Presenting the works of Luciana Matalon in Rome - in such a prestigious space - means offering the local audience the chance to directly know the work of an artist who has never before exhibited in Rome, despite her career spanning back several decades to the Sixties. It also means allowing a wider critical exposure for the career of Luciana Matalon, since this exhibition represents an anthology.
Even though there are a limited number of paintings and sculptures - about thirty-five in total - the choice was made with the aim of enabling a profound investigation in to the complex and widely varied development, whilst maintaining a rigorous and careful approach in the selection of the combination between materials and paintings, between the language of space and that of the sculpture which is to occupy it, between the observation of everyday materials and their tradition in painting or sculpture.
As an artist Luciana Matalon has attracted the attention of important critics and obtained many distinctions, but she has never abandoned the idea of approaching art as a “trade”. In this sense she is very close to the classic tradition which she has been able to cross with a view towards providing a contemporary perspective. Her research corresponds to the memory of the past and her experiences are always present in her work.
Ermanno Krumm was typically insightful when he first wrote of her, highlighting the “unsettling” and “magic” symbolism in the choice of the subject matter for her work whilst reflecting at the same time on the combinations presence/absence, proximity/distance.
This could be a common thread in the artist’s entwining work, but only if we add to the above combinations the trait of memory which she has forever remained fixated with and which is forever alive in her work. I am not only referring to the “classic” memory of creating art and the instruments that the artist can adopt, but, more particularly, to the strong reflection that Matalon constantly dedicates to the significance of a piece in a contemporary context.
The Accademia di Brera, the informal period, the acquaintances with this or that great artist, the first steps in the Milanese environment, which has always been ready to receive and offer even formal novelties, the knowledge of European culture, figurative and otherwise, are all factors which have combined and immediately driven the artist to question herself and her artistic path, or “journey”, as it is correctly defined by Martina Corgnati.
Her lengthy itinerary covers many regions and many lands, but in reality it is about passing along that shadow line, which separates reality from illusions, dreams, fantasies and fixations. She approaches the informal, moves towards a painting of signs, investigates light, meets the luminescence of astral cities, writes, paints and sculpts. In effect she works on and around a virtually uninterrupted moving path and she provides us with her impressions. There is no journey more real than that which every artist consumes within her own solitude, in that freedom of selecting anything that she encounters, be it an object animal or person; memory adds structural stratifications to the present which reveals the visual mediation to be a struggle with an internal archaeology.
Of Luciana Matalon’s first work in the Sixties, certain mixed techniques stand out: Scavo archeologico, Archeologia stellare, Cattedrale dell’incoscio, Viaggio nella memoria, Profondità abissali, Nata nello spazio.
The trade, the material, the space: everyday objects are crystallised on the surface of the painting, which covers the entire support; unrecognizable as objects they become the artist’s manufactured products, and in losing their identity they become exfoliated, condensed and lacerated material which occupies the space of the painting.
The surface transforms into volume, but only in certain parts; it remains a smooth, flat, straight area in the spatial design: the counterpoint between surface and volume, that from the outset animated Matalon’s journey, is enriched by the strong monochrome tones.
Black, red, white or light blue: there is only ever one base colour and it maintains an obstinate purity, which is almost flaunted. It is the purity, almost paradoxically, of the shadow line which I referred to; the hiatus between the monochrome base and the criss-crossing of the objects-materials immediately instils within the viewer a perception of ambiguity: fullness and emptiness, volume and surface, fake and non fake, chaos and order.
It seems as though Luciana Matalon wants to accompany us towards an indeterminacy which represents not the loss of paradigms, but the search for them. Just like a Cistercian cathedral was constructed ad quadratum, with the firmness - etaphorical and otherwise - which derived from the certainty of faith, so these cathedrals are constructed in doubt, with the only certainty which derives from the awareness of ignoring and from the desire to meet that other part of ourselves which we all guard jealously.
And this is how in the Seventies the theme of the cathedral crosses that of the genuine journey inside the mind: Cattedrale nello spazio, Mémoires, Tragedy of errors, Viaggio nel tempo, Prigione.
The technique is still mixed, but the supports are ever more frequently cardboard, paniforte, table: an underlying solidity, a stability on which to act which contrasts with the painting surface; the latter is almost aerial in bundling of signs, brush strokes and transparencies.
Even when the representation seems clear, almost figurative, there is an impulse towards abstraction which foretells the themes and language of the immediately subsequent years.
The colours are tones upon tones and in the weaving of the base colour and its variations there is an intensity of connection which accentuates the chromalities.
These are the years in which she starts to reflect on sculpture. The first pieces of work are almost a comparison with painting, a challenge even; on the other hand we have seen how the theme of three-dimensionality, the depth of the surface, the presence of volume were already innate in her. But in the sculpture of this first period there is an approach to figurative depiction, an investigation into genuine anthropological aspects: men and animals mix in this initial research and man appears to be overcome with angst, as if defeated or unable to find his own identity.
Of great significance in this sense is the 1977 painting Prigione, a mixed technique compensate: a sort of cobweb (as in the sculpture Esistenza), that is difficult to unravel. Buried in tones of grey, material and tonal at the same time, a red glare lightens one side of the piece until it dazzles the very grey and highlights the streaks of colour, that seem to become prickly in a dense, striking and aggressive net. A red stain, in the bottom left corner, far from the nucleus of the glare, stands out from the prickly parts. That red mark brings to mind the clot of blood that seeps out from under the door of Zeno’s prison cell after he has committed suicide and is at last free.
From here, from Prigione, in the Eighties an additional chapter begins in the poetics of Luciana Matalon. A necessary consequence. An incessant reference to the complications of the psyche, which the artist expresses by introducing an almost obsessive system of signs. It is only natural that such a profound research should manifest itself though an insistence on the theme. Archeologia del pensiero, Dagli scavi della memoria, Archeologia abissale, Dagli abissi della psiche are some of the pieces of this period and in each we find syntactic novelties, that do not affect the continuity of the research but instead enhance its vigour. On the background of the surface the colours become softer and seem to coincide with the preparation, an entangled mass of signs that occupies the glance and which heads straight to our memory. But the brush strokes that emerge in a monochrome fashion and the prelude to new investigations.
In my mind the Nineties marked a long moment of critical review in the work of Luciana Matalon. She resumes and concludes Paesaggio mentale, a mixed technique on canvas, which she had begun in 1970, in which the surface appears to thicken with many symbolic elements from her baggage of visual experiences. A sort of small summa in which figurative, abstract, material, linear and colouristic elements confer. Even in the work that comes immediately afterwards, it is clear that we are in an in-between moment of reflection, in which the subject matter oscillates between evident figurativism and chromatic abstraction.
Between 1996 and 1997 she re-elaborated more paintings from the Seventies, Pensieri, Casellari della memoria, Aube cosmique and she produced a series of etchings, even here by going back to a support - paper - which she had used in the first drawings of the Sixties.
We thus arrive to the end of the Nineties, to Città astrale, where the language rests again on the symbolism of space: a pavement environment that visitors will step on as they are obliged to walk over it. This will grant a view from above, the opposite - it would seem - of those ascensional lines which characterised the work of Luciana Matalon until this point. We are free to choose where to step and are thus not obliged to follow any particular course but it as if the space itself approaches us, with its luminescence, its reflections and refractions which lighten its dark portions. An almost synchronous movement with that of our steps and that of the astral city into which we emerge.
Sculpture, especially in the last two decades, bursts into the work of Luciana Matalon with great insistence and flows towards a structure - I would almost call it a system - that is archetypal: pyramids, totems, stems, obelisks, geometrical figures, trees, symbols, an inventory which is not only dreamlike
or mnemonic, but usually has a strong lexical connotation in which the boundary between painting and sculpture is pronounced in the material, whilst slender in shape. Two means of expression with evident commonalities: as long as you can grasp them like the Milanese artist.
The sign appears overbearingly to populate her sculptural imagery, just like it never abandons the painting surface.
But this working approach results in two evident consequences. One with bronze pieces: a special attention towards the space which the sculpture occupies, at first it is extremely solid, with wide bases, a full-bodied installation which becomes all the more slender, even stringy in places.
Almost a metamorphosis which shows us that even sculpture is a sign and that its relationship with space does not become any less vigorous if it becomes minimal. It is able to occupy it and be occupied in a dialogue which transcends its dimensions and which thrives on the material it is made from and the light which impregnates it.
The second consequence of the paintings, where we can observe an insistent resumption of the chromatic material-yield relationsip. In Paludi della memoria, Metamorfosi, ... nelle derive del pensiero, Percorsi mentali are some of the most emblematic works of this final synthesis between material and colour; with the addition of the penetrating presence of the sign, that is often played as a text, a type of everyday handwriting which includes comments, personal notes, observations.
This is a strong indication. The clarified memory focuses on the dreamlike tension of the psyche, but manifests itself with features of daily life. It is a bridge which connects the past with the present, an arch combining space and time, an invitation which Luciana Matalon has sent to us, our guests in this occasion, to not block that tenacious thread which runs through the shadow lines of our existence.
A highly personal figurative “geography” animates Luciana Matalon’s work, which is now being presented in a challenging and important exhibition that will help to define the activities of this mature and highly expressive artist.
The range of images created and offered by the artist is so vast as to overwhelm the viewer who may have the feeling of facing such a multitude of experiences as to be unmanageable for a critical mind that is inclined towards cataloguing and ordering things.
But, in fact, the uninterrupted, and at times tumultuous, flow of images provides the very key to interpreting a collection of work which cannot possibly be given a single unambiguous definition.
It is thus probably not entirely incorrect to utilize the metaphor of artistic “geography” for Matalon in that she moves within a space made up of signs which reflect, radiate and concentrate each other, and create aggregations and disaggregations which together provide an overall vision that can go beyond the immediate appearance and guarantee a strong control of the forms.
Before both the paintings and sculptures one has the impression of coming face to face with the mysterious pulsating veins of the earth, the flowing of energies through long and unfathomable territories, to crowded surfaces upon which the sign of Nature and that of the human creator, all mix with and diffuse with one another in an uninterrupted process of development and growth which enables us to comprehend that the ultimate meaning and goal to which this artist aspires is that of providing a synthesis of the universe.
She leads the viewer through a process of enrichment in their perception and capacity to comprehend the aesthetic space, in accordance with a procedure that establishes a balance of the utmost effectiveness between the spontaneity of the inspiration and strict organization to create a result of great beauty.
1. The multi-dimensionality of painting
In the paintings and sculptures of Luciana Matalon the eikon, the image (far different, wrote Plato in his Republic, from mimema, the copy) is made up at once of mental reflection and empirical spontaneity: it is never still, never transparent, but “turbid” in matter, in reference to its iconic-symbolic complexity, it receives and transmits a particular poetry, continuing within itself that life which instantly changes it. The image, that is to say, “of intelligible reality,” always a means and never an end, almost an accumulation of directional matter, a decisive affective battle between reason and imagination, responds to a particular state of mind, a moment of the eidos, of thought in movement, and changes it, resulting in a transformed situation that the image itself has helped to transform.
The symbolic value of Matalon’s imagining consists in this infinitesimal modification of her own unique “thought for icon”, where light and shadow, distance and proximity, can non longer be objectively isolated. With a transference in which the “song of colour” divests itself of direct representability only to turn continuously, as if to its own countermelody, to a backwards and secret glance of the I that regards its own reflection, just as continuously, as the impossible reverse of the other, the artist’s eye can resist correctness of proportions, but it drowns in nature’s fertile chaos, intimate when a branch moves or expands, when the vegetation changes colour and texture, or when a hedge grows thicker or dissolves. As in Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, Matalon’s eye penetrates from the point of view of the making of things, and contributes the rhythm of aggregation and change, the history of geological stratification, of which paint itself is full of, and which tends to extend itself and live in the present.
In reference to paintings such as 1968’s Journey Through Memory, 1981’s Archaeology of Thought, 2005’s Clefts of ancient defunct hours and the following year’s Oneiric Landscape, Matalon revealingly warns us: “One cannot live artistically without thinking”. This means that the perpetual flux of her phantasmagorical exploration, whilst tying itself up and glistening in unforgettable images, also loosens itself, moving into a different space and time, to a way of being that assumes an evasive state of mind, propelling it toward a truth that is not the same as what is claimed research or by the theme carried through every artwork in a fine, continuous dialogue in every curve, in every jumbled mark. Her palette frees a secret force, like the Valcamonica rock drawings that look like they were made by otherworldly beings, but at the same time it has the precision of a mosaic, the exact inlay, like the simplicity of the deep mud of the river Po that dries and cracks in the sun after a flood.
The continuous mortification of matter, the penetration of the mark on the dominant black or white, the perceptible expressive urge to lay bare a meaning, a mathesis, and to extract it from the murky depths of a reality that is “seen,” but above all, perceived, as beautiful and impetuous: these are signs of an anxious probe that indisputably draws its premise from action painting. In Matalon’s singular work every mark assumes “figure” or alludes to it, every mark simulates at the same time a writing, and any attempt at organization becomes a changing and endless alphabet, any definition of a recognizable object becomes fragmented and indicates a transit from shape to shape. At length, on its solitary path, the expectation of an announcement, of an Advent charged with laic religiousness - with aspects of esotericism and Jewish gnosis - manifests itself with an intensity equal to the impatience of revealing it; this is the phase in which, from the encounter between Art autre and the suggestions of lyrical abstractionism, between the immediacy of the gesture (the I against any risk of being reduced to an existing object) and the painful awareness of a condition of crisis, the pathos that Aeschylus once said was true knowledge, emerges most profoundly.
But Matalon’s stroke does not reveal, with the arrogance of a Pollock, the gesture, that is to say the will, the energy of the gesture; the stroke speaks in the first person, it is itself the protagonist, not the hand that made it. But this difference (something similar could be said about Novelli, an Italian contemporary, from a more intimate and less gestural point of view than the informal American) would not sufficiently explain why Matalon is not a follower of action painting, but a painter who surpassed it from the inside, working in her furrow, with a Koinè, who by means of self-exasperation searches nature and the cosmos for a metamorphic equivalence between the dispersive, the indistinct and the womb-unity of everything. If one must stay in the “Pacific school”, paintings such as 1961’s Stellar Archaeology, 1976’s Tragedy of Errors and 2005’s Mental Paths, point less to Pollock as a source than to Arshile Gorky, a master who transferred Miró’s organic Surrealism, his amoeboid forms, into a continuous space in a climate of psychological suspension, created by the magical prolongation of marks.
But Matalon’s oeuvre, whilst existing within this confluence of references, is in fact, as often happens to authentic visual experimenters, more than the sum of its parts. Pollock’s purely gestural cancellation or Gorky’s visionary cancellation becomes, in her canvases and works on paper, a mental veil, but one that also veils the mind, an almost delirious elegance of horror vacui. Nothing remains of Duchamp’s conceptualism, hurriedly put forth by Jean Pierre Jouvet; only a vague taste of Dadaistic non-sense is left behind, with its original values, amplified by Matalon in her colourful and contradictory horizons of mythos. In effect, in her 2008 mixed medias Wearing the sky I will climb the spaces of the sun and Mental Hurricanes, words are neither captions nor equivalent to images (as in Duchamp), but are perfectly fused with the images: they are legible syllables and accents, and as such are splinters of sound and thought, poetic vestiges of the world’s fragments. It is a fluid dimension that bursts forth in Duchamp, finding its own circular link to alchemy and conceptualism, whilst in Matalon’s case, it undergoes a threadlike distillation, unwinding itself as a diary and taking its place amongst the artist’s Heraclitean “borders of the soul”.
With her contradictions in regression and utopia, fearlessly facing the kosmon apatelon, the deceitful universe of art, and dialectical and active with her resources, Matalon also reveals a moment of perception of chaos, but without giving in to linguistic inarticulation. This is the case even when matter, in Laceration (2002) and Journey through the hurricanes of the mind (2004), is confronted directly, becoming more a medium than a subject: it is capable of redirecting itself into soft and light forms, it disseminates itself in constellations of chromatic pleasantness without the least complex about appearing transparent, freeing itself in the graciousness of free will. Here creative automatisms enjoy a natural spontaneity: the calculation, the control, the mental project, that cannot be underestimated in Spatialism’s more typical resolutions, work alternatively, but at the same time clarify one another, strengthen each other, and respond with extraordinary consistency to the commitment to release invention from matter, to release the sense of the eternal from the consolatio philosophiae against which Nietzsche fought his most extreme battle.
