One Painter on Ceramics, Another on Canvas
Paolo Staccioli’s ceramics at the Italian Cultural Institute; Jordan Wolfson’s
painting at DFN Gallery
IT IS NO SURPRISE THAT THE WORK OF FLORENTINE CERAMICIST and sculptor Paolo Staccioli should be admired in China and Japan. Both countries share with Italy high regard for the culture of ceramics. Xi’an City, China’s ancient cultural center, has just honored Mr. Staccioli with an exhibit in the antiquities museum that holds the renowned Terracotta Army, buried with the first emperor of China two millennia ago.
Born in 1943, the artist began his career as a painter in the early 1970s but reached artistic maturity in ceramics. He worked almost exclusively on canvas until the late 1980’s when experimentation with terracotta bas reliefs led to a creative leap. He turned to Faenza, home to the world’s greatest collection of ceramics and a modern center for new technologies in the art. (Faenza, origin of the word “faience,” is virtually synonymous with Italian ceramics.).
|Warriors on site in Fiesole
After studying with master ceramicist Umberto Santandrea, Mr. Staccioli embraced ceramic sculpture and the incomparable beauty of glazes fired using oxygen reduction techniques. This ancient process, used by the Etruscans, creates a chemical reaction in the glaze that yields radiant gold or ruby lusters. The transparency and iridescence of Mr. Staccioli’s surfaces carry into the present surface effects that were prized in the Renaissance.
Lovely as these glazes are, what most distinguishes the work is his sensitivity to cultural memory. He brings to ceramics both an inspired decorative ability and historic motifs already encountered in painting. His forms are steeped in the iconography of early Florentine, Sienese and Etruscan art. Mr. Staccioli creates a formal universe that is thoroughly contemporary but retains a bond with the Italian past.
On exhibit are over-life-sized, hieratic warrior figures, vases, fractured spheres etched with narratives, stylized busts and an repertory of figures that have their origin in the expressionist figuration of Arturo Martini and the horse-and-rider motifs of Marino Marini. His red-glazed cardinals are gentler than Giacomo Manzú’s, more amusing, but the reference is clear.
Tall, gaunt, shielded warriors, archetypes of stern vigilance, are compelling inventions. (One of these remains on exhibit in Xi’an.) Slim towers with dichromatic stripes, suggestive of Romanesque fortifications, maintain the martial note. Small, free-standing horses on wheels — evocative equally of childhood and Trojan myth — extend the equestrian theme that dominates Mr. Staccioli’s work.
Mr. Staccioli’s vases and steles earn pride of place. Put simply, they are gorgeous. Dynamically stylized horses prance upward and around the base in descending sizes. Luminous white forms against darker glazes — those unsurpassable reds and celadons! — the rearing horses glance backward to Paolo Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano.” Some are touched with an archaic quality that reaches to the caves of Lascaux.
Two over-life-sized warrior bronzes, cast from clay models, are newly installed on long-term display at LongHouse Reserve, in East Hampton. Exhibited throughout Italy and in Belgium, Holland, France and England, Mr.Staccioli's work has been shown at the Archeological Museum in Fiesole, and among the antiquities of the Palazzo Pitti's Porcelain Museum. it is unusual for a contemporary artist to be exhibited among antiquities. But his disarming contemporaneity, at its finest, seeks common ground with the timeless.
“Journey in Form: Luminous Ceramics of Paolo Staccioli” at The Italian
Cultural Institute (686 Park Avenue, 212-879-4242).
JORDAN WOLFSON IS A TALENTED PAINTER who works primarily within the tradition of studio still lifes and interiors. Many canvases include a figure, often a female nude; others concentrate less on the objects in a room than on the spaces between them. His work is infused with a granular light that erodes edges, endowing each form with an atmospheric shimmer. The way light fills and enlivens empty space is his most consistent theme.
A Southern California native, Jordan Wolfson lived and worked in Israel for ten years. The last three were spent in a studio flooded with the light of Nataf, a small hill town between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He returned to Providence, Rhode Island, in 2002, bringing with him memories of blinding Middle Eastern light and its splintering effect on objects in view. It was his carefully balanced rendering of an image — part optical, part conventional — that lay at the heart of the appeal of his previous show in 2005.
|Figure in Three Stages, Jordan Wolfson
This, his second solo show at DFN, introduces a dalliance with abstraction. It showcases the dissolution of forms in which real objects provide only a faint scaffolding, if that, for the act of painting. As Mr. Wolfson has said: “I’m painting; I’m making a painting. That’s really and finally just what I am doing.” It is a refreshing admission but one that skirts the differences in his achievement between depiction and the negation of it. This exhibition flirts with the presumption — increasingly retardataire — that decomposition of form is synonymous with progress over representation.
On exhibit are several diptychs and triptychs dedicated to creating an image and then staging an about-face by “deconstructing” it. Two, three, or four paintings based on the same image appear next to each other; each replication is looser than the previous until the image liquifies altogether. In each series, his talent fulfills itself in the initial image; the second presents an attractive, if self-conscious, riff on itself. Visual reality veers into collapse after that.
“Interior with Four Panels, I” (2006) succeeds best as a series. The interior, a simple arrangement of three chairs, is beautifully handled, each rendition varied slightly by the changed position of a director’s chair in the foreground. A few pillows and a background plant provide color accents in the first three panels. In the last, all forms disperse in a golden cloud of fluid ochres; pictorial elements retain just enough contour to remain convincing. The first and the final panel are so lovely that they make superfluous the intermediate two, despite the integrity of all four as independent images.
At his best, Mr. Wolfson approaches the human figure with a welcome regard for gesture and disposition that takes precedence over dry description. The blue-clad woman, face in shadow, of “Interior with Figure in Three States” (2007) is so delicately present in the first state, that the fragmented later stage disappoints. The premier nude of “Woman Sitting, in Two States” (2007) is a chaste presence. Her body is volumetric, luminous and believably casual. The choppy dispersions of the second version, viewed at a slightly different angle, subtract from the initial accomplishment. Attentive viewers will wonder if the artist has been looking over his shoulder at his contemporary Ann Gale, for whom atomized depiction is a psychologically charged mother tongue, not a posture.
“Still Life in Three States” (2008) displays the pitfalls of the artist’s after-the-fact effort to “reveal his thought processes.” Here is the traditional table top still life, more tightly rendered than Mr. Wolfson’s norm; then there is the pulverized post-impression, followed by an all-over soup that swallows everything but the brush mark. The particular grace of Mr. Wolfson’s hand is inexorably linked his gift for depiction; with nothing to render, his brush is left pushing paint around.
The gallery explained the artist’s current series by stating that “anyone who doesn’t understand abstraction can get it.” What’s to get? Abstract art originated in prehistory; it has been with us since primeval man scratched agreeable designs on the bones of his ancestors. Abstraction, as we moderns have come to know it, is largely an ideology. No virtue attaches to “getting it.” Mr. Wolfson’s alternation between coherence and contrived denial of it is a pose that puts him in danger of moving from depiction to dogma. He is too good to succumb to the creedal tropes of deconstruction.
“Jordan Wolfson: New Work” at DFN Gallery (210 Eleventh Avenue, 212-334-3400).
These essays appeared first in The New York Sun on June 12 and May 22, 2008, respectively.
Copyright 2008, Maureen Mullarkey