Texts by Marco Colapietro on Alfredo Pirri.
Tender is the Discipline
“I hate the weak”
(Mihima Yukio, from an article on the writer Ryunosuke Agutagawa)
By now we should be very clear on this: Alfredo Pirri’s authoritarianism should be interpreted as the will to construct a sense, a locus, a place around the work of art. We have, also, spoken of how this place in common acts as the metaphorised translation of a language and a voice: like literature transcribes its words with the blood of existence, painting too composes its chromatic scale by using remnants soaked in human adventure – it is not the abstract memory of representational theories.
How these various elements combine in Pirri’s work is particularly visible in The Effeminate Intellectuals, a video dedicated to one of the most controversial literary figures of our age, Mishima Yukio – a writer of great sensibility yet one whose work is animated by an ambiguous, at least for us Westerners, passion for ‘pure’ and ‘impetuous’ action. In the article Pirri bases his work on, Mishima makes visible a certain disappointment for having been won over by ‘terrible literature’, and for not having sufficiently cultivated ‘pure naturalness’ and ‘animal force’: ‘I constantly fear that literature annihilates morality’, the Japanese writer confesses. His fear is that the refined beauty of art may push us to locate it above life, above its moral principles – a fear which may generate scorn towards life. Pirri’s own stance is that he does not wholly agree with the content of the article – yet Mishima’s idea that literature is filled with ‘venom’ is easily comparable to an idea of toxic vapour, of a gas. Alfredo Pirri’s work shows how the greatness of art can become something sinister.
The danger of art is mirrored already in the choice of space Pirri makes, a veterans association in Taormina, a purposefully heavy, ambiguous atmosphere. In this small space where the nostalgia for the old days of the war is frozen in an almost intolerable pathetism, in this world of trinkets and souvenirs of battles, of yellowy documents of past glories, we hear the affected, diction-drenched voice of an actor reading Mishima’s article. Meanwhile, we watch the images of the Proclaim flashing by – the author pronouncing his extreme mixture of poetry and vitalism before his suicide on November 25th 1970.
Here, as in other works, Pirri ‘fortifies’ the atmosphere by using unpleasant elements which will inhibit the spectator from light-heartedly falling for the fascination art is capable of; the thorny juxtaposition of the video is a reminder of the artists’s responsibilities, too.
We’re well aware of how Western modernity has cultivated the myth of the individual, of how it has exalted the individual in the figure of the avant-garde artist, free to undo and redo the rules of language according to personal whim – in this context, the authoritative appearance of Pirri’s work is also an answer to the will of the modern artist. At the same time, the emphasis on work-as-space seeks to soften the centrality of the artist-as-subject.
Seen from inside the veterans’ association, Mishima’s gesture with its cruel beauty appears suddenly inane, even cowardly, whereas the squalor of the sad wartime decorations appears unexpectedly illuminated of an unforeseen nobility.
The question of the artist-subject and of the space-work find their synthesis in the exhibition Disciplinam Pone in Corde Tuo (Studio Casoli, 1991), which in many ways lies at the heart of the path I have just described. Pirri himself leads us to thinking as much, when he says that ‘it’s the history of my painting, the history of my work: it’s an exhibition which catalogues my feelings regarding art’. The exhibition is, in fact, palpably a catalogue: the walls are literally lined in a myriad strips of cardboard, the invitations from the Tucci Russo Gallery bearing the word ‘Gas’. Some still bear the original frottage of a manhole, others are covered in paint. The whole is a grand inventory of colour, a sort of version, on the scale of the gigantic, of those walls of samples painters base their purchases on in art shops. Because of the way the coloured lists are installed, because of that word, Gas, which repeatedly gives its rhythm to this painter’s encyclopedia, the gallery also looks as if it were decorated by medieval drapes and standards. Which brings to mind that naked flagpole at the centre of Cure: here colours are no longer flown at the service of ideological caprice. Rather, they are lovingly assembled and made to undergo a refinement, because pictorial material comes in a variety of forms, and is often venomous.
