Stefano Piali, visionary hand and memory metamorphosis

Stefano Piali’s research is a challenge to visual appearances. It is clearly seen after spending few hours in his studio in Marino, in Castelli Romani: a comfortable setting for any artist, but too narrow for Piali’s creative exuberance. In the beginning, at first glance, one is astonished and enchanted by the technical mastery of every work, both pictorial and sculptural, which is the result not only of a pure muscular performance, but especially of a hard process of spiritual refinement. In this atelier, like in a few others, the farseeing and truthful warning call issued by Ernst H. Gombrich about the loss of «mastery and beauty» in the contemporary art is echoless. Later, after being enchanted by Piali’s performing mastery (as shown by the magnificent marble sculpture «Omaggio al sommopoeta» («A Homage to the Grand Poet»), the visitor is catapulted into a spectacular mythical, epic and timeless scenario, made of battles, encounters, transfigurations, bad ended flights, fires, resurrections, wrecks, fatal, dramatic, tragic and erotic instants. The gaze gets lost between sculptures that are swallowed up into enigmatic shadows and tearing perforations or lacerations, that throw into crisis the idea of absolute beauty. But on a closer inspection the narrative strategies, the astonishing theatrical effects and compositional cuts, the anatomical anamorphosis take a second place and it can be caught the breath of memory and Warburg’s beloved «mnemonic waves», from past to present and vice versa. It is an upstream choice in today’s world, dramatically permeated by oblivion, forgetfulness, cancellation of values and quality. In many Piali’s paintings and sculptures the echoes of action painting, Fontana’s cuts and Burri's cracks (for example, observe the ambitious bas-relief of "Il follevolo" ("The mad flight") and perhaps even those of body art, converse unexpectedly - in new forms marked by stigmas of inner necessity - with the memory of the tormented "Prigioni" ("Prisoners") by Michelangelo, of mannerist contortions, Baroque infinite spaces, Caravaggio’s dramatic realism, Berninian energetic dynamism, Rodin's titanic plastic anxiety, Blake's aspiration toward the sublime. In this way takes shape a dialectical alternation of continuity and breakdown with the furthest and latest past, set perpetually in motion by the artist. Piali loves both painting and sculpture, perceiving them as complementary arts that mutually reinforce and inspire themselves. And he knows how to listen to the "mnemonic waves", but without being overcome by it; actually, he transforms them into a figural correlative and formalized expression of the psychic energy in progress. Thus emerges the inner lymph of his research, the idea of all-absorbing metamorphosis, both interior and formal and even historic-artistic, in that free coexistence of differences that animates his path. Thus, Piali's figures seem to be possessed internally by the inexhausted agitation of flame and wind as elementary forces that represent the denial of crystallized immobility. And it is not by chance that Piali has been a student of Pericle Fazzini at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome; a sublime sculptor "of wind’s impetus", as he had been defined by the unforgettable Ungaretti. Indeed, without doubt, our artist could endorse what Fazzini said: «A true sculpture must create an absolute, mystical form, far from the "physical" existence of the model, a form that does not need to "breathe" the air. » After his academic studies, for several years Piali has experienced what was experienced by all artists endowed with deep historical sensitivity; as it was written by Aby Warburg in the Introduction to his unfinished "Atlantedellamemoria" ("Atlas of memory"): «The obligation to confront with the formal world of predetermined expressive values - are they from past or present - marks the decisive crisis of every artist who wants to affirm his own individuality. » So, Piali has tested over the years a personal linguistic inventory, which had crossed an analytical and almost freezy hyperrealism, but at the same time amazing for several creative intuitions (an worthy example is "Anatomia" ("Anatomy", 1983); therefore, a freely gestural phase, at the limit of the abstraction, that has brought him to forms’ explosion (with works like "Il follevolo" ("The crazy flight"), "Metamorfosicosmica" ("Cosmic metamorphosis") and "Muro di Berlino" ("Berlin Wall", glimmering and visionary), up to the intense current phase of recomposing the still in tension opposites. After all, for Piali the contemporary reality and the deeper interiority have reached such a metamorphic complexity, where an only interpretative code is insufficient to give shape to everything that happens in the world and in the present man. The same tension between opposites that gives lymph to artist's research succeeds first of all in the restless dialectic of his pictorial technique, I would say, rather in always different and variable ways to spread the colour, from the strong plastic and luminist construction, to lighter and airier rarefactions and more swirling gestural impetus. In this regard, Piali could share, mutatis mutandis, what Massimo Bontempelli has written with prophetic clarity in 1935: «If I throw away the body, I cannot even find the soul. Art is all made of these tight unions of opposites. Art is the contingent that has absolute value, the