Alfredo Pirri: New Dialogue within Solid Walls

As I attempted to imagine Alfredo Pirri’s new works in the map of the spaces that would have hosted them, as Alfredo showed me them on the walls, on the tables of his studio, as he shuffled through the watercolors as if they were cards, I remembered something he had said to me one day, earlier on – something which gave me a key to understanding his work. ‘I think what we need to do today is affirm a specificity, affirm it with strength, and avoid falling into the trap of mimicking tradition: we need to continue a tradition. Yes, this is what the thing is: we need to feel like we’re an active part of tradition. We need to feel like we’re a living manifestation of something which comes from a remote past and which is destined to a boundless future’.

Those words(1), which Pirri pronounced as he discussed the problems of light with a theatre-maker friend, demonstrated not only his will to embrace a continuity with a certain history, with a certain culture, but also and especially they spoke of a will to single out the specificity of reasons which had animated his work up to that point. Now, at Pirri’s exhibition at the Nuova Pesa in Rome, the works, both taken as single elements and the work as a whole, attest to these terms: understanding what the specificities of the work are, and sustaining those specificities in order to justify the invocations of a relationship. Pirri doesn’t at all feel his work as suspended in quicksand, he doesn’t feel as if his work is undone from artistic precedents; it’s the opposite: there is a philological sentiment in his work which makes him understand his own endeavors as placed in an extremely accurate frame of elaboration. There is a careful phase in which the work is designed, both with regard to itself and to Pirri’s own canon, and to that great patrimony of artistic inheritance which Pirri wants to be in dialogue with, remain in contact with, in his endeavours.

The happy ring of the formula ‘Friends and Relatives’ with which he has chosen to name this exhibition is much more eloquent than it may initially seem; much more eloquent than those phrases that sound like titles of Italian comedies. Pirri restricts the terms of his reflective and creative dialectic to an extremely intimate sphere, and in doing so he advances the need for an operational concentration rooted in certain ‘values’, such as a proverbial faithfulness to friends and relatives. Behind this distinctive convocation, indeed ‘friends and relatives’, we find aligned, comprehended, all of the precedent work that Pirri has made in dialogue with fellow artists and thinkers, the desire to activate a relationship with something stable and secure, a relationship, in one word, with tradition.

It seems, then, that in these years Pirri is looking for concentration; hence he is preparing a field more suited to theoretical and ethical reflections, a place which can produce gestures which are more and more acute in their act of speaking back to tradition. This is particularly visible in the projectual phase of his work: in his designs and his preparatory sketches, in his attention to timescales, in the passage between one moment in the elaboration of the work and another, in the consideration of the details and then of the work as a whole, in his knowledge of materials and of their behaviour, in a variety of aspects that are indeed technical but which also reflect a knowingness, a depth of one’s creative conception. The masters, from any time, always surprise us because of their methodical complexity: each level of the work appears extremely elaborate and displays the enormous quantity of rules that have determined its planning and its execution. Pirri has often said how he wants to ‘participate in an arrival point to which other have already arrived’ in order to start again, moved by an even more obstinate, ‘bureaucratic’ discipline, which in the artist’s vocabulary stands for ‘normative’. And this appears to me as an extremely valid reason, not only in opposition to the many, over-promoted simulacra of our time, but also in order to objectively consider that works of art contain what artists deposit within them: the richness of motivations, the intensity of desire, the strength of ambition, the authenticity of feeling, the quantity of abandon or of risk, the violence of poetics, the grace of intuitions and of resolutions.
If we are looking for a specificity of the kind spoken of above in relation to tradition, well then here, in this recent exhibition, we can locate that specificity in two instances: firstly, in the circumstantial aspect of this exhibition, which appears to respond to an idea of commission (his own or somebody else’s doesn’t really matter) in its organic work of decoration, which considers each work in itself but also all of the work as whole which traverses various spaces and environments; secondly, in the fact that this decorative impulse is punctures, all along, by the insertion of problematic components, which oscillate between perceptual and optical or chromatic attributes and symbolic and esoteric aspects, inventing spatial solutions which are invested with notions from the past as well as from the present day.

