Le décorative par refraction

Is it the recollection of the visit paid to the artist’s new studio in Rome a few months earlier?
At that particular time, the pieces that make up the Stanza di Penna [Penna’s Room] were no more than a sentence-less vocabulary, waiting for their syntax, which the artist was playing with in his still-empty studio. Is it a matter of being sparing with the hanging, adopting a subtle way of occupying the premises, and making use of the albeit complex space of the gallery? Or, alternatively, is it a consequence of the very nature of the rooms, and their precious and paradoxically discreet materialness? The exhibition forms a whole, even if it is made up of works which are formally quite different: the enclosed, alcove-like room has turned here into the Stanza di Penna, an installation consisting of about a hundred bent and folded shapes, just like the covers and pages of a book which outline a movement on the ground, shapes that broadcast a colourful aura; further on, pieces on the wall and even in the corners made by the walls, glass columns with aura-like colours; and set upon their shelves, above heads, the white spheres that seem to be in a state of levitation, one in the blue, the other in the red, in a blaze of colour. But they all conspire, and successfully, to pinpoint this specific place which I think I can recognise in Pirri’s work. It is a place I would call mental rather than spiritual, because it is not cluttered with too many of the usual symbolic and subliminal references—quite the opposite.
I shall really try to detect, in Pirri’s work, a singular quality in relation to a temptation shared by many an artist involved in the Italian art scene—including some of the greatest: it is the temptation to do with preciousness, instantly evident in the use of fine metals and the fragility of crinkled paper. It is nostalgia for that age-old dream of a materialness that is refined, lofty, rich and fragile, and creates a “different” embodiment. Pirri no longer imposes upon himself a ban on that same quality which Arte Povera artists have tried to resist; rather, he resorts to materials and treatments that offer easy access to prettiness and elegance. But he does so without kowtowing to the historicist restrictions and references to religiosity which turn all objects into ritual theological objects. There is no obligatory transcendence, no over-coded symbolism, and no conventional reference. Like members of his generation and, needless to say, younger members in particular, Pirri has access to a more offhand vocabulary, not to say one that is indifferent to inherited cultural codes, but he does not do without the wealth and resources of every kind of medium and method—quite the contrary: he adopts and attracts them, and gains mastery over them, because they are powerful. In his favour, he calls for the capacity for attraction and attentiveness which the nobility of the materials and the refinement of the work demands. He takes the risk, for example, of borrowing a vibration and a concentrated force from prettiness. But he manages to do so without becoming confined in any kind of liturgy, albeit pagan. The way he plays with the sacred is unambiguous: the only sacrament is the sacrament of the instant, of intelligent perception, and even, in all probability, cultured perception. In the expectation of an elegance which, like shadow to light, is the exact equivalent of its opposite, the excremental. With all due respect to some, because tacking values measured by the yardstick of a narrow and trivial humdrum morality on to art things merely leads, in Pirri’s case, to the futile supplication of an elegance that is free of naivety.
Through what he has to say —in this 1998 dialogue with Lucilla Meloni, for example—Pirri confirms that he is acquainted with the modernist experience right down to its recent figures, not only by way of Minimal Art, but also through the praxis of installations and other exhibition devices and arrangements which incorporate both context and architecture. Speculations to do with two and three dimensions, the space of illusion and the space of tactileness, horizontality, frontality, colour and depth, all come in for scrutiny. In addition, his praxis involving the stage(-like) space has helped him to wriggle out of overly confining discussions. It is thus quite clear that Pirri is familiar with his History and his stories, but he is not bothered by any of them. On the contrary, he feels something akin to emancipation and can all of a sudden permit himself a rediscovered freedom. The freedom, for example, of coloured vibration. He may make concessions to the interplay on opticality by using rich, dynamic, saturated colours, but he uses them in such a way that the eye only takes them in in a refracted way, by way of an interplay between the materials, which turns colour into a halo of light, which in turn makes it exist solely through its luminous echo. A painter’s dream realised by a sculptor: incorporating colour in light, as was achieved back in 1990 by the installation Gas, made up of white slats on porticos lit from within.
In Paris, the two spheres on their shelf wonderfully express this contradictory quality of being almost vulgar in both tone and presence, of being a bit silly, like teenage toys, while at the same time playfully enjoying a symbolic—but symbolism-less—power through difficulty of access, fascination with geometry, fragility, and almost Magritte-like uncanniness. Pirri’s visual smartness might well involve us in taking another look at a problematic notion, a notion that varies as soon as it switches languages—the notion of the decorative. In French, the decorative is tantamount to a genre, and in any event a style—a style that is discredited. Yet this is a good way of pinpointing a strength which Pirri knows how to use, at the point where perceptive effectiveness and referential tension with objects meet. It is also worth noting that he deliberately chooses nooks and crannies of the constructed space in which to incorporate his works. Like the decorative, Pirri is fond of nooks and corners and their overlooked complexity.
This is how Alfredo Pirri’s works, free and laden with assumed references, come across, evident and turned towards an inwardness that is open to the vibration of colour and the vibration of language. The figure of the book which fills the Stanza di Penna can henceforth be taken literally, for the works, like the book, are objects of reflection, objects that talk in the face-to-face set-up of recto-verso twosidedness, in the fold that slips meaning in between shadow and light. For “there is not on the one hand the clarity of reason and on the other the opaqueness of painting. Rather, and all at once, without the same sky, there is this phoney daylight where reason blinds and advances pointing its wand, and this chiaroscuro, this pocket of artificial light where the painter manufactures image and figure…

Christophe Domino
Paris 2002

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