BY Ara H. Merjian in Features | 16 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176

In Focus: Luca Monterastelli

The raw enigma of matter and the potential meaning of form

BY Ara H. Merjian in Features | 16 DEC 15

As Rosalind Krauss long ago noted of sculpture, the medium almost inevitably courts bodily analogy. Typically vertically oriented and elevated by a plinth or a bracket, Luca Monterastelli’s sculptures assume that analogical mantle willingly. Of Dead Bodies’ Weight, The Lovers’ Suite (both 2015), Only Hairs and Bones (2013): the titles alone conjure up corporeal imagery and are matched by upright, vaguely anthropomorphic forms or bust-sized agglomerations. Welded-iron cables sprout upward like a shock of hair in some pieces; the shiny wax atop standstill #1 seems to clench into a fist; and the polished, biomorphically formed concrete-on-steel-structures of the three works [ :lunge ], [ :swerve ] and [ :stand ] suggest an even more kinetic flesh. Yet, even as Monterastelli addresses such affinities head on, he defers each piece’s citizenship in the realm of the human. Despite the frequent whiff of inscrutably corporeal form, these works are principally abstract: often gnarled and knotted, or crumpled and stacked. 

Whether mounted on square or circular bases of poured concrete, or else on more intricate, fanned iron stands, the sculptures combine geometric units (cylindrical, tubular or square) with lumpy forms of cast plaster or contorted concrete. Many of the works make their material look like another substance. Cement elements intermittently assume the supple folds of carved marble, while plaster is made to crumple in on itself like ruffled linen emerging out of white stone. Una Malinconia della Carne (A Melancholy of the Flesh) features a row of four erect columns, plaster wrapped around their bases like bulging cloth, with folds that appear to have been formed using an intricate cast. At the top of the columns, what appear to be hooded forms bear the imprint of a burlap-like fabric, suggesting bodily forms placed under wraps. At once hieratic and enigmatic, geometric and biomorphic, architectonic and lumpy, Monterastelli’s sculptures suggest that the modernist sculptural vocabulary still bears some formal paradoxes worthy of exploration.

Only Hairs and Bones, 2013, concrete, wood, Plasticine, iron and chalk; left: 240 x 55 x 55 cm; right: 240 x 35 x 35. Courtesy Lia Rumma Gallery, Milan and Naples, and Centre d'art contemporaine Parc Saint Léger, Pougues-les-Eaux; photograph: Giusva Cennamo

Themselves constituting sculptures, the carved wooden bases of Only Hairs and Bones and Of Dead Bodies’ Weight recall the often-totemic allusions of Constantin Brâncuși’s stylized, ‘primitive’ bases. Even more than Brâncuși, however, Monterastelli eschews the representation of actual objects for allusive, abstract entities. potenzainterra! #2 (Full Power! #2) evokes the phallic tilt of Brâncuși’s Princess X (1915–16) yet, rather than some ideal Platonic object, Monterastelli presents an entity still coming into being – one that is unsettlingly unrecognizable. In contrast, 3rd Technique of Seduction, comprising four, rough-hewn concrete slabs atop a complex iron stand, appears more rigorously formal, despite its lopsided elements.

Monterastelli’s engagement with modernist legacy exceeds the Brâncușian, the biomorphic and the geometric. Both versions of the hanging wall relief titled In the Branches’ Movement and in the Chewing of the Flesh comprise five vertical stacks of concrete slabs. Slightly staggered in and out from the wall, these ten elements have clearly each been pressed by a finely striated mould, as their surface reveals the imprint of thin diagonal lines that radiate out in different directions. Redolent of natural phenomena – and thus at striking odds with the prosaic medium of the work – these patterns conjure up the mineralogical brittleness of fossils or shells, or perhaps the bristling of needles, rather than the leaves or flesh alluded to in the title. (These two works recall the best efforts of Giuseppe Uncini, a 20th-century Italian sculptor noted for his experiments in cement and iron.) Painted on the Skin. Carved in Bones #1 and #2 push some of these same tropes further, consisting of cement frames hanging on the wall, bearing further, receding levels of framing and intricate surface patterns. As with In the Branches’ Movement and in the Chewing of the Flesh, water stains take the variegated surface of these works to a higher level of contingency. 

In the Branches' Movement and in the Chewing of the Flesh, 2015, reinforced concrete, 100 x 60 x 5 cm. Courtesy Lia Rumma Gallery, Milan and Naples

The stray drips of concrete down the side of 2nd Technique of Seduction, splatters on the shafts of Una Malinconia della Carne, or the seams stamped into various works’ more geometric slabs: Monterastelli’s pieces often bear traces of the processes that made them. The pocked cylindrical and tubular elements of A Dimension of Absolute Cruelty contrast with its crumpled forms. The finished sculptures retain the rough-and-tumble evidence of soldering, pouring, pressing, chipping. Yet the artist holds at bay the inflections of process and duration that distinguish various arte povera experiments – whether Giovanni Anselmo’s Struttura che mangia (Structure That Eats, 1968) or Giuseppe Penone’s whittled tree trunks. As much as Una Malinconia della Carne lets us see its raw materials almost in spite of the apparent forms of its different elements, and as much as Species Cast wants us to revel in the irreverent rumpling of its cylinders, the works never seem to cross over into the phenomenological realm of real time. So, too, do they resist any conceptual apparatus as an alibi for formal questions. Monterastelli keeps our focus trained on his materials, as they pass in and out of form, in and out of sense. That play between the raw enigma of matter and the potential meaning of form is what lends his work a compelling edge.

Luca Monterastelli lives and works in Forlimpopoli, Italy. In 2015, he had a solo show at Lia Rumma Gallery project space at Fonderia Battaglia, Milan, Italy, and his work was included in the Italian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Italy. He is featured in the group show ‘Ennesima’ at the Milan Triennale until 6 March.

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.