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'Untitled', 2008, soft pastel on paper

What kind of political value can hermetism have today? The work of Pietro Roccasalva, an Italian artist born in Modica in 1970, who now lives and works in Milan, asks this question in his work, despite its apparent distance from contingent reality.

A vast arsenal of media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, and the tableau vivant, is adopted in Roccasalva’s complex installations, a series of mises en scène somehow connected to one another. While they appear to be ‘closed systems’, they nevertheless reveal a strict analogy with the structure of medieval allegories.

This kind of similarity is revealed on a deeper level than an iconographic one, although Roccasalva harbors a taste for the bizarre, mysterious and grotesque that recalls gothic imagery and crowded copulas of men, animals and mechanical extensions of the body. And it is precisely that deep level of relationship that connects his images with the texts and meanings that both inspire and predate them. It is a relationship of a substitutive and substantial nature; the images occupy a specific space and have a precise meaning within a broader system in which they exist as substantial substitutes. That is the system of allegory.

Pietro Roccasalva’s installations are often characterised by autonomous worlds filled with figures and presences that refer to traditions and specific iconographical, philosophical and literary mythologies, ranging from ancient rhetoric to cynical thought, from Christian mysticism to the moral doctrine underlying the development of the still life in Europe from the 17th century. They follow a trajectory that traces the history of western painting, from the Byzantine icon to Pierre Klossowski, identifying a mythical aura in the images. It is here that beliefs are deposited and revealed.

Study for 'II Traviatore', 2008, graphite and tempera on paper 
Study for 'II Traviatore', 2008, graphite and tempera on paper

It is not by chance that many of Roccasalva’s works are developed around original and generative myths centering on time, as in his frequent reference to the image of Zurvan, the primitive divinity that symbolises the origin of infinite time and space in the universe of Persian mythology. While in Greek mythology the god of time Cronos is driven by an insatiable cannibalistic appetite that makes him eat all his progeny; Zurvan is driven by a feeling of indifference for what is good and what is bad, placing him in the Nietzschean tradition of time as an eternal cycle.

In conceiving his work as an entire body, the parts of which are inextricably interconnected, Roccasalva adopts the image of time as cyclical and projects the spiral structure generated by this doctrine onto his working method, producing a group of works that occasionally appear like progressive germinations, like moments in a broader conceptual architecture.

In just a few years, Roccasalva has produced a series of exhibitions and installations which he defines as situazioni d’opera (work situations). In these, his very personal iconographic repertoire finds expression. That which is a sculpture within a specific configuration, becomes, in a following incarnation, a photographic image that will then serve as a model for a pastel or an oil painting, until the latter acts as a point of departure for the development of a tableau vivant . This system accords to the generative principal that reinforces the idea that iconographic invention is a ‘consequential’ process throughout which tradition is expressed by fractures and moments of continuity.

Roccasalva defines situazione d’opera as a group of ‘objects, furnishings, audiovisuals, actions, tabeaux vivants, etc that cohabit with other paintings and decline all the phases of painterly creation’. This is the reason why the artist, in order to exemplify his own working method, refers to the gothic image of the cathedral as a building site where generations succeed one another in the construction of an architecture that transcends and survives them. It absorbs the centuries like a mechanism.

'Z', 2008, tableau vivant, offset print on paper, fried rice ball, oil on canvas, neon, installation view, Park avenue Armory, New York, 2008 
'Z', 2008, tableau vivant, offset print on paper, fried rice ball, oil on canvas, neon, installation view, Park avenue Armory, New York, 2008

The ‘generative’ and transformational methodology at the foundation of Roccasalva’s work, recalls two movements related to the dynamics of ‘creation’, both within the history of art and mythology. While the architecture of gothic cathedrals is configured as a succession of formal aggregations layered one on top of the other over time, so it is that many primitive narratives and religious texts are the result of actions such as the germination or expulsion of a body by or from another. Eve, for example, was generated from one of Adam’s ribs, while Cronus’ tyranny begins with his castrating his father Uranus. Cannibalism and incest are also constants in Nordic and Greco-Roman cosmogony.

If we go back to our point of departure, hermetism, how can we possibly interpret this type of attitude as profoundly political, when it may easily be defined as ‘hermetic’ when placed in relation to a more general contemporary methodology for producing messages and meanings? Roccasalva’s art appears to be a complex ritual of evoking and reintroducing images and meanings that lie just beneath the surface of history, infesting it like formal metastases and conceptual fantasies.

In particular, he appears to operate a procedure of perversion over these images through the expedient of parody. The Christian iconography of maternity, for example, is implicated in a tableau vivant entitled ‘The Oval Portrait’, 2005. ‘A Ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October 1947’, is reproduced as an eponymous oil painting later that same year. Here, the motif of the divinity generated by immaculate conception which is made mundane and carnal in relation to birth, is inverted: the child, having assumed the appearance of Struwwelpeter (the character, who refuses to cut his nails and hair, created by German psychiatrist and author Heinrich Hoffmann in his eponymous book, 1945) becomes a significant vector of the principal of entropy. It no longer incarnates the future salvation of humanity; on the contrary, it prefigures its end and makes it visible.

Analogously, the photographic work ‘Study for Z’ and the tableau vivant ‘Z’, both 2007, which served as models for the soft pastel ‘Untitled’, 2008, sees the Trinitarian image of Zurvan and his twin sons Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu (both divinities and respectively benign and malign) trivialised in the impersonation by two true twins and their biological father, all dressed in football referee uniforms. The work copied is Andrej Rublëv’s famous ‘Holy Trinity’, 1410-1470. In Roccasalva’s version, the mythic image of the cosmological battle for dominion over creation has been cast as a parody represented by the referees, who are intended as symbols of an analogous form of dominion over time, lasting for the length of a match.

