The 1980s Generation A rebellious gazelle

ROBERTO GRAMICCIA

I was enjoying the view of the sea, as always buffeted by the wind of S. Felice Circeo, when my mobile rang. I was entrapped in that stupor that overtakes me every time I am bathed in that strong light and heat of the summer sun, with the pungent sea air, and when laziness, finally, overcomes my usual anxiety to do something. Anxiety is my friend when it is not paralyzing and parasitic. However, I also like to lose myself in the arms of ‘not doing anything’ and in the warm breath of a somnolence that brings me back to life. That moment of drowsiness was shattered like a crystal.
On my mobile, was a technician from the Municipality of Zagarolo from the Palazzo Rospigliosi where, confusedly and in an excited voice, he informed me of the difficulties of installing some of the sculptures of Lucilla Catania. In particular, one of them – Sedili – in red laguna marble, that, according to some unidentified alarmist, risked endangering the flooring of one of the frescoed rooms of the magnificent Palace.
I mumbled something that could have been interpreted as sensitive and reassuring and the next day I went to Zagarolo. In reality, my job was not at all an organizational one, nor even one of a technical support. However, with Simonetta Lux, I was the curator (and also the instigator) of the exhibition that was being mounted and therefore, everything landed in my lap. Sedili was moved and at the end, except for my holidays, everything worked out fine.
The exhibition was called Misura Dismisura (Proportion/Out of proportion). It involved the works of two artists, Lucilla Catania and Giacinto Cerone (Lucilla was obviously the misura and Giacinto the dismisura, but the division of roles was only indicative and quite interchangeable). It was quite unique for its kind because of the internal debate surrounding the original idea, the venue (the prestigious
Palazzo Rinascimentale dei Colonna) and the content – a dual series of works created by two people, I thought, and think to be, two of the best sculptors ( it was 1998) of the second half of the last century.
For this event, there was Lucilla, who, artistically, was going through a period of grace, giving the best of herself, and her co-artist Giacinto, that “dirty goblin of plaster”, as I will later call him – an event that would be of benefit to both. The exhibition exploded like a bomb. There had never been anything of its kind seen on the Roman scene. As well, sculpture in the capital city, despite the classical statues of the Renaissance, Baroque and post – Arturo Martini, Mazzacurati, Raphael Mafai, Manzù and Consagra (we can add Ettore Colla), had always been considered as an ancillary discipline. Rome has traditionally always been more a city of painters than sculptors (look at the history of the Roman Schools).
So, I think that it’s actually from this point we can begin to say three or four things about Lucilla’s work that may some shed light on her basic techniques. But first, I must go back to the memory of when I first met her.
It was in Vienna, a Vienna covered in snow, in 1991, during the exhibition Roma interna, organized by Lorand Hegyi where she was exhibiting with other artists of the Nuova Scuola Romana, which I will tell the story of later. For this show, Lucilla proposed standing sculptures that left me dumbfounded. I still remember the titles – Bastone, Immateriale, Chiodo, Desertica and Virgola. I remained bewitched and from then I have never lost sight of Lucilla and her work. I will not go into the more personal aspects of our friendship, wishing to be clear in expressing, under the circumstances, what truly counts.
The border between an artist’s life and work is always very subtle and difficult – it involves keeping the two environments quite separate. It is something that within certain limits is useful in maintaining one’s rigor without, however, losing one’s warmth.
However, getting back to Lucilla’s qualities, I think of them as the feet of a huge imaginary table on which hundreds of her works are displayed. These, for some decades, have issued from her head and from her hands (it is useful to stress this alliance between her head and hands because, in her case, they are inseparable).
The first quality is courage. A courage that is also physical, obviously, if you think that a gracious and slight figure, like hers, could not possibility have the muscular strength required to work a material such as marble, to be an expert in volume and a colonizer of space.
