Milan doesn’t seem like an Italian city. The austerity of the architecture, the fog, the frenetic work pace reminds one more of a cold Northern European metropolis. In Milan, people have no time to waste, and they are definitely in no mood to fool around: the financial centers set their rules, political potentates organize their meetings, the fashion elite coolly set the laws of style for the rest of the world. In Milan, everything seems to fit together perfectly, to be part of a superior order, a complex system conceived to function at optimal speed. It is no surprise then that this atypical Italian city is one of the principal art centers in Europe, a fertile and experienced marketplace with some of the country’s most important galleries (Massimo De Carlo, Studio Guenzani, Marconi). In the last 10 years the city has been the undisputed protagonist of an important creative wave in which a significant number of new artistic talents, critics, and exhibition spaces have appeared on the scene. The first signs of this ferment appeared in the mid-’80s: exhibitions were organized almost autonomously by artists in abandoned factories such as the Brown Boveri factory, and shows were intelligently conceived by such people as artist-architect Corrado Levi and Horatio Goni, artist and director of the Fac simile gallery. From this feverish and diverse mix emerged young artists such as Stefano Arienti, Maurizio Cattelan, Vanessa Beecroft, and others, all of whom were dedicated to formulating alternatives to the dominant artistic currents. These artists, working in a somewhat austere neo-conceptual vein, were able to steer Italian art away from the somewhat decadent glories of pictorial Neo-expressionism toward a language that was more focused and in step with international experimental artistic trends. Many artists in this period experienced living and working side-by-side, for example the Via Lazzaro Palazzi “group,” already active in 1989, which included Mario Airò, Liliana Moro, Bernard Rudiger, and others, and the Via Fiuggi 12/7 group, active from 1996, which included such important personalities as Giuseppe Gabellone.
In this context, the artistic work of Alex Pinna (born in 1967) can be considered completely original because it broke away from the strong Minimalist neo-conceptual trends that dominated the Lombard capital. Pinna also studied in Milan, at the prestigious Accademia di Brera; his artistic career began with works that were closely related to the dominant neo-conceptual climate, such as his “subverted objects”: a clock whose hands are too long for the clock-face, a set square on which the millimeters are incorrectly marked, and a 30-centimeter-long bed. These first works did not satisfy him; they tended to blend in with the existing trends. The break comes in the mid-’90s, with a group of radically different works, evoking childhood and cartoons. The first of these works is Fucked Bird (1994), a sculpture representing the Road-Runner, killed by an anvil. This was followed by more works depicting unusual situations with Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse, Pinocchio, and other fairy-tale characters. In this phase the artist seems to be in a dialogue with Neo-Dada experimentation by other artists, especially Italians such as Pino Pascali, one of the strongest and most intense figures in Europe in the ’60s. But whereas Pascali turns to the childish world of games in order to interpret the contradictions of the contemporary world in an objective but also lighthearted and gentle manner, Pinna seems to accentuate (especially later on) an intimate, melancholy, and non-confrontational element in his work. This characteristic places his work outside of the Pop tradition.
In 1997 the artist received national attention with a one-man-show at the nonprofit exhibition space Viafarini, one of the most important in Milan, which functions as an archive of young Italian artists (if you happen to be in Italy and need information on contemporary Italian art, now you know where to find it). The show featured the large installation Mi è sembrato di vedere un gatto (I thought I saw a pussy-cat): a bird cage suspended above 50 kilos of yellow feathers. In this version, Sylvester the cat has won the battle against his astute and irreverent partner-in-crime, leaving behind a desolate pile of feathers. On one side of the gallery, above a row of evenly placed tables, Pinna created an incredible battle between pencils and erasers, a kind of metaphor for drawing, work in the studio, self-assurance, and doubt. These works, which evoke an infantile and animistic imagination, reveal—as I said before—a lucid component that is not completely Pop or ironic, but rather ambiguous and ungraspable and therefore vaguely eerie. These works are like the ghosts of a game that has not gone as planned, that does not have a happy ending. The characters from this period are always on the verge of an identity crisis, even on the formal level; they change form and become confused: a gosling with a mouse-head, mice with long Pinocchio-like noses, and children with duck-feet. On the other hand, this cartoon-world does not become an excuse to represent a truculent, crazy world, as in the case of Paul McCarthy; it exists as a poetic space in which a rebellious and anarchical imagination has the upper hand, in which a difficult encounter between the self and the external world is taking place. In fact, Pinna does not advance any theory of social criticism or sociological condemnation; rather, his work is more like a very personal, introspective testimonial. The battleground is the private realm, the completely personal, post-ideological confrontation-clash with a reality that presents itself as a compact, indifferent block.
Through such micro-narrative and metamorphic sculptures as Believe Me (1994) and Mumble Mumble (1997), Pinna claims access to the profound, in a deep, almost painful manner. His Pinocchio installations (Pinocchio looking out at the sea; Pinocchio held up by hundreds of tiny uniformed policemen) all relate to this poetic/ affective dimension, this difficult contrast between a free imagination and the hard reality of power and order.
In this sense one could say that the recourse to the iconography of cartoons and fairy tales is prologue to the narrative of the self. Games offer us a respite and an escape; they protect us for a few moments from our own cynicism. This is why Pinna’s sculptures appear so clearly unmonumental and un-rhetorical: they are characterized by an internal tone, a melancholy and gentle aura.
His recent works fashioned out of rope, inspired by the world of the circus (men on stilts and tightrope walkers), suggest a whirlpool of notions of origins, an emotional exploration of a folk world, in which individual motion is lost in a remote collective realm, beyond time and comprehension. As in the past, Pinna seeks a proximity between the public and his works, this world swarming with worried, fanciful characters, poets and wanderers who dream of hidden realities and hypothetical places. The installations he created a year ago at the Monza theater evoke a flight of the imagination: flying carpets from which dangle rescue ropes, long ladders suggesting a different reality, a parallel plane. In his latest sculpture show in Fano, the artist measured himself against a traditional material (Carrara marble), out of which he fashioned another series of delicate metamorphic figures in a constant state of transformation. These small, evocative memorial sculptures again deal with the search for identity and the slippage between reality and dreams, between real life and fables.
Slowly and patiently, with great significance given to physical work and artisanal skill, Alex Pinna narrates the hidden life of a contemporary self; in this, he reminds me of the stone masons who carved depictions of a bizarre, obscure, and dangerous world into the capitals and friezes of medieval churches. Starting from a caustic and ironic imagination inspired by Pop and Neo-Dada, Pinna has arrived at the ability not only to narrate, but to narrate himself, and so obtain a complete individual autonomy, the kind of autonomy that characterizes the work of authentic and lasting artists.
Andrea Bellini lives in Rome and writes for the Giornale dell’Arte.