The idea at the foundation of Pietro Roccasalva’s work, that is, this history of shapes and representations coinciding with a historiography of the survival of mythologies and ideologies that these carry in a continuous alternation of incarnations that escape both rationality and secularisation, as well as the history of the modernist avant-garde, are doubly rooted.

So, on the one hand all his work is imbued with readings of philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. We may also add Carmelo Bene’s work on tradition and the translation of the text for theatre, thus greatly indebted to postmodern theories that view the character in a text as an arena for projection and interpretations that build it in the act itself of its reception.

'The Oval Portrait. A ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October 1947', 2005, tableau vivant, soft pastel on paper on panel, installation view Villa dell Rose, Bologna, 2005
'The Oval Portrait. A ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October 1947', 2005, tableau vivant, soft pastel on paper on panel, installation view Villa dell Rose, Bologna, 2005

On the other, Roccasalva makes use of a structure conceptually close to this philosophical tradition but distant in time. Thus, ancient rhetoric, intended as a method that is able to individuate both a principal of truth and its contrary, is consequently useful for invalidating a meaning through the same complex, extreme and formal elaboration.

And it is precisely this form of scepticism towards any concept that lies at the heart of this artistic process. It is a scepticism that, in order to express itself, does not strike at the object of its examination, or the religious, philosophical, scientific or political systems that pretend to produce systems of truth, but at their own reproductive system, the iconic and visual representation. While this artist’s work adopts ideological discourse as its polemic subject, it is also true that the method used to deactivate this discourse is paradoxical: it is unhinged by its own exacerbation, by a funereal baroque and hyperbolic mise en scène of its primary instrument of legitimisation which is representation.

Regarding his most recently elected medium, painting, Roccasalva adopts the same methodology used by ancient rhetoric to deconstruct meanings, starting with their own, paradoxical validation.

At this point is it possible to maintain that an experience so rooted in tradition and erudition, and that presupposes detailed knowledge of shapes and their meaning, is intimately inspired by an emancipating finality?

In his text for the first monograph on the artist, Barry Schwabsky cites Roccasalva’s frequent identification with the sophist Gorgias and places his practice between ‘art as illusion [and] art as truth. Or rather, as the truth about illusion, or as an illusion that tells the truth. Mystification and demystification, lunacy and lucidity, illness and cure’. Which leads one to consider the centrality of the concept of ‘simulacrum’ in the entire works of this artist, understood in its etymological sense as the origin of mimetic and pictorial representation starting with the appearance of a dead person.

'Myrrhina', 2008, floor drawing, fried rice ball, neon, bijoux, pastel on paper on forex, installation view, 50 Moons of Saturn, Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, RivoliTurin, 2008 
'Myrrhina', 2008, floor drawing, fried rice ball, neon, bijoux, pastel on paper on forex, installation view, 50 Moons of Saturn, Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art, Rivoli—Turin, 2008

This is why, upon examination of the gloomy and sceptical nature of Roccasalva’s mises en scène, it can be useful to connect his practice to a tradition evoked by Gary Tinterow with regard to Bacon: ‘A proponent of an existentialist reading of Bacon’s work, O’Doherty wrote that Bacon’s “is the first major expression in paint of a sensibility [Sadism?] that runs from de Sade, through Rimbaud and Genet”’, adding that Jean Genet is probably the best comparison since, ‘Bacon is attached to a style of ceremonious presentation that allows him to extend the definition of life to include the underworld of rape, suicide and murder’. It is the ceremonious staging that occurs in the work, the luxurious or formal backdrop, that allows for the depictions of such horrors.’

The sensitivity for a mise en scène that celebrates its own deconsecration, connects Roccasalva’s method of construction not to the medieval allegories and ephemeral baroque displays which confirmed the principals they represented, but to a logic of subversion that is the anthropological structure of the carnival, and which we find again in the expressive value of derision within the writing of authors such as Antonin Artaud.

If we take the example of the many texts painted or drawn by Roccasalva, this discourse may be understood on a less obvious level with respect to that of his multimedia installations, in which all the elements are often placed in an intense relationship with the painterly aspect of the work. The motif of the head is an iconographic constant throughout his repertory and brings to mind both the frontal quality of Byzantine painting and the enigmas in the painting of Gino De Dominicis, even if it would be more opportune in this regard to cite the memory of Brancusi’s forms settled in the painting of De Dominicis.

But the integrity that characterises the approach to form that runs from Byzantine icons all the way to Giorgio De Chirico’s mannequins is, in this case, subject to a parodistic decomposition and an exaggeration, a deformation of physiognomies that are hypertrophied or hypotrophied as the case may be, that look like a surgical derivation of mannerism. And what is a story that runs from the Byzantine icon through the mannerism of the Catholic Reform if it is not an adventure of canons and corruption, doctrine and transgression?

Alessandro Rabottini is chief curator of GAMeC Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo
Pietro Roccasalva, 53rd Venice Biennale curated by Daniel Birnbaum, 7 June–22 November Reframing, CCA Andtrax, Spain, 14 March–18 May

Barry Schwabsky, ‘Preface to an Unwritten Essay on Pietro Roccasalva’, in Pietro Roccasalva, GAMeC, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo, JRP Ringier Kunstverlag AG, Zürich, 2008. Brian O’Doherty, ‘On the Strange Case of Francis Bacon’, Art Journal, vol 24, no 3, spring 1965 as quoted in Gary Tinterow, assisted by Ian Alteveer. ‘Bacon and his Critics’ in Francis Bacon, Tate Publishing, edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, 2008.