concrete that has abstract value, reality that has a fantasy value. In the internal struggle between humanity and abstraction, between matter and spirit, a point is touched, where one suddenly realises that they are the same thing. That point is art. » And so, the idea of metamorphosis and inner mutation, conceived as knowledge paths, crosses all Piali’s artistic periods; it fertilises them acquiring different, but always creative aspects because they are in constant tension and longing of research. Our painter and sculptor still aspires to an ideal of great narration, already excluded from the system of contemporary art. However, this goal emerges as a challenge to the unknown and beyond the appearances; a challenge opened to all the possibilities and deeply pluralistic. And so, his firm faith in technical wisdom is never a pure and superficial virtuoso showing off, but a deep awareness of the fact, that hand and brain enrich each other in unique ways, especially through a continuous dialogue triggered by "traditional" artistic practice. It has been explained by the 20th century’s Pictor Classicus par excellence, Giorgio de Chirico: «Man’s hand has an agility that has not been given by Nature to other living beings; then, human brain conceives an idea that the hand translates and expresses by creating a concrete and tangible object. The realised object stimulates the brain to the thought and desire of perfection. » That is, from Piali’s painting emanates a pure anxiety of perfection that inevitably collides with the superficial and tyrannical carelessness of current world, voted to pure and simple spectacular entertainment. In Piali’s daily creative path, every moment of the performing and technical process stimulates creativity, because for our artist the act of doing means also the act of imagining. Somehow, he begins to "see" only when he touches base with the matter and works with his hands. In this case, it is inevitable to think about Henri Focillon’s essay "In Praise of Hands" of 1943, in which the historian of French art has written: «The hand touches the universe, feels it, dominates it, transforms it. The extraordinary adventures of matter are due to the hand. It is not sufficient to grasp what it is: it must work on what it is not, it must add a new kingdom to the realms of nature. » It is not by chance that Piali feels strongly the vocation of giving image to a parallel reality, to inner worlds, independent from the visible. So, our artist chose bravely to put constantly to the test a safe demiurgical ability of identification with used materials and with a natural vocation for meditation and contemplation. And he is not afraid of being sometimes defined "outmoded", because today, in order to escape from the suffocating coils of the tentacular art system, with his ephemeral fashions and the obsession of the new at any cost, is necessary a sincere and stable "praise to the outdatedness". His works are really capable of turning into "incarnate meaning", a definition used by Arthur C. Danto. Extremely contemporary in spirit is the spatial virtuality that innervates many Piali’s pictorial works through a polycentric multidimensionality; this makes metamorphic and mutant space itself, conceived no longer as a simple container - according to classic stylistic features - but as a field of inner psychomachias, animated by a perpetual agitation, by Dionysian fury and a disturbing state of alert: it is well seen in works like "Pianinellospazio" ("Levels in space", 2005-2006), "Dal ciclodelle muse" ("From the cycle of Muse",2008) or in the diptych "Materia e spirito" ("Matter and Spirit", 2008) and in the triptych "Porta di luce" ("Door of Light", 2007), just to name a few works. By imagining the coexistence of intersecting multiple parallel realities, Piali seems to be on the same wavelength about the latest scientific hypotheses, according to which the known universe is not the only one, because there is also the "Multiverse", a set of coexisting and parallel universes, that are not simply placed side by side: they actually interpenetrate without any interaction. In each case, on closer perusal, a metamorphic spatial dislocation of infinite potentials animates also his most successful sculptures: four dazzling marbles such as the darting "Lampoerotico" ("Erotic Lightning",1996); the disturbing "Tensione" ("Tension", 1996), almost on the point of exploding in space with its impressive inner concentration; "Liberazione" ("Liberation", 2001), a magnificent female nude, which turns into an ascending spiral; the full of energy and tempestuous "Un abbraccio per la pace" ("A Hug for Peace", permanently exposed in the Council chamber of the Commune of Ciampino); bronzes such as "Sovrano" ("Sovereign", 1994), boiling with a sort of implacable inner flame; the dramatic "Energiavitale" ("Vital Energy", 2009), "Grande Re" (The Great King) and "Regina" ("The Queen"), 2006-2007, animated by the plastic realization of their different states of mind; earthenware such as "La fuga" ("The escape", 2006-2007), with its amazing spatial expansion or "Conflitto" ("Conflict", 2008), where the form itself become an irrepressible torment. In the endless "game" of breakdown and continuity with the past and present, carried out by Piali, the metamorphic spatial dislocation of the forms reminds not only to the most updated scientific theories, but in the temporal element of perception it takes account of one of the most illuminating