Antonio Bellotti’s work is reticent but richly allusive; in its choice and use of motifs it is by turns insouciant and boldly decisive; it relies on effects wrought by the irreversible transformation of everyday materials.
These materials are commonly weathered, worn or used wood, metal, leather or fabric: articles of service deeply scored with the functionality from which they have now been magically released. More often than not, they are presented in juxtaposition with sheets of glass, the fundamental materials of display and of the segregation of culture from nature, the material whose condition approximates to the pristine in the most direst and economical manner. The combination of materials creates an awareness of two histories—the history of objects of use and the history of objects of display—giving the viewer two perspectives on any assemblage. The passage through time encoded in the materials turns the assemblage backwards and forwards, towards use and ornament, with an unresolvable ambiguity that derives a multi-faceted experience from the simplest of gestures.
The most startling gloss that Bellotti offers on this moment of interference –this bisecting of one history with another—is to anthropomorphize it, with allusions to one or another human rite of passage, as when he converts a battered valise into a glass topped coffin occupied by a rough wooden cross (‘St Paul’). This iconography is often frankly religious or art historical, and the art history he is particularly interested in is closely trammelled up in the history of religion (I am thinking especially of his series of drawings revolving around motifs from the paintings of Giotto and Piero della Francesca). The iconography is removed almost entirely from context without cutting altogether its ties to the original source. The resulting imagery reflects a drastic condensation of the original range of meanings, as when the three crucifixions of Calvary are evoked by single rusted nails embedded in a trio of white candles from the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (‘Triptych’). Gradually, the technique of condensation has evolved into the production of a singular image, as in the series of landscape drawings where there is often only one thing to look at. However, the singular motif whether painted or sculpted is never given an absolute, fixed or punctual character, and it is likely to be related in series to a variety of permutations. The very basic underlying principle of metamorphosis affects the selection and combination of materials and motifs and the groupings of works. The recent series entitled ‘Buoys’ encapsulates the way this principle works for Bellotti. A range of objects whose shapes approximate to the form of a boat are mounted on glass shelves; when the objects are presented together, viewers not only experience the passage of form from one shape to another but they also perceive how the basic form has transmigrated from one element to another, and from the history of use to that of display.
Bellotti’s characteristic working methods are also those of transvaluation; as a draughtsman, he gives scrupulous attention to the detail of motifs that are offset by an all-over wash rather than located within a graduated field. And as a sculptor, he gives priority to rejectamenta in his search for materials, turning his work into a paradoxical statement on cultural capital: its value is conferred by incorporation into a system –it is a treasure trove of the unwanted. The transmigration of meanings and values, across materials, between contexts and through history, provides perhaps the most appropriate sculptural language for an artist in transit, uprooted from his native Spain and its Catholic traditions, and sustaining in it activities, as poet, critic and artist, a prolonged meditation on the theme of displacement, in a mood of curiously depersonalised nostalgia.
Perhaps the central motivation of his work is its negotiation of distance, temporal, geographical and above all representational. It is an extraordinary coherent body of work, or set of cultural texts, in which individual items are always caught up in the passage of an entire oeuvre. Few contingencies in the process of composition were ever so well prepared for; no objets trouves that I can think of were ever so thoroughly authored.
Curator of Works of Art and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge
Rod Mengham is Reader in Modern English Literature at the Universaity of Cambridge, where he is also Curator of Works of Art at Jesus College. He has curated numerous exhibitions, most recently, Jake and Dinos Chapman, In the Realm of the Senses (Rondo Sztuki, Katowice: 2011). His publications include poetry and literary criticism as well as writings on art. His most recent publication is Bell Book (Wide Range Chapbooks, 2012).
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