As we were so used to the obstinate meticulousness of the “all full” of Bruno Lisi’s whole artistic itinerary, today it is really surprising to see him working on a new cycle that seems to have the dazzling rarefaction of the void as its foundation. To underline this apparent variation of direction of his search, he took recourse to a technique and a tool such as the ball-point pen, undoubtedly quite far from his customary predilection for a vibrant and pulsating painting, because of their being aseptic and their hinting at an indistinct and undifferentiated universe. But once again, for B. Lisi, it is a matter of giving body to unexplored depths, to bring figures subjected to tension to the surface, as if the whole work was treated in a “pictorial” way and not just the part where the sign gets thicker, clinging at and holding back the urgency of underground vibrations. That is why removing all trace of automatism from the mark, B. Lisi imposes a sort of faded chiaro-scuro on it that lends the image that has been drawn to the surface a vitalism, an animism and a sort of panpsychism that makes his search become more related with those theories on the universe as “seething” than with pure aspiration to form. At least this is what a certain baroque sumptuousness seems to indicate. We catch a glimpse behind those knotted and raised “curtains”, that “Ludovica Albertoni” kind of ever-changing material, stirred by the wind, but frozen by its being forced to emerge just slightly. A skeletal presence that survived the erosion of too much void surrounding it. So it is not by chance that as soon as these presences were evoked, B. Lisi cut them out and set them in a vertical sequence to create a real stele, impressing on the whole assembly, thanks to the clearness of the two white sheets placed in succession, an intentional archaicity that immediately declares its distance from possible memories of painting-painting. All this for a more suffering interrogation on the construction of void, on the structure of the figure revealing itself as it denies itself, in the abandonment of the hand that lets go and gives body and structure without a preconceived plan. The same dimensional exasperation impressed by the verticality of the work, that constriction to become pure poetic nook in the anomalous place on high of the various shapes, moved out of place in their most varied positions. They seem to measure the abysmal void that forces them to withdraw ever more into their shell. Then, more than a rapid passage of clouds, those apparitions seem to indicate a fear and at the same time a need to distance themselves from that void that made them emerge in the first place, in a continuous oscillation between desire to plunge in it and the fear of sinking in it. All of it in the certainty that their bursting in is guaranteed by the retreat of that void, by its opening up leaving ravines of accumulation of shadow if not of mystery. But to underline the substantial identity between the emerging figures, reduced to simulacre or rather finds in a stratigraphic excavation, that uncontaminated void though solicited by the slight telluric shocks that set in vibration those same shreds of image, B. Lisi adds to the rarefaction of this cycle a fast sequence of more intricate signs. A series of works where, more freely, the drawn sign superimposes itself, chases itself, intertwines with itself until it occupies every interstice. All this in a constraint to remain within the physical limits of the sheet, to not leave unexplored voids, almost to underline the distance of this mode of proceeding from going farther trustingly, from that desire to go outside the borders that was typical of J. Pollock, for example. And this enclosing inside a measured and controllable surface, making an effort to make sudden depths emerge only through the changing movements of the superimposed marks, or the discolouring of the various signs that intertwine, can only lead us to the idea that permeates B. Lisi’s work like a continual obsession from the sixties until today. This is painting intended as a continuing stimulus, a setting into vibration of the pictorial surface. And it is this very work on the surface, paradoxically, to register that search for inner depths and great spirituality that from the historical avant-gardes onwards has always characterised the way to abstraction. And these very sheets, with their obsession for an insisted mark always turning back on itself with its own circularity, recall that naturalism, forever evoked by B. Lisi as a fundamental element of his work, in the search for that “continuum where everything is”. Therefore it is not by chance, having underlined the distance between his work and that of the American abstract expressionism, the one that is more trusting in the “magnificent destinies and progress” of humanity, that B. Lisi tends to build a kind of logical connection with the extremely dense textures of vibrant microsigns by which M. Tobey expressed the incessant pulsating of life. What else is that excess of