Exploring visual paradoxes through a myriad of mediums. The Brussels-based artist Elio Ticca talks to me about his nature as a self-taught artist, and his penchant for plasticity.
Elio Ticca & J.Scott Stratton
Elio Ticca: We have to make a choice. To me that choice must be poetic, in the ancient meaning of the word: it must be realized – from the ancient Greek poiein, “to make” – into concrete forms. You’ll eventually get what you’ll see. The time I spend making that choice is inscribed into those forms. And the most poetically this is done, the better. Image of ‘The Heavenly Keys’ bu Elio Ticca
I find a particular fascination with artists, particularly in the visual arts field, who strive to define themselves purely by the conceptual and contextual work that they create. This is exactly what I found when discovering the work of Italian artist Elio Ticca.
Let me explain.
For the better part of my life, my exposure to art and artistry was through a narrow lens. I engulfed myself in a culture of poster, skateboard and street art – which were all connected by a common thread of DIY self-marketing. The backbone of this type of artistic expression was to create a recognizable artistic style and stick with it throughout all of your various projects. In this sense, style played and equal, if not greater, role in the career of the artist.
As I began to expand the scope of my interests to include artists who worked more conceptually, rather than stylistically, I began to encounter people like Italy’s Elio Ticca – whose portfolio of work span a multitude of mediums, styles, and intentions. This ran contrary to everything that I once understood about developing oneself as an artist. Questions arose around how one could work to define themselves when every series of work was based on different researches, implemented different techniques, and utilized different mediums. How could one hope that their work would become recognizable to the masses?
In hindsight, I’ve realized that perspective was quite naive – and possible greatly influenced by living under an American capitalist dream where everything should be communicated and marketed as a commodity. After years of speaking with those that choose a life of art, I now understand that how an artist measures themselves and the success of their work is a broad as the spectrum of artistic expression itself – in essence, limitless.
Yet, I still find myself fascinated by artists like Ticca who choose to work with the endless supply of mediums that this world offers us in order to execute a concept – rather than limit themselves to a specific artistic style. Which is what I chose to focus on when asking Ticca about his work and where he pulls his influences from.
Elio Ticca: The more I live in new countries, the more I think we are where we live. Our innermost psyche is affected by the world we live in, but at the same time, we have a biological heritage that affects our choices. So the work becomes a sort of diary of places. Exhibition photography of The Heavenly Keys, Allegory of Virtue, The Emperor’s New Clothes #1 by Elio Ticca
In your practice, you’ve worked with design, painting, sculpture, installation, and drawing, which makes it difficult to define you as an artist. So, how would you describe your work?
I recognize it is difficult, today as yesterday, to define what an artist really is. In a moment of cultural syncretism, as well as of socio-political changes, i.e. the historical period we live in, being an artist to me means to be open and receptive to otherness, unknown knowledge, and difference, in order to find the best way possible to develop the artistic projects that haunt one’s own mind, independently from the medium.
More practically, this means to research multi-disciplinary issues that relate to an artistic statement, to learn new techniques, to experiment with materials. That is how I face the problem. Concerning artistic mediums, even if in the past I explored different ways to question language and visual representation, I define myself as a self-taught painter, in love with plasticity.
You’ve written that your work “explores the relationship between art history, cultural history, and tangible and intangible heritage.” Is this a concept and research that spans across all of your work? And can you describe it in more detail?
There’s a beautiful definition of a work by Aby Warburg, one of the founders of art history as we know it today: this work is the Atlas Mnemosyne, which is a peculiar, innovative assemblage of images of his own.
The Atlas crosses borders and cultures from antiquity to the 1920s and forever changed art history as we knew it up to that time. Warburg called his work “a ghost story for adults”, as he aimed to explore the missing links, the black spots in visual representation.
Obsessed with the rise of antisemitism and, more broadly, human violence, he eventually managed to change the positivist interpretation of the Renaissance as an unequivocally consistent, balanced cultural movement. He did so by highlighting the paradoxes of an early scientific age that was, instead, imbued with superstition and magical thinking.
I think art history is related to philosophy and artistic research more than we generally believe. All three disciplines seem to inquire those black spots of a story that is everything but serendipitous.
Cultural history, in this perspective, can be inquired either researching on the life of artists, or the human mind and psychology, or creativity itself, if you’re an artist. It’s a constant business.
As an artist, I feel the responsibility to read again and again that ghost story for adults, that sometimes gruesome photography of art history. From time to time, that troubling photography coincides with the world we see now out there.
You implement a bit of satire and social commentary into some of your work, like with what you’ve done with your series of paintings ‘After Moroni’, where you planted modern logos into classic Renaissance-style paintings. Tell me a little bit about this?
After Moroni, a triptych plays with the idea of copy and plagiarism in art and, more broadly, visual culture. The work consists of copies whose colours are slightly enhanced, altered, or lightened in my paintings, made after Renaissance works by Giovanni Battista Moroni, one of the most virtuous portraitists in 1500 Italy.
