Francesco Gennari : New pagan sun
14 June – 23 August 2008
A perfunctory stroll through cyberspace recently taught me that there are in fact two persons by the name of Francesco Gennari. One – admittedly the one who yielded by far the most search hits – is the sculptor whose work is currently on show at the gallery, an Italian artist born in Pesaro in 1973; the other one is much less well-known today (although this must once have been very different), an Italian anatomist who lived from 1750 to 1797 and in 1782 published a short treatise that eventually secured his place in the annals of neuroscience, a paper in which he described and located the so-called stria or band of Gennari. This “band of Gennari” is a thin white stripe of myelin (the organic ‘fat’ that insulates neural matter) visible to the naked eye that runs through the grey matter of the occipital lobe, the portion of the brain that occupies the rearmost part of the skull. Although Gennari’s revolutionary discovery had far-reaching implications for our understanding of the workings of the human brain, the man himself had no idea that he had in fact stumbled upon the primary visual cortex, i.e. the primordial center for the processing of visual information: the stria of Gennari is the seat of vision, of visual representation.
Whether his namesake, today’s Francesco Gennari is a maker of images (visual representations, visualized ideas) or objects (palpable matter, material or ‘physical’ facts) first and foremost, is a complex question that can hardly be answered or dealt with in the short space allotted here, but his works certainly have that undeniable quality of enigmatic density and mute, recalcitrant mystery that definitely would have appealed to the inquisitive sensibility of the older Gennari, the discoverer of a strange, silent new island in the back of the brain, the precise function of which would elude natural science for another century or so.
The odd mixture of auratic enigmaticalness and factual hardness, of mystic truth and sculptural matter-of-factness, that is present in Gennari’s work somehow reflects the extremely fertile epistemological confusion that was a defining characteristic of the dawn of the modern era in The odd mixture of auratic enigmaticalness and factual hardness, of mystic truth and sculptural matter-of-factness, that is present in Gennari’s work somehow reflects the extremely fertile epistemological confusion that was a defining characteristic of the dawn of the modern era in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, when the crackpot, fantastical speculations of the last alchemists for some time cohabited relatively peacefully with the more stringent, empiricist intuitions of early natural (‘positive’) science: the ‘demiurgic’ pre-modern dream of alchemy as a magical art of transformation certainly helps to further our understanding of Gennari’s elusive, unidentified objects – manifestations, in the artist’s own mind, of a demiurgic presence in the world – while the cosmological claims of some of these model-like objects (one of which really ‘represents’ our solar system, a factual understanding of which was really only reached during the latter years of the Italian Renaissance) reveal a ‘scientific’ impulse, that of the modern urge to see through, to survey, to be at work in the artist’s methodology.
There has been a remarkable increase of interest, these last couple of years, in the issue of magic and related ‘occult’ practices as a model for (re-thinking) artistic practice. The once-dominant attitudes of rationalism, irony and political optimism – by and large defining the world-views of seventies conceptual art, of eighties post-modernism, and of nineties relational aesthetics respectively – seem to have given way to a ‘return’ to a more romantic conception of art as somehow related to magical thinking and spiritual experience, to transcendence, otherness and the uncanny – to the revelation, in Bruce Nauman’s words, of “mystic truths”. These are grandiose claims that come with not a few risks attached, but the eagerness and sheer enthusiasm with which so many young artists appear ready to venture into this Great Unknown – an imaginary netherworld peopled by the likes of Caspar David Friedrich and Joseph Beuys – speak of a genuine urgency, a sincere need to reconnect with art’s primeval roots in the realm of magical thought.
Francesco Gennari’s work embodies this urge in a most undiluted manner, and one of his signature pieces, Autoritratto tra un quadrato e un triangolo (Selfportrait in between a square and a triangle) from 2006, is an especially convincing example, not in the least because it is a self-portrait, ‘proving’ that the artist is well aware of the magnitude of the stakes that are involved in fancying oneself a ‘demiurge’. Gennari’s art of transformation – and isn’t the dream of metamorphosis at the heart and base of all magic? – is made present here in the dual track of the material and the spiritual: the material concerns a hard, geometric form, a triangle becoming a square or vice versa, while the spiritual concerns this object being soaked in gin (literally a spirit, and etymologically related to both ‘genie’, genius and the jinn of Islamic mythology). Gennari choose to install this sculpture in the gallery’s basement, where it can more easily and quietly perform its magical, demiurgic work of animation, breathing life into the inanimate, mute world invoked by the artist in the main gallery space, consisting of models of the universe, a mausoleum for a dead invertebrate (there are quite a few of those in Gennari’s work), and a black and white photograph – another self-portrait, perhaps? – of a snail lodged helplessly on a tuft of whipped cream, fighting in desperation to find its way back to solid, reassuring ground. “Having oneself as unique point of reference”, as the English translation of the title of this piece has it, Avendo se stessi come unico punto di riferimento, is both a blessing and a curse – the fate of any artist who ventures into this brave new world.