However, this courage is not only physical. Above all, it is intellectual, for the choice, of course, of sculpture as an art form, that already in itself , is not an easy one. But not only. For an artist, in fact, who was still young when she set out into the unchartered waters of the eighties, in a time when post-modernism triumphed, and others should have been the references and masters that she chose instead of Brancusi, Mondrian, Malevic, Fontana, the best of minimalism.
What followed, declared by Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition (1979), which ten years later would be witnessed in its extreme radical form (in The End of the History by Fukuyama) in the strategic victory, on an international level, of Reaganism and Thatcherism and , on a national level, of Craxism, with all its accompanying so-called modernization, but also the corruption and anti-worker policies, wiped out every movement of modernity.
It’s not by accident, that two of the children of Craxism, Portoghesi in architecture and Achille Bonito Oliva in art, had brilliantly established their theories and their practices. It’s not by accident, that the Trans-avanguardia movement reached the peak of its splendor at that time.
Nomadism and cultural cross-breeding, obliqueness of view, return to the easel (learned painting, and post-Expressionist figuration), genius loci were some of the ideas guided by a new and quite anti-modern artistic weltanshauung.
The multitude (the shattering) of viewpoints, everything considered to be inter-changeable and equally worthy of consideration, initiated a weakness in planned and feigned democratic judgment, triumphing in exploiting the new and enormous possibilities provided by the mass media and the technological agora ,experienced, indiscriminatingly, as a new exciting frontier.
The ideas of the Frankfurt School, Debord’s insights in The Society of the Spectacle and Pasolini’s premonitions in Acculturazione-Acculturazione, which
foresaw the damages of mass homologation and passivization driven by a consumerist society and by the media, all ended up being ignored. The world at that time was considered the best of all possible worlds. Capitalism and the prospect of globalization, not only the best, but the only opportunity for the planet’s inhabitants, whether they be rich or poor.
In such a period, Lucilla Catania had the courage and the daring to theorize her
“Nuova classicità” (1991-92) re-affirming the irremediableness of re-legitimizing a «new terrain (…) where, she proposes, an eventual return to creating an artistic language involving issues relating to the values of form, meaning and space, seen as actual elements of artistic work, reacquiring their key position”.
But this is not the end of the story! In Catania’s vision and work, the fundamentals of art are vigorously defended and reconfirmed. There is a rejection of the shallowness of post-modernism, to reassert the “meaning” that a unchallenged technocratic and commercial perspective had dispersed. An aesthetic, but also naturally political meaning. A perspective that is not transcendental and eschatological, but immanent and materialistic, cannot be anything but political ( and ethical).
The post-Modernists, more or less consciously, provided the ideological alibi for all those forces that intended (after the thwarted “communist danger”) to eliminate any opportunity for change, I would say any doubt about the Darwinian justness of inequality (F. Jameson). Art, when it is weak and remissive, resigns itself to obeying and, from here, stems the orgy of Epigonism – minimalist conceptualists, post-expressionists, technologists, peripatetic..
And so, this Roman sculptor turned her back on all of this. As well, when necessary, she rejects and fights against it. It is a commitment that sets her apart from most of her everyday companions, giving herself wholly to causes of general interest.
Reconciling individualism with the ability to recognize the impact on the general community of the great issues (material and immaterial exploitation, democracy, patriarchy, the environment and animal protection) corresponds to the natural disposition of this energetic and slight creature that, when necessary, knows how to be a gazelle ready to attack. The elegant and fast gazelles are usually the hunted fleeing from ferocious beasts. But Lucilla has never fled.
Her line of investigation is still stubbornly (courageously) both classical and modern, to the extent she perceives the good, as well as the bad in a in Duchampian line of thinking that ends up providing the pseudo-ideological basis for the more experimental Truffaldine works. Catania is for the simplification of the abstract form, not its dissolution. Idea, form, space and material are, for her, inseparable elements and there is no process of de-materializing art that remains if it raises these principles for discussion. A gazelle, but a “rebellious-gazelle”, as you can see.