‘Don’t accept cynicism, tell you children about hard work’, Pirri once wrote for the Venice Biennale; true to this maxim, he has submitted himself to exhausting, and ‘dated’, artisanal work. Pigments are prepared by hand, mixed and ground in linseed oil. While his technical notation may not be visible in his work, it nevertheless marks it morally. Wedded to long processes, to almost maniacal precision, what the artist in effect performs is an obstacle to expressive exuberance: he renounces the magnificence of his individual creativity, and privileges the reasons by which he arrives to his formal solutions. Who can deny, after all, that in this day and age the sense of things is notched into the soul?
Alfredo Pirri knows very well that ‘value’ is no longer recognized on the basis of declarations. In a sense, the act of making with discipline serves the purpose of making the work less gratuitous – it re-instates a lost importance. Given the circumstances, it’s hard for a work of art to inspire the sacral respect is once did and so, in the knowledge of no longer being able to restore art to its divine properties, the artists choses a more worldly form of authority.
Form, then, resolves itself in the evocation of spaces which are bound to a community: spaces, that is, in which mankind reminds itself of what it has gained, of the moral value of its growth; spaces in which mankind catalogues its memory, its knowledge – museums, libraries, public offices. This last category especially is the locus of an occult, but profound, sensibility. Memory acquires a bitter patina, a film which transfigures it into something unwittingly sacred in those maze-like basements, where the hopes of a community lie archived in pieces of paper bearing dates and stamps on pachydermal shelving units, covered in dust.
It isn’t by chance that Pirri uses bureaucratic tones in order to recuperate art from its dehumanisation – in Max Weber’s words, ‘the armour of bureaucratic organization is a phenomenon which has not been experienced by any country in any age the way it has been known in modern Western civilisation’ ( from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). This imposing bureausaurus, who dominates a community’s movements has sought to make possible – just like the cold and naked white cube of the modern gallery – the elevation of that ‘modern spirit’ which has brought so much good to society. The price we have had to pay, however, has been a continuous suspension, an incessant tension which lures extreme (and sometimes insane) individualism towards the depths of homologisation and anonymity.
Pirri’s spaces, with lights so low they almost touch the ground, display the severity of discipline: and this is what controls the afflatus of art, not ironic distance, which Ortega believed was the foundation of the ‘new style’ of the modern – here, it is not that the artist is allowed to not dirty his hands, to not let himself get carried away, to brag about his authority on the world of art.
But discipline too knows tenderness, and should be taken into the warmth of our hearts. In the soft illumination of the gallery, we see the filings systems of bureaucratized basements turn into modest wooden objects: they contain drawings, and are covered in layers of candid, compact glazed chalk. On these chests of drawers, blocks of snow-white drawing paper and pieces of chalk made from those moulds bakers use for the raising of cakes. Just like in Squadre, where the only shape of the piece was given by its geometric boundary reflected by a colour – the solid, stainless white of chalk, of drawing paper – the work tells us about its form as ‘value’, about its fundamental aspects: the drawing which imagines it, the shape which contains it. Chalk, shelves, stacks of paper, all sublimed by the quietness of whiteness, reflecting onto the white of the chests of drawers. Meanwhile, more colour, ordered and catalogued on the walls, frames and kept under glass, sustains form and tells us about what has always been the ‘delicate heart of painting’: drawing.
The place in common of art.
This text was originally published in Colapietro, Marco. Conformale. Milan: Edizioni Documentario,1992. pp. 87-92.
