Pier Paolo Calzolari and an (Abstract) Art that Happens
Jun 28, 2019
Pier Paolo Calzolari has returned to Naples for the first time in more than 40 years, with a grand survey of his entire career at The Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina (a.k.a. Museo MADRE). Titled Painting as a Butterfly, and curated by Achille Bonito Oliva and Andrea Viliani, the exhibition features more than 70 works dating from the 1960s to the present day. Born in 1943 in Bologna, Italy, Calzolari is considered one of the most important living protagonists of the Arte Povera movement. Yet his artistic output goes far beyond whatever perceived limitations are implied by his association with that label. Indeed, he is somewhat of an aesthetic maverick. Evidence for that fact came early in his career, when Calzolari was included in the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, which was first mounted in Bern in 1969, and was then re-staged by Fondazione Prada as part of the 2013 Venice Biennale. In addition to Calzolari, that exhibition included other such hard to define luminaries as Eva Hesse and Joseph Beuys. As its title implies, it was not just an attempt to explore the poetic material concerns of Arte Povera, but rather marked a moment when these conceptual artists were beginning to use their practices to face an existential concern that remains pressing today: the notion that meaning and rationality are as fluid and ephemeral as the materials and processes used in the creation of their art. Painting as a Butterfly is an opportunity to catch up with Calzolari, to see what new experiments he has concocted, and what ancient riddles he has summoned in recent years, and to attempt once again to connect with ourselves through his work.
Painting as a Butterfly unfolds across several galleries on several different levels of the museum, yet it still has a strange feeling of being a crowded exhibition—this despite there being a lot of empty space in the rooms and between the works. But this is not a bad thing. It is the personality of the paintings and objects that occupies so much space. Take for example “Senza titolo” (2014-15) an installation of nine painted panels hanging from the wall in a customized room. The panels extrude off the wall in a curved formation; seven are red, one is yellow and one is white; each contains a portion of a composition—an exploding cosmos of lines and forms. The work is mesmerizing and off-putting at the same time. The exhibition method is so unusual it comes to the forefront as content, yet the material presence of the panels simultaneously competes for attention. The painted composition on the panels, meanwhile, is sublimely beautiful. The relationship between these elements and the viewer is contentious, making the work seem almost like a wild beast confined in too small a cage.
Pier Paolo Calzolari - Monocromo blu, 1979. Collezione privata. Foto © Michele Alberto Sereni
Similarly, the massive “Monocromo blu” (1979) hangs on a giant wall in a giant room, and yet is hung so high that one is forced to crane the neck upwards to see the work. The only way to experience the painting in comfort is from afar, viewing it not as a stand-alone artwork but more as a relational aesthetic element of the architecture. Elsewhere throughout the exhibition the works continually compete with each other and themselves for breathing room. But not always. Occasionally, a painting hangs alone in a soft spotlight, acting as an oasis of sorts—a chance to just look a painting without feeling confronted. This is part of what Calzolari is so good at. He is a bridge between mid-century conceptual art and contemporary relational art; an artist who has managed somehow to introduce the bemusing and confrontational spirit of a happening into the calm, meditative body of a curated exhibition.
Pier Paolo Calzolari - Senza titolo (Lasciare il posto), 1972. Collezione privata. Foto © Michele Alberto Sereni
The Myth of the Moment
Although Painting as a Butterfly engages with every aspect of the complex oeuvre Calzolari has created, the most prescient works in the show are his multi-media—or as the curator calls them, “multi-material”—works. Many of them feature sculptural tableaus with motors or pumps situated on the floor in front of a painting that hangs on the wall. Staring at one of these uncanny assemblages, it is easy to feel caught between the sense that something happened, something is happening, or something is about to happen. The fact that actions have occurred, or have been been set in motion, is undeniable, yet one can almost not imagine why. The kinetic quality of the work implies some meaning, or some purpose—a what that suggests a why. But that might also just be part of the humor of the work—an additional layer of abstraction that prevents the eyes and mind of a viewer from simply experiencing the aesthetic phenomenon for what it concretely is.
Pier Paolo Calzolari - La Grande Cuisine, 1985. Collezione privata Lisbona. Foto © Michele Alberto Sereni
These “multi-material” phenomena call us to witness them from a confused perspective. Are we looking at a self-contained artwork? Or are we looking at a remnant of an event, or a predecessor of something that will happen later? We are left with a feeling that we have been a little cheated, because we did not see the mechanizations that led to the manifestation of this “whatever-it-is,” nor are we privy to the conceptual meandering that informed its planning, nor are we going to be around long enough to see its fulfillment, if such an event ever occurs. Stuck between evidence and anticipation, we engage our eyes and hearts with material pleasures. Meaning is lost, so we accept the meaninglessness or invent our own meanings based on our own purposes, which have little to do with those of the artist. Calzolari expertly corners us in something that feels like the moment, but makes us wonder: does the moment really exist? Pier Paolo Calzolari: Painting as a Butterfly is on view at Museo MADRE in Naples, Italy, until 30 September 2019.
Featured image: Pier Paolo Calzolari - Senza titolo, 2014-2015. Collezione privata Lisbona. Foto © Michele Alberto Sereni
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio