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Figures in the shadows – Francesco Moschini

Works from 1989 to 2001

Finally a solitary, retiring and tireless artist like Bruno Lisi can retrace his entire artistic itinerary, or at least the last decade of it, with a retrospective at two exhibition sites. Palazzo Brancaccio is holding a review of his work from the end of the 1980s on, with large pieces representing each artistic period. The AOC, meanwhile, is holding a series of shows in which these various periods are examined in more detail. We can thus study the evolution of the artist’s work and, at the same time, focus on the sense of his insistence on certain themes, where an apparent tendency towards repetition is instead transformed into a patient search for unexpected beauty. The Palazzo Brancaccio exhibition, with its reference to the evolution of the work as a whole, helps us to appreciate more the “fixations” present at the AOC: the Stele of the early 1990s, with their taut ‘figures’ leaping out from the surface of the canvas; the layered Metacrilati which lend themselves to the exploration of body and lightness and body and mind; the Segni – “stacks” – which are slowed down and diluted with their allusions to the infinite, or concentrated to the point of becoming lumpy and lacerated, for example in the Otranto series; the Variazioni, where aerial lightness departs from almost abyss-like depths; and the Gesti, where wide-ranging, broad, decelerated, almost dragged bands alternate with the vitalistic phitomorfism of the “boxed” paintings, both stretched towards that dialectic between material and light in eternal unstable balance.

Certain elements which have always characterized the work of Bruno Lisi are still present in this work from the last decade – the painful interrogation on the construction of the void, the structure of the figure revealed in its own negation, the letting go of the hand to give body and structure without a predetermined design. The constriction of remaining within the physical limits of the paper, of leaving no voids unexplored, emphasizes the contrast between this way of proceeding and the trusting going farther, the desire to pass over all limits which is typical of American abstract expressionism. Painting intended as a continual stimulus, or better a setting into vibration of the pictorial surface. It is precisely this surface work which, paradoxically, typifies the search for inner meaning and great spirituality that has always characterized the road towards abstraction. There is a constant tendency to reduce any presence inside the art piece, losing the colour and eliminating all structures which might hint at the search for a complex design – works which tend to create a place of minimum intervention using the void, the whiteness of the canvas, just barely stirred, slightly rippled, like wax furrowed by fleeting footprints of which only a trace remains. Bruno Lisi’s works also always tend towards pure and absolute knowledge of every form of objectivity, subordinating colour and structure to spiritual communication and pure idealization.

In the most recent ‘bands’ marking the Gesti series the material expands, extends and becomes emphatic almost to the point of denouncing that its beauty can be fixed by love for things even while revealing simultaneously and wickedly the unfathomable void we could fall into if we were content with that extenuating, formally upright, kind of beauty and if that eternal reaching out for elsewhere did not support us.

Various eminent critics and art historians have been asked to comment on specific periods of Bruno Lisi’s work. Through their analyses, which are not meant so much as philological criticism, as rather a general re-examination of the artist’s work, it is possible to propose a new theory which sees his work as the continual repression of – or better – progressive distancing from the obsession with reality. At the same time the artist must continually take reality into account, in order for his work to assume the character of a search for constant, sophisticated abstraction which allows the objective original data to re-emerge. What else were those first Stele of the 1990s with their luminous vibrations if not elements of a baroque movement, in which gusts of wind moved drapes, wing-spans, whirlpools, rippled earth, sea, sky? And yet their presenting themselves as sudden flashes of lightning tending to deny themselves, to disappear from view, modestly declaring their “cupio dissolvi”, where the desire to disappear was stronger than the coquetry by which they showed their exhausting beauty, stated all the same the sense of continuity that B.Lisi wanted to establish with the culture of the place, of the city where he happened to be working. The artist has frequently tried to root himself in his context with his creations, through recourse to elements which, as metahistorical categories, have characterized the art work in a city like Rome, thereby bestowing continuity on them and giving to his research a dimension of the “eternal present.” Some such elements of permanence can be detected in Bruno Lisi’s work – “agudeza”, “trompe l’oeil”, that is the ambiguity in perception, “sumptuousness” and other devices which form part of Rome’s artistic heritage, at least from the Baroque age onwards. But these elements are transfigured by Lisi to the point of becoming mere shadows of a past greatness now presented as pure fragments of a world no longer even dreamt of because stripped of all consoling illusion.