In my paintings, I also added logos of brands of our age – Adidas, Chanel, Gucci, Asics –, either mixed, due to the similarity between each other, or made slightly different, or partially hidden.
There might be a wink on social satire, as you argue, a sort of mocking at fashion victims from a past age. Although my aim was to create a set of visual paradoxes: by mixing visual sources from different times, what would the result be like?
I also wanted to evoke a sort of eerie, absurd atmosphere. So I cut the gaze of Moroni’s models – the originals I chose are full-length portraits.
Our contemporary icono-sphere is flooded with photographs cut right under the nose. Take for instance fashion accounts on Instagram. In many of them, models are cropped either for copyright reasons or to highlight the product.
Even in our own pictures, like those we send on dating apps, we crop part of our face to hide our identity. This way the image of the body, our bodies, becomes fetishized, transformed into an item, objectified like a dress, a brand, a dream sold by an ad. Images made ready for consumption, or for flirting, made or manipulated to excite our and other people’s libido. A scopophiliac game.
Since you work with everything from graphic design to wire sculpture, how do you choose the medium that you are going to work with? Is it dependant on what a concept that you are exploring requires?
The idea, visual association, or figure that jumps in my mind comes first. The time spent realizing the work is functional to the improvement of a certain technique or skill, which will help for the further development of the following works.
But first and foremost, what makes us is our innermost receptacle of memories, desires, repressed feelings and emotions that we experience, or inherit with our DNA: the intangible matter of our self, what influences our choices and behavior.
Then comes the question about how to develop those images intangible, visible forms. The work can take different shapes, it can be made on different scales, painted with different techniques, etc. The way an artwork takes its final appearance is due to different contingencies, not the least the availability of funds; but at the same time, an idea originates a fractal cluster of possibilities. Everything is possible and probable.
Although everything is also relative to our finite, mundane experience. We have to make a choice.
To me, that choice must be poetic, in the ancient meaning of the word: it must be realized – from the ancient Greek poiein, “to make” – into concrete forms. You’ll eventually get what you’ll see. The time I spend making that choice is inscribed into those forms. And the most poetically this is done, the better.
Elio Ticca ‘After Botticelli’
What is the latest piece that you are working on? Take me the process?
I recently had my first solo show, Collateral Solutions, in Nuoro, my hometown in Sardinia. It was a site-specific project for a historic house, a nineteenth-century household with a romantic, but also eerie atmosphere: old furniture and checkered tiles, a backyard garden with an unfinished building without the roof.
I developed a series of ambiguous sculptures, made after everyday objects that referenced themes such as metamorphosis, fetishism, sexuality and the uncanny, in order to make the public perceive the architecture of the interiors and outer areas under a new light. It has been a recollection and selection of thoughts, notes that I took in the last three years. The series of these objects is potentially infinite: they are visual associations that stems from an emotion or a sensation, rarely from syllogisms or logical combinations. I will keep on developing the series through sculptures, but also painting.
What does an average day of studio work look like?
It can take two directions: either be dedicated to painting, especially to oil paint, which requires concentration, patience and focus. Or it can be spent working on sculptures and installations, so I will be dyeing duck feathers, glueing the teeth of a hairbrush to a pair of clogs, or making anew the genitals of a copy of Michelangelo’s David, covered with a fig leaf, things I did for my last show.
The study of your work had led you through Italy, Belgium and the U.K. How has living, studying and work in these countries influences your work?
The more I live in new countries – I write to you from Brussels, where I moved in September – the more I think we are where we live.
For instance, I developed the series after Moroni in London, where I had the possibility to see in real life the work of Moroni at National Gallery and, most importantly, at Royal Academy of Arts, which dedicated a marvelous retrospective to the artist, in 2014.
So more broadly, not only places, but encounters with people or artworks affect our choices. I also think natural light does so: light changes the way we see architecture, nature, objects, and so on.
What I find more difficult and challenging, however, is to translate into visual forms and language our innermost sensations. Those hidden mechanics of our mind, which manifest themselves in different moments of the day. While sleeping or when we feel tired, when we taste something that resembles something familiar, when a smell evokes a memory we cannot grasp, and so on.
Our innermost psyche is affected by the world we live in, but at the same time, we have a biological heritage that affects our choices. So the work becomes a sort of diary of places, a portfolio of past memories, and, at large, a self-portrait of someone we know well, but yet someone we don’t know entirely.
What direction do you see your art taking next?
I enjoy working with site-specific projects, which I find quite challenging. They are sort of a total work of art – without the collateral connotations the expression ‘total work of art’ evokes. That’s also because I always felt attracted to architecture.
Venice, where I studied and lived, it’s always in the background. Another dimension I want to explore more is the relationship with the public. I am studying art therapy in Belgium, so this will help me towards that direction.
I also want to experiment with the other senses: paintings that smell, sculptures that ask to be touched – many visitors, especially adults, touched my sculptures in my last show, especially the most fragile ones. So I kind of succeeded! But what intrigues me most are those black spots in our mind, the submerged landscape of our nature. Art is a universal language, and that’s only through communication that we can discover the unknown, together.
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