Text by Angelandreina Rorro for the book Alfredo Pirri, Steps 2003 – 2012, Gli Ori Editore, Pistoia, 2013
Barefoot in art
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
(T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets)
The artist bears witness to being against the flow.
(A.Pirri, Sulla responsabilità dell’arte)
An open field
“I have always been involved with the pleasure of doing… art. My father was an amateur painter who did landscapes and animal pictures (especially birds), and photography as well.”
This was Alfredo Pirri’s response to my question about when and how he discovered his artistic vocation. It was a necessary question, because pretty much everything is known about Pirri from 1986 onwards, but very little about his training and early career.
Born in Cosenza in 1957, the son of Anna and Francesco (a railway worker), after primary and middle school he began to attend a science-based high school, which he soon abandoned to enrol at the fledgling arts-based school (liceo artistico). “It started with us”, he told me, “and was desired by the local community, by the young people. There were two classes, and the teachers were not long out of art school. It was a self-promoted school, and initially was almost co-run due to the degree of student participation.
But “the real discovery in those years”, Pirri says, was the Contemporanea [Contemporary] exhibition in the car park of Villa Borghese in Rome, which lasted from 30 November 1973 to February 1974. It was a new, complex exhibition featuring a lot of disciplines. To see it, the young Pirri travelled up from Calabria every Saturday, sleeping on the train.
After finishing high school, Pirri gained entry to the Brera Academy, but only remained there half a year, before moving to Florence, where he finished the academic year; finally, he moved to Rome, where he took his diploma in painting. “I was looking for a teacher I couldn’t find”, he explained, “making a mistake in not going to Scialoja in Rome where everyone was. But I wanted to do painting, and he taught decoration – the name of the subject fooled me.”
Political militancy then took over from his studies. Pirri was a student living away from home, and he shared a flat with other boys. Politics “devoured every imaginative act, and every artistic practice was directed towards something political or public. Added to this there was the cultural climate of the time, which was always forcing people to choose between good and evil, between people, between art and politics. Stemming from this climate was the idea of a theatre, understood as a union of different stimuli and a social act at the same time.”
Finally, during these first few years after the academy, Pirri was part of a collective called Intervallo (like the magazine it produced), together with Francesca Alfano Miglietti (later, an art critic) and Cesare Fullone (artist); other participants included Filiberto Menna and Lorenzo Mango. Among the various initiative, the group also organized exhibitions.
Pirri’s debut show was in 1983 with Krypton (a multimedia experimental theatre group set up in 1982 in Florence), at the Teatro Olimpico in Rome, for a revamping of the Aeneid in an electronic style, with music by Litfiba (for whom Pirri designed the cover of the group’s first album). The text by Barbara Tosi, in the introductory leaflet, together with those of Maurizio Grande and Lorenzo Mango, was a comment on the stage designs but also on the images – enormous photomontages – on display in the foyer: “The image explodes, but only to multiply”, Tosi wrote. “Deflagration was not followed by shattering, but, as in a biological process of scission, the image reproduces, flanks, colours, extends, dilates or interweaves, but it does not come apart.” The show, already staged in Florence, travelled to the Mama Annex Theater of New York in 1984.
There was the idea that theatre was a field open to the experimentation of various art forms at the same time, that within this field there was also room for the work of Pirri, who in those years was also working as a graphic artist in Milan. With his subsequent Angeli di luce [Angels of Light], a show based on the Apocalypse of Saint John, the artist’s images were projected on objects/screens (realized by Pirri) by means of various slide projectors synchronized by a single director.
Commenting on the video painting entitled Il fragore del silenzio [The Din of Silence], produced in 1984 to the music of John Cage, Valentina Valentini wrote: “The principle that governs these works, both the previous three-dimensional ones and the current video painting, is that of the metamorphosis of forms in the work and of forms from one work to another. Metamorphosis as the transition that takes place in the shift from one medium to another, from painting to video.”
Pirri’s inclination for animated painting, for an art which, starting from painting, could arrive at the point of permeating space, was therefore spotted very early on.
For Progetto Firenze per l’Arte contemporanea [Florence Project for Contemporary Art], held for the first and only time in 1988, organized by Luciano Pistoi and directed by Maria Luisa Frisa, Pirri did an installation with Sandro Lombardi at the School of Aerial Warfare. Entitled Gli effemminati intellettuali [The Intellectual Effeminates], it was dedicated to Mishima Yukio; the final text he wrote before committing suicide was read, and a video was screened. It was an intense piece, consisting of archive materials, and while the video was running on a television in the room, the actor Sandro Lombardo performed Mishima Yukio’s text. It was a kind of final theatrical work.
