Number Teaches us the Nature of the Going out and the Return of the Soul (1)
in “Maurizio Pellegrin at The Corcoran Gallery”
catalogue of the exhibition
Washington D.C., 1992
An omnivorous collector, Maurizio Pellegrin arranges constellations of objects which fertile associations. Through a process of cataloguing, compartmentalizing, and juxtaposing diverse elements within a geometric framework, Pellegrin imbues the material he has gathered in his wide-ranging travels with a host of secreted meanings. The dress patterns, hat blocks, ledgers, picture frames, photographs, and shoes forms found in his arrangements imply a nostalgic sense of history that is underscored by an enigmatic symbolic code of numbers and a highly personalized process of wrapping and ordering. These vintage objects project a collective identity, one suffused with an intuitive understanding of the value of memory and perception. Pellegrin eschews strictly sequential patterns that are based on step-by-step logical judgements, instead, he favours an intuitive approach.
Essentially, his picture of reality is decoupled from the clarity of structure that is one of the chief virtues of language.
The fragmented nature of Pellegrin’s carefully staged compositions echoes the frustratingly fragmentary nature of contemporary consciousness, where discrete experiences and events seem to coexist in a close but stubbornly detached proximity that makes any coherent overview difficult. In this sense, the artist’s private cosmology is a solution that allows him to combine many elements into an identity that becomes a multiplicity of one.
The city of Venice, where Pellegrin was born in 1956, is quintessential source of the artist’s desire to meld early twentieth-century romanticism with late twentieth-century irony.
The shadows of time and memory, which are rooted in this highly cultured city of water and light, inform his work. His art is about dreams and possibilities told through utilitarian, even common objects which are very much representative of a certain time and place. Removed from this context, they are re-examined and redefined by contemporary associations. Springing from a “culture full of memories”, and “referential to man and life, more spirit than intellect”, “his is an art of interdependent opposites: light and dark, rationality and spirituality, past and present." (2)
Within this struggle of opposites, one predominant element often serves to anchor
a central metaphor established by the artist’s related symbols and meanings:
a pair of rowing oars used by Venetian gondoliers forms the axis of Anni acerbi (Youthful Years),1989......However each of this objects undergoes a gesture of obfuscation. A portion is concealed, wrapped with linen or silk, or stencilled with single numbers of numerical sequences. The function of this concealment is both decorative and calculated, intended to cement the object in the viewer’s memory. In this sense, Pellegrin’s almost uniform rejection of the temporality of present day materials (and the commercial culture of consumerism they imply) defines his work as ameliorative.
The role of personal memories is most evident in Anni acerbi, a tone poem alluding to the ever present interaction of water, light, and architecture that is unique to Venice. The framework of Anni acerbi outlines an allegory that is detailed by its components: two oars inscribed with the name of the founder of the society of gondoliers; pre-World War I boxes from the German newspaper Leipzieger News;
an oval frame; a copy of Nostromo; and various suggestively padded and wrapped forms. The overall composition is split on the diagonal by the oars, and each element is further bisected by wrapping in linen and black silk. Resolutely archaic, these materials are presented with a funereal grace that furthers Pellegrin’s notion of the dual nature of time and tide, innocence and experience. In contrast to the strong metaphor of male identity that underlies the themes and materials of Anni acerbi, Angolature selettive (Selective Corners) 1988-89 investigate notions of feminine sensuality. In Angolature selettive a black evening dress designed by the French couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier, Italian dress hangers, and fragments of dress patterns provide Pellegrin with the ingredients to address the notion of artist as fabricator and creator: a human with the ability to create, through an aesthetic process, something similar to the mythical animation to Galatea by Pygmalion.
Pellegrin energizes fabric and patterns, with their connotations of the female body, by overtly inserting the notion of male physicality. Endowed with abundance of odd (male) numbers, the pattern pieces take on the role of body doubles that symbolize the dual nature of humanity.
A sense of domestic harmony prevails in Il terzo incomodo (The Third Inconvenience), 1991. Eroticism and chastity are the twin implication of this work, where mature sensuality – embodied in the clearly fetishized shoe form – is played against the childhood innocence suggested by the image of a blindfolded toy bear. Pellegrin has arranged his elements to form the rudimentary structure of a house.
A row of shoes forms serves as the foundation while a broken mirror, its shape reminiscent of a torso, represents the physical body. Within this cluster of objects, a photographic image of a blindfolded bear provides an emotional centre of vulnerability and trust. Here mirrored opposites and unsolvable double meanings, set within the clearly recognizable structure of house and home, challenge us to read between the lines to discern the import of small events, where meaning is often ephemeral and hard to determine.
Pellegrin’s numbering systems are tools that quantify and give meaning to the artist’s experiences, which he expresses through myths, metaphors, poetic images, similes, and allegories. Formally, his arrangements are patterned like the seventeen syllables of a haiky poem (seventeen chosen elements, each of which can carry a kaleidoscope of meanings), of a composition of endless variation of the tones of the musical scale.
An interpretative key to the meaning of Pellegrin’s art might be as visual manifestations of riddles in manner analogous to koans, the nonsensical conundrums that are used to transmit the teachings of Zen Buddhism. (3)
Pellegrin’s riddles, like koans, confront us with the limitations of logic and reasoning by creating situations that cannot be understood through system of deduction,
but rather by intuitive induction.
Platonic, Pythagorean, and medieval cosmological theories also inform Pellegrin’s numbering systems. Within the context of assemblages, numbers name and quantify the internal energy of spirit of the material stuff of his sculpture.
In numbering, the artist is ascribing a name to the spirit of each object.
Basing his system on an understanding of geometric studies, the medieval analysis of the rhetoric of numbers, he compounds the mystery of his material arrangements by overlaying a code that relates specifically to his personal history......Pellegrin often uses the personal significance of numbers as marker which helps guide him through the development and unfolding of his work. (4)
Pellegrin’s work unfolds within a paradoxical territory between present and past, where the shadows and reflections of events and activities can be manipulated to effect change......Pellegrin’s involvement with numbers embraces symbology while recognizing the science of numbers as a language used to understand the construction of virtual space. Numbers and their visual analogues help us structure reality by giving us a system to shape and measure time and space.
....Incorporating numbers as a cosmic language allows Pellegrin to bridge the gap between intellectual categorization and spiritual understanding that is the core
of his art.
(1) Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, as quoted by Russel A.Peck, “Number as Cosmic Language”, in Essays in the Numerical Criticism of Medieval Literature, ed. Caroline D.Eckhardt (Cranbury, New Jersey and London: Associated University Presses, 1980), 51.
(2) Maurizio Pellegrin, interview with the author, September, 1991
(3) Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, (Boston: Shambhala Publication, Inc., 1975).
(4) Maurizio Pellegrin, exhibition catalogue, A11 Galerie Thomas, Munich, 1989