Much Less than Useless
Federico Cavallini is a silly man. The origin of the word ‘silly’ is that which is useless. An object that is made of plaster and wood containing a slice of bread is much less than useless. In its serious exactitude it kind of vibrates against our universe.Cavallini has made a series of these bread-holding objects, using materials from furniture factories. They are each constructed as though for the purpose of somehow being part of a piece of bread; as though a piece of bread were somehow different from a piece of bread.There is obviously great car taken in the making of these objects--- and yet a graceful insouciance, as we might want to see from a very good magician. But these things are not like tricks. We must see the seriousness of them, even if we cannot understand it.The first time I saw Cavallini’s work was at the Italian embassy in Berlin, and it was also works made with bread. He had carefully sculpted by hand small pieces that looked like shards of fish and turtle bones that had washed up on a beach. Had he not told me I would not have realized that they were made of wheat flour and yeast. It seemed at first that he had simply taken them from a particularly rich beach. Each piece, some of them small and delicate, were made lovingly, with close attention to biological detail. We could see old whale bones, sea turtle and many kinds of fish, all laid out with some pseudo-logical order on a long table.I was charmed by what seemed like extraordinary care in finding and arranging such a collection in such a way. But he had made them all--- with a scientific sense of detail and correctness.I said to him later that the origin of this work must surely have been at a restaurant table with many people enjoying an evening and him nervously playing with pieces of bread. This childish act taken to extreme non-limits, though.And these works, he told us, are not preserved in any way, and will sooner or later be destroyed by insects and weather. Can insouciance have depth? These ultra-careful works seem profoundly careless.For a long time, since the time of Giotto and Filippo Lippi, Italy has consistently produced artists who, quietly for the most part, expand and refine both the ways and definitions of art. What I mean is; Italians are always the best artists.Just to consider: before the first world war there were painters in Paris but the rest of the Western World was kind of a culturally barren art desert--- except for Medardo Rosso in Italy. Rosso had a kind of natural feeling for the specific combinations of love and respect and poise, let me say light (expert but unforced) skill with material and form. This was far beyond Duchamp’s rather literal, literate way of art.After the second war the Americans began to have great publicity and many rich collectors but Manzoni, Fontana, Burri and others were doing the work that really carried art beyond what was known, with beautiful understanding of material and perception. It is this that was brought forward by the Arte Povera group.Federico Cavallini is one of the prime examples of that tradition working today, seemingly with neither effort nor ambition, just by using his incredible talent for play.That kind of talent also has a long lineage with Italian artisans. Cavallini’s grandfather made miniature replicas of famous marble statuary for the tourist trade. Many of these, and broken fragments, found their way to Cavallini’s studio where he ‘repairs’ them by changing them, gives them energy. These happy/sad misfits are like homage to the artisans of Italy.He encountered a pear tree. Each fallen leaf is categorized and pressed between pages of books, with the stems protruding from all edges like bristles, making the books seem unapproachable. One book is so thick with pages that it becomes an anti-book. Its pages become leaves, echoing the tree’s leaves in an alternative language. Others are clamped down tight as though some hysterical control-freak were attempting to stop nature. In that vein he has also collected and put the clamps to pieces of bark from the tree.In a similar spirit he has bought dozens of desiccated pig noses. These are part of a new series that I do not like. I don’t like them because, well, because they are pig noses. I don’t like the fact of their existence in markets. They along with desiccated ears and intestines are sold in pet stores for dogs to chew on. (Homo Capitalus can have no integrity)I understand and admire what Cavallini intends with these works. He decorates the dried parts with bright beads and commercial fancy pins, turning them into obscene horrible brooches and other jewelry, showing us back our vanity and stupidity.These pieces belong in another honoured tradition in the history of art, more normal with the old Dutch and Spanish painters.Luigi Ontani once gave me a work of his that I can hardly show publicly, especially in my own house. It is a very good piece that has no decorative function at all. It will attack the idea of pretty art.The animal- part jewelry of Cavallini works the same way. None of his work is for comfort, always for thought and delight.
Jimmie Durham 2016 Napoli