1. / Pignatelli’s ‘Material’
Migrants is a series of nine works in mixed media on wood. One of them, Mithridates King of Pontus, has entered the collections of the Uffizi.
To understand Pignatelli’s work, his research, you need to picture his studio: a shed with several rooms around it, strong light more or less everywhere, and then a lower level where everything is dark and artificially lit. Here, stacked against the wall, are dozens of works, survivors from earlier research: the series of antique vases, the series of stations and locomotives, the series of aeroplanes, the series of tigers, the series of airships. And, above all, the series of carved figures of antiquity, all made from black-and-white photos in the catalogues of museums throughout the Western world, in Berlin and Munich, Rome and Vienna, London and Paris, and in less well-known museums in the south of Italy or Greece. I imagine Pignatelli as he seeks out these places, walking through city streets, heading for the Glyptothek in Munich, the Museum Island in Berlin, the Capitol and the Imperial Fora in Rome, the museums of Athens or Olympia, those of London and the Metropolitan in New York. Does he take photographs? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. Luca Pignatelli is interested in reproduction because that is already a writing down, or rather a transcription of the work; it is already like consigning an image to the dimension of memory. Certainly, I can see him wandering among sculptures in the museum, but I also picture him leafing through books, acquired from antiquarians after long searches or found on the stalls of bargain booksellers.
And here he is, uncovering ‘treasures’ that for others are just old books printed on glossy paper, their pages loose and stained, and what is more in German, in English, in Greek. I have even seen a Russian book on one of his tables, with gold lettering, and the text in Cyrillic of course.
So the first level of Pignatelli’s work involves constructing a set of images. And, with regard to antiquity, which is what is evoked in the series I am about to analyse, the most important step is the choice of those images. Then they have to be photographed, then the ?electronic matrix? preserved and thought given to how it is going be used in the context of the finished work. But there is another and equally important step, one which is usually neglected but which, for Pignatelli, is a choice of language, or rather the first stage in the formulation of his language. Thus Pignatelli chooses a material, in this case old pieces of wood, in others tarpaulins used to cover old goods wagons, in yet others worn pieces of sacking riddled with holes and bearing the marks of their previous use, uncovered in fruit and vegetable markets, in the warehouses of bankrupt firms, in abandoned industrial areas on the outskirts of cities. This is what Pignatelli looks for on his travels: loads of wood, of cloth, fragments of the city’s lost memory, and so old nails as well, something which he has used in this group of works, or hooks, links, chocks of wood or metal. So Pignatelli’s work is like a collage, a transformation of different elements that seemingly act as a support but that become, from the start, an original kind of writing, a new script. Over these elements, over these so-called supports, the artist then lays out an image, and I use the expression lays out advisedly because the format, the dimension are important and connect up well with the
breaks, with the fragmentation of the support that the artist always respects and, at times, completes and corrects.
The ‘correction’ is in reality the invention of a highly structured system that owes a great deal to the tradition of De Stijl, and to Piet Mondrian rather than Theo van Doesburg. In fact Pignatelli is more interested in orthogonal structures than in curves; these, if anything, outline the images that he inserts proportionately in the context. When the orthogonal structure is ready, when the proportions that on many occasions evoke the golden ratio have become stable, and this can be seen clearly in the series of nine works that is presented here, then the artist intervenes with a few brushstrokes to deepen the shadows, to heighten the lights. Thus the image of the support and of the text that has been photographed and laid on top of it are modified again by further interventions until the entire ‘machine’ takes on the appearance of a narration of great force. But narration means variation and therefore invention. Pignatelli works in series but each series, each work in the series, is like a different variation on a single structure, a variant that invents spaces, that reinvents proportions but that always maintains a basic scheme of great coherence and immediate recognizability. This is Pignatelli’s ‘different repetition’, which we find in his brilliant graphic inventions as well as in the planning of the works that, by convention, we call painted but which are structured, beaten, perforated, mended and then organized by the images and finally, retouched again with the brush. For Luca Pignatelli is never satisfied and is therefore an indefatigable inventor of modifications, of transformations of his own works. For Pignatelli a series is like a novel: it has to follow its own logical thread chapter by chapter, it has to suggest a story, indeed many stories; but at the same it has to appear at once to be a connected system, in which one piece responds to the next, can be recognized as part of a group and yet be distinguished.
So Pignatelli knows how to tell a story, but he is always loath to explain his works; he argues that the critics, the interpreters, have to come up with their own analysis. And here, even more in this case than in others, only the title he has proposed offers us a clue. However, and as the last preamble to what is perhaps too banal a commentary, I would like to add that Pignatelli works need to be read layer by layer, as if the viewer had to dig beneath the apparently thin surface of the work. An excavation that must immediately uncover the spatial relations of the images and thus their structure, and so will have to interpret the support and its characteristics, and finally analyse the back of the work, which with Pignatelli is always important. And it is in these works, where it will be necessary to take apart the box that now hides a back made of worn pieces of wood. In fact right behind the paintings you will discover significant traces of former uses: lettering, nails, slats, stamps and other materials that Pignatelli always preserves and often emphasizes. For him those fragments, true objets trouvés in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, are also the proof that each work has several stories to tell, that what we see at once, the subject, the set of ancient images, is the most obvious, but there are other stories, behind, inside, that have to be uncovered: the stories of the previous uses of a tarpaulin, or a wooden support.
