The Temperature of Sculpture on Lucilla Catania

PAOLO AITA

In 1989, in one of the first essays about Lucilla Catania, Lea Vergine wrote: «Re-proposing a humanistic myth withered to her abstract origins», «Catania, on the one hand, works with material with a calm patience, and, on the other, with an almost peasant vigor”, «Neo-classical, it has also been said. Yes, with the idea of wishing to regain the original simplicity of nature». Even today, we could quote and agree with these statements. I don’t think that there are many artists who have identified such a stylistic path and line of research and followed them with such far-sighted precision, and as much feverish awareness, with continuity and pleasing consistency. In this essay the composite themes of Lucilla Catania’s work are very clearly identified – essentiality, abstraction, rhythmic mellowness, the importance of surfaces and natural simplicity. They are and also were, at the time of Lea Vergine’s writings, not easily accepted, and consequently, very risky. These themes can overcome this only if they take on a new sense of harmony, arriving at, through study, a condition of universality, as our author and the great classicists of history have happily discovered.
On the other hand, it seems that these terms, and the questions they pose, are particularly suitable to describing the work of Lucilla Catania, who overwhelms us with a quite unusual aesthetic satisfaction, as she is actually able to ennoble the more common aspects of our daily experiences. In fact, for the aesthetic plenum that her sculpture is able to create, we feel that the aesthetic categories adopted suffice in describing her creativity. On the contrary, I would like to, reading between the lines, point out the key points of her research that, if not taken in the right way, risk rendering her vision banal, placing it in a general whole of “plastic values”, where pauperism becomes minimalism, essentiality becomes linearity, and so on.
The fundamental point of Lucilla Catania’s research concerns the investigation into an aesthetic element that can be easily found in all Western sculpture belonging to classicism. When we look for the exact utterance of presence, when visuality is synchronous with tactility, when the pre-selected arrangement has a fruitful and uninterrupted dialogue with the installed sculpture, then we are looking at a superior attitude to individual aesthetic taste, getting nearer to our search for inner harmony – a universal and, therefore, even ethical rule. Along these lines, we also find Fidia, Cellini, and Moore and, of course, our artist. We cannot talk of a reciprocal influence where these artists are concerned, but a common attitude, that sets itself against subjectivism as a type of arbitrary barbarity.
Lucilla Catania sees this search as a historical transposition, so inevitable, that her sculptures and her compositions have the same formations as nature. Many have tried to formalize the rules of nature (look at the Fibonacci series used by Merz, the Modulor of Le Corbusier, and the contemporary research of translating natural harmony into numbers). Instead, Lucilla Catania gives
me the impression that these formal pre-existing rules have actually found her and all of us,
that her sculptures have always been and will always be the same. It is as if they had not been made by a human, with all their problems and neuroses, but been created by a timeless smoothness, by a natural, but ethereal erosion (thus, even more human).
In defining Lucilla Catania’s style, I will refer to cultural positions that, even though apparently distant, cut across her work. On the one hand, I cannot but be struck by the date of her birth, considering that authors of her generation are those who actually composed the literary anthology La parola innamorata. Looking at this from the outside, one understands that these writers, not having shared in the myths of 1968, and in the felix faction, mechanized and troubled by contemporaneousness, have turned to the universal, looking to Orazio or Pascoli, who were the champions of European universalistic taste. Contro il Romanticismo by Giancarlo Pontiggia is remarkably explicit on these themes.
