Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Diana Rabanser for the catalogue.
When I first saw the works of Michelangelo Penso, what fascinated and impressed me most – what made me stop and made me think – was a series of white enigmatic sketches, drawn on a set of pages that were taken from an old and illustrated book. Each drawing had been pasted into a Moleskine notebook, known to anyone who uses notebooks to capture impressions of journeys and encounters. Originally the pages belonged, so I’ve learned, to an atlas, or rather a geographic dictionary, which had been bound by the artist’s great-grandfather back in 1907. Whether it was my fascination with such books or anything else, I wanted to know more, and before I turned to the works in front of me, I followed the story and memory that surfaced from the past.
One of Penso’s ancestors, already passionate about books, left his forebears’ arid Palestine and moved to Sicily. Later, Michelangelo’s great-grandfather, a bookbinder himself, decided to move as well. He broke with his family in Sicily and took his sweetheart to Northern Italy. Their nomadic life came to a halt when their child was born in Ceneda, a town whose 17th century synagogue was transplanted to Israel in 1965 – back to the roots: a trip in reverse to that of Michelangelo’s ancestor. Thus Michele became a bookbinder in Venice. Later, during the racial persecutions under Fascism, his son Ugo, the grandfather of Michelangelo, was deported and his shop was ransacked; his books got scattered and for the most part destroyed. A few of them were later found by Michelangelo, and one of them was right before my eyes. By taking this family relict as the basis of his work, Michelangelo Penso clearly sets out to explore memory. His retrospective search into his family’s intellectual and social identity is a tribute to the culture he came from, and a sort of anchorage in its own right.
At the same time, this was a book of journeys imagined, an opening to the whole wide world. And its bindings, like actual traces of a man’s existence, sealed the outcome of this nomad’s wandering cruise, a man who came from a wandering family and belonged to a wandering people. Even the synagogue was wandering. That’s why the anchorage was bound to be unstable, and its dynamics relentless in their quest.
Beyond doubt I was drawn mainly to this story, as memory came to life on each page and in each notebook (whose titles referred to the geographic coordinates of the featured monuments), as it untied the books bindings, forefather’s ties, and set out to radiate with lasting force. And it’s certainly worth mentioning that this work was first shown in Gibellina, a Sicilian town that suffered a shift of memory after being destroyed by an earthquake only to be reconstructed on a site 18 kilometres apart.
But this is not all: each page features a different drawing: white, fluent, and airy, evoking pictures of laces, tubes, organic shapes and envelopes. They show micro-organisms, diagrams of genomic chains, complex molecules and elementary biological components. They are, in short, scientific images, illustrations of matter, inert or alive. And while showing the infinitely small on the same page with the European monuments depicted on each sheet, they connect geography and biology, the visible and the invisible, imaginary journeys and magnified landmarks. Combining history and science, or memory and modernity, seems typical of Michelangelo’s approach, in which through thought and practice, he links both streams that run through all his work.
For Penso is above all drawn to memory.
Traces, shadows, and imprints of ancient images frequently figure in his early work. Blurred, and sometimes duplicated, they seem to spread like medals in a cabinet. Coming up in a deceiving haze, they gradually “manifest” themselves – both in a spiritual and photographic sense – like a face on a shroud, or someone caught between two worlds. Sometimes, the pictures’ granulated surfaces hide the signs of hostile times – gas masks, CBRN protection suits, or threatening uniforms. The images are vanishing, their traces are almost effaced. And Penso, in an effort to highlight the process, helps them fade: he erases half their traits, adds cracks and blisters, conceals them under Plexiglas and covers them in shades of blue.
In treating the images in this particular manner, the artist works in his own way to revive memory. Unlike a historian, precise and particular, he solicits elusive souvenirs, perceptions of places hardly seen, of moments scarcely lived, of people barely known. With a texture that highlights the process of disintegration, the pictures of the industrial district of Marghera reflect its closed down factories and abandoned train station. More than the image, it’s the material that translates decay. And the thereby incited reminiscence – be it visual, olfactive, or tactile – might well arise from the representation’s inherent questioning of itself.
It’s the sign of another approach, one with a scientific dimension, that informs Penso’s creations while remarkably staying in line with his memory-oriented work. The fusion of art and science, a configuration dating back to ancient times, and yet neglected in the realm of rationalism, might now revive in such new forms. With art embracing logic and reason, and science cherishing imagination and intuition, the way seems to be paved for a form of creativity that blends scientific analysis and artistic flair. In the course of his many trials, Michelangelo Penso explored mathematics, chemistry, biology and cognitive sciences, and he questioned our notions of life and death, while navigating between the abstract grace of fractals, the intrinsic poetry of matter, and the genetic essence of life itself. He touched upon the beauty of mathematics, of thought processes and scientific demonstrations, and their crystallization in various shapes (like Poincaré’s mathematical objects, as photographed by Man Ray, and later by Sugimoto). And with a demiurge-like creativity he invented new materials of unusual density or shade, pulverulent yet firm, white yet colourful. He studied the forms of genetic circuits, the DNA of micro-organisms, the mysteries of life’s origins, and the depths of the invisible world. And he captured hitherto hidden shapes, surreal, and hard to find, or else only on the fringes of the world we know. Like an alchemist, or a wizard, he likes to experiment. More mischievous and daring than hypothetico-deductive, like a sorcerer in search for the essence of matter, he rarely tires of “experimenting”, which reminds us of the origins of this word in French, as it derives from “enchantment”, “spell”, and “fascination”.
With joined forces, both streams keep flowing. Like the two branches of the Amazon River, whose different colours – one brown, one ochre – can be distinguished long after their junction, they alternate their dominance and move with shifting clout.
This explains the sketches on the atlas’ pages. His latest works – Orbits – feature industrial belts from Marghera; their pure and evocative forms and their particular fusion of colour bring them to the forefront of an artistic process thriving with aesthetic innovation.
This text was written initially for the catalogue (in Italian and English) of the exhibition “circuito genetico RSBP” by Michelangelo Penso at Palazzo Fortuny in Venice (until May 8 ), on which a review will appear soon on this blog.