After all Pignatelli selects those fragments because for him they are all marks of time, and this ‘long duration’ is one
of the possible reasons for the choice of the ancient images that crop up so often in his work. Certainly the connection of those images with the support made of ‘found’ materials makes it clear that the works we see are also, perhaps, awaiting their possible destruction. We are well aware that these athletes, orators and deities are fragments of a distant past; well-known fragments, figures that have been familiar to us since our school days, images that people of my generation saw on the grey pages of well-thumbed textbooks. Pignatelli may have chosen those images precisely because they are familiar, recognizable, identifiable as trace and structure of the West’s common past. But he has also chosen them because they are a mark of the passing of time, of distance and, for only a few of us now, an echo of some long ago reading of verses from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid or the Metamorphoses, studied perhaps at secondary school. So they are a memory, these ancient figures, of a mythic past, of a story told. And yet it is precisely this set of mythological personages, emerging out of unlikely supports, from the weatherworn remains of recent mercantile shipwrecks, of bankruptcies of suburban factories, that ends up giving an indication of the artist’s choices. Thus those broken and worn supports have been identified by Luca Pignatelli as signs of the dissolution of the present. Inside each of his images there is a harbinger, a presage of the end.
2. / Migrants
It is no accident that he has called them Migrants. Luca Pignatelli has made relics, fragments, remains, especially those of images, the keystone of a research that has resonance at a European level. Now these nine works, one of which, Mithridates King of Pontus, will remain in the collections of the Uffizi, pose a problem: how to recount repetition, how to explore differences in an apparent repetition. Because among the images, apart from the Mithridates of which Pignatelli has a variant in his studio that is not on show here, the face from the Museo Archeologico in Taranto is proposed in three versions, while there are two of the Carlsberg Diana, two of the Olympia Aphrodite and just one of the head in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Notice first of all the thick wooden support that bears traces of different stories, of cuts, superimpositions, grain, of wear and tear. Sometimes Pignatelli has inserted nails, nails that he found a long time ago and that form something like a constellation, in certain pieces, of things that have happened in the past, as if a piece of canvas had been fixed onto the wood or some other event had left a bit of frame, a wooden bar nailed crosswise, in a carefully calculated asymmetry. The works also have a back that at times can be seen as an abstract composition: moreover Pignatelli’s roots – his structural reference – lie in abstraction, the kind that comes from Burri, from Fontana, from Nevelson, and from Mondrian too. Geometry provides the basis for the interpretation of these works.
And then the images: all that it takes is a photo taken from closer up, a slightly greater contrast, a variant found in the catalogues of museums or created in the process of printing with the help of electronics, and the faces from Taranto, Carlsberg or Olympia look different. Archaeologists are well aware that a different photograph, or a more contrasty or transparent print on paper, is sufficient to change the meaning of an image; for Pignatelli these variations are signs of different memories, relations, stories.
The title: Migrants. First of all because these pieces, obviously, have travelled a long way to end up in the collections of the West, but above all because they are traces of narrative, of stories that are evoked by their names, by the places where they are kept, by their supposed identities. For instance it has been suggested that the female face in Vienna is a portrait of Sappho, and it is in any case an imperial variant of an older model. They evoke, as I was saying, a journey of the mind, through the memories of a past that for us, today, is an echo of things we read at school, of museum catalogues, of university textbooks, of magazines that are generations old and have been lost, but which Pignatelli has tracked down and collected.
So these faces, these figures travel in our memory and have travelled, have migrated physically from one place to another. They are records of excavations, of accidental finds, of risky acquisitions, but also traces of lost bodies, of names that are now associated only in a mythical way with the figures. Do they really represent Aphrodite, Diana, or someone else? And are they always the faces of women or is the touching expression of the figure in Taranto that of a young man, and one of whom it is difficult, from the images, to identify the race? So the marbles, the memories migrate, but the supports migrate, have migrated too, and it is these timeworn pieces of wood that Pignatelli has chosen, pieces that have a history and that make these figures look like old Byzantine icons
worn down by the veneration of the faithful. There is still something of the sacred in these faces, which evoke in us, who once were schoolchildren, the signs of their origins: poems studied, figures described, hendecasyllabic lines recited, laboriously spelled out Greek, mythologies. Migrants is a title that might also have a political significance, alluding to the terrible passage of desperate people from one shore of the Mediterranean to the other; a Mediterranean that was a peaceful sea at the time of the Greeks and the Phoenicians, and was still, Carthage permitting, in the time of the Romans. Hence this deliberately ambiguous title underlines the novelty of Luca Pignatelli’s invention. For he also possesses another knowledge, that of how to tell a story in episodes, in slow rhythms: try to move from one figure to another, perceiving the differences and the repetitions, and you will discover a slow time, that of meditation and remembering, a subtly cinematographic time.