Lucilla Catania looks at timeless classicism, outside the rules that have traditionally characterized the norm, and therefore, seems to select the best, not only from antiquity, but also from international sculpture of the 1900s. Thus, for me, the references that appear to be more fitting, are those of Brancusi and Arp. On the other hand, the influence from the Far East for essentiality, living closer to nature, and where some exponents of oriental thinking are actually not even able to understand a religion outside the rules of nature, is not far from how Lucilla Catania works. The sculptor seems to want to escape, totally, from any personalized trait, and, in fact, “the Far Eastern cultures are able to appreciate more than anything else the spontaneity and naturalness, that is, that unequivocal tone of sincerity that marks those actions that are not planned and prepared” (A. Watts The Way of Zen, p. 147). Therefore, we have the study of a natural composition, that must reflect a universal balance, where the piece of work and nature have equal roles. The author must place themselves in the flow between the two roles until creation emerges, which is, in fact, how nature creates her beauty, through erosion, splitting and stratification. The appropriateness ( of form, expression) searched for by classicism is completely at one with naturalness, actually presenting nature with an example of appropriate behavior, honed over thousands of years. By including any personal ambition would be none other than a disturbance in the smooth working of an evolution that works towards the better. From all of this, emotions are not declared at all, but experienced through a heightening of sensitivity that, like a seismograph, registers the different repercussions that any action has on the rest of the universe. The whispering of the surfaces is fully heard, there is a compassion for the gravitas of these solids, a joy in these volumes declaring themselves, that stirs you every time you see these works. Every surface communicates with the form that brings it forth, and every form has a volume, a mass that clearly imposes itself in space, but, at the same time, does not disturb the space’s natural balance. We must see an edge that rises up, a dissymmetry that dramatizes a form that could be from a nautilus or a vertebra. This occurs because the key point of classicism is the merging of reason and sentiment. In these works, we will never find a collection of personal anecdotes, as we will never find traces of force. Instead, we must find again, the integrity of being through style. Lucilla Catania was singularly explicit on this point, also declaring that art must “be beyond the parts”, re-conquering the sphere of universality, reconsidering “Nature/Humankind as the primary source and creator of life” (Lucilla Catania. Opere 1986/2002. Mn, 2003, pg. 33 and 36).
Her compositions draw their essence from “archetypical forms and old dormant materials” (ivi, p. 34). They look at the “common”, the daily, ennobled in art, wishing to communicate with as many spectators as possible, proposing the more than usual, also as a resolution of a balance, as a science. Thus, Lucilla Catania uses very marked, natural and typographic forms, made even more explicit through a precise (and not lacking in irony) choice of their titles. Here, we also find a carry over from the ‘60s, where the formativity of nature was studied thoroughly (the vertebrae of De Dominicis, the spiders of Pascali), and where punctuation marks were also made use of (a favourite of Boetti, in the structuralist study on language imported for its visuality by Kounellis and Balestrini).
As you draw closer to these works, you notice that there is no compositional dominance of the author. The works appear to be self-made through a completely exposed accumulating action, which carries through to her other works. In fact, they are segmented, as if the author was declaring their genesis and their creation. An innate sense of beauty is evoked, that appears to be simply conjured up, and not composed (that is put together). Although at times large, these works are not at all monumental. They seem tired, weary sculptures (Naturale in 1997), that are feeling the burden of trying to raise themselves off the ground. Or they seem to have collapsed, not because of a catastrophe, or man’s interference, but due to tiredness, so as not to have to resist the unnatural any longer. “To be (sitting) inside the image, as a sentiment, is enough for me. If after the trial of tiredness you could decide on something more, it would be above all, sensation”, and this sensation is actually the being that is celebrated here by the sculpture. In the words of Peter Handke, being tired means giving yourself a depth of circumspection, in fact, “tiredness is heavy – the problem of tiredness in all its different states, will remain burdensome”(On Tiredness, 1991, p. 17 and 18). We cannot distinguish the sculpture from the gravitas, from a condition of being subject matter among subjects, from what we can redeem only through beauty. Thus, in these works, there are no tectonics, there is a simplicity and maximized simplification, as if they were enormous household utensils to be used in a tea ceremony. From the point of view of the formative kunstwollen, we are at definitely low levels, in fact, these works often choose the flooring or walls in order to exist and take up space, almost as if they wanted to apologize for their existence. They seem to be glued together, as if they had been transported together by a river in full flow. Except for a brief period, which I will talk about later, their composition is never complex, relying on a simple overlapping and replicating of subtly varied modules. In effect, it is creating nature as a piece of art, that is always moving from the species to the individual, from the universal to the specific. Being aware of these laws of natural formativity (I’m thinking of Paul Klee and Ansel Adams) Lucilla Catania is able to experiment with a natural rule, unrestricted by time and dialectics, where the quotes made at the beginning of this essay, have a freshness and relevance to the present, as if they had not been written more than 20 years ago. One must train oneself to carefully perceive the minimal variations in the nature of the subject, that characterizes Lucilla Catania’s research, and makes it singular and precious , wholly belonging to the mysterious workings of nature.