But what is the Eternal-Nothing if not the apparent antithesis between Void and Fullness? Does this song of salvation of Matalon’s not have the appearance, the cadence, of an extreme scripture? It is clear that the myth of painting as a unifying cancellation, or milky maternal veil, as a drowning jumble of colours, letters and maps, articulate and inarticulate sounds, lightning thoughts and weary oblivion, is present in Matalon’s oeuvre, as it is in that of Burri and Fontana, a myth of fusion and totality, in which – writes Goethe in his Faust - “Past and pure Nothing are a perfect unit”. This is a unit that figurative thought does not know or better yet denies, with the supreme allegory of its figures, and which figures long to create with their own consciousness or unconsciousness of the task that they, by appearing, take on with the supreme (although masked) persiflage of their own innocence, disturbed by the awareness of being unrepeatable goods of passage of an unavoidable poetic truth, but which through them cancels its own substantial consequence.
1.The perspective theatron of sculpture
In Luciana Matalon’s Work in progress the bond between painting and drawing, sculpture and jewellery, is tenuous. Without a doubt, in painting there is the immediacy of the rupture of the two-dimensional surface, the demonstration of the multi-dimensionality of the plane surface, the appearance of the plastic quality of the image, as if it were an unattainable and indescribable world that exists only when we have left this world behind: the catharsis at the peak of tactile tension is colour, which carries form potentially beyond its physical consistency. Sculpture, on the other hand, reaches its fullness when it ceases to react to light and to atmosphere, to near and far, and self-determines, with the rhythm of volumes and surfaces, its own perspective theatron, which does not depend on an acceleration of frequency or vibration, but rather on their sudden fixation; that is to say, not only on their selfidentification with the hardness of bronze, brass or iron, but on their integration within a plastic-dynamic context, on being involved in that proliferation of the nucleus in which form not only expands but welds itself to space. More than projected fragments, the three-dimensional syntagmas are arabesques ripped from the world’s visual reality and tossed into the epicentre of the phenomenon or event.
With an almost miraculous simplicity and lucidity, Matalon, in her more recent sculptures - from Archeological Journeys to Introspection #1 and I give you my nights hidden in a labyrinth of unrest - appears to be following. Descartes through his vertiginous meditations, in his self-imposed exile in which he devotes himself to the adventure of thought. It’s curious, but the extremism found in Passions of the Soul, which asserts the need to abducere mentem a sensibus, or to disconnect the mind from the senses in order to reach the truth and defend oneself from the error formed from the memory of our physical experiences, seems related to the passionate extremism in Racine’s Fedra, where reason is overtaken and engulfed by sentiment: this seems related to Matalon’s stubborn wish to render uncertain everything that reason has established with certainty. Following the dream of a pure and unsoiled reasoning, she winds up baring her soul, penetrating the rejected confines to which it has been relegated by today’s culture.
If, for a post-modern artist, the avant-garde is conformism of principle, for Matalon it is about structure, the process in which the sculptural tékhne, an ancient discipline, becomes current, even a prefiguration of the future. She doesn’t reject a priori the mythology of a sculptor’s almost demiurgical creativity, but radically demythologizes it by reducing it to the empirical, controllable, exact procedures of invention. When things are born, not only do they interrupt the circle of the apeiron, the infinite unity of everything, choosing concrete existence, becoming things, existing as things – particularity versus universality - but they bear the mark of the fragility of every existing thing: of the apeiron itself. Invention, to Matalon, is nothing if not a devising of which every moment finds immediate and visible verification in the technical process, including the process of thinking of sculpture on a grand scale, even whilst working on a small scale.