Alfredo Pirri’s first solo show was in 1986, at the Galleria Planita in Rome. It comprised large circular wooden forms the surfaces of which were treated with powdered graphite, while the painting traced cracks and waves. In some of them the rear was painted in yellow so the colour would create an echo, an aura of light that distanced the “picture” from the wall. Filiberto Menna, who introduced the show, wrote that “the procedure of reduction of the essential form of the circle is doubled, as it were, in the reduction of the chromatic variety to the base unit of black, colour-non-colour, and then again to a definition of the passageway and of the threshold. But the descent from the complex to the simple, from multiplicity to one, understood both as perfect, diaphanous form, as daytime, zenithal light (the circle), and as the nocturnal place of original indistinctiveness (the black), in bound up inextricably with an inverse, ascensional path: as descent and ascent, erasure and linguistic articulation, reduction and construction are all one, they coexist as complementary and simultaneous moments in the process of formation of the work.
The Squadre plastiche [Plastic Squares], shown in 1988, again at the Galleria Planita, were pictorial objects, “overturned screens” as Carolyn Christov Bakargiev described them,6 sequences of elements measured and modulated each time. Pirri wrote: “Each one is surrounded by a luminous aura (…) they step forward to deliver a message”, they recount “the slow mutation of light” with their immobility as mute witnesses, but at the same time their colour reverberates on the wall as live energy.
For Aperto ’88 curated by Carandente, in the ambit of the Venice Biennale, Pirri produced Cure [Cures], a work he defined as “the dwelling of an idea”: it was a painted wood construction that could be walked about in, while etched on the exterior walls were words that could only be read looking down from above; standing at the entrance was a flagpole without a flag, while the white-painted interior just had a single plastic square, also white, which reflected a red colour on the end wall. A tribute to architecture as a temple of artistic creation, a strong but ultimately transient enclosure (architecture) that encompassed a fragile but still-living soul (art).
“The exhibition Gas, dating to 1990, is, in order of time, the most significant development of Cure”, commented Marco Colapietro. For this solo show, conceived for the Galleria Tucci Russo in Turin, Pirri composed what he himself called “a landscape”. “There were three types of work arranged according to a narrative order. On the lower level of the gallery, along the walls, the oil frottages on canvas that enveloped the space almost entirely; dotted around in a disorderly fashion in the same space were some large three-dimensional works arranged horizontally as if they were lying down. On the upper floor, in an area modified to create a clear-cut division between the zone for the works and the one for the viewers, were five Plastic Squares, each chromatically saturated towards black, while their own colour was perceptible thanks to the reflection of pure colour on the wall.”8 Lettered on the frottage of the gas manholes was the title and theme of the show, which was intended to trace in some fashion an unusual path – from the gassy to the solid state. Each painting had been painted in oils with hand-prepared colours; each element had been carefully studied and arranged in the space with great patience and effort. Pirri curated his works and the exhibition, planning and deciding on every detail.
Pirri conceived a new show at Tucci Russo in 1992, Per Noi [For Us], in which, “like a polyphonic choir with a dominant work (…) there were displayed three different series of works: Facce di gomma [Rubber Faces], Ombra su ombra [Shadow on Shadow], Per noi (…) The themes of masking, veiling and concealment succeeded and slipped into one another, giving life to forms, movements and expressive nuclei realized with sudden shifts in technique, but always concentrated in giving emphasis to the painting with a rhythmic alternation of fluidity and fixity.”
I think it can be affirmed that Per Noi was a turning point exhibition in Pirri’s work, a moment of reflection on what he had already done and the moment of a fresh departure in the direction of what was yet to come. The Shadows are part of the picture, emphasizing its three-dimensionality, but they are also sophisticated objects (made of wood, plaster, oil) that reflect colour on the surface; the Rubber Faces are self-portraits that take in and exude painting (Pirri is, and regards himself as being, a painter); the large compositions Light with Colour, Title with Painting, Water with Dust develop the theme of painting in different ways, and multiply effects without shattering the reading.10
Subsequent exhibitions in the 1990s, amongst which it is important to remember Dove sbatte la luce [Where the Light Strikes] at the Studio Casoli in Milan in 1993, Occhi per piangere [Eyes for Crying] at the La nuova Pesa in Roma in 1994, and Sonno d’Europa [Sleeping Europe] at Serre di Rapolano in 1996 and the space of Tor Bella Monaca in 1998, continued to explore his earlier themes (masks, modular pictorial elements, plays of light and colour) and structured his thought.
His thinking was moving more and more lucidly towards a desire to treat the whole space as a pictorial surface, to use materials and paints themselves as something that could reflect, refer and mirror painting. In other words, representation, meaning, image. But also the absence of every known image.
Designing in space
In 1997 Pirri began to work on the exhibition Volume (which gave its name to the homonymous Roman gallery), starting from the layout of the architectural space, which became the canvas-support on which to “paint” empty and full areas, lights and shadows, but which was also foundations on which to excavate and build sculptural-architectural parts.
It was a full-scale project where Pirri was the painter, sculptor, architect, and final exhibition installer and director.
