Between the mesh of the material

by Pierre Restany

A mystery resides permanently in the field of art: the transformation of matter into poetic energy. This is what happens in the work of Mario Martinelli, whose art is a kind of alchemical process in which the tension towards the form transfigures the material, allowing the work to reveal a new meaning.

Martinelli began unweaving the canvas to which he had normally applied paint at the end of the 1960s, and reconstructed it through close contact with its tangled fibres in a web of Dionysian beat and Appollonian look.

He overturned the skin of the canvas to lay before our eyes the fibres that ceaselessly vibrate beneath its surface.

Like many 1960s and ‘70s artists, from Fluxus to the New Realists, through to the early exponents of Pop art and many of the informal art, Martinelli took the material of his unwoven canvases from the industrial world of the emerging consumer society, favouring the discards produced by the textile industry’s manufacturing rethinks. From there the unwoven as material and the unweaving as action were the object of works for two decades with clear departure intentions.

Initially, there was a rejection of the crass standardization of mass-produced products destined for market globalization (the 1969-70 Monochromes), together with an accusation of exploitation of the rural people who were subverted when, by night at their looms, they became manufacturers (Crucified bride, 1973, Benettondo 1976); followed by the irony of the rubbish-reproduction of mass consumption images that stigmatize the deformation of massified culture (Supper with Leonardo, 1978-80, the numerous Flags, Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1980).

This is the level of the artist’s design will. But behind every declared intention and beyond the free expression of the body with its freight of memories and questioning of the material, awareness of the Leonardesque truth of painting as a mental thing is always present in the dominant intention which is the artist’s constant reflection.

This is initially apparent in the matter, which at first appears like the living flesh of the canvas where, the old pictorial plane having disappeared, everything is put into question by the ritual of an iconoclastic gesture that wants to begin again from the start, to go back to the organic and dynamic origins of life. This then becomes a meeting place for other materials such as neon, iron and stone, with the undetectable shifts of a creative move always sustained by that furore which has invested not only the canvas but also the body of the artist.

It can then be seen in the action of unweaving and being unwoven as affliction or as discovery, as game or as need responding to the sentiment of a powerfully and dramatically changing reality (St Sebastian, 1972, Big unwoven, 1976, Liberated colours, 1985), where the labyrinths of the material respond to the anxiety of the modern condition, in which man is continually forced to redefine himself. Doing and undoing is also the history of making and not making sense. Undoing and redoing is a losing to rediscover: a grasping of the meaning in the work itself that animates the search for meaning.

A static and ordered reality exists, with a disorderly reality in movement inside. In the unwovens the idea of ‘accident’ from which they are created is inserted in a frame of general metamorphosis. The material is not so much used to produce form, it is itself form. A long way from being amorphous, without determination, this freed material has a memory which gives the representative value of an inscription in its every move.

The unwoven canvas was for many years Martinelli’s preferred linguistic tool, the distinctive sign of his ‘style’, a declaration of the elusive nature of the surface become theatre, of the powerful presence of the ‘backstage’, demonstration of the inextricable connection between physical space and virtual space.

The metal grid appeared at the end of the 1970s (Stele (Self-portrait), 1978, Déjeuner sur l’herbe 1980) to produce or reproduce images that stigmatize the banality of the shoddiest technical reproduction, which is how the work is mainly known to the general public and which, after the terrible shadow imprinted on the wall in Hiroshima, no longer seems to the artist to merit further engagement. The Traspareti are flat, transparent figures simplified as far as possible, with pixels of shadow left on the plane, possibly of entire walls, by a small metal net that mimics the extreme simplification of the photographic printing screen. At times they are only coloured scraps of net placed on the painted canvas as filter-signs, a passageway for light to the canvas and for the colour of this to the eye of the observer. Real light and shade merge with the colours of the picture and modify the work in a continuous play of active intrusion, of trans-appearances, making the surface once more a theatre of mobile apparitions; where the Magritte-like suspicion that we are condemned to always being inexorably on this side of our eye open onto things is recited.

The net is a matter-metaphor of the world, it is more empty than full and the main part of reality is nurtured in space.

When Martinelli captured the shadows of visitors to the Galerie R. Tittel in Cologne in 1991, after a light had blown these between the mesh of a net leant against the wall, he conducted something that is part of an old universal nightmare and opened up a new fertile cycle in his work: the shadows-in-the-net. The emanation of the person’s shadow, created by the light which was unintentionally switched on by a motion-sensitive photocell, yielded up an inimitable moment of existence and infinitude to the net. Cut out along the edges of the shadow, the net becomes its reification, its simulacrum. As with the unwovens, the operation eliminates the aesthetic ‘distance’ of the work by the immediate and simultaneous action of the experience and, at the same time, focuses on man’s will to seek a dimension beyond himself by way of that never-appeased need to become part of history, to attain infinity. The shadow becomes one with the metal mesh in which it now lives in the same way that Calvino’s Non-existent Knight lives in his armour.

The shadow-in-the-net is not a representation, it is an icon; sister to the great bulls at Lescaux which are the guardians of their own shadows. The reality of the work is actually the invisible shadow caught in the net that has given it form. The work thus ends up enjoying that same ambiguous status as the shadow, mid-way between the world of objects and that of the psyche which gives it spirit, placing it in a superior world. The shadow-in-the-net is a figure made out of more or less nothing, but which imposes its presence by way of absence: that other nothing it occupies.

As with the unwovens before, the shadow-in-the-net bounces between reality and its representation. Indeed, there is undoubtedly an object before our eyes, a precarious figure in net that needs a wall on which to apply itself like a kind of monochrome plastic graffiti or new transparent graphic sculpture, which in its turn also produces a shadow. It is rather a transparent weave of shadow threads that intersect with the geometric mesh of the net in a complex, mobile, textural game with the change of light and observer’s point of view.

But it is also true that this object relates closely to the image of a shadow. It is a kind of shadow cut-out and one has only to move back from it a little for the net to gradually disappear, dissolving into the shadow it occupies.

A specific operation of art, according to Klee – highly respected by Martinelli - is that of ‘making the invisible visible’.

The shadows- in-the-net seem to ooze from the walls as if part of their memory. New figures half-way between being and nothing in their metal weave presented as a kind of overturning of the luminous weave of the world. Ambiguous figures which, while decisively announcing themselves, register the sentiment of permeability, of otherness and of the devaluation of the visitor of the anonymous spaces of post-modernity: supermarkets, hotels, airports; those ‘non-places’ that cancel us out, transform us into simple numbers, those of our credit cards.

Finally, in this process of transformation there is a powerful bond between Martinelli and the land of his upbringing, which could not be otherwise for an Italian artist. There is history which, like a subterranean wire, takes us back through numerous cultural layers to the period when Venice was a bridge with the East. From Byzantium it learnt to represent God as Light, exalting the material of its marbles and mosaics in light. Now Martinelli examines the mystery of contemporary man’s wretchedness and greatness by dissolving the material in the shadow, and from it drawing out a new, surprising presence.