Gormley, Fontana and Scarpa in Venice — review: tranquil and transcendent

Abstract or figurative? Architecture or art? Matter or space? Body or soul? Past or present? Exterior or interior? These polarities are exhibited as illusions in a small but intense new show in Venice. Housed in the showroom designed for typewriter manufacturer Olivetti by Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, the exhibition brings together works by mid-century Argentinian artist Lucio Fontana and contemporary sculptor Antony Gormley.

Scarpa and Fontana have the form. The first, described by Fontana as a “fine and sensitive architect”, took care of the Italian pavilion of the Venice Biennale from 1948 to 1972, a period during which Fontana exhibited six times. Most important for the duo was the 1966 gallery, which Fontana created in collaboration with Scarpa. Images by photographer Ugo Mulas from the show, titled Spatial Ambience (White)show an austere, white and lunar space, interrupted by oval portals and geometric divisions, in which Fontana’s cut-out canvases, all white, transcend their artistic origin to become architecture in their own right.

Gormley is from another generation. Nevertheless, he shares the older couple’s desire to break down the boundaries between architecture, humanity, space and form and create a harmonious, borderless universe. Beautifully curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, the result is a vital and provocative visual conversation.

Lucio Fontana at the Venice Biennale in 1966 © Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche

Commissioned by Olivetti in 1957 to redesign a dark little haunt nestled under the 16th-century colonnades of Piazza San Marco, Scarpa created a space that exemplifies his sensibility for oriental aesthetics. Although he only visited Japan twice – he tragically died there in 1978 after falling down a flight of stairs – like many Western architects of his generation, he was inspired by Japonism, the influence of Japanese art on Western artists and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright.

But Scarpa went beyond exoticism. Without a doubt, his sense of non-Western forms was forged in Venice, a city where the interplay of light, water and stone, together with centuries of trade with Asia, have fertilized an architecture porous, mobile and aquatic, far from the solid classic Western models. .

This heritage allowed him to make the Olivetti boutique a miniature Zen kingdom, part water garden, part temple and part showcase. Installing a fountain – a spare stone slab and a single spout – in the entrance, he hollowed out the drab, divided rooms into a single entity centered on a pale, wide-stepped staircase that seems to hover as if suspended by invisible ropes. With ivory plastered walls, intimate doorless rooms opening onto hallway-like balconies, teak and rosewood lattice-style screens protecting the walls and windows, and a shimmering mosaic floor, the showroom presents a fascinating balance between flowing rhythms, oblique light, natural materials and clean, orthogonal lines.

The works are exhibited in a gallery with light concrete walls and a dark wooden walkway
The exhibition takes place in a former Olivetti showroom renovated by Carlo Scarpa in the late 1950s © Photo Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

There couldn’t be a better place for a dialogue between Fontana and Gormley. The first considered architecture as a framework where art transcended its identity as an inert image to become an agent of space and time in its own right. The latter believes that the body is itself a form of architecture, a vehicle for human experience that always interacts with the space around it.

At the soothing trickle of the fountain, visitors are greeted by “Rise” (1983-84), a life-size prostrate figure modeled in lead from a cast of Gormley’s body. Its companions include three small Gormley models – a “Small Stem Model” faceted graphite block (2019), his white nylon figure “Contract VII Model” (2021) and “Clay Model I” (2021), a squatting man clutching his knees in vulnerable desperation – arranged in a row in the display case. Installed along the side wall, three small sculptures by Fontana: “Toro” (Bull) (1931), an almost abstract terracotta wedge, “Nudo” (1926), a plaster sculpture that imagines the body as a smooth, faceless arabesque, and “Winged Victory” (1937), an expressionist sweep of glazed ceramic as if the figure melts before our eyes.

What these characters have in common is their aura of stillness and loneliness, qualities enhanced by Scarpa’s quiet sanctuary and offset by the manic tourist rush of the plaza outside. However, beyond these similarities, the sculptures are deliberately diverse.

Two sculptures are exhibited on pedestals in a gallery

Installation view of the Venice exhibition, with works by Lucio Fontana © Photo Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

Three small sculptures are arranged in a gallery window overlooking the street

Three works by Antony Gormley are displayed in the gallery window © Photo Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

Through his continued fidelity to the human form, Gormley’s art operates as a meditation on being, challenging us to consider our relationship with every element of our world: material, metaphysical, psychoanalytical, philosophical. Fontana’s practice, however, evolved into a meditation on space itself.

Admittedly, in these first figurative sculptures, the Argentinian makes images of the body in order to question the relationship of humanity with what is outside our skin. But by the 1950s he had embraced abstraction, piercing blank canvases with holes and cuts that transformed the viewer himself into a human element within the work, forced to look through the flat surface of the paint. conventional to imagine the cosmos beyond.

Today, when science and art benefit from technological advancements that Fontana could not have imagined, it is easy to forget the revolutionary nature of his ideas.

In the foreground, a low metal sculpture of linked cubic shapes is placed on a stone plinth.  Works are exhibited on the walls behind
Works by Fontana and Gormley on display © Photo Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

“Lucio Fontana has radically repositioned the visual,” says Gormley, showing me around the Olivetti space. Gormley pauses before a quartet of sketches made by Fontana in 1951. To the untrained eye, they are a rough set of circles segmented by diagonal, vertical lines with scribbled notes announcing “point of view spatial” and “terrestrial point of view”. ”. However, Gormley reads these notes as clearly as if they were crystalline prose, explaining to me how the smallest circle is Fontana’s way of showing how the earthly human eye reaches its limit at the point where cosmic space – the largest circles – begins.

Fontana’s drawings, Gormley continues, demonstrate how our short-sightedness is the result of our reliance on perspective, which allows us to look no further than our immediate horizon both in the picture plane and in reality. By physically shattering the material surface, Fontana’s violent rupture nods to the shocking magnitude of space beyond our field of vision.

The need for rupture also resonates through the work of Gormley and Scarpa. It is intrinsic to Gormley’s sculptures such as “Subject III” (2021), a life-size figure created in an open cast iron grid so that it is essentially permeable, trapped in a permanent state of threshold, simultaneously open and closed.

Two exhibited works feature blurred circular shapes

Works by Lucio Fontana © Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

Scarpa achieves the same expression with its architecture. From his austere juxtapositions of solid planes and open spaces to these wooden screens, he has designed a space that acts to both contain and liberate us. A restraint and seduction that transforms both those in the exhibition hall and those outside in the square into objects and subjects for the gaze of the other.

These seductive and intractable tensions make this show more than the sum of its parts. There’s a galaxy of glorious art in Venice this season, but this little planet promises a universe of possibilities.

As of November 27, fondoambiente.it

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