Eight Propositions on Guido De Zan
Nanni Valenti once wrote that “art in terra cotta, too, can narrate the apparition of places, the presence, albeit distant, of ghosts left behind, silent faces, unreflecting depths and unforeseen routes. Clues, fragments and, surely, the desire to re-emerge from metaphor”. He was alluding to a critical experience common to recent generations of ceramists: they were proud of their discipline but conceptually ill at ease, caught between the value of expression and the suspicion of applied art. That value is an essential one, though, which can be inferred only by those who handle the earth as such, who understand its forms and feel through its most genetically intimate folds.
Compared with artists for whom ceramics are a mother tongue, Guido De Zan is fortunate in having become a ceramist rather than being born one. He has not founded his identity on the rhetorical apparatus whereby every trait of research must centre on technique. Instead, he has simply added the extraordinary, virtually unlimited potential of technique, together with the thinking generated by material, to an intense intellectual appraisal which was previously applied to a much broader range of interests, rooted in quite different schools of thought.
The distinctive and qualifying trait of his approach has been the dimension and density of seeing, the active frequency of his gaze in respect of the centrality of the object.
The plastic object has always tended to call together space and light; it centres itself in surroundings that are complementary to it, affirming a primacy and hierarchy of sorts.
Not so with De Zan. On the contrary, one thing which emerges clearly from all the types and series of works he has explored over the years is that his plastic objects deliberately recede, becoming peripheral and reticent before the gaze and abdicating their volumetric arrogance. Here, rather than form, there is tone, a point of resonance for a gaze which he requires to be active, taut, sharp, so as to measure the light which determines the visual event, rather than merely registering the will of the thing to be. Sculpture not as presence but as apparition.
Thus De Zan does not think of form in itself, rather he allows it to coagulate from a nucleus of invention which is the possibility of suspending time, in a light that is almost of the mind. Once slowed down in this way, time allows the seeing I to enter into a decisive rapport with the motif (in its 19th century sense, but shorn of any residual narrative or referential meaning), while the aesthetic experience becomes not appreciation of otherness, but the length and quality of experience of the rapport itself.
He has reached this stage through multiple cultural echoes and influences. Eastern art for one, with its thousand minimal parabolas around the void. But also the European art of light, of such as Chardin, Morandi, Bissier, the dense purity in which are impressed the indeterminate signs of Tobey or Twombly... The rehabilitation of the value of irony in metaphysical art or, as Campigli put it, that “hesitation between the cult of things supreme and playfulness, which in turn can have the gravitas of a cult”. Also a non-derivative dialogue with the tradition of conceptual subtlety in another 20th century trend, along the line that stretches from the blankness of the historic avant-gardes to the suspended spatiality of one type of conceptualism. And a reflection of the shrewdest kind of design, between form given and evocation of form, between the potential of a drawing and the assertiveness of an actual design, in a fervid critical short circuit.
The centrality of the process of de-materialization, as postulated by Lucy Lippard, is patent in De Zan, constantly shifting from the abstract confidence of the drawing to the critical interrogation of the object. It is as if De Zan were deliberately stopping short, at the very moment he perceives form to have coagulated to its minimum degree of existence, so as to be able to savour the hiatus between what is, was and might have been physical, on the level of a pure, mental and affective stream.
His de-materialization is gentle, however, more in the idiom of Melotti or Murani than conceptual in any ideological or programmatic way. Rather than discourse, oratory, fideism, his works are in the nature of haiku.
De Zan tends to concentrate on the surface value of his ceramics. Munari himself noted that “Guido is one of the few ceramists who worry about giving a particular skin, as well as form, to their pieces”. Indeed, one might say that De Zan determines the form through the skin, which is no integument of the body, but substance appearing in its place.
The ‘inner design’ of the form remains there, visible, as architecture poised between natural and artificial, declared by the surfaces, which refuse to shed the will to be a page: a page woven by a thousand different, all possible signs, the unravelling of the primary, radiant and imperfect sign-gesture, together with the blandly decorative cadence, essential concision and primitive suggestion. The culmination is the fatal mirroring of the form/page traced in precarious geometry, now and again even with an echo of shadows carried, with that other form which might have been, in surprised, yet sharp-witted contradiction.
It is the form itself, on occasion, which is thought through as if it were drawn, becoming a thrilling, plastic incarnation of projected representation, making real in perplexed interrogation its own conceptual abstraction, its own inventive and projective clot.
Or else a venture into anti-heroic, paradoxically contracted landscape art, with those urban skylines reduced to the palpitation of light, like delicate, alienated little theatres.
De Zan configures a condition of tactile vision which is precise despite its sovereign ambiguity: in it, blankness becomes both assured and anxious by virtue of the softness of the surfaces, their gathering incidental light and returning it as affective.
He also sets another condition in his work. As an artist philosopher, he is fully aware of other avenues for exploration of his objects, other ways of verifying the chain of thoughts in form.
But earth is earth, original and essential matter, which is why it can exorcise any intellectual hubris there might be in him, prevent any precipitate, self-infatuated thinking. If there is meaning, if meaning is possible, it lies in thought/action that is aware of its own identity and lucidly determined. Because, as Savinio put it, bare ideas catch cold and die when they go outside.
De Zan has a great deal of respect and love for photography – as well as being one of those now precious few who retain a harrowing, tense concern for the quality of the gaze – and he is fully aware of how decisive in representation are its ways of seeing, its modalities and knowledge of light.
With De Zan, too, the ambiguity of representation, of giving and interpreting form, is part of the problematic matter of the work itself, and the photographic image, far from freezing it in its enactment, can itself become an active, critical part of the process.
These photographs, taken by the artist himself, are thus representations of representations; they reason out his reasoning on representing and giving appearance to form. They amplify, rather than direct, the extent of the work’s sensitive and conceptual experience.
They are works, not transcriptions of works. From jotter to meticulous notes to the gentle touch of the crushed, fired clay, from the intense and concentrated tracing on the plastic page to its enactment in light, De Zan continues his unstinting poetic murmurings.
The rest is down to our capacity for seeing.