Luca Pignatelli is known in Italy and throughout the world for his images of an archaeological character and for a process of gathering, retrieval, custody and iconographic editing of history and art. His works are dominated by a sense of proportion and by a moving combination of serenity and melancholy, classicism and modernity, beauty and poverty. Through them we address the immediate present in memorable images of the classical and the modern world to give a meaning, not only to the past of Western civilisation, but also, and more importantly, to the immediate future of Humanismus in the era of digital globalisation. As I shall attempt to explain, Pignatelli’s art is one of resistance, where the obsolete and the eliminated, the anachronistic and the rare exemplar, objects that are disused or worn-out but still charged with history and memories, find their place in a gallery of memorabilia and rarities. His technique is as complex as the layerings of time and the heterogeneity of the traversed and retrieved images. With consummate skill, order, innate geometry and a poetic sense of contrast, he associates ready-made and erudite citation, collage and objet trouvé, assemblage and decoupage, passing from irony to emphasis, from the melancholy of loss to the exaltation of rebirth. Distance and the suspension of time, the loss and recovery of codices, the dispersal and emergence of images are experiences that coexist and return in all his works, together and separately. This is what we discover on visiting his atelier – a storeroom of dust and obsolete sculptural, literary, technological and artisan magnificence – or his exhibitions, where the artist frequently presents and concludes series of works marked by a common impulse and desire for resistance and the safeguarding of the past.
Over the course of three decades the artist has amassed a heterogeneous archive of collective and universal images portraying ancient and modern artefacts and figurative signs that document ancient civilisations and industrial progress. The artist picks up these photographic reproductions by the hundred, selecting them from publications of different periods or hunting them down on antique stalls or in galleries, with what Achille Bonito Oliva, in 2014, already described as a “cupidity” akin to that of the collector. The terms “archive” and “archivist violence” have been used to define his ostentatious search for “frames” or “icons” of the past: images wrested both from oblivion and from alleged historical truth. This is how Marina Fokidis sees the archivist fever that infected Pignatelli: “Driven by the ‘compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire... to return to the origin... to the most archaic place of absolute commencement’ that Derrida describes as ‘archive fever’, the artist accumulates books about cities, art, architecture and history, as well as everyday things, decorative objects and old furniture, regardless of when they were actually made. Carefully displayed, rather than merely stored, the collectibles together with his works in progress transform his studio into a microscopic indoor reproduction of his head. A ‘theatre of memory’ and at the same time a psychographic territory of the now, containing – in the manner of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – a collection of types of ‘objects’, (even embedded in the architecture of the space), the categorical confines of which have yet to be defined.”1 But Pignatelli doesn’t go by the book. Nor does he follow the method of the professional archivist. Like those suffering from archive fever, he is opposed to dispersal and oblivion, but he’s not afraid to enter the maelstrom in search of incongruencies and inconsistencies. He makes order, but he doesn’t keep a register and nor does he believe in a pre-ordained ideal method. He is not an idealist in relation to the past, nor is he a positivist in terms of method. On the contrary, he artistically constructs a new order (an archive-collection in which the order is subjective and subject to alteration). To achieve his end – to return critically to the archive – he explores the possible and implausible relations existing between the signs and the forms of involuntary memory, for instance, in the series of works called Analogie [Analogies]. It is exactly as a result of this state of productive chaos – which Walter Benjamin speaks of in Paris – Capital of the 19th Century – that it is possible to preserve and regenerate a meaning that is not illusory or deluded in the triangulation to the world but suggesting methods of aggregation that can spawn processes of internal and external knowledge. The work is not the result of hardening and paralysis that dry out all forms of sedimentation, but rather of practices of appropriation beyond the principle of possession. This is the basis of a method that can also give a method to the life of the artist.”3
Ultimately, Pignatelli’s approach to art and history is different from that of the antiquarian who, in thrall to the aesthetic and ethical magnificence of the past world, digs up antique relics and brings them back to light. It is equally different from that of the collector who is obsessed and seduced by the object and wants
to possess it to annihilate its value as a commodity. This is because Pignatelli’s approach is essentially the inventive approach of the artist, who elaborates the fetishistic impulse and transforms it into creative delight. As an artist philosopher, Pignatelli mentally guides his every impulse and his every thought regarding the accumulation and ordering of the relic and the memorable image. He does this through a labour of deconstructive criticism followed by sentimental reconstruction, aimed essentially at transforming the value of existential experiences such as nostalgia and mourning – which are both normal and paramount in those who live by archiving the past, collecting it and placing it in museums. Marina Fokidis also noted that: “Under his control, his studio functions like a symbolic apparatus of appropriation through which every new work produced re-contexualises whatever it borrows so as to produce new form and meaning. Archiving and painting, in his case, is a performative gesture directed towards time and space: an essential mantra, encompassing homage, intertextuality and travesty, through which Pignatelli invites us to address everyday life.”4
