Luigi Mainolfi is among the few artists who, as the seventies were drawing to a close, realized that sculpture was like a plant; it had been growing for centuries, but not according to any smooth pattern.
It had a solid trunk and countless branches, and very deeprunning roots, and therefore could not have dried out all of a sudden, but survived through culturally backward obstinacy and marginal movements. The artist successfully set to task to recapture and give new life to that language, by transplanting it into more imaginative soil, rich in new energies and new plastic forces. The intent was to go further than the sculptural experiences dictated by constructive and minimalist criteria, or which were assemblages or combinations of elements or objects taken from their natural or urban settings (though it must be recognized that these experiences were vital). And this in order to rediscover formal and creative abilities which at the time appeared to have no future, involving classical materials that were considered as having exhausted their expressive capacities. But this experience was not to be based on implicit conceptual messages or unexpressed references, nor was it to express any nostalgia for academic tradition. Mainolfi proved successful, and built extraordinary aesthetic and cultural bridges, between deep-seated meaning in the plastic dimension, whose mythical and archaic content is very strong, and a contemporary sensitivity which has taken on board the very vital contributions coming from research work carried out over the past few decades.
These include, for example, the organic interaction between artistic creation and exhibition space, or the way the primary characteristics of materials play a vital role in a work's specific identity The artist's sculptures, from the very outset, were not placed on pedestals, but were left to live freely in their environment. They settle and proliferate on the ground and on the walls; they grow like organisms into living articulated forms and grow like stalagmites, columns or pillars, sometimes reaching the celling; they gather together, more placidly, on tabletops; they tell a visual,
enigmatic and fantastic tale, which transforms normal space and time references into a dimension of silent enchantment. In a way, one can look at Mainolfi's opus as a large entirely unified production, that has grown uninterrupted. It has become articulated and diversified through a continuous plastic and metamorphic process which takes on shape and palpability with the use of a great variety of materials, from terra-cotta to bronze, stone and wood, copper and iron. The sculptures' shapes, which nonetheless are pregnant with mythical, archaic and timeless popular references, appear and acquire body in a direct way, far from the fixity of any pre-defined and stereotyped model. The plastic forms levitate swell, and their outlines become clear thanks to eternal tension, fueled by the original vitality transmitted to matter by the artist's hands in a shape-giving process. To my mind, this is where lies Mainolfi's true originality He has understood that the question of form, in its deepest and most vital essence, is radically opposed to formalism, that is to say to geometrical or figurative forms, which are conceptually pre-defined and culturally fixed. This is also in total contradiction with the vicious circle concept of the plastic language as a process of self examination. In this sense, artistic production can revert to being a means of looking into matter, a creative effort in which the "content" does not clash with form, but is the deep meaning intrinsic to the particularity of the resulting shapes.
The work takes on meaning as a formed physical entity, with a life of its own, following its own laws (rules, rhythms, equilibria, tensions, etc.), which the work itself makes evident as it comes alive. In addition to the internal momentum which gives birth to forms as plastic volumes, an important role is played by the developing tensions which give the surfaces, i.e. the sculptures' "skin", a pulsating life. Here we are faced with the primary expressive capacity of the material used (chalk and its natural soft roughness; pure touches of colour, red or black, and the way they come alive instantly; bronze, copper and steel and their fascinating rust patches), as well as the figurative or decorative motifs the artist scratches, engraves or brings into relief on his works.
This is a way of understanding a sculpture as a physical body, pulsating with tremendous energy This means that great attention, great sensuality, must be given to its "skin", to such an extent that in many cases it is the main focus. The result is flat sculptures, that is to say wall panels or simple plastic shapes, where almost everything concentrates on the outermost layer. For example, areas covered in small irregular holes (like craters), forest of "eyes", of spotted textures explicitly defined as "snakeskin"; or very dense rows of house-shaped outlines, such as in the many serial works around one theme, the city, made from clay, stone or metal. All these surfaces turn into the sculpture's landscapes, territories where the observer's eye is free to roam and wander: they are microcosms that are charged with surprising charm, places where one can travel with the sense that aesthetic curiosity will never be quenched.
