Rubber landscapes through black matter: Italian artist Paolo Canevari in conversation with Maria Abramenko about his current show at Cardi Gallery and more.
Please tell us about your current show at the Cardi gallery in London?
My solo exhibition Self-portrait / Autoritratto at Cardi Gallery London is a sort of retrospective with a particular focus on works in materials such as tires, inner tubes and industrial rubber that I have used over the last 30 years. The exhibition brings together a cycle that started in 1990 and goes up to 2020 with works called “Paesaggi” (Landscapes) made on paper with used engine oil. The four floors of the gallery give space to various installations and individual sculptures that interact with wall pieces. It is therefore an exhibition that manages to give a rather broad and varied vision of my production. In the basement of the gallery, for example, there are four works, including a large installation on the floor entitled “Dark Matter”, a work from 1990 that I have presented on several occasions. Each time its appearance and meaning transforms, like a formal and conceptual metamorphosis that lies at the base of many of my works from this period. The installation consists of a large undulating blanket made of inner tubes that are vulcanized together. The blanket covers an unidentifiable object, a parallelepiped shape, and creates a sensual, mysterious baroque drapery. Dark matter is the name for the element that, according to scientists, holds the universe together. But, for me, it is also the dark cloud that hangs over humanity, the shadow that covers our collective consciousness, the negative presence that clouds our vision of the world. In the same space there is K.K.K. a sculpture from 1998 made of a single piece of rubber rolled into the form of a pointed hood like those worn by the white supremacists of the Ku Kux Klan in America. This is my rubber version: therefore black, overturning the reading and bringing the meaning to a purely political level with a very simple gesture. I have always thought that a subversive possibility lies in my working as an artist. I see art, as I have said several times, as a political opportunity. Other works in the exhibition are also born as reflections on the injustices and inequalities that oppress a large part of society, what Pier Paolo Pasolini defined in one of his poems as “The enormous wrong of the world”. The exhibition also represents works from the past that were never exhibited publicly until now.
Is there any particular reason for using rubber in your works?
As a young artist I came out of the Academy di Fine Arte in Rome and realised that the reality that I was facing did not correspond to me. It was the mid-80s when the phenomenon of painting started to drive the market, revealing a cultural hegemony and the first symptoms of a globalised Western-style mentality. The paintings that were produced in addition to being reactionary responses to the realities built by the historical avant-garde were often of a mediocre level. Many of the artists who were at the height of success and glorified by the market at the time, are totally unknown today. As a young artist, I felt the duty to contrast the painting frenzy of the 80’s and go against the tide. I decided to measure myself with a material that was a constant presence in the world, a witness to consumer decadence, to the errors perpetrated on the environment in the name of profit and economy. Used rubber tires are an ugly, unsightly material, a waste. My fascination came from the desire to transform something so banal and common into something that had a poetic sense beyond the material itself, an elevation of content on a metaphysical level.I started working with rubber in 1989 and had my first solo show in Rome in 1991 at Stefania Miscetti’s gallery. Some of the pieces on display at Cardi Gallery London are from that period. The use of rubber implies various aspects, from the shape of the circle in the tire as a symbol of transition to modernity with the invention of the wheel, to the idea of a track, a path. Tires and also their soul: the inner tube, are vehicles that physically move things and people. In my works these objects become mental vehicles that move thoughts and open new mental landscapes by making the mind travel. Of course, a material is always a choice that must be conscious on the part of the artist. In contemporary art nothing should happen by chance from my point of view. The superficial approach to the problem of art and the rampant showmanship in favor of the economy is depressing the message of art. Mine is a form of resistance to this system.
What in your opinion will happen in the closest future in the art world?
The pandemic is the first real form of global democracy that humanity has ever experienced. This dramatic event has put social inequalities on an equal footing, at least in this first phase, underlining societies shortcomings and making them more cohesive. In the art world I believe that the pandemic presents an opportunity for artists to rethink their role and ideologically address the idea of making art.
The twentieth century was a very important period from this point of view. It taught us that in moments of crisis art is capable of responding to the evils and absurdities of the world and elevating itself, giving a meaning to existence. The system would need to adapt to this reality but what worries me is the undiscerning power of the establishment and the conflicting economies that are waiting for the right moment to take advantage of the crisis and buy up culture for a cheap price. I believe that the whole system must be deeply questioned, rethought. There are huge conflicts of interest, evident and unbalanced in favour of a simplistic, populistic and conformist interpretation of art. These phenomena do not arise from real needs but only from strategies.
Can you talk about your relationship with the great writer, film-maker, and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini?
My first memory is linked to the day of his death, in 1975. I was just twelve years old, and with my father we went to visit the writer Andrea Camilleri, a great family friend. Camilleri opened the door, looked my father in the eye and said: “they killed Pasolini”. that moment, imprinted in my memory, was the first contact with his name, which over the years became an important intellectual, artistic and ideological reference for me. Pasolini was able to interpret the Italian culture by raising it out of the provincial clichés and petty bourgeois conformism that was at the time, so in vogue, as it sadly is today. He was a unique personality that was capable of reconnecting the artistic culture of the Italian Renaissance to the misery and epic social changes of the 1960’s. He witnessed and foresaw with a sort of clairvoyance the social transformations that the gigantic power of television, used as an instrument of mass distraction, would inflict on humankind. Pasolini managed to talk about these dangers in a critical, creative way, responding to consumerist decadence with artistic actions. Today, the system goes against any intellectual voice that could become a reference and set a higher cultural parameter. Art must have and reestablish its fundamental role within society. Pasolini defended and believed that art and poetry have an active role in society and I feel like an heir to this important tradition.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working to finish the catalogue for the Cardi Gallery Gallery show in London that comprises contributions by art critics Robert Storr and Francesca Pietropaolo, from the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat and the late Andrea Camilleri. I am also working on my “Landscapes” series. These works are made by soaking paper of different sizes in exhausted motor oil. This oil is discharged from engines when it’s no longer useful. Its dense black color is the result of combustion. It is laden with heavy metals that are highly polluting if dispersed in the environment. The exhausted oil is the quintessence of global pollution caused by fossil fuels. The images created by osmosis on paper resemble landscapes, romantic sunsets, sunrises. The black tones take shades independent of my will. The oil is absorbed into the paper, like stains that find their reason through my gestures. Since 2011 I already felt the need to bring a more abstract aspect to my work. Images were losing their importance with the fast advent of digital and social networks were increasingly spoiling and rendering superficial the importance of art and its introspective power. My reflection was born from the realisation that making art had to be a more radical and extreme act, while maintaining a poetic component but not an illustrative or rhetorical one. It was at this time that I also began the series “Monuments of the Memory”, a series of works based on non-narrative images, with a strong abstract component that leaves room for personal interpretation.