For Pignatelli accumulating objects, forms, codices and models from the past, appropriating iconographies, signifies being able to give meaning to the present. This meaning is given in the prospect of a future that factors in the mistakes and falsehoods concealed behind the figurative language of heroism, of beauty, knowledge and power2. As Achille Bonito Oliva sees it: “According to Pignatelli, art is not bringing order sacrality and magnificence that fills museums and art books, galleries and mausoleums. Pignatelli’s works are full of Greek and Roman statues, marble busts, stone figures of wounded heroes, emperors on horseback or wearing togas, hermaphrodites and nymphs, nude athletes, centaurs and Lapiths, Pegasus and Aphrodite, Diana and Hermes, Hercules and Apollo. Other recurrent images are colonnades of pagan temples, Renaissance piazzas, skyscrapers and airships, nosediving aircraft, basilicas and large railway stations, forests and frozen
lakes. They are works of vast conceptual breadth and magnificent workmanship, paintings constructed by printing on huge tarpaulins, on sheet metal and on
wood, media of a poverty that contrasts with the undeniable beauty and authority of those figures. There is another aspect that differentiates Pignatelli from the collector. The collector is dominated by the tactile instinct: like Thomas he has to touch and possess the thing to assure himself that its aura has not been lost through commodification. Conversely, the artist transfigures the sculpture into painting, giving primacy to the eye. When the work is completed, Pignatelli draws forth or attributes the aura where it has been lost through reproduction and use, both in the image – a nymph or an emperor – and in the thing – a tarpaulin or
a piece of sheet metal.
Pignatelli’s archive-works can rightly be entitled Senza data [Undated], since in the construction of his archive the first thing he violates is time. For him, art is the movement made in the face of reality that makes it possible to cancel the date of the event, projecting into the absolute present of the work what has had and has significance in our collective and personal memory, trained to recognise date and facts following only chronological time. With an imperious gesture, the artist forces us to recall as absolute values the images, forms and rules of the game that are fundamental to him in the construction of his own and others’ cultural inheritance and identity. It is something that weighs on his conscience, and to an even greater degree overloads and pressurises his memory and his vision. It is as if, over and above the obsession with the archive and the collection, Pignatelli feels a moral obligation to take on the images and forms that are – beyond good and evil – responsible for the construction of modern history, of Western civilisation. Images of beauty and of power, of virtue and of progress.
He addresses this task in the construction of the work, revealing his dialectic and critical position of resistance in relation to memory and history, bringing into play oblivion, repression, negationists and nostalgics, idealists and deluded romantics. The recycled materials – tarpaulins, pieces of wood, sheet metal, worn-out carpets, old armchairs – are the other side of a story that has placed heroes and deities on a pedestal, icons of power and progress regardless of the carnage.
This is the significance of the bandages, the rips and the lacerations, the signs of time imposed on those images of beauty, ideologically perennial and immaculate, indestructible and inalienable. “In Pignatelli’s work, time is neither chronological nor linear but relatively circular. History is not archaeology but a cultural legacy rendered continuously present by the immanence of art. By definition, the flagrancy of the work eliminates all archaeological distance. Here art stems from art. Pignatelli retrieves stylistic icons from antiquity and transfers them into the three-dimensionality of sculpture or bas-relief or the two-dimensionality of painting.”5
Thus, his images – Eracle con la clava [Hercules with the Club], Satiro ed Ermafrodito [Satyr and Hermaphrodite], Cesare Augusto [Caesar Augustus], Hermes, Afrodite e la ninfa Egea [Hermes, Aphrodite and the Aegean Nymph] – are “the iconographic basis developed by Pignatelli in the conception of an eternal present in art.”6 Pignatelli’s works are indeed nourished by an out of time, a deferred time, that of images that live on stratifications of time; in the iconic dimension of the memorable figure they cancel the passage of time, the sequence of yesterday and today, and above all the iconographic evolution. As the artist says: “My recent research is a rethinking of what time is in relation to the image, to paintings. I think that, at present, it’s important to place the image at the centre of a reflection on memory. In my works I want to answer the question: what is in front of an image? For me it’s a plural time, a montage of staggered and hence different times.” Historic time and the time of art – with its remains and its detritus, with its finds and its relics – are brought together in the present time of the image, which is
at once image-archive and icon. All Pignatelli’s works show memorable objects, artistic artefacts that evoke unbridgeable sentiments of eternity and infinity, of which we are now the recipients and for which we feel profound nostalgia. Unlike certain pop and kitsch usage of ancient magnificence – as in Warhol and Festa for instance – Pignatelli sees the consumption of images as one of the reasons for the devaluation of memory. Closer to the conceptual use of casts and reproductions, he adds to the tautological evocation of beauty the lyrical and dramatic sense of the sublime and the wondrous, of melancholy and emulation. He uses poor media to contrast images of splendid beauty, such as heads of Roman statues, monumental portraits of deities or emperors, knights and heroes. Images of figures carved in white marble: full-length figures, busts and heads of numinous beauty are reproduced on poor and humble media – wood, sheet metal, tarpaulins, cardboard, leather, rubber – using special inkjet printing techniques. Frequently his heads of Greek or Roman age have half-shut eyes, making them appear introverted and mysterious, leaving all communication suspended, so that one grasps or feels only the echo of lofty thoughts and sublime emotions, something infinite and timeless. The series, the repetition of a model, is proof of an obsession, the obstinate quest and craving to repossess a value, a measure: in short, an aura. This has to come to terms with the critical experience of history, with the passion for obsolescence and anachronism.
