In praise of lightness

The works of Marialuisa Tadei are beginning to stand out in the panorama of Italian art today by virtue of some truly original characteristics. Listing these in order, I would include the handling of materials, the motif of lightness, the relationship between the physical-natural and the inner-spiritual worlds, and theme of sacrality. The artist takes what I would describe as a systematic approach to production, planning series of a potentially inexhaustible nature that she abandons only when their evolution strikes her as having reached some sort of conclusion.

Let us begin with the question of materials. When Marialuisa Tadei started out in the 1990s, she clearly aimed at obtaining particular figurative effects above all with wire. Though sometimes combined with feathers, light plastics and mesh, wire was very often the basis, bent and modulated so as to constitute a wavy line that seems in some cases to produce authentic images. It is something like a cross between Osvaldo Cavandoli’s well-known “Lineman” cartoon character and the aesthetics of Joan Miró. Examples include works like Pietà (1993) and Incontro d’amore (Love Meeting, 1992). Wire was also used to construct traditional iconic motifs of a figurative or geometric nature, from waves, huts and domes to cones, parabolas and ellipses. The resulting wholes are important also for the general impression they convey of objects floating and drifting in space, which is further enhanced by the contrast of black and white. In short, having discovered a fundamental motif, Tadei produced many possible variants but all sharing the same sense the weightless mobility. The motifs listed above also belong in any case the tradition of the arts. Miró has been mentioned and Alexander Calder could be added. The wave too, however, is a theme that began with the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai in 18th-century painting and has been handed down also through contemporary western art all the way to Mario Ceroli. Tadei offers a crisp, stark version in iron with La grande ciglia (The Great Eyelash, 1997) that proves extraordinarily effective with its line arched in a unique state of tension and perfectly identifiable as a breaking wave. The igloo, which can instead be traced back to Mario Merz, is addressed in spare, minimalist terms (as in the splendid Untitled of 1996). As pointed out, however, the true sense of Marialuisa Tadei’s works lies in their drive for lightness. The reduction to bare essentials, the renunciation of anything more than a hint of colour and the focus on line rather than volume are all means that cause the works to be perceived as though suspended in space, midair, nothingness and above all time. An excellent example is offered in this connection by Equilibri (1995-96), where everything becomes an expression of deep categories such as “light/heavy”, “transparent/opaque” and “weightlessness/gravity”. In short, lightness pervades the work as idea and as aesthetic programme.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a radical change in genre but not in focus on materials distinguished by two primary keynotes. In the first place, we observe a clear reference to Conceptual Art manifesting itself in the titles of the works and the paradoxical handling of the expressive categories brought into play. An excellent example is provided by the production of containers (boxes, cupboards and sideboards) containing “shapeless forms” resembling brains. As in similar works by Christian Boltanski and Damien Hirst, these bronze elements are accumulated in filing cabinets in Bronzi in scatola (Boxed Bronzes) and especially Giardino dei pensieri (The Garden of Thoughts), both of 2000. What interests the artist most, however, is precisely the contradictory nature of those “shapeless forms”, which give the impression of softness but are instead cast metal. The coupling of “brain” and “thought” is instead conceptual, and the reference to the idea of human memory thus takes on crucial importance. The series then expands with variations on The Garden of Thoughts and works like Intuizione (Intuition, 2000) or Il giardino bianco (The White Garden, 2000) where the “brains” are laid out like cacti in a further probing of the ambiguity of material.

The second area of investigation opened up regards the human eye. Tadei addressed the image of the retina with a very strong and wholly unprecedented sense of colour to produce geometrically complex circular works in paint, plastic and sometimes even mosaic. As before, the titles clearly attest to reflection on the difficult relationship between the inside and outside of the human body and indeed on the sacred sense of life. While the titles are initially of an intimate character ? the Intra Me (2000) series and Sguardi (Gazes, 2000) ? they become more revealing with the Oculus Dei (1998-2008) series. The probing continues, however, as the initial flat surfaces give way to volumes, the retina is transformed into the surface of celestial bodies ? Tra luna e le sette (2001), Pianeti oculari (Ocular Planets, 2002) ? and the installations take on the weight of large-sized sculptures for outdoors, limited in thickness but capable of looking from a certain distance like authentic spheres suspended and rotating in space ? Incarnazione (Incarnation), Luna dei miei occhi (Moon of my Eyes), both of 2002.

Attention should also be drawn to the short period around 2004 when Marialuisa Tadei tried her hand at portraits (imaginary, needless to say) in chalk (with Jannis Kounellis as the obvious point of reference) but forming part of complex installations. One splendid example is Meditazione (Meditation, 2004), where a blue volumetric figure of an abstract nature is placed behind a “meditating” female head on a yellow tondo. The same principle is to be found in Il dormiente (The Sleeper, 2004). Figurative and plastic art combine perfectly once again.

To conclude, it should be recalled that Tadei’s interest has come to focus increasingly on works of considerable size located in very particular settings in a type of art that we could describe as “environmental” ? not because it contains any ecological references but simply because it seeks to involve the surroundings in the artistic installation, sometimes with very interesting effects. One example is the splendid Donna dal futuro (Woman from the Future, 2007-2009), a mosaic work conceived for the entrance to the town of Coral Springs, Florida, where the figure, though imbued with great femininity, is completely abstract and the colours are those developed with the work on the retina. For the 53rd Venice Biennale, Tadei has again embarked on an ambitious project: La Sapienza Creatrice (Creative Wisdom, 2006-2009), which is a sort of manifesto of her poetic vision. It is a clash of countless thick coloured lines, a burst and suspension in space, and it is made even more dynamic by a white sphere that appears to float in space. At the same time, however, she is showing some key works from her career at the Biennale. One of the most important of these is + (2000-2001), a cross made up of perfectly abstract elements of coloured plastic that draws all its sacrality and depth from its title. Depth in the literal sense we might say, because the cross lying on the ground, still awaiting the body that will make it a religious emblem, seems ready to take an upright position and presents itself as a strongly projecting volume. The other work of weight created for the Biennale, Passaggio alla luce (Into the Light, 2009), is once again a compendium of the artist’s motifs: a blue mirror (a material surface made also natural by the allusion to water) and spherical containers filled with soft white materials suspended, as always, in midair and reflected by the surface. The artist’s preference for the theme of lightness is evinced by the recent Waterfall (2009), where a tangle of coloured plastic strips cascades down from above, creating a sculptural configuration on the floor. The juxtaposition “earth”/“sky” could not be clearer, nor could the flowing descent of the material towards the ground and the contrast between “rarefied” (the discontinuous strips) and “compact” (the result, with its almost geographical design) on the surface. Moreover, a closer examination enables us to appreciate the solidity of the entire figure despite the lightness of the material used to create it.

Lightness, transparency and intimacy are, in short, the keys to any understanding of the path followed by Marialuisa Tadei, wholly “abstract” in the phase of preliminary investigation and wholly focused on the identification of deep content in the end result.