Little theaters of the life of objects
Francesco M. Cataluccio
Only in the workshops of craftsmen and the studios of artists, inhabited by visionary creators and traders of beauty, does material seem to take on the true forms of its destiny. As demonstrated by the powerful unfinished statues of the cycle of the Prisoners of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the figures are already inside the material, simply waiting for the spark of creativity to free them. “Matter is the most passive and defenseless essence in the cosmos. Anyone can mold it and shape it; it obeys everybody. All attempts at organizing matter are transient and temporary, easy to reverse and to dissolve. [...] There is no such thing as dead matter; death is just an appearance behind which unknown forms of life are hidden. The variety of these forms is infinite, the tones and shadings inexhaustible.” So explained the Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz in his phantasmagorical book The Cinnamon Shops (1934). Like Schulz’s father Jakub, the protagonist of the stories, who in the fabric shop on the corner of the main square of Drohobycz in Eastern Galicia invented mad, outlandish forms, Guido De Zan, in his workshop beside the church of San Lorenzo in the center of Milan, in the midst of “the mess of tools on the shelves and the heat of the kiln”, creates objects that are pieces of a bizarre, poetic little theater of matter that comes to life.
It is hard to avoid linking the origin of the creative art of De Zan to the decade he spent working as an instructor in a municipal center for young people with mental disabilities, in Milan in the 1960s. In that work of assistance the focus on handmade creativity, through the production of pottery, was a very important pedagogical tool. The matter, shaped by the hands in the damp clay, spins on the wheel, rises and takes form like a rattlesnake roused by the repetitive sounds made by its charmer. The artist and the madman have the gift of freeing the forms lurking in the material. Technique makes the difference. The artist takes possession of the tools most suitable to extract the most beautiful and appropriate forms.
Like Vulcan in his cave, De Zan in his chaotic workshop likes to push himself to the limits of heat, experimenting with different uses of stoneware and porcelain. The Japanese raku technique has given De Zan the key to ignite the forms in just the right firing, though it is a risky business. But De Zan has not learned only the Japanese art. He has absorbed techniques from all over the world: from the workshops of Montefiore Conca (Romagna) to Framura (Liguria), La Borne to Taizé in Burgundy (where the friar Daniel de Montmollin worked, influenced by the Swiss artist Philippe Lambercy).
The pots created by Guido De Zan have a wide range of remarkable forms: angular, curved vases, perspectives, figures, flatfish... Sometimes they seem to defy the laws of balance. But their vitality and originality lie in the graffiti on their surfaces (which remind me of the pictorial vocabulary of Tullio Pericoli). Like the bottles in the paintings of Giorgio Morandi, at a certain point De Zan’s pots began to gather in groupings. These “still lifes” are devices for seeing: with them, we see and get beyond the excess of visual input all around us. We have a pressing need to select, to make order in the chaos of what we see: artists like Morandi and De Zan offer us footholds with their settings of still objects that act as a sort of “domestic totem.”
The still lifes are stagings. The objects become simulacra of characters, which with their forms convey the theater of life. The Little theaters with geometric forms, but also the Towers (something like ziggurats composed of segments stacked in pyramids), the Landscapes (hills-clouds arranged on various planes like the wings of a theater set), the Cathedrals and even the Paths (porcelain boxes where small flaps float, like the dances of fish), are objects in motion. They join the works known as Little theaters of life, that bring to mind the creations of Fausto Melotti: wooden frames that contain different characters, each playing a role, as in nativity scenes.
In all the objects created by De Zan, whether single or in groupings, we find an extraordinary sense of lightness. The deepest meaning of the work of De Zan lies in this “lightening of matter,” producing objects of melancholic cheerfulness, subdued but never cold colors, free of any material constraints, capable of concentrating the universe in simple and at the same time elaborate forms. A poetic dustiness covers these objects, which seem almost to detach and distinguish themselves from the bewilderment of the world.