Italo Scanga
Ronald J. Onorato

Myths have always fascinated Italo Scanga. Much of his sculpture translates written or oral narratives into a realm of visual objects. Constructed of wood and glass, found objects or fabric, his ensembles reflect a trio of activities - working, eating and praying. These dominate the lives of the men and women who perform such tasks daily, those who live close to the land but they are also processes which are lionized by many who contemplate romantically, a simpler, bucolic life.

Scanga, through a vocabulary of basic tools, icons and foodstuffs, reworked in a very personal way, attempts to restore the original sense of the peasant world, the realities of hard work or religious devotion often ameliorated through our present civilized sentimentality. He works through myths to give us the essentials of such a cultural experience.

While there is no single source for Scanga's work, many of the stories, traditions and superstitions retold in his adumbrated saints and basketed scythes are native to the folk-life of southern Italy. This culture, inhabiting the time-worn Calabrian countryside of Scanga's native land, provides the artist with his most consistent and powerful source material.

Whether religious or secular in content, the works of the past decade are the artist's reflections on the immutable, universal aspects of peasant life. Some, like the series of Italian photographs, are intensely personal while others use a more generally recognized set of images - old farm tools, wooden bowls or large plaster statues of Saint Joseph and the Madonna. They are all however, Scanga's own reinterpretation of those universals, his personal memories and thoughts commingled and then frozen for his audience to contemplate.

Scanga's newest series of works, the "Potato Famine" sculptures, are logical extensions of his earlier efforts. He begins with the familiars of saints and tools but here they are supporting armatures not focal points. If his earlier offerings of herbs, peppers and the like were presented in blown glass peasant ware or hung as dried provisions domesticating an exhibitions space, these potato supplications are affixed directly to the accompanying icons - not unlike the devotions pinned directly to the images of saints and Madonnas as they are paraded before the faithful in street processions. Other spuds rest in huge ladles and bowls just as they are. A simple, raw food - uncooked but potentially nourishing.

Far from being an attempt at humour or funk, Scanga's choice of the white (sometimes called Irish) potato is in fact a perfect conflation of symbols for the peasant life he intends to evoke. The dusty tubers, extracted from the ground retain much of their earthy character. Beneath their dry brown exterior is a moist, crisp flesh - a humble organic metaphor for the meager existence of the rural working class.

Employing real potatoes enables Scanga to extend such parallels even further. His spuds eventually sprout greenery and if left in place long enough return in a desiccated state to an earth-like dust. Natural cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth at the core of so many myths, encapsulated here in a single, ever changing symbol.

There are familiar images in these potato pieces but they evoke those contadini themes of Christian faith and rural labor in a new context. Like the saints that are now the supporting structures for the potatoes, the themes of the past decade are now the backdrop for another extended reality in the everyday life of the peasant - the political divisions of the working and privileged classes. The "Potato Famine" sculptures are restorations of political events that occurred over a century ago. The images and symbols are pushed together by the sculptor to achieve a new tension, a different syntax to convey some of the original essence of oppression.

The politics that concern Scanga here are not specific to Italy, in fact this particular source of inspiration is derived from a different peasant culture, the rural class of Ireland. Soon after his move to the West Coast in 1978, Scanga read detailed information on the infamous Irish Potato Famines of the late 1840's. As he almost always does, he began to research this socio-political tragedy and quickly realized the enormity of the facts and figures. Close to one million Irish dead, over a million emigrated caused by successive failures of the staple food crop the white potato. Waves of economic and social upheaval raced through the poor rural class as did epidemics of cholera, typhus, dysentery and scurvy. The population of a nation was decimated in a few decades from 7 million to well under 3 million.

Scanga's research revealed that is was not simply the blight and natural forces that caused so enormous a loss but the presence in Ireland of a domineering political force - Great Britain. The failure of Great Britain to aid the Irish during the crucial years of 1846 through the 1850's, the almost inhuman absence of aid for a country that was almost totally dependent on the British was the injustice that moved Scanga to create his sculptures.

Thus Scanga attempts to reinvigorate this century old conflict and restore some of the feelings lost on us today. These, as many events, have been long ago embroidered by myth, homogenized by history. In a very real sense, Scanga's work is anti-historical as he tries to undo what the selectivity of history makes palatable - he searches for the primal impact, the distilled significance of what really happened - not just facts and figures but sensibility.

As part icon and part offering, Scanga's newest works encompass both contemplation and action. These two polarities - thinking and doing - are part of the political process as well. These "Potato Famine" works rekindle our own abilities to be politically conscious as they are both a reminder and a reinterpretation of universal political injustices wherever they occur.