Alessandro Roma – Il sole mi costrinse ad abbandonare il giardino
April 11 – May 24, 2012
Brand new Gallery – via Farini 32 – Milan
Today, as we have widely seen, practices of collage and assemblage have once again come to the fore in art. Exhibitions like the one that reopened the New Museum in New York several years ago, “Unmonumental” only serve to illustrate this. Yet something seems to have changed when we compare today’s ways of doing collage with those of the period of its first flourishing, what Clement Greenberg called “The Pasted Paper Revolution”. The principal of discontinuity was paramount then; many commentators have spoken of a “shock effect” produced by the abrupt juxtaposition of fragments of irreconcilable or at least incommensurable realities in, especially, the collages of the Dadas. Today there is no shock, though there may sometimes be nostalgia for shock. And a good thing it is, too, that art has foresworn shock. Today, only the most reactionary gestures or statements have any power to shock. Likewise, the power to envisage uncreated realms beyond the real, which was once the privilege of a progressive or revolutionary utopianism, has now been claimed above all by those who wish to create the foundationless simulacrum of an imaginary past. Writing from New York, I need only gesture toward the present contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, in a struggle that has been polluting the press and the airwaves for some months now. But these are already late-coming epigones of a phalanx that has been at work for some time. I need only cite the famous statement of the notorious conservative activist and publicist Karl Rove, who in 2004 told the journalist Ron Suskind that guys like me were in what we call the reality-based community, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore, he continued. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”. Undoubtedly my readers in Italy will be able to supply examples of similar thinking, only perhaps less imperial in tenor, in their own country. But I wonder if Rove was deliberately echoing (and thereby mocking) Karl Marx, who said, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. The powerless, however, know that to change reality they have to work on it, and to work on themselves too; only the rich and powerful imagine that their very dreams can change the course of history, and that is often their downfall.
To change things, to change ourselves—but how? For some, by starting small, by starting close to home. And precisely because this is far from the best of all possible worlds, il faut cultiver nos jardins. We needn’t be ironic about it, à la Voltaire. It’s not an escape from our real situation but a humbly small-scale intervention into it, a way of trying to start from our “discernible reality” to make it different without doing too much violence. And in fact I’ve been noticing the imagery or rather the metaphor of the garden arising more and more in contemporary art. Alessandro Roma, whose most recent works employ this theme, is not alone—though hardly part of a movement; he is one of a number of individuals who seem to responding to an inchoate need of the time.
We are trying, however gropingly, to rethink our relation to where we stand, to the earth, and realizing that our relations among ourselves—person to person, nation to nation, civilization to civilization—may come to nothing unless the fundamental ground of those relations, the terrain on which we subsist and the water and air that make it livable, can be assured. Today, more than ever, the theme of the garden seems an inherently political one. I have never heard Roma describe himself as a political artist but this may be modesty on his part and perhaps even an implicitly political form of modesty. The theme of the garden proposes that human beings and nature can still collaborate—that “culture” need not after all be understood as the contrary of nature but as a form of relation to it. At the same time, this relation is never seen to be total or all-encompassing—it always has an inside and an outside. It is marked off with a fence (as we see in some of Roma’s works) and therefore questions of ownership and power cannot be dismissed.
Collage, too, seems inherently to take on a political cast today. And Roma is above all a painter but one who wills himself to use collage as a means of painting. He demands of himself this contradiction. But using collage today is no longer, as it may once have been, however, about confronting an apparent unity—the unity of surface of an academically finished oil painting, for instance—with a disruptive heterogeneity. Heterogeneity, today, is the assumed default state. The important issue is more concrete: how to negotiate the differences that we already know to exist—how to find common ground. Here, by the way, I must respectfully disagree with my friend Giorgio Verzotti, who has written (in the catalogue for the artist’s exhibition last year at MART, Trento) that Roma’s works “show us a hallucinatory landscape/world because they speak to us of our progressive loss of sense of reality”. My reading of the works is different, and less pessimistic, having to do, not with the loss of reality, but the task of reconstructing it. Yes, Roma builds his works out of fragments of mediated—one might even say synthesized—images of nature. But in handling these fragments, he does not concern himself with the question of their truth or falsity. Or rather, I believe, he works on the assumption that the truth he is concerned with is how true the image-fragment is to the place it must hold in his construction. And in this construction, even were one to grant that it might be possible that in its origins a given fragment might represent a falsehood—but how would one know, really, since its origins can hardly be reconstructed anymore?—that would not count against it. Quite the opposite, in fact, if the work’s tenor is to suggest the possibility that we can still somehow redeem our fallen world. Roma’s works speak wholeheartedly of a longing for beauty—the special beauty that belongs to everything that we succeed in rescuing from indifference. In this works I see nothing but what I’d swear I’m seeing for the first time.
Redemption takes effort. The garden that Roma shows us—not a Garden of Eden, tragically projected back into some unknown past, but a Utopian garden, still incomplete and in process for the future—is a place of labor as well as of desire. It is important that one is always aware, looking at these works, that the mediated nature of many (but not all or even necessarily most) of the incorporated fragments is secondary: they have been pieced together by hand, as well as with a cunning eye. These are complicated surfaces, dense with information; the layering of things reminds us that each element has a verso, that some things must remain unseen. And the pieces fit together, but not easily. Adam had to sweat to eat after the expulsion from Paradise, and in this new garden under construction he still has to sweat. It’s not quite home, as the title of one work, Accorsi di essere in uno strano luogo (Aware of being in a strange place), reminds us, nor is it yet ready to become a permanent abode, as we realize from another, Il sole mi costrinse ad abbandonare il giardino (The sun forced me to abandon the garden).
The abandonment of the garden is probably not definitive. Even taking global warming into account, one should be able to re-enter later in the day, when the sun is not so high above one’s head, or later in the season. But the plants one cultivates there must be adapted to the heat. And to those of us who step into it they give shade and fresh air; however relentless the sun, it is still always more bearable in the garden than anywhere else out of doors. And besides, that moment just before one realizes that the sun has become too intense can be an interesting one because you might realize that things look different than you thought: the scene before you starts to swirl; large things become small and small ones large; distant ones rush close and what’s at hand withdraws; up is suddenly down—one begins to see things, perhaps, with the eye of “the sunflower crazed with light” (I borrow the phrase from Eugenio Montale, of course—a poet who means a great deal to the artist). Now you realize that the field of vision is a sort of collage, a kaleidoscopic gathering of the most heterogeneous things in which each may momentarily take the place of each. Normal vision meant forgetting this, though it was always true. Everything is foreign to everything else. Our task may be somehow to clear and cultivate the space in which we can allow them to exist together. “Here stories are composed,” as Montale has written, “and deeds crossed out in the play of futurity”.
Image above: Alessandro Roma, Il sole mi costrinse ad abbondonare il giardino, 2011 - Oil, spray, graphite and collage on canvas - 210 x 180 cm
Accorsi di essere in uno strano luogo, 2011
Oil, spray, graphite and collage on board
21o x 180 cm
Bozzetto scultura (Ruta graveolens), 2012
Collage on paper in artist frame
41.5 x 32 cm
Bozzetto scultura (Verbena officinalis), 2012
Collage on paper in artist frame
41.5 x 32 cm