the edge of the city. Here wasn't so hot. A friend told me about Italy: The greatest place in the world, beautiful yes, but more important, there they respected artists. Art, adventure, romance, -- Ciao Canada.

The Italy of my mind is courtly, aristocratic and elegant, well groomed and well mannered. It is also ancient, dark and inscrutable. But the baroque and the antique force themselves upon the concept of the Italic as much as woods and snow are cited as typically Canadian. Therefore, when I think of the Italianate, I can't help but think of the Torquato Tasso's "languido lume e lacrimosa luce" – languid flame and tearful light.

The 16th century Italian poet's "lachrymose" religious verse was the counterpoint "heart" to the Jesuit "mind" in the battle for the hearts and minds of Europe during the Counter-Reformation. The passage above is deluxe - the dark Italian "L's" and the round, more resonant Italian vowels are like loops and swirls carved in cherry wood. The language is rich and ornate and sonoric, almost architectonic in its alliteration, yet, it describes pure liquid: the sticky nostalgic sentiment of the helplessness and dependency we associate with childhood. This contrast of form and content finds its ultimate and uniquely Italic expression in the cherub or "putto" whose soft rounded features are regularly plaster cast and gilded or marbleized or cast in bronze.

This is the Italica we have been taught to scorn. Modernism, rationalist architecture, form and function -- the international style declared war against the artifice of decoration in favour of modularity and practicality. Originally the modernist dream was a futuristic socialist vision of antiseptic cities and modular high-rise workers' housing. Unnecessary decoration was associated with barbarism1 and as modernism became associated with progress in North America, decorative artifice gradually came to signify lack of taste.

As an artistic canon modernism was insufficient because it was irrelevant. It was an academic game that did not address the questions of context and identity: e.g. race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality as determining factors in artistic expression. The relaxation of this modernist hegemony has allowed artists to explore areas of their visual cultural that were previously taboo. New liberties permitted the quotation of styles. The complex of feelings and ideas could be addressed through the juxtaposition of existing representations.

Thus when we look at the work of Carlo Cesta or Sara Angelucci, the form or content may be a quotation, specifically, to the architectural interiors and exteriors of their youth and by extension a reference to family and a complex constructed identity. In Sara Angelucci's triptych In Reverence, the architectural reference is like a fading memory; indirect, distant and blurry. Her hand held, available light photographs are taken on holidays, while travelling -- looking for the familiar in the exotic. Baroque palaces and churches such as Versailles and St. Peter's perversely become containers of intimate, domestic signs. Vaguely felt and complex feelings of "home" are given expression in unfocused, indistinct contours. Chaotic, apparently unintended views mimic the random associative character of stream of consciousness memory.

Carlo Cesta's Strongties rests on multiple references. It is a baroque, family coat of arms created with decorative motifs from the machine shop and the mechanic's garage with materials purchased at the Canadian Tire store. Strongties touches upon the material and formal character of the home and work of Cesta's youth. It is a meditation at once on the complex of abstract concepts and deeply felt identities of family, ethnicity and class.

The baroque reference may be more than just a nationalistic identifier. The amorphousness of the style, its organic model, its apparently irrational character, is like feeling itself – unbounded, incommensurable. The scrolls of Dino Bolognone recall the grand scale of the baroque – a virtual cascade of images and textures, thoughts and feelings. Direct Italic references and quotations are less important, mere backgrounds and facts, than the baroque richness of his diaristic tapestry. Like the oversized marble cherubs in St. Peter's basilica, Bolognone's scrolls are a large-scale intimacy.

Jane Buyers draws on the material culture of Italy to invest her sculptural metaphors with a hyper reality. Bronze and iron are employed to describe and magnify ephemeral and organic subjects. The material is more foreign than familiar, more exotic than domestic. The baroque rhetoric of material and scale Buyers uses in her work transports us from the here, to an ancient and aristocratic Italica.

Julie Voyce travelled to Italy to find hyper reality too, and documents it in a visual diary. I guess that her Italy of the mind may be similar to mine: courtly, aristocratic and elegant at least. Perhaps not dark, but certainly inscrutable. Her light filled images are visual information unbounded, uncontained, uncensored. The images posit the artist as a mirror onto the self and the society around her. Perhaps it takes the foreignness of the other to reflect adequately on the foreignness of the self.

Gordon Hatt, January 1995

1. Torquato Tasso, Alma inferma e dolente.
2. The modernist Austrian architect Adolf Loos (1870 -1933) criticized ornamentation as primitive, associating it with body piercing and tattooing.

List of Works in the Exhibition
1. Sara Angelucci, In Reverence, 1994, silver print triptych, 52 x 37" each panel (framed).
2. Dino Bolognone, Untitled, 1994, engraver's printing ink and oil pastel on paper, 396" x 53".
3. Jane Buyers, Untitled, 1993, Cast bronze, painted iron, 35" H x 18 D x 21" W.
4. Jane Buyers, Giardino Ideale, 1993, ink on paper, 23 " x 31" (framed).
5. Jane Buyers, La Rosa Nel Giardino, 1993, ink on chine coll paper, 23" x 31" (framed).
6. Carlo Cesta, Strongties, 1991, Foil tape, midget louvers, rubberized undercoat on melamine, 59" x 49".
7. Julie Voyce, Paris, Venice, Rome, Naples, 1992-94, Watercolour on paper, enamel on plexiglass, 3 panels: 30" x 49", 40" x 55", 30" x 49".

Cambridge Galleries, 1995

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