full, set against that dizziness of void, if not a remote memory of that “white writing” which, aside from the basic Oriental ascent, can’t help but present itself as a cognitive moment, or better a moment of pure reflection on reality? In the same way, writing across wide, luminous surfaces, as was already done in other cycles of his paintings, is for B. Lisi like bringing up to the surface fragments of consciousness from afar that the artist struggles to catch and translate into a new order that is not the intellectualistic or conceptual one, but the more familiar one of daily life, which is a continual projection of the present. In a sort of shadow theatre the irrepressible appearance of a universe led onto the visual stage, before it fades away, keeps us in the unstable equilibrium of precarious spectators of a scene that we would like to pass by but we are forced to continue to peep at in its disturbing and smoothed depth reminding of a Donatello bas-relief. It is this very reduction to a concentrated spatiality to mark B. Lisi’s work ever since his debut in the early sixties. Since then his moving between abstraction and figuration, searching for a result to place him outside the now worn controversy between abstractism and realism, had made him pick out from some artists such as A. Magnelli an expressive world of intense stimuli: a decisive option for an abstraction of well defined elements of solid constructive connotation. But rather than reread the theoretical contribution of that Italian master of abstractionism in a key of exasperated geometrical structuralism, as the artists of Form 1 had already done towards the end of the forties, B. Lisi captures more than the decontamination of the painting from any narrative excess, the qualities of pictorial vibration. B. Lisi privileges what in Afro will become pure luminous structure, succeeding in solving the dialectics – young as he in this period – between matter and light in a precarious equilibrium between the two terms. The stimulus of informality after his first abstract experiences brings him to exasperate colours of mist and earth that get thicker and thicker until they turn into bituminous backgrounds that deny any visual plunge. It is in that same period that B. Lisi regains, through the monumentality of some figures, a far-reaching spatiality where the juxtaposition of ample chromatic spreads already becomes a naturalistic allusion, a forewarning of those spatial breakthroughs that, towards the end of the sixties, he will bring to masterly achievement, highlighting them in their exasperated dilation and in the forced constriction of the small format. In a kind of self-censoring exercise B. Lisi then tends to cool down whatever destructiveness the gesture of the pictorial work could hold. The gesture, barely held back, then forces the figures caught close up – a single part of the body, two hands, with an aspiration towards the indistinct, the non specific, the non finite – to exhibit their state of fragments, as though for B. Lisi painting meant exhausting or better yet burning in a very small space and in a time that did not allow changes, much less revival, the memory of an impression. The artist then seemed to aim at stopping the speed of the passage of the image in that void meant as the true protagonist of the work rather than at fixing the image itself. Thus he reached a “physicalness” of that passage of image so that the topic slid from the objective data to their possible deformation, from the real datum to its manipulation. The pursuit of emblematical elements was founded on the search for a stringent immediateness, on the chromatic flash of lightning given as shrieked contrast of bright colours. That B. Lisi’s work would tend more and more to the reduction of any presence inside the work, stripping the flesh off the colour and eliminating all structure that could make one think of a refined complexity of planning, seems evident in later works that tend to make the void, the white of the freshly vibrating canvas, the place of minimum intervention. Something to be barely stirred, to be rippled like a wax board barely furrowed or better yet just barely crossed by meteor imprints leaving a trail that can hardly be seen. In the end all that is left is regret for something longed and lost. Of this loss only mute and silent traces can be evoked. In becoming uniform and untouchable they stress their value of pure background figures that memory buries and digs up with obsessive insistence. That is true for the meteor-images of emphasized anatomical parts, but it is also true for the dense “tensions” elaborated by B. Lisi in the early seventies. It is in this period that the artist begins to make a coherent criticism of the very basis of his work in order to concentrate more on its structure than on the information that it seems to want to communicate. Mind you, not in tautological terms as aniconic painting seemed to do in the same period; that is, not on the same disciplinary instruments, but rather on the foundation of vision, on