The sense of things. Some notes on Franca Marini's paintings

see gallery

Anna Maria Panzera
exhibition catalogue Sogno di un nuovo mondo - opere recenti Museo dell'Antica Grancia, Serre di Rapolano (Siena), 2001, p. 38-41
translation Nancy Podimane

Searching for the sense of things is the work of miners, of gold diggers. It's difficult to see exactly what appears beneath our eyes when reflexes on the water trick us into imagining hidden treasures.
What is latent, hidden beneath the veils of visibiIity, invites us to exercise our imagination, transforming the stimulus of perception and the reaction that follows in a presence that enriches the object of our glance, perceiving it in every fold of sound emitted, and making sure never to impoverish it.
When however the obiect in question is a work of art, it primarily asks not to be understood (in the common sense of this word), but looked at so that it can speak its own language freely, and is free to test if the expression manages to become communication even when offered through gestures, with Iines and colours. Often a foreigner in his own country, the artist could ask the art critic to step aside, or at least to undertake the effort to free himself of an excess of baggage of acquired notions, when searching for that speck of gold that has eluded all too familiar trends. Naturally without sacrificing all that he knows because he must be of help to those who for the first time come face to face with the unknown artist and his work.
Bearing all this in mind I go to see Franca Marini's canvases which she agilely moves from wall to wall and from room to room, during a visit to her studio perched on a gorgeous Siennese hill. The daylight filters through the rain, lit up here and there by sunrays peeping over blankets of clouds, playing an important part in this context. Even though the studio is artificially lit and later on I find myself analyzing her work through a set of perfectly illuminated photographs, the overall impression of that day remains mixed in with those photos viewed and the written words which emerged at a later stage. Will the artist have it in for me because of this?
But no, it was she that started on about how much she loved the orange and grey hues of the sky. Or those blue tones interrupted dramatically by the stark white of cirrus. I seem to understand that the artist's imagination runs along the tracks of memory transformed in gesture before becoming thought: I find myself doing the same in response to her invitation to write about her. I look at the paintings: a privileged position given to sudden spurts of earthy yellows and reds; a continuous Iine, at times broken, sometimes black, coloured every so often and shading off into the background; the occurrence of the latter transports us into the heart of a particular perception, now and then managing to prevail over the entire composition.
Franca's paintings give me the sensation of something known to us whilst appearing innovotive. One cannot help but make a comparison with the most relevant events that have taken place this year: the Roman exhibitions of Calvesi and Bonito Oliva on the Modern and on contemporary art; the last Biennale of Venice which having received a number of blows in the past provoked by age-long disputes and lapses in style, was able this year to come through with a host of fresh young talent, a reflection of the current curator's tastes, Harold Szeemann. Without attempting elaborate constructions and a specific analysis of each event, already adequately covered in specialistic journals, I'd Iike to mention what is evident to all. In the presence of the most modern means offered to us by technology alongside more traditional practices, most of the work offered for viewing reveals to have a conceptual soul which fails to arouse me; frankly speaking nor does it interest or intrigue me, save for my duty as an art historian.
My personal inhibition? Well I defend it and am willing to make an intellectual identity out of it because I'm looking for other things in art and I know that I am exercising a legitimate refusal of aesthetic operations which originate from a poisonous and antihumanist ideology. Nevertheless, the confrontation may prove useful: the young artist finds the national and international scene of the aesthetic disciplines open to him or her, Franca Marini is a young artist; amongst other things she, like them, has undergone long training and had exhibitions outside the national circuit, overseas where, unlike here, a different and perhaps more intelligent policy towards new talent exists.
So Franca Marini must have certainly had close contact with current trends: the everpresent video-art, the modern futurism of computer-art, the sophisticated photographs, the performances, the more or less pathological way in which some artists present the body, multimedia, installations and so on. Nevertheless, her expression has remained linked to ways that we would call less avant-garde, still lingering on the softness of pictorial materials, on a beautiful sign, on the beauty of colour.