After courage, comes strength, determination and solidity.
The works of this author, always rigorously non-iconic, at times tower up, following vertical lines. We see it in her Colonne e Semicolonne, Tronchi, Gambi and Spaghetti, but more often, much more often, horizontal lines develop, kissing the earth. We see it in Pugnali, Orizzonti, Virgole, Fazzoletti, Bastoni, Aghi, Punti, Foglie, Spicchi, Monti and Valli.
It is a dominant aspect of Lucilla Catania’s plastic study, that of “being on the earth” in a unitary or fragmented form (Scatole e scarpe, Ondine). And it is, I can say, having known her for many years, a way of satisfying one of her needs. The need for materialism that, more than Marx, makes you think of the communal culture of Romanesque. As well, an artist needs stability, determination and strength, in two words – principles and a basis (a broad basis) – if her perspective, more than imitation and emulation, is transformation.
She has embraced an anti-Gothic and non-graceful vision, which from her courage and determination draws a force creating harmony and love for the essential and unadorned.
After determination, we have lightness. This is the miracle of the best sculptures of this artist, where despite their horizontality and the weight of the materials, they lift up from the ground, they breathe, seem to evaporate or decide to march together in clusters of forms and volumes, finished but open to travel and challenges.
Lucilla’s lightness is love for the love of space and the material, between space and form. The charged energy of the profiles of her sculptures contradicts the inert immobility of the masses. A political allegory, evidently, that censures the passivity of resignation.
Master of terracotta clay (the material she used first) and marble, cement and travertine, Creator of Cieli in marmo, of Dune, of Fabbriche in terracotta pierced by marble cones, this artist knows no rest. Her voice rings a trombone and her days last longer than those of most humans. Lucilla is a woman, a human. But she is also an artist and ,therefore, she knows time and space and uses this dimension with more respect than what is usual. It’s not that artists are like wizards, the fact is that they are extraneous to the rules of physics and “a priori” Kant categories.
This is an advantage but also a limitation. It can happen that a painter or sculptor can produce work more beautiful than older pieces, with the energy of a young person (look at Titian). But it can also be that with their wandering “off the tracks” they can end up in hell. There is a general rule, from which Catania never diverges – artists, if they are truly such, are “fragile heroes”. They change their weakness into strength, sometimes, a superhuman one. In fact, if they are not fragile then they are not artists, cars without fuel, stationary engines, but not in the sense of God, but actually immobile. But, calm, tranquil…..this does not happen often. On the contrary, it rarely happens. Because the artists of today are often not true artists. They are more functionaries of art. Less fragile but, therefore, lesser heroes.
In appearance, our gazelle is not fragile, nor, I confess the little I know of her secrets, weak. What is certain, is that she is an artist by breed. And, therefore, she must have fears. The real trick is to deal with these fears as compressed springs. Hide them, so as to exploit their kinetic energy.
The fourth quality of Lucilla Catania is dissatisfaction. Something that appears to be a defect, but was, instead, held in the utmost esteem by Ulysses (forerunner of Modernism) where, even after his return to Ithaca, only two decades later, he decided to depart again by sea, fed up with domestic laziness, setting his sails towards the pillars of Hercules.
This quality does not recognize the sirens of the market, nor those of the media sub-culture, the temporary couplings of fashion and affectation of worldliness.
It has nothing to do with fire and, in fact, it often burns the more disturbed animals which frequent it. This dissatisfaction must be loved because without it, really, history risks remaining at the starting line.
In conclusion, despite Lucilla Catania’s work being obstinately only a representation of herself, it is more real and well-placed than ever in its time. It occupies a lateral and subversive space. And this is exactly why it has the privilege and the merit to prove to be lasting in time. Before going on the counter-attack.
However, as before, now, the sun begins to warm up again and the sea air is pungent. It’s time to return to idleness, something I don’t do enough of. At the end, the revolution can wait another few weeks. But not much longer.

Roberto Gramiccia