This is true also of the artist's new cycle of works, whose features entertain close links with previous research, but which presents itself under a colder and more rigorously rhythmed shape. Once again here are Landscapes, albeit very atypical. These are great round or square wall panels, or large spheres, covered in a dense web of small iron or copper scales, held together much in the same way as slate roofs are constructed; the scales, however, are lain from bottom to top. These are highly compact structures, which appear to raise an impenetrable shield against the eyes of a public eager to find out what is inside. The works appear to defend, with their armours, the enigma of their own inner bodies. In this manner, Mainolfi forces the observer into a face-off with the sculpture's "skin", by drawing his attention not to its depth, but to its surface area. And that is how, little by little, one realizes just in how many ways the works can be interpreted. The thick row of rectangular slats, one end of which is rounded or whose angles are blunt, also recall those urban conglomerations with no real border, an obsessive decorative motif. One can be reminded of more than an urban landscape: antique coats of armour, as said earlier; a reptile's skin; or various geological formations. In particular, one can even come to appreciate these works for their specific plastic character, that is to say for the way they play with light and darkness, or the effects produced by copper and steel, which
vary in density. Ironically, the uneasy tension in these surfaces is, as it were, magnified by the very fact that it is imprisoned within ridigly minimal two - or three - dimensional geometrical shapes.
(Traduction by Odile Montpetit)
from "Mainolfi" Italian Culture Institute / De Meo
Gallery - Paris 1995
Seen from afar they seem the heavenly surfaces of Byzantine mosaics. Seen from near at hand the "skins" that Mainolfi uses for covering both spheres and pictures (Paesaggi Oro, since 1994) manifest all their earthy presence: they are made from shining copper shavings, ready to live their chemical existence and flame up in the light, darken with time, and become greenish. What Mainolfi is doing with his small personal technology is what man has done since he invented roofs, and what nature has always done: on the bodies of newts and fish, on hairs and fibers, wherever a membrane is necessary in fact. A series of tiny tiles, laid regularly, one overlapping the other, are the things most adapted
to protecting an interior.
These skins, then, presuppose something lying underneath, an inside and, therefore, a body Beside this the luminosity gives them that potential movement that characterizes all animated volumes. This is why not even the two-dimensional pictures give the lie to how Mainolfi defines himself: as a sculptor. Sculpture implies the occupation of space, whereas painting leaves space itself to one side. The idea of a skin evokes this difference, it is a two-dimensional element that represents all three dimensions.
It could not have been easy for Mainolfi to define himself a sculptor, an artist who, having developed in a conceptual environment and having arrived at his full maturity in the years of the "retum to painting," had all the insight to understand the anachronism of such a definition. Today, having seen the objectual sculpture of the second half of the eighties, and after having experienced the alchemical forms of Tony Cragg, often resulting from the happy interchange with the environment, we
run the risk of undervaluing the obstinacy of this choice. So this is why it is necessary to underline it, this is why it is not pleonastic to confirm that, whatever form a sculpture by Mainolfi assumes, it is always a sculpture.
Though not at all immateriahn the contrary, only too pleased to plunge into clay, metal, wood-Mainolfi's work refuses to be intellectualized. He does not belong to the ranks of conceptual artists, and to state this is to be as courageous today as saying one was a sculptor at the end of the seventies. He does not wander round the labyrinths of the mind but, rather, round those of nature too. Without romanticism, and with all the respect and fear
Della luna, 1987-1991 that a peasant has for the land he works.
There are no pastoral pleasures, only the wish to work following natural atavistic rhythms and systems. Both the inorganic world and the human, living world, seem to answer to common laws: it is not by chance that many of Mainolfi's sculptures remind one of intestines, but also of towers and cities, or of places deformed in the memory of some disturbing perception. There exists in these forms a kind of pantheism, in which material and energy are really symmetrical and communicating: as in Sole nuovo (New Sun, 1992-93 ), a ball of metal incredibly held up in the air by a thousand iron hairs, or as in Sole nero (Black Sun, 1988-89), yet another ball of wood, water and wax which, with its rays of roofbeams, spread out across the spaces of the Tucci Russo gallery in Turin; or like the balls, the rattles, the chimes, the drums, and the 1979 Campana (Bell), all elements that imply the sound resulting from the movement and the effects of a force that becomes life, that becomes history, that becomes psyche only to retum and
mix back with its origins.