The metallic work we encounter before we have even entered the space sheds its light in various ways: it has a warm verticality given by its copper structure, it has the flickering light of the candle, a vestibular annunciation, and it has these shelved cavities with their subtle half-light, a micro-construction of the vast, ritually imaginable figure of ‘the Theatre’. This sculptural sign which appears before anything else warns us, and reminds us, that all exhibitions are a work of mise en scène of the image. And everything which can be perceived in this initial environment, as well as everywhere else in the exhibition – I want to say this now – is the sense of an ideal equilibrium induced, profused by Pirri, between something which is being formed and something which is disappearing. Just beyond the Theatre, the set of two-hundred watercolors placed in pairs on a wall as if to form a hundred tiles is already eloquent of the image-making mobility. I have spoken of Pirri’s care in the making of the work, but I want to return to it here to note, for example, the accuracy displayed in these pieces of paper, worked on both sides: they are initially dampened with water, then treated with fluorescent colors on the back, and then pyrographically perforated in two spots and watercoloured again from the holes to the bottom of the page, as if the perforations were two crying eyes; then, they are immersed in a varnish which makes them ‘invulnerable’.
Every pair of small watercolours, fixed to the wall with nails also designed by Pirri, affords the viewer the awareness of a cavity found in searching out the space behind the ‘lacrimal’ piercings. As such, we find ourselves visiting a relative depth; apart from the reverberation of the colour, if you move, you notice a change in spectrum like the effect of light on the eye’s iris. Aren’t these papers, with their limbo of figurativity given by this ‘leak’ of colour from the eyes that looks like tears, the spatial metamorphosis of the 1992 series Facce di Gomma? Don’t the two works share this dramatic idea of the ‘leak’ (be it blood or tears) as well as an idea of ‘clothing-blinding’? Be it in inherited from Icarus or from Oedipus, what appears in these works from the mythical depths of the tradition of lights is an fundamental archetype – which pushes Pirri beyond the figurative, credible aspect of the Facce series and leads him to a search for a more rarefied incarnation of our relationship with light-vision. In a flash which traverses time, poets forever carry within themselves the stigmata of caecitas, the scars of their attempt to look the blinding light in the eyes and, at the same time, the darkness of interiority, the fact of seeing and singing fate and at the same time consigning to memory what would have been left to oblivion.

