Senza Fine Unica, Meritalia, 2010
At an exhibition of work by Carlo Scarpa years ago I was especially taken by the margins of his working drawings. These were covered with doodles, frequently of female bodies, and by periodic blots that turned out to be wine stains. The marks were not simply of the fecundity of his imagination but of his immersion in both the body and the bodily.
This preoccupation revealed itself both concretely and abstractly: Scarpa was a master of humane proportion, a designer who was fascinated with the mechanics of the human interaction with architecture, the opening of doors, the useful and dramatic modulation of light, the final interment in the earth.
Scarpa’s work is intensely refined in a traditional way, in the precision of its details, in the austerity and harmony of its materials, in its abidingly elegant sense of composition. The work of Gaetano Pesce is also incredibly refined but the system that describes this refinement is quite different, akin to the refinement of the human digestive tract, expressed both in the elegant necessity and concision of its operation and in its fascinating, convoluted, and pliant morphologies. Modernism, in its high functionalist days, was also preoccupied with the guts of architecture but Pesce’s fascination is something else. From the get-go, many modernists used the visuality of building systems – their pipes and ducts and fans and wiring chases and webbed joists and bolted joints – as an expressive element in their designs. The argument was both from a kind of integrity – an idea about “honesty” – and from a fascination with the raging technology that marked so many aspects of the historic moment. It was, however, extremely reductive and ruled by a sense of parsimony that was eventually its undoing. Modernism died on the shoals of minimalism and the emptiness of its social promises. Pesce walks another line between technology and representation. His favorite materials, especially resin, embody the truth of their own transformation, a kind of lingering viscosity and gooey-ness. The Senza Fine series is particularly replete with characteristic Pescean moves and with the idea of systems that stay soft, do not harden into mechanistic durability. Here, the collusion of tubular resin elements somehow concatenates spaghetti and intestine and – as Pesce’s sketch of a bird contemplating the chair suggests – worm. There’s a wry relationship between the image of the digested and digestion, that surely evokes Yeats’ observation that, in craft, the dancer and the dance lock into a oneness but a oneness which retains a sense of origins, the raw visibly embedded in the cooked. The rampant biomorphism of Pesce’s work is also seen in the openings that appear in the backs of the chairs might be either eye(s) or anus and in their larger form, which, as with others in Pesce’s oeuvre, suggests a seated person, a cloth draped over his or her lap, a lap in which another person will comfortably sit. Although Pesce is a product engineer not a genetic one, his process shadows ontogeny and its embodied riff on the nature of art always foregrounds the idea of gestation. One has the sense that his phylogeny is less built than cured, emerging from some mental blastula and swelling to completion. The “bowelism” of these remarkable pieces is, however, representational rather than functional.
Unlike the brief Brit architectural fashion that went by the same name, there’s nothing flowing through these tubes and the brilliance of Pesce’s representationalism is that the focus on form has – among others – a pictorial impetus, that the nature of the materials is imbricated in the image, in the severity of their artificial relationship to what is being depicted and in the fact that their literal materiality is completely alien from the purpose of the represented. His “Cappa” – a kitchen range hood – is festooned with literally depicted fruits and vegetables and certainly suits the culinary mood. It’s a completely delightful still life and an inedible image. As an artistic subject it is about a preoccupation that spans millennia, not about the precious rupture of iconoclastic modernity. Pesce appreciates that whatever the conceptual ornamentation that papers the visual field, certain preoccupations are eternal to an embodied species. Let’s eat! This idea of embodiment suffuses too his “Italy on the Cross” in which a red resin representation of the country is splayed on a black cross. Dripping from its boot onto the floor below, la patria is depicted like a tray of offal: bloody, organic. Pesce’s message is tied up in an idea about the country crucified by a political class incapable of solving its problems, too invested in corruption and the self-promotions of struggles for power to care. He poses the problem as a conflict between social health and mediocrity and the image he presents of the country as “meat” is at once succinct and grotesque, good qualities in polemical art. But, judged against the larger field of Pesce’s production, the figure of Italy speaks, in the flagrancy of it biology, to the core of a beloved idea about the essence of objects, the way in which they never lose their quality as both avatars and surrogates for the body. An image that might arouse disgust must be read against an idea of delicacy that Pesce would see as too superficial, skin deep. The image is shocking and affectionate at once.