If in some of her previous works - here not on show - we could detect in Franca Marini's work some elements in harmony with the Transavanguardia (the presence of expertly modulated pictorial material, the imposition of the figure and its semantic implications, recognizable elements in the midst of signs that are less interpretable at first sight, an atmosphere that at times bordered into the symbolic or at times denoted a reluctance to abandon personal or familiar myths), today her canvases go against current trends. In l984 Giovanni Testori stated in reference to the new painters of the Transavanguardia. "In contrast to the protest offered by their fathers, their protest don't betray an ideological or social nature: moreover a torrentially existential one; perhaps, in reality an inscrutably fetal one. ( ...)
These artists know that man's blindness cannot be explained by this or that power, as we once thought, but rather and perhaps more brutally, by that basic condition that is birth; it is as if every man's umbilical chord is attached to some obscure lump, some obscure tuft of darkness, of ruin and of death"(1).
I am convinced that Testori's analysis mirrors quite faithfully the theoretical basis that was at the heart of the art of Transavanguardia (perhaps stilI today) even if some artist has probably found fault with such peremptory statements. What we can be sure of is that the images that emerge from Franca Marini's work don't move in this direction: we read in her work a negation of Testori's theory of the origin of and reason for man's blindness; moreover we witness creativity, potentiality, and a progressive growing awareness of the world of colours and forms awaiting to be transformed by the imagination of the artist into visual images.
Is this the world that inhabits the pictures on show? What is being translated into elements of linear and chromatic abstraction? It seems to me that we find ourselves before a real movement backward - both in terms of the path which her art is following, and in terms of the artist's own life - which, far from representing a regression in taste and concerns, imposes itself instead as originality. Perhaps we are best to calI it originary.
I'II try to explain better what I mean. At the moment contemporary art subsidized by an impressive number of curators of exhibitions and by artists, shows a marked tendency towards the art of quoting, whether consciously or not, the works produced by now famous artists belonging to artistic movements of the 6Os and 7Os in the l9OOs. In an interesting article which appeared in number 227 of "Flash Art"(2), the art historian, Marco Senaldi, depicted a faithful picture of the situation, highlighting the fact that the fundamental poverty of ideas in contemporary modern art is an indication of an extreme weakness in thinking. This weakness, far from being passed off as a mental attitude (as I previously mentioned, the antihumanist philosophies reproposed which have long lost their provocative push and their cerebral density, dissolving themselves in an absence of proposals and inconsistent theories), has led artists to a crossroad which has them repeating products which have now become prescribed works (performances and installations included), and has seen these very artists enter the art market. Even when the viewing material offered to eyes that have grown increasingly indifferent (on the other hand a critical approach is never required), purports to be detestable or attempts to provoke that Freudian sense of "perturbance", at most it seems to cast a cheeky wink at us but nothing very lasting that we don't manage to drown in drinks and amiable conversation of the vernissage.
Art criticism has become a refined exercise of rhetoric and persuasion and when it participates with the artists themselves in the quest for success it loves to lose itself in the meanders of the "concept": one no longer looks for the meaning and the sense of art (as Senaldi correctly points out, alongside our search for what is "new", these values are seen as too closely linked with the Modern, and therefore demodè), the identity of the artist, solely recounted to us in terms of aesthetic experiences to the exclusion of a more personal history seems to matter little. On the other hand, convinced as we are that art cannot be separated from the person, aesthetic must be considered in so far as human, and here derive comfort from the words of Harold Rosenberg(3), a scholar who certainly cannot be considered passè. Without a doubt, therefore, Franca Marini must be considered out of fashion. One can see not only traces of a life course which take us back in time - long before the 6Os and more so the 7Os - to that prolonged avant-garde operation where the figure and the form were destroyed in the search for the emergence of a sign which constituted the attempt to unveil the language of the unconscious, the synthetic nature of the first expressions, the indefinite quality of the first images of life. That thing that all men search for, that thing that only artists succeed in representing; that thing that works scholars up as they try to understand whether the image presented as absolute and indiscutable be really so or a mere deceit, if it be a true self expression or a falsification.
To do this it is necessary to understand if the regression mentioned above is purely a formal one, or whether it be a movement backward undertaken by the artist from exteriority to interiority, her own. Here, naked before us, her soul unveils before us with courage and pride. No concepts, no declaration of intent, no innovative material. The canvases become colored and pasted with heavy brushstrokes, lines unravel and writhe before us forming shades of geometric forms, hints of a form, the odd letter. Is this Informal art? Action painting? Material painting? Concrete poetry? Visual writing? Definitions which say it all and yet nothing.