definition of Nature and essence of plastic research: that given by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s "Laocoonte" ("Laocoön", 1766), according to whom, sculpture is an art tied to bodies’ deployment in space. Even though this spatial characteristic is typical of visual arts and requires a static quality, Lessing, speaking of sculpture, specifies that «Bodies exist not only in space, but also in time. They persist and can appear in every moment of their duration with different combinations. Each of these temporary apparitions and combinations is the result of a previous one and can be the cause of the successive, and so, can be the centre of an action». Piali is looking to carry out a strategy of dynamic dislocation (in temporal and perceptive sense) of his forms in space, articulating them with anxious tension. And he strengthens their metamorphic character with a disconcerted strategy, similar to that adopted in painting and that moves from the virtuoso performance of the most meticulous anatomic detail to the surfacing of just darted matter and also to a strong abstract structuring, particularly visible on the back of the sculpture, made of peremptory cuts and strong compositional triangulations: examples are the already mentioned marbles "Lampoerotico" ("Erotic Lightning"), "Tensione" ("Tension"), "Liberazione" ("Liberation") and protean "Narciso" ("Narcissus") and "Apparizione" ("Apparition"), a work that seems to be coasted to us directly from a dream. So, the strong point of Piali’s research is the absolute identification that he had reached between the formal process and creative intuition, shown by the main theme of metamorphosis, which is in the same time physical, interior, stylistic and technical. Giving himself an absolute freedom of creative action, Piali never falls into the arbitrariness of the end in itself inspiration, typical of the contemporary pseudo-art. He believes in form’s historical conscience and in the infinite possibilities of his technical and creative manifestations, able to assure a much greater independence than that achieved by artists, who think to fill the lack of their own vision of the world with special effects of hyper-technological tools. Thus, in his titanic effort to give a concrete plastic and pictorial image to the dramatic life complexity of the world, Piali might make his own these reflections of a such great artist as Max Beckmann: «The stronger and intenser is my will to stop the unspeakable things of life, the heavier and deeper burns in me the dismay for our existence, the more reserved is my mouth, the colder becomes my will to grasp this monster of horrendously fluttering vitality, to destroy it, to strangle it in lines and clear and crystalline surfaces. » And this is Piali’s pursued goal, whose creative itinerary reveals an impressive consistency in pursuing a sort of initiation toward an inner liberation, continually threatened by disagreements, conflicts, aggressiveness, failures (many collapsed flights that populate his paintings), disappointed hopes. His naked and often aching bodies seem to carry metaphorically the sense of guilt caused by the Fall of Man or perhaps they are the survivors of a terrible tragedy that did not spoil the beauty. The works of our artist often emanate an anxious fear of an imminent apocalypse, also in connection with the collapse and upheaval of humanistic forms and values, to whose we are assisting mostly as passive observers in a time, like the current one, which seems to be identifiable in a word: crisis. «Crisis of utopias, projects models - has written Yves Michaud - even a crisis of history that had become an appearance. From a collective point of view, capitalism and globalization are at this point the environment, without an exterior, where we must live. [….] Time has become flattened: it no longer involves the dimension of a final purpose that shimmered future. [...] Perhaps, future will regain meaning, not with of a thought magic wand, but turning out to be really fatal: not in the form of emptiness, but of catastrophe, in the form of Apocalypse. The future would regain a sense ... by being simply missing». Despite all, inner energy, intense and deeply focused glances of Piali's men and women reveal a desire of positive redemption and an anxiety of ethical reconstruction that keep away the apocalyptic nightmare. And so, even in the case of a shipwreck, there will always be a wreck to catch hold of, in order to restart; a plank come from who knows where like the abandoned and scratched tables on which Piali recently is painting some of his most essential and convincing works: "Arcieri" ("Arciers"), "Le muse" ("The Muses"), "Realtàparallele" ("Parallel Realities"), "La piega" ("The Bend"), in which existential charge, irregularities and scratches become a whole with his painting and with his signs engraved in a kind of contemporary Primordialism that evokes even caves’ graffiti of the first men. So, the circle closes into itself and Piali could identify himself with the great Octavio Paz by saying these words: «One day I found out that I did not move forward, but that I was returning to the starting point: the research for modernity was a descent toward the origins. Modernity has led me to my start, to my past. It is not outside me but inside us. It is today and the oldest past, it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world, it has thousand years and is about to be born». Gabriele Simongini