It isn’t possible, however, to discuss Pesce’s work without attention to the truly winning wit that hovers over all of it, the simultaneous challenge it offers, on the one hand, to the pathos of modernism and, on the other to the bathos of kitsch. Consider the horse cabinet, based on an image nominally plucked from the middle ground of the Crucifixion by Altichiero da Verona, it is no less than the portrait of a horse’s ass, a one-liner redeemed by its learned referent, by the nicely sinuous void between the legs, by the utility of the cabinet, by the ingenuity of the hinges. This wonderful unity of gesturing and jestering is made especially transparent in the “Giullare” couch in which the seat backs attenuate into the tassels of a jester’s cap, a kind of ornamental supplement that intrudes softly on the basic work of sitting as an arm around the shoulder, an elephant’s trunk in the lap, or simply as an excess, the stuff of humor, something to be discharged.
Of course, all ornament is, by definition, supplementary and Pesce has long had a genius for pushing the envelope of meaning’s surfeit. The new “range” of seating that takes the image of some jagged Alps for its back, forests for its arms, and waterfalls for its seat is typical of a prediliction that has previously looked for a singularity in the eccentricity of urban skylines, crumbled rags, sunsets, shoulders, pasta tangles, and other aggrandizable distributors of meaning. Indeed, if humor is understood to reside in the unexpectedness of juxtapositions, in its capacity to resolve the idea of incompatibility, then humor is the driving impulse behind much of the immediate expressivity of Pesce’s work at every scale.
Pesce’s recent architectural projects are likewise almost always droll and represent a kind of disaggregated, global Bomarzo, a collection of anthropomorphic grotesques, increasingly miniaturized, and, mainly self-realized. Of course, these works always make a kind of joke, whether in the representation, the gigantism, the unexpectedness, or the sheer flamboyance of the project.
The Bahia house offers a repertoire of Pescean moves, the façade as face, the distribution of aedicular, familial, elements, the elaboration of surfaces – whether in the figuration of resin floors or the applique of scales to the exterior – and the broad – even funky – palette of materials which are sourced in both the vernacular and the industrial and juxtaposed with characteristic and evocative freedom, angular planking edging flamboyant, flowy, resin. His “Trullo” shows a characteristic doubling, a multiplicity that is meant to suggest that even an individual as singular as this is, in fact, a member of a species, a life/form that is replicable in a way that nevertheless always produces a difference.
Many of Pesce’s most interesting furniture projects – like the Sessantuna table – are designed to be produced via a process that insistently yields a series of individuals, sometimes via the “liberation” of the worker who makes them to impart the variation. Sessantuna also aggregates to produce a mammoth map of Italy, a constantly recurring figure, an abiding muse in Pesce’s work, and another site – like the inclusion of the worker in a collaboration to produce the singularity of the object – for the expression of the political. Indeed, Italy is the genus in which these species nest, the key to the shared genetic character of each individual, repository of the banked of DNA.
I do love the Trulli, simple and simply wonderful with their benign faces, green tonsures, rippled skin and human coloration, their goitered projections, faces on the face, noses attenuated like Pinocchio or carnival masks. And, they’re keepers of the code: the nature of their two-ness is at the core of Pesce’s project of family building. That they are non-identical twins is both the key and the limit to their own replicability. Here is a politics of the object for out time, an idea that mass-production must find tools for the constant inscription of sufficient variety to give every individual an idea of privacy and privilege. Pesce never makes too many of anything but his idea is not that what he makes therefore becomes precious from the stand-point of pure consumption, too valuable to share. It’s more like your mother’s recipe for pasta sauce: singular but finding its life in the on-going imperfection of its transmission.
Michael Sorkin is the principal of the Michael Sorkin Studio in New York City, a design practice devoted to both practical and theoretical projects at all scales with a special interest in the city and in green architecture. Sorkin is also founding President of Terreform, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and intervention in issues of urban morphology, sustainability, equity,
and community planning. In addition, Sorkin is President of the Institute for Urban Design, an educational and advocacy group.
Michael Sorkin is Distinguished Professor of Architecture and the Director of the Graduate Urban Design Program at the City College of New York. His books include Variations on A Theme Park, Exquisite Corpse, Local Code, Giving Ground (edited with Joan Copjec), Wiggle (a monograph of the studio‘s work), Some Assembly Required, Other Plans, The Next Jerusalem, After The World Trade Center (edited with Sharon Zukin), Starting From Zero, Analyzing Ambasz, Against the Wall, Indefensible Space, and Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. wForthcoming are Eutopia, All Over the Map, New Orleans Under Reconstruction, Beyond Petropolis, and New York City (Steady) State.