For example, how is a spiral born? In his studio near the river Po in Turin, the artist has tried again and again to find an empirical system, one that even the snails know without having to study: he superimposes wooden discs in eccentric positions, one on top of the other, until twisted columns are formed that recall those of Bernini or
Parmigianino, or tufts of curly hair, or the trails left by the wind in the sand, or dense and frozen liquids shot from some spinning
At times Mainolfi places a symbolic sign within the work as though to explain to us what he means: an egg, for example, the classic concentration of life and form, or a shell, grown ridge upon ridge, untěl it has arrived at the best type of curve: this too a lifegiving shell. These are inserted into the clay that the artist first
bakes, then breaks, then sews together again as though the shards were cultivated fields divided up by ditches. And let's not forget the enormous mussel valves that Mainolfi called Nacchere (Castanets, since 1988); his Babel-like houses scratched on terra-cotta columns, irregular and tall as asparagus; the great well created for Villa Celle in Pistoia, which is a column soaring downwards
instead of up; the irregular, pitted, spongy surfaces, proliferating
Sorli, like mold or moss, similar to the edge of the sea where the water 1990-1992 is filled with moving growths, limp and soft, but firmly attached
to the rock, organisms difficult to identify with the vegetable world or with that of animals or of hallucinations.
In fact, more frequently than of the sea Mainolfi has spoken about volcanoes as a source of inspiration: his birthplace in such a sismic zone as Campania Felix has also marked him. He remembers the volcano that spits light from the earth, that sends fire up to heaven, that in time fertilizes the earth which it destroyed, that is pulsating rock (and each volume in Mainolfi's sculpture contains the idea of movement): the volcano that gives life as well as taking it away.
It might be useful, though, to point out the distance of these works from Arte Povera. And this is not a minor problem given that, in order to enter into a dialogue with this movement Mainolfi, in 1973, gave up his idea of moving to Milan and, almost as a challenge to a city which seemed to want to expel or at least ignore him, he moved to Turin, the home of Arte Povera. Apart from their individual differences, however important, the "Poverist" artists have always given much attention to mental procedures, rather than to empirical practice: the spirals of Merz are born from Fibonacci numbers, there is no room for trial and error in
Arte Povera has Knowinggly put aside, or a least resolved differently, the executive problem of creating a work. In Mainolfi's workshop, instead, where a couple of assistants help him in his painstaking work or give him a hand to move the heavy weights, everything is considered as much poetically and technically as on the level of craftsmanship. Among the most beautiful objects I have seen, left lying on the ground and not destined to be transformed into art works, are barrels of poured rubber used for making the molds of a series of trunks: once plaster was used for this, now there can be used this latex which is always cold, damp, smooth; it represents the pleasures of making and of transforming, without the viewer having to be aware of the intermediate phases of the work. Some avantgarde spirit might ask himself if this way of working
is either behind or ahead of conceptual planning. What does it matter? Let's just say that Mainolfi, in the ten years that preceded his Campana, when he carried sheets of glass into a public square, placing them next to a hammer in order to record the viewer's fear or desire to break them, has modeled various classical statues which he then, as performer, destroyed in an iconoclastic act; he has pushed a statue out of a tunnel, a little more day by day, only then to eliminate its presence metaphorically; he has drawri marks which were far more cerebral than those we are allowed to draw
today. He has run the whole necessary gamut in order to eliminate sculpture and to translate art into immaterial terms in order to find himself free, today, to plagiarize the forms of life.
from "Mainolfi - ORO" Gian Ferrari Gallery - Milan 1996 Charta Edition 1996