In the Otranto series, those ‘wounds’ where the mark becomes thicker become the open declaration that even the exploration of the depths of the canvas is no longer possible – that spatiality of the beyond so sought after in the slashes of Lucio Fontana in order to obtain the most repellent and anti-beautiful appearance of things. Even the condensed mark, almost as if we are focusing in from a distance, recalls Domenico Gnoli’s obsession with close-ups but at the same time activates a mechanism whereby the viewer’s eye flees to the beyond, towards the edges of the work almost making it impossible to force it to focus on the centre of the piece. The anxiety created by these lacerations stems from the clear intention of rendering the apparent beauty and intensity of these marks unattractive and recalling their true pauper’s dimension – “poor but beautiful”. They are filled with a postwar aura which cannot but recall certain “bituminized” neorealist drawings of the Portonaccio school and their alchemic phase of “nigredo”. The extraordinary sequence of ‘marks’ is also linked to this tendency, defined as the recourse to the anti-beautiful. These marks, like heraldic standards, couple their verticality and vitality, through an excess of thick, insistent writing, with an oriental lightness of a world reduced to pure writing if not a pure graphic sign. Even when the writing passes from the bichromatic to a more open chromatic style, to the extent of bordering on the iridescence of an extraordinary artist like Federico Barocci, the self-imposed constriction of the total occupation of the canvas removes from the entire sequence any semblance of grace and results in the hard and peremptory proposition of a world without intervals or breaks, tight to the last breath, in which everything has been taken away, even the glimmer of a void or a break.

Only in certain extraordinary sequences from the most recent films by Peter Greenaway – “The Pillow Book” in particular – do we find the same obsession with a world reduced to pure writing in which all possibility of comprehension has been lost and in which the non-sense of writing with its character of infinite entertainment can alleviate the absurdity of existing and of continuing, despite all, to write poetry and to produce art. Even those works from the same cycle which are most closely connected with a sense of water or sky transform the introspection of underwater depths or impenetrable skies into a disturbing, horrific vacuity full of anguish and premonitions of little hope of salvation, despite their apparent suggestion of a universe in itself full of beauty. We have no choice then but to make do with the little that we can grasp, to hold on to those few dear, familiar things that have survived the artist’s efforts to erase everything.

Even here, we have only fragments but at least some hope – this isn’t just desolation but rather a magma-like concentrate which could generate new life and from which a new order could emerge. At least that is what seems to be implied by the works in the Variazioni series. Their visionary quality suggests that we are not really “travelling towards the end of the night” but that some sort of dawn, no matter how faint, is about to break and that we can still at least retain some hope. Even the ghostly larvae which appear in the “boxes of painting” series allude to the formation of life, or better to a world that is undergoing regeneration and repopulation, even if under the remains of a pure vegetable presence, that transforms those thickened marks at the base into vital trails, animated by a strange classifying euphoria which refers to their movement as well, to their way of dancing within the canvas. But it is perhaps in the last cycle of Gesti, where the mark widens and spreads until it almost becomes an imprint, that we have a sense of landscapes that are remote but not lost, controlled and measured as if viewed from above, almost like the fruit of a “centuriatus” of Roman memory. Thanks to intermittence in the production of the mark itself, one seems to be witnessing a rediscovered reconciliation, a newly found possibility of poetic living which should perhaps be considered the primordial aspiration of our dark days given that we have never been further from such harmony than at present.

(translated by Michele Von Büren and Irene Ranzato)

(from the catalogue of the exhibition: “Opere dal 1989 al 2001”, Galleria A.A.A. Palazzo Brancaccio, 26 November 2001-26 February 2002)