Francesco Lo Savio was in love with light; from his first to his last work of art, there is always a desperate chase towards its impalpable essence. This explains his interest for Malevic’s black square, but also for Le Corbusier’s housing units. Even Lo Savio – who elaborated on light in all of his works, and especially in his Filtri (1959) – had had to move towards a degree of abstraction which grew at each turn. His ‘oiled’, transparent ‘papers’ which, laid one on top of the other, were supposed to register a ‘variation of luminous intensity’ are in themselves tiny ‘traps’, microspaces designed to imprison an infinitesimally small, ideal unit from the dynamic principles of light… These waxed tablets of Pirri’s contain both the allusions to tears and a luminous idea of space that has to do with the ancestral challenge to see the light; after all, these ‘eyes’, these piercings are pyrographed, and as such their contours are ‘burnt’: “we have to think that what we see, or rather that seeing in itself, is the gift of a kind of burning” (2). This tension, this desire to advance into the darkness and to obtain and abandon form, gives these ‘tablets’ their phenomenological contours, where the space between the watercolors moves us to make movements, both physical and optical.
Opening up on the right of this hallway is a big rectangular room, partially taken over by another wall erected by Pirri, painted in cadmium red and installed in such a way that it cuts the whole space diagonally while still allowing us to guess and imagine the space behind and beyond it. As soon as we cross this threshold we find ourselves split between, on the right, a lozenge of small paintings with fluorescent backgrounds on a black wall, and on the left, a red wall with a humanised Squadra Plastica and – lit by a lamp – an assemblage evoking a monastic figure. Whereas the red of the Squadra materially thickens in the areas underneath the ‘eye-piercings’ as if it had wept too much, as if something bubbling out of the pictorial material contributed to its form, the other reds – the reds of the aforementioned monastic figure, Occhi per Piangere, and the red of the support the work stands on including the background red of the wall – are very different from one another and hence give rise to an increased tangibility.
By bending and folding in the two top corners of the latex panel, Pirri manages to construct a sort of hood to the mask, locked in a chromatic silence which the painted wall itself reabsorbs. In the space behind the wall, this room contains another piece: a panel of aluminum is openworked in the shape of a rosette, the back of which is painted in a reverberant blue, the front in black. Leaving this room and passing again through the hallway, we have access to the other gallery spaces, to the other articulations of this ‘emblematic itinerary’. One of the other spaces contains two large drawings with reverberant colour on the back, installed between glass panels at a distance from the walls; the large pages show the traces of intersections between large circles and round and elliptic holes in the paper, which in nevertheless redistributed by way of drawings executed by Enzo Cucchi. This dialectical weave also reformulates a collaborative élan, which Pirri performs with the clear intention of wanting to demarcate new relational territories.
Before moving onto the small but precious ‘wardrobe’ space, I want to concentrate on the ‘yellow room’ where, facing another monastic figure (an ocre panel, yellow mask, black mantle), we find a rich series of drawings in oil-based ink, set into a corner of the room. Each piece in this new cycle of works is made up of two sheets upon which Pirri has spread a neutral watercoloured gray without blue; each sheet, unpierced this time, has two gold points covered with small circles of adhesive paper upon which the artist has ‘leaked’ oil-based ink without ammonia. After this treatment, each and every sheet has been juxtaposed to another, obtaining a duplicity of elements which gives the sense of an undoing, of an ungluing between parts. The juxtapositions between sheets is fortuitous, and this contradicts an effect of specularity and symmetry we may be led to imagine in the work. I hadn’t seen a declination of the ambiguity between abstraction and figuration as latent and integral as this since having seen a magical marine landscape of Ciurljonis’! La graininess of the ink on the watercoloured sheets, similar to coffee dregs, powerfully evokes the fundamentally liquid dimension that all of those works also evoke. The work Pirri choses to conclude this episode with is an example of integration between the work and its spatial étant donné and, at the same time, it offers a fundamental reflection regarding the specificity of sculptural-pictorial decoration in relation to a European habitat, that is the habitat of the ‘Italian renaissance’ apartment which the whole of this Roman episode seems to seek to inhabit.
Pirri builds a small septum at the threshold of a small environment which appears to be the ‘wardrobe’ of the apartment; in doing so, he occludes most of the space, and we are forced to our tip-toes to look inside. Choosing to leave untouched three 18th century wardrobes (fitted with mirrors, reflecting any passerby), Pirri works instead on the two sides of the new wall. Looking in towards the environment, we find a third, mute, cryptic monastic figure. The dominating colours this time are hues of blue and indigo; whereas the front of the panel uses the colour black, which covers one of the three pierced rosettes on the side facing the spectator. This diaphram gives a sense of secrecy to this sort of chest of reflections, and the mind travels easily towards the spaces of the ancient venetian home, or to renaissance studies like the Duke of Montefeltro’s at the Urbino Duke Palace, or Francis I’s in Florence.

But rather than seeming to want to emulate those gems, Pirri’s work – whose nature is everything but nostalgic – seems to introduce a parallel between the conception of the work of art, which is his playing sphere, and the ability to tune into certain frequencies of visual patrimony which are the sphere of the observer, and as such performs a constant meeting point on areas of common visual language. And it here, I believe, that that feeling Pirri expresses makes its intervention; the work is ‘the result at the same time of a sacrifice and of a risk’. Pirri sustains that as such, once the work takes upon itself the vow to ‘pursue’ the declinations of the great tradition, it can vindicate ‘a possibility of existence in this world’ which, I add, a foundation and even an initiation. This feeling of belonging gives this latest episode of Pirri’s its ethical qualities, its vital qualities, such as those of the small drawings scattered across the show, which lend art a necessity of compelling freshness.

Bruno Corà
Rome, October 19th 1994

(1) – Alfredo Pirri, “Dialogo per la luce” with Giorgio Corsetti, in A. Pirri, 4 Discorsi 5 Dialoghi. Florence: Hopefulmonster, 1993. p. 101
(2) – Ibid. p. 87