The language of contemporary sculpture is a direct and non-symbolic archetype: it is not the means by which “power” communicates its imperative or decorative thoughts, but a visual means through which the urban community is not expressed, but expresses itself. After all, Giulio Carlo Argan shrewdly stated in his Progetto e destino that “there is no reason for irrevocably expunging the monument from the phenomenology of art and of the social life of our day: if art is a typically urban activity with an eminently public function, decreeing the end of the monument would necessarily mean, by force of logic, the end of art itself ”. With her monument The Sun Town, erected in 2007 in a square in Netanya, Israel, Matalon shows us that art doesn’t preach, it doesn’t commit to fixed schemes, it doesn’t represent with examples: rather, it directly communicates vital impulses, transmits powerful creative energy, and sets in motion the imagination.
Without imagination everything comes to a halt, nothing can change; Matalon’s sculptural investigation is born from imagination, but is not as such an art of fantasy. The distinction is fundamental: fantasy is an escape, imagination is commitment. For Matalon, the image (although a fragmented one, because - according to Benjamin’s extraordinary intuition- breaking the false totality of the artwork, “it exposes and creates my same I”) is a medium, like the metals and colours that she uses. Those who search for images in her work will always find them associated with a status of the fused matter and with the ever-present signs of the work done on that matter, which embodies the sense of the constructed, of the ordered and of the myths identified with science and technique, oscillating between the futuristic distortion of results and the equally fantastic anticipation of future developments.
Matalon is perfectly aware of the possibilities and behaviours of the present moment, she is not fearful of the “technological machine” nor of its complicated contraptions: she appears convinced - and in this she resembles Barbara Hepworth more than David Smith, Fausto Melotti more than Arnaldo Pomodoro - that never in history has man had access to so many marvellous tools that can give concrete form to his imagination. Yet she quickly adds that man uses these technological tools to substitute and paralyze the imagination. The artist’s duty is to regain control, to re-establish the vital bond between technique and invention, to reaffirm the need for a historical process against the hypothesis of a purely mechanical process; art is not so much the product of imagination, says George Steiner rightly in his Language and Silence, as the motion of imagination itself.
In over forty years of intense and feverish work in painting and sculpture, as well as drawing and engraving, Matalon has never lost sight of the problem of art’s relationship with the city, which has always been at the forefront of the critical situation, both of art and of the city. Herein lies the link between civic history and world history; but herein lies also the urban conception of the monument as a concrete, visible element of a new definition of the historic meaning of iconospheric space. This problem, naturally, concerns not only artworks designed for a specific public location, but all of Matalon’s work: even her jewels, her small bronze reliefs, her mixed media on paper, and her prints are all conceived according to special modules that relate, with a simple difference in scale, to the urban dimension. The ponderatio of this “fantasy map” is to the thousandth part, it holds onto the imponderable, as what I imagine must be an architect’s first ideas on paper, that quickly find their rule, the golden number of proportion.
Of course, Matalon is a sculptor of monuments (let us consider, for example, her three 1998 bronzes, Pigeon-holes of Memory, Oneiric Architectures and Search for Ancient Roots), even though in her thought, in her empeiria, the monument is no longer the marble or bronze simulacrum erected in public spaces to commemorate fabulous events or persons or to exhort with the cult of tradition’s supreme values. Humanistic culture wanted the reduction of the multiple to one; modern culture, which has superseded it, aims for the fragmentation of one in the multiple. All of her sculpture is intrinsically, structurally monumental, and inevitably has a public destination; and even when the plastic work is really an opus magnum, it is never thought of as an episode of urban decoration, but as an interpretation of the more profound significance of the city. And it is clear or should be clear that a modern city, by definition, never ceases to be a historic creation.
The form of The Sun Town, with its archetypal disc and spiral elements that remind us of Borromini and Guarini’s cupolas, can be interpreted as a visual echo that repeats and propagates itself from the city to the countryside, from the sea to the hilltops, from the heavens to earth (to live, Matalon reminds us, in “stellar spaces”), like a chain reaction. But it is clear that it is not a strictly symbolic form, a metaphor, where drama and catharsis of matter repeat themselves incessantly, with all the intensity of their contrast, in the consciousness of the viewer who has experienced that drama and that catharsis. The metallic bulk of this masterpiece of Matalon’s - made of Corten steel and bronze - appears to violate the laws of static and venture out into the emptiness. As with the overall image, the monument stands on the energy of the thrust generated within it, where shapes are trapped and interpenetrated, only to burst out into the environment as in the infinite journey of a spaceship.