IN GIORGIO VALVASSORI’S WORKS
By Giorgio Bonomi
Aequam memento rebus in arduis
Generally, the concept of “genius loci”2 is used to refer to the works of an author, taken singularly or as a whole; for Giorgio Valvassori, it seems to us that the term is more appropriate to define his “character”, which certainly influences his artistic activity, although not so much as to have an impact on the contents and shapes of his work. We are referring here, on the one hand, to Valvassori’s “friulanità”, his being from the “harsh” land of Friuli, and, on the other, to his reserved nature. The artist has practised, and still practises, art as a deep experience, not purely and not so much on a cognitive and emotional level, but as a genuine experiment of life3.
Hence the life of a “Friulian”, which means discretion, annoyance at being in the limelight and dislike of media frenzy, but certainly not isolation, ignorance, indifference toward other people and other places. Rather, being born and, above all, having chosen to live and work in Gorizia, a borderland – in the recent past also a “difficult”, if not dramatic place to be, historically and politically – has had a large influence on what he does, and also on what he is. Unsurprisingly, he said: “In my case, borders define rules but do not separate. Borders are needed to spur imagination; it’s like travelling while dreaming, like crossing a threshold that takes us toward the unknown, toward new experiences. It’s a no-man land, where your identity is constantly challenged. It is an area of transit, of interior change opposed to the predictability of daily life. It is a place where we can delude ourselves that anything is possible.”4
We feel that Giorgio Valvassori’s work can be better understood after these preliminary remarks. Since the very beginning, his work has been based on dichotomy, starting from that between nature and artifice, i.e. his works are a mixture of “natural” elements (for example tree trunks) and/or “put-together” elements (for which he uses, in turn, a range of natural or synthetic materials). The artist deliberately eludes a univocal stylistic definition or classification; he is neither naturalist, nor abstract constructivist. At this point, we can now set out to identify a series of further dichotomies: lightness and heaviness, geometry and informality, abstraction and figuration, reflection and intuition, but also tranquillity and drama, conceptualism and artisanship, and so on. It is easy to track a strong conceptual, emotional and formal coherence in his artistic career, which spans more than forty years, even if he rejects it: “After 1982, my work has followed an idea of art that did not take into account ‘coherence’ intended as the solution of a matter of forms, in which the identity of the artist could be revealed by his work. Instead, I was taken by the places where I exhibited (in- and outdoors), where I looked for intuitions and from which I got the spur to build the works to be exhibited.”5
And this is, indeed, another element of Valvassori’s poetics, namely the relation between the artwork and space: if it is true that almost all of his works are produced with a view to the space where they will be positioned, it is equally true that the space, thorough them, is subject to a complete change. In the synthesis of the encounter, the ensuing “symbolic exchange” or “correspondence of loving feelings”6 between the given location and the artwork built therein is such that they become and appear different from their original state, being both something more and something different. This is due to the fact that the exhibition (in a gallery, outdoors, or in public spaces) is a happy balance, the very purpose of which would be missed if one or the other prevailed. In this regard, it has been brilliantly pointed out that the artist “does not practice an art of space but an art of thought, which interacts with the materials he is related to by elective affinities.”7
Turning to the materials: Valvassori takes them, leaves them at natural state, manipulates them, transforms them, he does everything his hands allow him to do. He is very fond of “handmade” work which, naturally, always occurs – chronologically but also logically – after the project, that is after the “concept”, that idea making the head spin, and, we could almost say, the artist’s five senses as well, until it is resolved in the production phase and in the final handiwork.
For his art, Valvassori claims, with good reason, the definition of “conceptual” rather than of “arte povera”, with the exception of a few contact points and similarities. However, he does not accept the extremisms of a large component of conceptualism, especially American, which stops to the idea, or, at most, to a single, more or less elaborate project, by postulating that art derives from the idea. On the contrary, the Friulian artist, precisely because he holds art in high regard and believes that it must be related to the making8 and to the finished object – or else art itself would not exist – deems fundamental this so-called second stage of the path leading to art (as art work and ex-position) as well.
Having said that, it should come as no surprise that Valvassori, who mainly expresses himself through sculpture and installation, is also an excellent drawer. In drawing, the hand lets the pencil or the pen flow on a blank piece of paper. This technique and practise – often a form of poetics in its own right – has attracted many artists, painters, sculptors and architects. As a result, Valvassori’s drawings, besides functioning as “executive projects”, take on a force of their own which is self-sufficient enough to make them autonomous and well-grounded works in all respects.
That’s why his exhibitions need both types of works: drawings on the wall and sculptures/installations on the floor. Once again, the duality is characterized by extreme and reciprocal “affection” and “intelligibility”, enhanced by the tight “embrace” between space that is “filled”, horizontally (the floor) and vertically (the walls), from the works which, in turn, are “accommodated” and “protected” by those walls and floor.
Just as he does for drawing, resorting to all necessary instruments, such as pencil, ink, India ink, black lead, charcoal, pastels, and often a mixture of them, Valvassori also uses a wide variety of materials for his sculptures/installations, from natural to more artificial ones, or elaborate ones. He often uses wood and metal (iron, copper, lead and others); paper, rough or textured, or as it was found; fabric and terracotta; fibreglass and canvas; rubber and coal; bitumen and more. All these elements belong to his constructive alphabet; with rare coherence, they accompany him in the execution of his project.
Here emotional sensitivity comes into play, leading the observer to grasp primarily the most evident and universally recognizable elements, such as straw, a tree trunk, a rope or iron. Yet, the ensuing reflection completes the first perception, so as to allow the full understanding of the meaning/s of the works.
An element of restlessness and drama prevails without a doubt in all of Valvassori’s work, as is the case for the majority of art works of all places and of all times. The tree trunk can be rough or have nails driven into it, but the latter can also crop out from a pleasant sand carpet. There are “cages”, “imprisoned” forms, and compressed fabrics wringed with force. By way of example, we can cite his 2002 work Gabbia [Cage], a structure we find again in Cormons, in which one of several “animaloids” is imprisoned, while the others, made with papier-mâché and coloured in black, “roam” freely in the room; Help (2000), in which a man tries to keep afloat, calling for “help”, prisoner of a “pleasant” round structure; in other works, the “tragedy” is less straightforward, but certainly no less serious, as in Funambolo [Tightrope Walker] (2006), a sculpture representing the acrobat on the windowsill of an hypothetic window, yet without the rope before him, a clear hint at his falling in the void, without a safety net. Just like in the improbable Zattera del naufrago [The Castaway’s Raft] (1988), which does not seem to be very suitable for rescue, given its precariousness, or Inferriata [Railings], dating back to the same year, which denounces the possibility and the condition of captivity.
However, in Valvassori’s work, in line with his aesthetic and anthropological characteristics, drama is never loud, never violent. On the contrary, it always strikes a balance, as is the case for the materials and the structures he builds, in which an ever-present force and tension find a sound and thus hopeful balance. Life, too, is always based on a balance: although often precarious, it becomes stable with the force of virile acceptance and awareness. And this is the most effective message Giorgio Valvassori’s art conveys to us.