The Lament of Colour
‘Words have, until now, been weaker and more shrewd than I would have wanted’
(Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence)
Over the course of these past few years, Alfredo Pirri has continued to concentrate his energies on two fundamental questions posed in his work Cure: the consideration of the location of the work as a true aspect of formal elaboration, and the connection of the pure and immediate seduction and sensuality of painting, that is colour, with an idea of language seen as transmission and conservation of a collective patrimony. These two fundamental questions have been developed from those muted paintings that were his Squadre Plastiche, and whose formal strength has grown grown articulatedly, and complexly, through time.
The most significant development of Cure took place in the exhibition Gas at the Tucci Russo Gallery in Turin. Here, the work was installed over two levels: upstairs, a wall split the environment in two. A large central opening gave onto a space without works on show, purposefully left dark, and to another which was dimly lit, and which contained five groups of Squadre, which, by way of refraction, appeared in chromatic sequence: blue, yellow, red, green, blue. The surfaces of the single panels, five per group of Squadre, were painted in enamels ‘saturated’ towards darkness: blue, green, purple were dulled by a black which, nonetheless, was never absolute.
Downstairs, twenty paintings bore the transposition, in oil frottages, of Rome’s gas conduct manholes. The room was filled with racks in the shape of prisms upon which, on both sides, nine long and thin panels were placed between the slats. These horizontal surfaces were very reminiscent of the Squadre Plastiche, as they too are covered, on the underside, in a pigment diffused by an extremely soft lighting, given by lamps suspended a few centimeters from the ground inside the racks.
Here, then, the monument set-up which characterizes Cure was apparently substituted by a sort of atmospherical invasion of the gallery’s environment, given by the quasi-darkness which envelops the spectator and given, also, by the very idea of ‘gas’ which, in physics, is the state in which what is solid tends to occupy all the volume available to it.
The choice to renounce a clear, bright light is a very designed, precise choice which is coherently in conversation with the Squadre Plastiche, with the reticence, in the series, to let the quiver of colour transpire. The full illumination we normally afford works of art implicitly has to do with a privileged position, with an ideal, non-human world, where the light is always ‘right’ and where we are protected, isolated. The choice of half-light, then, of dimness, reflects a mundanity of the work of art which Pirri is interested in returning to; at the same time, though, that slightly unsettling penumbra also keeps something of a difficulty, the difficulty portrayed in Squadre Plastiche of letting colour rise up from the blackness. It also reflects the sense of mourning evoked by the solid layer of chalk underneath which a chromatic deposition takes place.
As Pirri himself asserts, Gas is ‘the story of a colour’s place of origin’, a place ‘where colour is kept imprisoned’, where ‘we can hear its lament’. The whole exhibition is, in this logic, a rising up from an immobile depth. The starting point is the manhole, which is also the only representative entity in the exhibition – its image lines the space in which the funerary chalk is installed, underneath which pigments work on recuperating a sense of verticality, achieved on the upper floor. Gas is, in other words, the epic of a dead language, or rather of a mortified language: painting. So it isn’t by chance that, in composing this work, the artist has chosen to realise one of the most intense recurring figures of the history of italian painting, that is a deposition.
Still, the tone has nothing nostalgic to it, nothing saccharine – Pirri doesn’t limit himself to mourning a lost value of the language of painting. Rather, he choses to also remind us that this threat doesn’t come from outside: it’s in the very intimacy of art that its own dangers lie, awoken, often, by an incautious use of beauty. We find this notion of risk, constantly embedded in the language of art, in the fact that the only ‘pronounceable’ word in the whole exhibition is the word ‘gas’, and in the fact that the only representational element is the manhole, the cover which seals the subterranean underbelly from which venomous vapours rise.
The underlying use of words seems to lean towards a ‘positive’ vocation towards language, a sense of language as ‘will to say’, will to truly signify. In order to carry sense, words need to speak out towards humanity. This is, perhaps, what lies at the heart of Pirri’s love for authors whose writings are traversed by a deep confusion of work and existence, such as Mishima Yukio.
This text was originally published in Colapietro, Marco. Conformale. Milan: Edizioni Documentario,1992. pp. 83-86.