In order to analyze Lucilla Catania’s compositional path, we must begin with her very first attempts, that really show an artistic personality quite different to that in her later works, and that were abandoned at an early stage. She also used different materials – tow was no longer used. The sculptures seem to come out of the wall, as an outgrowth or wound, showing us the “architectural unconscious” of the walls. The aesthetic class of these works falls perfectly into line with the aegis of the unformed, presented by Bois and Krauss.
Lucilla Catania is especially fond of drawings from this period, as only in these can we foresee the future developments in art. Linear to the maxim, reminding us of the very early works of the avant-garde Parisian period, with its typical mix of the universal and momentary, represented by the endless ink and pen portraits of Picasso, Gris, Severini, etc. In 1884, with Occhio everything changes. This is an extremely linear sculpture, that openly displays the pieces that make up its whole, with a specific height, on a perfectly human scale. It becomes typical of the sculptor’s work – sizes that are face to face with the observer. As we can see from all her drawings during her working life – some uncovering the natural figure, some lyrically modified – the oval of the eye is vertical and gives life in absentia to a column, displaying quite openly the desire to belong to nature, being a work of art. Features from both the plant and animal worlds are liberally used in defining a beauty desperately wishing to evoke the organic.
Following, there develops a true virtuosity of the third dimension, and with Orma (1995-1996), she begins studying the interior of the sculpture. These solids are pierced with an exact precision in relation to their thickness, something that was previously only assigned to directly perceiving the external surfaces. The overall size is very clearly subtended by the volumes. In contrast, in the early sculptures there was a spatiality that gave meaning to their appearing to belong to the context in which they were placed. Their relationship with space resulted in the objects fitting perfectly into the natural context, taking their role of understatement from nature.
Here, instead, there appears to be a wearing away, a use of the internal volume of these solid pieces, with their overall perception not being immediately obvious. The relationship between the three dimensions becomes dialectic and dramatic, as if the presence of the solid itself, though more apparent, becomes uncertain, due to its being hollowed out, consumed, charged with a very negative force. As well, the materials chosen don’t impart a feeling of serenity, as seen in Altorilievo (1999) and Sedili (1997).
Her move towards complexity comes to a climax in 1999 with Carro, where the natural element comes to the fore. This is a composition created through an exact positioning in space, with a mass made from a perfect parallelepiped, taking up all the possible space. Geometric formalized cones are inserted into this mass, evidence of the desire for an artificial composition. It is her period of maximum distancing from natural phenomena, and with the radical honesty that characterizes Lucilla Catania, it is also the most complex, with the visuality of these sculptures altered by multiple articulations of levels, creating a polyphony of masses, all very far from her original monoliths. It is also seen in her works, Bocca and Fabbrica, although this period only lasts a few years, until 2001. In these works, the reference to the manifold is very evident, appearing as a metropolis. There is no longer the idea of only one thought at a time, of a single spatial confirmation, instead, the composition occurs on different levels, with the use of a multiplicity of materials. It’s like a certain cool and complicated jazz, like some of the music of Miles Davis or Weather Report, where the sounds of the different musicians come together in a great complexity, but where there is a complete lack in any individual use of improvisation. The subjectivist importance winds down in articulated compositions, where our difficult life of today is not entrusted to a crying out, but is expressed objectively by these solids that live side by side with an evident uneasiness.
However, with the new century Lucilla Catania’s work seems to return to her typical naturalistic and repetitive compositions, reminding us of the existence and needs of complex organisms. This can be seen in the work of the1999-2001 biennial and in the group of sculptures, Ondine and Ganci, virgole e doppie punte. Here there is a synthesis between naturalness and complexity.
Later, her terracotta clay work will also exhibit the formal features already seen in the harbinger of her research. Indeed, the spiral of a screw, or the silhouette of a stack of books, are none other than the stony chips and slivers of the first columns, softened by a much more explicit reference to corresponding subjects.
Lucilla Catania’s work seems to aim at merging the need for development with the repetitiveness of natural processes. This gives rise to a creativity that is cyclical, reflecting the very workings of nature. In times when humans find themselves in trouble, these works seem to be a cry against the oblivion of proprium. If we are still searching for beauty in this world, we cannot ignore Lucilla Catania’s sculptures. A quiet warning issues from them – to tend natural creativity, that nourishes us, makes us feel lighter, and that we would regret if it were lost.

Paolo Aita