In a version that champions the marginal and the repressed, the poor and the outdated, as if such qualities concealed the truth of civilisation, the beautiful
and the good of history, in the shadow of the great values and the great myths. Those faces with their introverted gaze know the truth, even that of history
and the passage of time, although they cannot now say it. For Pignatelli, evoking the classical means alluding to something immeasurable. It means making room for a desire for greatness and immensity, at once spiritual and conceptual and both moral and aesthetic. This is something that we have been deprived of by progress, by the futile passage of the days and unbridled consumption, and by the loss of memory that condemns us to the banal and vulgar even in the production of images. Classicism, beauty, glory, regality: words that were commonly used in other periods appear like remnants, inappropriate remains, relic words without nobility in a perspective devoid of “eternity” and “sacrality”. Thus, the face of a statue appears to know but not be able to say what glory or classicism are, what beauty and virtue are. Or rather, to know how and when power can be virtuous and how virtue can remain such when linked to power. That archived countenance holds the “truth” of the “origin”, but makes it a mystery. And perhaps the eyes are closed so as not to see the degeneration, the loss of value and of meaning. In these works we can recognise a romantic experience of history and classicism. This experience is then dramatised by the use of poor or industrial media – they too charged with memory – in a dialectic of sign and matter, of anachronistic art and Arte Povera. This allows Luca Pignatelli to avoid the mere grandeur of the antiquarian citation, the evocation of a sterile atmosphere. In other words, his archive-images are those of an ever-alive and present classicism that doesn’t speak the mute and inanimate language of the copy. Pignatelli succeeds in restoring the aura to technologically-produced reproductions, transforming the memorable images of his archive into undated icons. Every figure speaks to the personal and collective unconscious, making us perceive an infinity emptied of sacrality through a profound yearning for meaning that does not correspond to the ideal truth asserted in the exaltation of ideal beauty and the ideal society of the past. It is through the juxtaposition of foreground and background, between the poor ground of the support and he illustrious image impressed on it, that Pignatelli criticises the celebration
of classicism and its renaissance. He wants us to look at the wounds and scars inflicted on humanity during the most glorious epochs of the past in the name
of beauty and sacrality. To cite Marina Fokidis once again: “A passionate collector and archivist of relics from a past life, Pignatelli re-examines the bipolar notions of beauty, knowledge and power. His compositions are often seductive and serene at first sight, but then reveal unpredictable visual elements that emerge like ‘scars’ of the here and now on the countenance of what appears eternally invulnerable and sacred 7
M. Fokidis, in Luca Pignatelli. Sculture/Analogie, Galleria Poggiali e Forconi, Florence, Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori Editore, Milan 2010, p. 13.
W. Benjamin, “The Elective Affinities”, in Walter Benjamin: 1913-1926 v. 1: Selected Writings, Harvard University Press, 2004.
A. Bonito Oliva, “Immanenza dell’arte nell’opera di Luca Pignatelli”, in A. Bonito Oliva (ed.), Luca Pignatelli. Museo di Capodimonte, exhibition catalogue (Naples, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, 10 May – 15 July 2014), Arte’m, Naples 2014, p. 27.
M. Fokidis, in Luca Pignatelli. Sculture/Analogie, op. cit., p. 23.
A. Bonito Oliva, “Immanenza dell’arte nell’opera di Luca Pignatelli”, op. cit., p. 27.
M. Fokidis, Luca Pignatelli. Sculture/Analogie, op. cit., p. 23.