Here, Velasco, aware of the risks, takes on weighty and highly sensitive existential andsocial themes, using plastic and pictorial forms of rare visionary strength, installed insuch a manner as to trigger a synergetic aesthetic tension between these contemporary issues and the evocative historical dimension of the outdoor and indoor architectural spaces that provide the setting. In these brief ‘notes for a reading,’ hopefully in a manner that is precise but not overlydemanding, I will attempt to provide a commentary and analyse the most significant and crucial facets of this challenging project.
With boundless energy and determination, Velasco disembarked in Pietrasanta to createa ‘grand’ artistic narrative. On the one hand, the central figures are dogs, if we considertheir desolate individual status as members of a disoriented pack of strays, and on the otherhand they are men, not as single entities however, but as an indistinct multiplying mass—with the exception of two enigmatic, anonymous characters, their heads hidden inside the upturned boat they carry on their shoulders. Without being aware of it perhaps,these two naked (shipwrecked?) men, immobile rovers, find themselves in the town’s bustling rectangular square. They are metaphysically displaced, whether starting out or endingtheir journey. This is just one of the stops in a parallel and cyclic exhibition which alsounfolds in two other venues: inside the church of Sant’Agostino, where we find a gathering of stray dogs from God knows where; and in the nearby Sala del Capitolo: two monumental paintings, one in front of the other, reveal an epic portrayal of humanity, an endless,incalculable collection of individuals. In the outside garden stands another emblematic figure: a solitary golden sculpture of a large dog. Men and dogs, therefore, whose destinies are inextricably bound together in a metaphorically charged scenario that draws the viewer’s attention to the most problematic and desperate aspects of the human condition, from loss of individual identity to the hopeless adventures of mass migration. This evocative narrative framework can be perceived easily under the surface yet without being conditioned by the specific connotations of content. The artist refrains from realistic description, he puts forward neither interpretations nor judgements and he follows no story-line; he limits himself (which is indeed no limit) to staging a fascinating and alienating visual creation, to stimulate the imagination and encourage contemplation, generating new sense and meaning.
Stage Directions. Installation Strategy
As we mentioned above, this type of artistic operation could be at serious risk of rhetoricalhyperbole by virtue of its literal and idealogical content, with a weighty bulk of meanings attributable to the easy and unforeseeable expressive potential of the sculptures and paintings.This risk was approached and circumvented by employing installation methods which,necessarily, have something theatrical. Nevertheless, they function because they have been reduced to the minimum in terms of ‘stage direction’ (i.e. adding nothing other than lighting to the works themselves) and decisions regarding internal relations within the spaces. By ‘direction’ (a theatrical term) I mean the choice of the most appropriate position to endow the entities ‘on stage’ with a sense (but not a closed interpretation). Specifically,we can say it is a question of how and where elements are situated in relation to the surrounding environment, in other words, how installation issues are handled to emphasise to the work’s specific inner spatial and aesthetic tension. This exhibition marks the artist’s most advanced project in overcoming the standard limits of painting and sculpture (the two-dimensional surface of the canvas and the threedimensionalplastic free-standing entity), though without denying in any manner their autonomyor the consolidated identity of their languages. What comes into play here is the need to focus not only on issues of formal and expressive relations within the artwork, but also on the equally important relations the artwork has with the external space, to identify the most complex and effective conditions capable of conveying substance at this crosswords between the virtual and the real dimensions.
Sculpture that Walks. Oblique Sculpture
Velasco’s choice for the large sculpture in the Piazza is quiet the contrary to what many artists before him have done (too often they have attempted to challenge this beautiful space by overloading it or finding easy spectacular solutions). In this case we have a solitary artwork; the life-sized figures have their feet on the ground. It does not reach high, rather its horizontal oblong form seems to be crossing the square casually through the crowds, by chance. Though immobile, even if the men do appear to be walking,it is the oblique position that imparts a sense of purpose,suggesting the idea of a journey towards a destination or better still, a destiny—unpredictable in any case. The precarious and oblique positioning (together with the absence of a pedestal) is a crucial element aesthetically, as it createsa spatial contrast with the Piazza’s regular orthogonal layout, thus freeing the artworkof any possible monumental (or rhetorical) connotations. The different materials used in the sculpture provide another effective contrast: as tradition would have it, the figures are made in dark brushed bronze, while the long upturned canoe is in aluminium, a modern industrial material with a shining surface that reflects the surrounding environment, a reality the bearers cannot see as their heads are hidden inside the dark dug-out canoe.
