Sunday, 28 April 1991

Carlo Cesta: The Material Image

Poetry is an electrical discharge
Vicente Huidobro

The recent work of Carlo Cesta marks a departure from working exclusively with traditional art media in favour of their use and combination with industrial and domestic materials. His inclusion of new media seem at once to compliment and to contradict his constructed images: hot and cold, technological and handmade, organic and mechanistic, the pieces seem caught between two magnetic forces. Aluminum foil tape, rubberized undercoating, aluminum and steel plate combined with graphite, oil stick and paper are the material from which he generates two dimensional images that are a semi-abstract, semi-recognizable hybridization of technological hardware and organic life forms. His work is born both out of a natural love and curiosity for the natural and constructed world and a critical, rigorous approach to the problem of art making. As such, it is the specific culmination of many historical and contemporary issues in art.

The material image is a contradiction in terms and a synthesis of opposites. An image, after all, is a representation, a reflection or a projection of something that is material. We think of an image of something or someone, or, we simply imagine something. As a noun or a verb, the concept of image and imagine are transitive terms - always leading somewhere else. Material on the other hand is inert and concrete. Perceivable by the senses, it refers to nothing other than itself. We can see and touch the material of an image but the image itself remains in that illusive realm of knowledge, perception and recognition.

So it is, that material is the lens through which we receive an image. The paradigm in art for the lens as a transmitter of images lies in Renaissance perspective - perspective meaning literally "to see through." It is perhaps no coincidence that parallel to the development of perspective in the Renaissance was the development of oil painting and the methodical laying of transparent colour glazes through which an image was eventually realized. Seeing through the material, and entering the world of a higher order was the method and the goal.

There is, however, another, older tradition, in which the material of image making is in itself meaningful. Medieval icons, biblical illuminations and liturgical wares employed precious metals in the creation of the image. Halos, details and surrounding space were gilded to enhance the rarity and preciousity of the depicted image, but also, to act as a metaphor. Gold, for example, was seen as symbolic of the sun and its reflective light was likened to spiritual illumination.

            Bright is the noble work; but being nobly bright the work
            Should brighten the minds so that they may travel,
            through the true lights
            - Abbot Suger of St. Denis

In the gilded medieval icon, the material bestowed values and meanings to the image and in return, the image lent a particular significance to the material. The interrelationship between material and image was largely abandoned during the Renaissance in favour of scenic narratives, and was not again reconsidered as an expressive possibility in picture making until the Cubist explorations of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the first and second decades of this century.

The Cubists, with their pioneering mixed media collages, were soon followed by the Italian Futurists and the Dadaists in bringing to the picture surface materials other than traditional drawing and painting media. In diametrical opposition to the preciousness and rarity of the gilded icons, however, mixed media collages and montages employed the valueless ephemera of daily life: newspaper clippings, wallpaper swatches and chair caning were some of the original collage materials. Picasso and Braque, through the combination of painted image, printed word and material object invited the viewer to piece together an image similar to the picture we construct of the world through the reading of a newspaper or the creation of a scrap book. Their interest was not in enhancing the authority of the image, but to destroy it, to reveal it as constructed, complex and conditional. Influenced by contemporary notions of relativity they wanted to reflect a modern world of simultaneous impressions and fragmented information. The notion of a single image as a representative expression of experience or understanding was challenged and in it's place all that remained was a collection of perceptual, conceptual and material fragments.

It is no coincidence that the Futurists and the Dadaists, who were influenced by the collage aesthetic of the Cubists, turned to the machine as a subject in their art. For it was the machine, or, more correctly, technology itself, which had contributed most to the modern understanding of time and space. The telescope, the steam engine, the telegraph and the photomechanical reproduction fundamentally changed people's conception and experience of the world. Images of mechanical parts, machines and other human devices, for the Futurists and the Dadaists, formed an anti-romantic image of the fragmented universe in which humanity's engagement in the natural world was reflected in its tools. Mechanized human figures and anthropomorphic machines posited the paradox of western society; namely, that while people often felt depersonalized and devalued in the face of a technological world, machines were also essentially human extensions. Because in the end, technology is the representation of human labour and the image of human desire. We are the technology. Our technology is us.

It is some distance from the cut and paste collages of the Cubists, Futurists and Dadaists to Carlo Cesta's elegant muffler tape swirls and gasket stencils. The old Cubist collages and montages had by comparison the nervous, jittery energy of a Model "T" Ford. Cesta's collages are radically refined and pared down. Their material composition can as little as rubberized undercoating on aluminum or graphite and tape on paper, to more complex combinations of materials. There is a unifying force behind these images, which reminds one much more of the medieval icon than a 1920's collage or montage. Cesta encourages us to revel in the mysteries of the materials; the contrasts of the almost mystical, illuminating reflective tape against the torn and scuffed paper or on oxidized and rusting steel, the primary black stencil images of gaskets on the hypnotically buffed aluminum plate. His materials are like polished gemstones laid into the crown of a depicted deity.

The deity which Cesta describes is the two headed god Technology. It is not the half human, half machine god of the Dadaists. It is more pervasive than that. Cesta's god Technology is half electrode, half vegetal. It is a god at once more benign and more frightening than any Frankenstein. The artist's works have a material seductiveness and organic fulsomeness that suggest transcendental radiance and natural regenerative growth -- powerful material and graphic metaphors. At the same time his images suggest an organic life that is rationalized into the crystalline forms of technological systems. It is not human personality that is affected by technology in Cesta's visions, but human cell structure itself. The artist describes a world in which technology flourishes while organic life petrifies..

Efflorescing leaf springs, sprouting antennae, bouquets of resonators, daisy chains of engine gaskets in Carlo Cesta's work pose the paradox of a natural technology and a technological nature. He contrasts beneficient images of natural growth and communication with electromagnetic plants and rubberized organisms -- images that are the very picture of a despoliating and denaturing technology.

Carlo Cesta's process, imagery and materials chart a complex attitude toward nature and technology, home, work and culture. These are transcendent images, which take the viewer from the component parts and industrial by-products of daily life to the core of its strangely familiar spirit -- and back again, to the material image.

Gordon Hatt, April 1991

The Library & Gallery, Cambridge, Ontario
April 28 - May 25, 1991

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