From l988 onwards, the year in which Franca first landed in America, and perhaps earlier still, from the days when she first presented her work to an Italian public, her pictorial work has undoubtedly changed. Characterized by a heavy black trait, many of her paintings presented a very close tie with figurative themes and with traces of conscious thought, which were gradually transformed into geometric or human forms that have currently disappeared altogether from sight.
The chromatic material, instead, has remained dense and deformed, moulded in ways one would call expressionistic, capable of creating different atmospheres: the vitality of red -orange, the blacks which repel, and the open and inviting whites. Alongside these exquisite pictorial elements, one finds a line that seems to be the one traced in her early work: in reality, it once served to give a contour, to close in, now it tends to move along the canvas in a totally arbitrary way. It no longer contains a figure, but this does not impede it from becoming longer and longer in order to become a form itself, at times rather harsh, almost Iike in xylography, especially when it sits on a clear background. In other moments it's a grid that seems to hold in traces of memory, images and forgotten perceptions, that re-emerge only if recalled by that infallible stimulus that is triggered off when one puts brush on canvas. Colors held tight on strips of harlequin material and then letters, forms, and sounds. Not unlike the voice of a friend we hear that becomes entrapped in the soft tissues of our interior selves where it clashes with the pointed or curved truth which emerges.
History tells us of that research on the sign and of the torment attached to the sign that becomes writing. Who knows if painting suffers from a passionate amorous envy in respect to those small traces, suspect of possessing the secret of creativity which color has always wanted for itself.
It certainly cannot be denied that contemporary art is alI played out in confrontation with language (and in this Franca is very contemporary); in spite of this, when a letter is placed on a support which isn't its own, such as on a canvas, the Saussurian terms of langue and parole, of sense and meaning intensify and become complicated; the most accredited of linguistic and semiologic theories don't give us satisfactory replies (even if their contribution has been important in the visual arts), whereas art - in removing from language its denotative role - runs the risk of delegating it to a purely decorative role. From the discovery of the gestural nature of the pictorial sign in the l95Os until the most recent works of visual writing by artists like Accame, the introduction of writing in painting is often (always?) characterized by a prevalently rationalist and analytic attitude which, in my opinion, has infatuated critics but has distorted research, and many irrelevant theories which borrow from traditional psychoanalytical thinking have come into existence. Nevertheless, today the most vital artistic exploration is the one that takes for granted the existence of a link between language and images which is not ecphrasical in nature and attempts to recuperate the image within the word, inside the letter not only at a graphic level. The problem, however remains that of not becoming too abstract, or cerebral, or religious; the challenge resides in finding the roots of language -including verbal - in one's own life even before the learning process takes pIace. This is what was being referred to when speaking of undertaking a journey back to one's interiority. The artist who undertakes such a journey will inevitably come up against the common credence that language is solely the fruit of reason.
I believe that Franca Marini seems to have disentangled herself from this impasse permitting her lines, even when paying tribute to language acquisition, to remain free to move, separating or mixing in with colour but avoiding the rigidity of abstract thinking. It seems as if, once the object of the painting has disappeared the artist does not find herself facing that "void" that so preoccupied Kandinskii so as to lead him to those little improvised albeit non-figurative compositions where reasoning and the melody of numbers offered an invisible structure to the signs he made. Here the only structure present (if one can call it so), seems to be that of the imagination; interior limits seem, one by one, to disappear leaving only those desired by the structure. No fear of emotivity or subjectivity here, nor of interpretation. A privilege of course that will be left to the viewer.

(l) G. Testori, Ritorna il fantasma di Edipo, in "II corriere della sera ",November 14 l984.
(2) M. Senaldi, Niente di personale. La fragilità teorica dell'arte contemporanea, in "Flash Art", year XXXIV, n. 227, April -May 2OOl.
(3) See H. Rosenberg, L'arte è un modo speciale di pensare, edited by M. Cianchi, U. Allemandi & C, Turin -London 2OOO.