GIOVANNI DE CATALDO
Text by Cecilia Canziani
A few days ago along a highway I drive nearly once a week, I took closer notice of the enormous scaffolding that has been propping up a viaduct for months now, suspended there in the void. Dimly lit in the morning fog, I thought of fishnets hung out over the sea, crenellated towers, freestanding structures busy with road workers. Magical.
I thought this might be the same stretch of road Giovanni takes when he goes to get the guardrails he uses in his sculptures from a test track where automobile safety devices are developed. Giovanni described the place to me one day in his San Lorenzo studio: the testing is done on a circuit lost in the countryside, and what struck me most was his description of this vaguely ancient silence and how it was shattered regularly by the sound of cars sent crashing into guardrails at high speed. My impression was perhaps deepened by the motley assortment of materials Giovanni has assembled in his studio: metal rails, chunks of steel, fabrics, even an iron. It’s clear that a large part of his work consists in silently mending.
If I had to indicate a reference framework for Giovanni’s work, it would be Robert Smithson and what he extracts physically or figuratively from urban environments – Monuments of Passaic or Non Sites (in other words, something similar to my sub specie aeternitatis vision of scaffolding along the highway which, just this once I’d perceived as released from its intended purpose and recomposed as object of aesthetic appreciation). Or Smithson’s investigations into instable materials like asphalt – which also Giovanni has worked – or glue, for example, that challenge the verticality and autonomy of Modernist work with seduction from below, the inchoate, the force of gravity. The impulse towards falling, collapsing.
Upon closer examination, Giovanni’s work has a different, less ironic – or decidedly post monumental - intention. The monumental dimension is absent, as is any critique of turbo-capitalism, and replaced by a call to really see the shapes and materials with which our cities are overwritten, to find beauty where it may be least expected, discern form from disorder.
His Crash Tests are swathes cut from our urban tissue, re-semanticized not only through an operation of appropriation but also by the transformation of the object whose surfaces are subjected to chrome-plating, zinc-coating, glazing or even upholstery, in this way expressing plastic and pictorial values. Not excerpts of reality recontextualized in institutional settings – or by institutional settings – but instead samplings of urban, rather than industrial, landscape ultimately selected and interpreted for their aesthetic potential on which the artist intervenes to highlight one particular fold or curve that expresses some sculptural quality
The landscape, however, is firmly rooted: the city of Rome, and its San Lorenzo district, which gives the show its name and has hosted artists’ ateliers since the Seventies, and which remains a working class neighborhood today, an unlicensed laboratory of community policies and politics, one of Rome’s quarters in full possession of the real genius loci of unruly beauty.
In continuation of a practice based on analyzing the sculptural properties of construction materials such as asphalt and concrete previously explored in Cerae (2015) and Carottage (2015-2016), recognizing the urban context in its functional elements – roads, guardrails, provisory fencing (as in Crash Test, 2017), and investigating traces inscribed in the landscape – graffiti, marks, and shapes that testify to a historical continuum (Prisco vive, 2017) – the works chosen for the show investigate the relationship between the object and the viewer more closely. Hence the chromed, reflecting surfaces on display seem to allude to something similar to Mirror Cubes by Robert Morris that during the Seventies reconfigured and complicated the relationships between objects, space and spectators with their mirroring, turning the sculpture’s center inside out and multiplying points of view.
It should be noted that Giovanni uses not mirrors but chrome-plating, zinc-coating, and the colors of iconic motor vehicles instead (Ferrari red, Kawasaki green, and Vespa cream-white), and addresses a collective unconscious that evokes media culture – more Jeff Koons than Minimalism, to put it plainly.
The relationship between the object’s body and the viewer’s body is developed not only through the play of refraction from and to the surfaces of the sculptures: the guardrails, the post-caps of public drinking fountains (objects regularly stolen and illegally trafficked carefully reproduced by the artist in marble, metal, and wax, shifting from original to copy and back) are subjected to rotation at the show. Positioned along another axis than the position in which we usually observe them, the meanings of these objects change; every association with their previous practical purpose is lost.
The artist handles PVC netting in similar fashion, applied on reflecting fabric stretched over a frame and set up in the form of a screen (Abbronzatissimi, 2018) – an object that instead of merely occupying space creates it – or is restituted in the form of “paintings” hung to the walls or reproduced in aluminum and made freestanding. If reflecting surfaces absorb and refract light, and even cancel it, if a sculpture is photographed with the flash in order to provide us with its negative, this netting evokes the epitome of Modernist composition by invoking the specific nature of painting as medium. Therefore netting appears in this show as painting, as space, as sculpture, while everywhere at the same time serving as frame and window, both centripetal and centrifugal.
Whether it evokes painting’s bi-dimensionality or insists on the fold as sculpture’s point of generation, the surface of the works in the show is the dialectical setting in which the gaze focuses and is then reflected, multiplied or denied, and it is noteworthy that in these times when shows have learned how to become photogenic, this one resists selling its soul to the objective lens and demands to be seen with the viewer’s entire body, without which the faint colors projected from behind the sculptures that tinge the wall, the beholder’s face distorted in reflection from a curved zinc-plated surface, and the shimmer that seems to temporarily alter the canvas’s temperature would not be perceivable.
This explains why the central point in this extraction of materials, patches, and painstaking care lavished on materials considered ordinary, opaque, and dull prior to their return to our gaze has been reserved to the spectator, who has essentially been assigned the task of continuing to consider and query the space in front – so that without any resemblance to any of Giovanni’s sculptures, scaffolding seen along a highway one misty morning may be taken for a cathedral.
Text by Cecilia Canziani