Gianni Caravaggio, Prima neve, 2020. Green Guatemala marble and powdered sugar, 130 x 23 x 26 cm. Photo: Luca Vianello and Silvia Mangosio, Courtesy the artist

Gianni Caravaggio

Turin, Italy

Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Torino

“Per analogiam” (on view through March 17, 2024) constitutes a mini-retrospective for Gianni Caravaggio, complementing an almost 30-year temporal range of production with a conspicuous experience of space for the viewer. Stagecraft plays a part in creating that effect: the low-level ambient lighting of the basement gallery is counteracted by ceiling spots picking out individual pieces and locating them within soft pools of illumination. The 26 sculptures (which include a few multipartite groups) are all low-lying and, characteristically for Caravaggio, arranged directly on the floor. Monumental is not in his vocabulary.

The ample space between works is not passive but assimilated into the sense of the show. Visitors walk easily toward, around, and away from each piece or grouping to approach others in the vicinity, slipping into partitioned areas and drifting out of them, back into the show’s gentle current. This thought-filled movement recalls, perhaps, the experience of a planetarium where a celestial map is manifested in objects between which visitors can travel in body and mind, induced into imagining themselves as astronauts or, indeed, fellow satellites on a mission into the universe.

Space is the abstract concept from which this subjectivity is materialized. That condition is not forced on the viewer but follows the curiosity arising from Caravaggio’s materials and forms. These combinations are intriguing and unorthodox. Prima Neve (First Snow, 2020), for instance, combines Green Guatemala marble with powdered sugar, a dusting of which lightly shrouds one end of a horizontal column made from the dark and subtly veined stone. After patiently probing for meaning, the invitation to engage the imagination, once grasped, opens the intelligibility of the work. The allusion to landscape is prompted by the stone’s variegated greenness. Still, some investment is needed to extrapolate from the cold mix of strikingly different substances just how to arrive at the destination signposted by the title.

Gianni Caravaggio, installation view of “Per analogiam,” 2023–24. Photo: Luca Vianello

That effort is not a criticism of the sculpture or of the process behind it. Caravaggio is a master of poetry in form, a stripped-down, objectified versifying that, once the viewer’s thought path converges with the artist’s, releases a dopamine hit of pleasure. Elsewhere, unexpected relationships between material and thought have a similar effect; for those with the time to pursue these visual haikus, the show offers a workout for neurotransmitters. The material pairings are not sensuous in Baroque fashion; instead, the synthesis of unusual ingredients has the intellectual edge of haute cuisine at its most experimental. Caravaggio partners bronze, aluminum, alabaster, thread, marble, and onyx with Vaseline, adzuki beans, palm leaves, printed paper, lentils, millet, and dust brushed from the gallery’s white-painted wall.

That dust falls onto one half of Immagine seme (Seed Image, 2010), an irregularly silhouetted slab of shiny black Belgian marble leaning at an upright angle. The piece again enacts a connection between sculpture and landscape through the visitor’s imagination. The specks of dust stipple the surface up to an equatorial line across which polished stone prevails. The visitor contemplates the image perhaps more than the object. A starry night? Snowfall after dark? The uncoated section suggests a shadow, related to another one that cuts across Via dalla luce mia (la verità) (Stand out of my light [the truth], 2007). This stone-like object is made of two conjoined marbles; one white, the other gray. The implication of shadow is there, but Caravaggio additionally commandeers the real shadow cast by a partition, using it to bisect the piece exactly at the join.

“Seed,” as image and word, is just one metaphor in a show where metaphors proliferate. In this way, Caravaggio addresses complex phenomenological, cognitive, and artistic concepts with paradoxical lightness and simplicity. A seed connotes becoming, and this installation places viewers where ideas are sown for individuals to germinate. As such, nature is presented as pure perception (as it has been throughout the history of art, since Claude Lorrain or before). The trick lies in noticing that proposition. Caravaggio possibly offers a prompt by including the wall-mounted Melancolia, ovvero trasparente (Melancholia, or Transparent, 1995), the show’s only non-sculptural piece. As the earliest work, it is a symbol of passing time: the photograph printed on acetate depicts the artist as he looked then. His pose is evocative of the figure in Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514), who sits immobilized, head on hand, surrounded by objects to which she pays no attention. Art historians still dispute the meaning of the engraving. In 1905, Heinrich Wölfflin described it as an “allegory of deep, speculative thought.” More recent studies suggest a resolvable rebus, an opinion that strikes a chord here.

Gianni Caravaggio, Via dalla luce mia (la verità), 2007. White statuary marble, grey imperial marble, and shadow, 32 x 26 x 25 cm. Photo: Luca Vianello and Silvia Mangosio, Courtesy the artist

Associations of creative action and space, and the limitless expansion of both, abound within the notion of nascent universes infiltrating every corner of the show. In Starsystem (2002), star-shaped sea creatures cast in aluminum are piled one on top of another but appear to reach only so far before collapsing into another astrological scatter. The metaphor seems to relate closely to setbacks on the journey toward potent image-making, a process that reaches a moment of concise revelation in Tessitori di albe (Weavers of Dawns, 2010). Two chiseled shards of pink onyx, set apart on the floor, are linked by a length of thin, pink-colored thread that continues to spool randomly at each polar block to suggest of the unfolding daylight at dawn. The reward is another chemical hit that acknowledges the beauty of transposing a transient phenomenon into slight physical form. If the artist wills, that moment can hold into infinity.

In “Auguries of Innocence,” from 1803 or thereabouts, English poet and artist William Blake wrote, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand…Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.” He then creates a sequence of images that instruct the reader to pay attention to the latent connections between things. Caravaggio undertakes a similar operation when burgeoning creativity strains at the widening of consciousness. The first work in the exhibition, Giovane universo (Young Universe, 2014), embodies this thought. Entering the gallery, the viewer must stoop from a human’s habitual lofty vantage point to see the crucial detail of a silver-plated bronze wire shaped like a hand. Several glass spheres are held within its perimeter, conveying a palpable tension between restraint and the potential for growth. When the tension gives, the spheres escape, colonize the space outside that boundary, and reflect light into more space. A second iteration of the same work expresses that inevitable outcome.

These pieces reflect a quest for origins of the infinite. The hand holding stone spheres in Principio (Beginning, 2008) is cast from the artist’s and patterned with an imprint of the floor on which he took his first infant steps. Whereas Blake’s destination in his poem was to preserve God’s natural order of things, Caravaggio assumes the Northern European Romantic image of the artist as agent, through whom chaos is arranged according to eternal physical forms into models of new forms. The creation of the material world includes human bodies as the seat of reason alien to the supreme God. The unity of all things, “Per analogiam” implies, remains attainable through knowledge built on attentive looking.