Ranging over several spaces and in two parts temporally, the exhibition was connected to the city by a bridge (the one built by the artist). Impossible to explain in words but clear from the drawings and photos, it made a complex whole, with the entire space being called into play, from the walls to the floor, from the light to the atmosphere.
In La stanza di Penna [Penna’s Room] a work realized for the inaugural exhibition at the Spazio delle Papesse per l’arte contemporanea (1999) in Siena, Pirri focused on the floor, where he positioned one hundred “book covers” in animal parchment and cardboard, painted in oil colours inside, almost a city if seen from above. Dedicated to the writer and inspired by a still from the “human non-human” video by Mario Schifano, who interviewed the writer in his refuge-home, the work gave off colour, that is, light, into the ambience.
At the Villa Medici in 2000, Pirri designed and constructed “a path consisting of streets and squares that winds its way into a bamboo copse”; it is a “chromatic tale”, a Via d’Ombra [Shadow Trail] made of cement along which there opened four squares with coloured paving, and some vertically placed plastic squares. The green canes of bamboo were part of the project and of the relation between the work and the viewer, among these, the surrounding environment and the light.
With these works Pirri convinced himself and us of the importance of planning but also of perception, of patience and of the time required to think, do and observe.
This was the method and the conscious philosophy that would lead Pirri towards his Passi, the series of works made from shattered mirrors.
In Pirri’s art one can sense the existence of a form of self-discipline: “mediate the perceptibility of the world by stepping to one side as much as possible”, while still being and feeling responsible for the work. Perhaps it is for this reason that the artist has been invited to produce works for specific sites and with specific characteristics and civil requirements.
In 2007 Pirri was invited, as part of an art and medicine programme run by Marina Englen, and commissioned by the Adriano Olivetti Foundation and the Santo Spirito in Sassia Hospital in Rome, to design a work for the resuscitation room. The idea of Dr Pier Paolo Visentin, the head physician of the ward, was to offer coma patients the possibility to be surrounded by images that could give a sense of space, as do the frescoes of Giuseppe Cesari in the historic rooms of the hospital. Pirri set about trying to intuit what those rather special patients might need: “the main question for me was: What do people who return to life from a journey to the edge of death see? What could be offered to them (in exchange), visually, on the threshold of this return?” This was the thinking that finally led him to decide to do something that “would not give the (figurative) idea of a definitive mooring, but rather of a transiting before the shore, still unstable and uncertain”.12 The work consists of water-coloured paper and squares on Plexiglas, with feathers dipped in and held together by white paint applied on the rear with fluorescent colours. They are works that seem to refer to the principal elements with which patients are nourished: water and air. For the artist “it is an anomalous dimension, lying outside the territory of art, outside everything we know, which concerns the relationship between the work and the viewer”.13 It was also a unique opportunity to rethink the meaning of public clients and private viewing, and was a case of entering into a difficult relationship, but one which also in this case was resolved.
In 2010 the Architecture and Monuments Office of Calabria commissioned Pirri to do an installation for the entrance hall of the National Archaeology Museum of Reggio Calabria, which was undergoing restoration. Pirri studied Piacentini’s building, rereading it, and decided to bring forward the reception and ticket area and to make the hall a Piazza where visitors could orient themselves. He also decided not to superimpose anything over the architectural structure, but to dialogue with it through a work of “integration on the borders of mimesis”; to do this, he used simple forms and geometric underlinings with shades of light-colour. The aim was to create a new public space, where visitors can relate to each other and with the museum. But Piazza also sums up three important themes which, according to the artist, lie at the heart of the idea of the museum, and, I might add, at the heart of his work: the piazza, the theatre, the book: “Ultimately what is an archaeology museum if not a place housing parts of a whole that no longer exists, gathered with care, cleaned and ordered so as to be able to perceive the unity of the time hidden behind the disorder of history?”
In these two works there is a full correspondence between the concept and its realization. Pirri does not visualize the concept, he “materializes” it. He relates to it, performing an act of responsibility and taking on a commitment. While believing that he could “influence the space”, he thought he could think of “doing civil acts”. He created by engaging with the space through a “narrative” tie. And so, from the path of the Charterhouse of San Lorenzo a Padula (2003) to the floor of the entrance hall of the National Gallery of Modern Art (2011), Pirri observes and studies the sites, who has lived and now lives in or around them; then he starts imagining, becomes impassioned, design, realizes and offers his work for public use and for relating.
There is no evident signature. There is an awareness of being.
A few years ago Bartolomeo Pietromarchi was working on a project regarding the self-portrait of contemporary artists, and he asked Pirri for one. The artist chose as his self-portrait the bare feet on the shattered mirror surface, the photo leading in to this text.
The image is interesting, perhaps beautiful, but above all it is revelatory of the attitude with which Pirri has always approached his practice. Being able to stand on your own two feet means not being afraid of solitude or isolation; showing your bare feet means not being afraid of being yourself in a world (that of art) which mirrors, often distorting it, the real one (life).