Tag Archives: Italy

“Peripheral Visions: Italian Photography, 1950s–Present”

Published in Artforum, April 2012. The exhibition remains on view at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College until April 28. For more information, click here.

Mimmo Jodice, Church of San Marcellino, Naples, ca. 1977

In the half-century after World War II, cities across the United States and Europe underwent structural transformations. In America, middle-class whites fled downtowns for the safety and amenities of suburbs, leaving behind a minority “underclass” to struggle through the shift to a post-industrial economy. In Europe, it was the poor who were pushed to urban fringes (think Parisian banlieues) while central districts became jewel boxes cosseting the wealthy. On both sides of the Atlantic, cities themselves sprawled outward, yoking an increasing number of once-independent suburbs to the larger metropolitan framework. “Peripheral Visions” gathers photographers who have examined the liminal zones these developments created in Italy—places neither wealthy nor extremely poor, not quite suburban yet with enough wildness to offset their urban density.

This concise, well-edited show, curated by Hunter College faculty member Maria Antonella Pelizzari, moves quickly through the decades, encompassing Mario Carrieri’s grainy late-1950s pictures of Milan’s edges and, just a few feet away, Vincenzo Castella’s ambiguous 2009 photograph of that city’s Pirelli tower, into which a small plane crashed in 2002. Pelizzari identifies Luigi Ghirri as the show’s presiding spirit, whose own work and 1984 curatorial effort, “Viaggo in Italia,” translated the postwar work of Carrieri, Paolo Monti, and filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica into a more playful, witty, conceptualist language that later practitioners would mimic. The absurdity that characterizes many of Ghirri’s pictures reaches its apotheosis here in Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_CATANIA 09, 2009, in which an enormous matte black orb rests incongruously amid brick industrial exhaust towers. The menacing egg is symbolic of very recent attempts to rehabilitate these peripheral spaces: it is a performing arts center located at the site of a defunct sulfur mine.

In contrast to the strange iconicity of Barbieri’s image, smaller gestures, unadorned observations of everyday life, predominate. Mimmo Jodice captures the dented corrugated sheet metal imperfectly covering a stone column in Church of San Marcellino, Naples, 1977. Mario Cresci, who envisions southern Italy as a “foreign” space within the country’s borders, transforms wires snaking along walls into poetic abstractions in Martina Franca, 1979. Guido Guidi, working a decade later, positioned himself directly at the leading edge of human incursion into the natural environment, his pictures juxtaposing messy construction sites and, in the distance, unpopulated mountain ranges. Other inclusions suggest one need not even travel to find incidents worth recording. Franco Vaccari simply shifted perspective for his 1971 film I cani lenti (The Slow Dogs), for which he crouched down and tried to see what the animals saw. Likewise, Marina Ballo Charmet’s digital slide show Con la coda dell’ occhio (With the Corner of the Eye), 1993-94, finds a stoic beauty in the weeds and debris that accumulate on dozens of street corners, turning curbs into walls against which her quarry is positioned.

Few of these images are populated, yet the insistent focus on textures seems like an attempt to reveal what such neglected spaces feel like to their inhabitants. Here are the loose, ragged edges of the urban fabric, the places that have suffered for decades the indifference of authority that in today’s economic climate, with its calls for austerity, seems our common fate. “Peripheral Visions” offers knowledge of a subject that increasingly occupies the minds of scholars and policymakers. The lessons to be drawn from such work remain unclear, but the sense of urgency is palpable.

Luigi Ghirri, “It’s Beautiful Here, Isn’t It”

Published in Artforum, February 2009. To learn more about the book that accompanied this exhibition, click here.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

Luigi Ghirri, Rimini, 1985.

This was Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s first New York solo exhibition in over seven years, and coincided with Aperture’s publication of the first English-language monograph dedicated to the artist. Ghirri, who worked consistently from the early 1970s until his death in 1992, should be better known in the United States, not only on the merits of his intelligent, subtly mischievous color photographs but also because American audiences will find in these images the traits they cherish in their own canonical figures from the era. They will detect, for instance, similarities to prints by chance-oriented Conceptual provocateurs like John Baldessari and Douglas Huebler and Southern color masters like William Eggleston and William Christenberry. Yet there’s no mistaking that Ghirri was an Italian photographer. His landscapes’ flat, white sunlight and washed-out palette of stone, sand, and sky; his obvious love for the cities and people of Emilia-Romagna; and his metaphysical concern with the constructed reality of the image locate him indelibly within Italy as both place and art-historical precedent.

Ghirri’s constant probing of the distinction between “reality” and “artifice” came through forcefully in this exhibition of some one hundred pictures, most of which date from the late 1970s and early 1980s. The images whimsically conflate people and objects with painted backdrops (one series is revealingly titled Topography-Iconography,” 1978–92); or depict mirrors and windows that create compositions the camera dutifully records, but to which the eye and mind acclimate only with time; or upend expectations about scale; and occasionally employ darkroom sleight of hand. “My duty is to see with clarity,” Ghirri once wrote, and what his clarity communicates, with consummate humor, grace, and rigor, is that things are not always what they seem—and that this can be a source of unceasing wonder.

To this end, the exhibition included photographs of map details of the Atlantic Ocean and constellations in the night sky; cafeteria diners in front of a park scene printed on wallpaper; a bland institutional interior with a rolling, grid-partitioned mirror reflecting a man on a weight-lifting bench; tourists roaming like Gullivers through a miniature copy of Venice’s Piazza San Marco; and a self-portrait taken in the reflection of a Parisian shop window that also depicts, mysteriously, an oval mirror (and what it reflects) where the camera lens should be. Parma, 1985, is an interior view of a grand hall in an anonymous Italian palazzo that shows, head-on, a dark wood confessional. What is initially simple becomes increasingly strange: On the wall behind the booth is a peeling image of Corinthian columns receding into an even grander “hall”; to the left is part of a large, empty, golden painting frame that partly overlaps with the frame of a high window, which is itself the source of an oblong glimmer of light cast onto the floor.

The inclusion, in a blue-painted room-within-a-room, of Ghirri’s portraits of the studios kept by architect and theorist Aldo Rossi and painter Giorgio Morandi, both made between 1989 and 1990, highlighted the modern order underpinning Ghirri’s postmodern playfulness. That tension is evident in nearly all of the photographs included here. American viewers of this exhibition who came thinking of their own artistic forebears might have departed wondering about the protean artist’s Italian contemporaries, like Italo Calvino, creator of uncompromisingly ordered yet fantastical fictional words, and the Memphis Group, designers of brightly colored furniture and products with a heretical bent. It is a testament to Ghirri’s talent that he fits comfortably in both American and Italian contexts.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.

Luigi Ghirri, Self-portrait, 1976.