Scanga's Object-Ciphers
Christopher Knight

Italo Scanga makes object-ciphers. Awkward and elegant, naïve and intellectually rich, and above all, extraordinarily eclectic, his art from the past decade has increasingly sought to reopen the "multiplicity of consciousness" once inherent in collage and assemblage, but now denied by the weight of tradition. Paradoxically, he does so not by the denial of traditions, but through their very accumulation.

Ours is an age of antiquarianism and archaeology. Artifacts of the past, whether ancient relics or yesterday's fashions, function not only as a stimulus to yearning for some lost golden age but also as a simple accumulation of objects and images extant in a simultaneous present. Collage and assemblage were the 20th century manifestos of this state in which the conscious artifice (called art) and the given fact (called reality) commingled. Now, toward the end of the industrial age, the contemporary proliferation of illusion-producing processes has increasingly transformed the given fact into art, and the conscious artifice into reality. Scanga's object-ciphers both reflect this condition and mine its possibilities.

Every seemingly non-aesthetic object, action, or choice in his work can be seen through a microscope of aesthetic derivation. Scanga cultivates the intricacies of art. For instance, the striding "K" figure wielding a weapon-like stick and crowned by a funnel-helmet in his 1980 sculpture, Fear of War, derives from the marching soldiers in El Lissitzky's 1928 design for a children's arithmetic book, The Four Mathematical Processes. Depicted by Lissitzky as stick-figure workers built from the letters "R" and "K" and brandishing a sledge hammer, a rake, and a rifle, the three characters when added together formed a single, unconquerable unit. The sculpture, built in a style that might best be described as "folk constructivism," is equally reminiscent of a backyard whirligig or a childhood toy, marrying the unselfconscious spirit of folk art to the erudition of its historical source. Likewise, the soldier's funnel-headgear was a medieval designation for the fool (a funnel passes everything and holds nothing), familiar as a pictorial image in everything from the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel to the clanking tin man in The Wizard of Oz. Formally, the agitated splotches of paint that encrust the surface of the piece serve to unify its discrete elements while shattering the whole into a state of nervous anxiety; the sculpture's overall configuration of dynamic stability finds its antecedents in everything form the Baroque to Suprematism. Scanga's totem to the liberation of the psyche, upon a straight reading, seems to meld Russian post-revolutionary negation of self with a Flemish penchant for social commentary, deeply felt common values of folk art, and the shared social values of popular entertainment.

In addition to the layering of aesthetic sources, Scanga's work also cultivates the intricacies of ego. Icons of his Catholic faith, mass-produced in cheap reproductions and renewed by whorls and drips of paint - marking of the artist's hand - permeate his series of Saints from the early 1970's. This process of renewal paradoxically serves to deny or partially obliterate the image while making the mass-produced icon uniquely "his." Several dozen exquisite photographs of the town of Lago, in the southern Italian province of Calabria (commissioned from the artist in the mid-50's by LOOK magazine and reissued in book form in 1979), document family, friends, religious and secular rituals, the landscape, and death in the place of Scanga's birth. Personal fears - whether from the elemental mysteries of fire, darkness, water, tornadoes, and other natural phenomena or form the mundane, but no less real, cultural fears of success, buying a house, alcoholism, and art - have occupied his sculptures for the past two years.

These explorations of the self are as familiar as the formal artistic signs that abound in Scanga's work. Both are components of what is by now a universal, pictorial vocabulary brought about by the proliferation of print, film, and electronic reproduction, as well as by the very nature of living in contemporary culture. The eclecticism of Scanga's aesthetic borrowing, from folk art, popular reproductions, Expressionism, Constructivism, the Baroque, Picasso, Surrealism, El Lissitzky, primitive totems, and so on, drains the potency from the specific meanings associated with any one of these styles. In its place, he employs a visual language composed of elements form a multiplicity of social groups, and abuts them to the most personal of meanings specifically known only to himself.

This vibration between the self and the social order is the third area that Scanga cultivates. Cultural myths and superstitions are evoked by the images of saints, the rural peasant tools, and the iconic and ritualistic overtones of his work. Suggestions of the gathering and preparation of food, glass vessels and hollow gourds filled with offerings, and the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth recur. Political structure, intimately bound up in the very need for survival that manifests itself in the most basic creation of objects and images, is the stuff of his 1979 series of sculptures inspired by the Irish potato famine of the 19th century.

Personal identity (self-affirmation) and identification with the group (self-negation) coexist on anxious but equal footing in Scanga's art. It is reflective of a current cultural dilemma whose origins are announced in 20th century art by the appearance of collage and assemblage, themselves the tradition from which Scanga's art springs. Defined by Tristan Tzara as "a piece of reality which enters into relationship with every other reality that the spirit has created," assemblage indicated that the external world, from which the items of assemblage are plucked, had itself already partly changed into art.

The given fact in Scanga's art is the artifice of the external world. Like camouflage, his work achieves a kind of metastasis in which every aspect of the exists as a multiplicity of things and meanings; in Fear of War, the soldier is a whirlygig is an arithmetical unit is a toy is a psychological state is a work of art is a peasant ritual is a private icon is a public sign. Scanga pushes his work back outside an independent history, inviting the spectator to respond anew with a broad choice of interpretations that is the state of freedom. The experience of his work is both vicarious and direct.

Particular qualities of Scanga's Italian heritage are woven throughout all of his work. And if one were to point to a specific configuration in the history of Italian art that seems endemic to Scanga's own, surely it would be maniera. One thinks of Pontormo's Joseph in Egypt (c. 1518), in which the artist's own consummate master of High renaissance drawing and modeling is pushed up against a strange and sinewy landscape that derives from the engravings of Albrecht Durer. A crowd of nervous figures and statues twisting on slender columns shatter the compositional purity of High renaissance canons, throwing the picture into a tense state of dynamic stability that is both anxiety-ridden and oddly beautiful. The Florentine Republic had, at the time, lost both external independence and internal liberties; commerce and morale were stagnant. Not until the eve of the first World War did Italian Mannerism, disparaged for more than three centuries, begin to generate interest amid an artistic milieu caught up in anti-academic manifestations of their own. In maniera, as in collage and assemblage, art no longer attempted to copy nature nor to seek equivalents to it. Rather, like Scanga's dense and provocative work, art posited a condition in which ambiguity, contradiction, and discontinuity allowed for a variety of experience that embraced both poetry and torment. Italo Scanga's art is a matter of survival.