those “absent structures” yet capable of determining and legitimising historically the work of art. Therefore a reduction to zero degree of painting was necessary, a rediscovery of its primary values, until pleasure of painting itself was abandoned for pure aseptic and yielding layouts. Therefore it is not by chance that B. Lisi rediscovers in the total zeroing of the Soviet avant-gardes and the formalist ones in particular, the basis of his new searches. Not only the black Square on white by K.S. Malevic, but also the stratified monochrome overlaps of A.M. Rodcenko will certainly constitute a point of reference for a new way of painting that finds in the pure spatiality of pictorial surface, not a kind of tabula rasa on which to etch and tell one’s own vision of the world, but if anything just the non objectivity of the world as sole purpose of the work, until it is demonstrated how the “practical” reality of things is not so real in the end. All this in the name of a pure and absolute knowledge of every form of objectivity, subordinating the colour and structure of the work to a communication that is spiritual and of pure idealisation. It is worth while rereading those Tensions rather than in their aspects of ambiguity, as C. Vivaldi some time ago pointed out, in their constructive yet at the same time playful aspect, almost as patterns of the mind, remembering that constructive primordiality that as children made us play with elastic bands with our hands until we discovered complex interchangeable patterns with a simple operation of ars combinatoria. So those nearly monochrome imprints that barely furrowed the pictorial surface, until they made it vibrate from the effect of a skimming breeze, hinted at an everyday cosmology with an effect of extreme tenderness, even in their excess of concentration, if compared to the “making big” that was concealed behind the myth of the new frontier of the contemporary Cellotex by A. Burri. But what in A. Burri was a solar praise of matter brought to new beauty, in B. Lisi became a cut-out portion of an intentionally limited spatiality, reduced to its controllability and measurability. Almost to conceal, beyond any possible hedges, other spaces and other silences. This is the very aspect that B. Lisi accentuates in the mid eighties, in an ardent spiritualism that, emphasizing the centrality of the work in a kind of cosmic propagation of matter, forces it to place itself according to a truly cosmic range. The same flowering that accompanies the sinuous unfolding of those waves of propagation, seems to highlight the magical act of creating. Nothing more distant in this focusing – almost under a microscope – than D. Gnoli’s “close up” shots that emphasize reality in order to exorcise it. In these measured levitations it is as if the matter fermented, leaving luminous trails and a precipitation of fine dust. That precipitation has the alchemic flavour of transmutation of matter and is certainly the sign of the loving support that B. Lisi, with his maieutic action, seems to give the matter itself. He almost forces it to show off its dazzling beauty with its enamel and its incisiveness, although aware that it inevitably takes the signs of its own destruction with itself. Thus the same glossy beauty seems to be the common element of the most recent works. Starting in 1986, B. Lisi created a cycle of blue paintings extraordinarily linked together in a thrilling range. In the first series, a sort of framing, a proscenium created with a unitary border on the canvas, made the magmatic explosion of cluts of various sizes of matter burst onto a sort of ideal forestage. Yet at the same time the exasperated frontality of everything hinted at a frozen Böcklinian Island of the Dead barely eaten into by corrosion and by the impetuousness of those waves or – which is the same thing – by the uncontrolled thickening of an aggressive vegetation. And yet the final effect restored the same pitiless hardness of a desert landscape by C.D. Friedrich that, only more recently, began to soften itself in B. Lisi’s latest works, the “millimetred” series of landscapes juxtaposed like tesseras in an ideal mosaic. Here is the unfolding in all its vitality of the artist’s passion for frescoes that for several years he was able to get acquainted with as a restorer. And as a succession of days can also be intended the assembly of those chain links where the matter expands, spreads out and is emphasized as if to state that its beauty can be at least fixed by the love for things. Even when one discovers in them and reveals simultaneously and wickedly the unfathomable void we could fall into if we were content with that extenuating “whitened tomb” kind of beauty and if that eternal reaching out for elsewhere did not support us.
(translated by Helen Pringle)
(from the catalogue of the exhibition “Vertigine del vuoto”, Galleria A.A.M., Rome, September 1989; reprinted in the catalogue of the exhibition “Opere dal 1989 al 2001”, Galleria A.A.A. Palazzo Brancaccio, 26 November 2001-26 February 2002).