A Dog’s Life
For ten years now Velasco has had a predilection for sculptures of dogs, moulding and assembling them with a great variety of materials. A fundamental starting point for this prolific and ever more articulate creation of canine figures is without doubt Alberto Giacometti extraordinary, rickety, scrawny, stray dog (a bronze statue from 1951), the artist’s tragically ironic self-portrait, an existential icon of hopeless solitude, spiritually akin to Beckett’s human wrecks. This dog, rightfully described as the most important dog in the history of art,is deeply intriguing and disturbing, a perfect synthesis of Giacometti’s artistic vision, in thewords of Jean Genet it ‘conveys an awareness of the solitude of every being and everything, and this solitude is our most reliable glory’ (from Dans l’atelier d’Alberto Giacometti).
Velasco’s vision of the world clearly raises questions regarding mankind’s individual and collective identity, the meaning of existence and social destiny. Velasco is still an existentialhumanist (though he is not an extreme existentialist), this vision comes to the surface,one way or another, throughout his research. Even the material he uses possesses a particular expressive quality that is steeped in experience. This is particularly true of his sculptures of dogs made of sheet metal (with the welding clearly visible), with metal skeletons (or metal mesh) covered in lumpy white plaster (or plaster bandages) or else black traces of tar, or other materials and colours. Even in bronze but with a mutilated surface. These animals are almost always life-size, synthetically realistic though with considerable freedom, their postures convey tension through studied deformities, at times they are almost pathetic or dazed. Each one of these dogs seems to have a soul of its own, indeed it seems to be ‘lonely as a dog’ and conveys an estranging feeling of plastic solitude, no matter what position it is in. This plastic solitude persists, even when the artist brings together a pack of dogs, as in this installation in the church of Sant’Agostino. Here we have dogs crouching, standing, lying, turning to one side and looking down or up, walking lop-sided with bent legs and with a straight or curved tail. However, we never see dogs running or in an aggressive stance: these beings are resigned and (as we said before) bewildered and disoriented. An interesting aspect here is the fact that though the dogs’ plastic solitude remains intact, by some mysterious magic each sculpture forms a close relationship with the othersgiving rise to a single, broad, articulate artwork: a pack-artwork. This exceptional attractioncomes from the disorienting effect of having such an installation (with its erratic and disaggregated formal dynamics) inside a place of worship, the ordered and austere environment of a church. The particularly sharp spatial and plastic tension is accentuated by a refined chiaroscuro lighting installation. It is worth noting that the artist has given each dog the name of a lost city, strange and exotic names such as: Varosha, Pripjat, Mohenjo-daro, Bannack, Suakin.
Dogs on a Pedestal
In the exhibition there are two dogs on very different pedestals set in different locations. The first is inside the church but in the apse, behind the altar. This tarry dog is another exampleof the destitute type, and it is placed on a pile of metal buckets, it lies spiritless, its paws and head limp. In the garden outside instead, on a real rectangular pedestal in white marble, stands an explicitly monumental statue of a sitting dog. The sculpture is golden and much larger than life-size, in many ways it recalls ancient canine deities such as those of the Egyptians. In its proud and grave solitude it seems to be deep in melancholy meditation (if a dog can do so) on the irretrievable loss of its guiding power. A leader of the pack deprived of its followers. It is difficult to say which of the two is more pitiful.
Crowd, Mass, Swarms of People
And finally (though it could also be the beginning) painting: spread out in grandiose symmetry,two huge canvases hang one opposite the other in the large bare Sala del Capitolo.To a certain extent, these two canvases are like the wings of a theatre set, where the stage is just the broad floor-space between them. However, this is a theatre of emptiness and silence, and the virtual actors are these huge scenes, in positive and negative (light and dark colours), depicting teeming crowds that fill the entire surface with an obsessive expansion of nameless, indistinct individuals. These all-over paintings, which seem to be immense informal compositions at first, are works of great skill, executed with an expressive energy that is both intense and wavering at the same time. In these works, which tackle new themes, Velasco manages to achieve an exemplary, refined fusion between figuration and abstraction, between socially committed subject matter (in particular the mass tragedies of refugees or illegal immigrants, but more generally the fate of humankind) and a hitherto unseen, specifically pictorial creative freedom charged with great vitality. These are works that are ready to raise issues of even epic proportions and capable of braving the often arduous waters of the quest for quality.
in Sbarco, Skira 2010, Milano, Palazzo Reale e Piazza Duca D'Aosta, catalogue of the exhibition