Marble has always played a key role in the arts of the Italian peninsula. All the way from the Roman copies of Greek masterpieces to the Gothic pulpits of the Pisano family, from the wonders of the Renaissance to the soft textures of Canova, this is a material that has captured the imagination of viewers, makers, and collectors for centuries. In today’s post, I am going to talk about this impressive stream of tradition channeled by Fabio Viale, the latest in a long succession of Italian artists to select marble as their weapon of choice.
Viale frequently references the past through some of the most iconic works of art ever produced. The ancient Belvedere Torso, Michelangelo’s Pietà, the Venus of Milos are only some of the several visual quotes that the artist funnels into his creations. Many of these statues were drawn, copied, and reworked over and over by sculptors throughout the history of Western art, so that Viale’s operation may not appear, at first, daring. His references are laid bare and may be compared to those made by other postmodern artists (think for example of David Lachapelle, whom I already talked about here). However, this is only the beginning of the story.
As one starts to navigate Viale’s oeuvre, the classical citations make space for unexpected sprouts of virtuosismo. In one work, the sculptor recreates a truck tire using black marble, perfectly imitating the look and texture of rubber. Such exercises of technical skills, which the old Italian masters used to call bravura, are not new and may be traced to the Baroque period when Gianlorenzo Bernini enjoyed simulating the softness of pillows and fabric using the same, hard material. In a similar way, Viale’s Nike reinterprets the Louvre’s masterpiece as if it was made of polystyrene, adding a contrasting, cheap look to the otherwise noble and expensive marble.
Beyond his technical skills, Viale’s works also reveal a good dose of camp. The aforementioned tire made of black marble is in itself a peculiar mismatch of subject and medium, as for the polystyrene Nike. The same reasoning applies to the lavish tattoos that Viale often sprinkles across his statues, creating unexpected juxtapositions: his Laocoon is decorated with hellish scenes from an Italian Medieval fresco; the Venus Pudica presents patterns reminiscent of irezumi, the Japanese tattoo art, and Christian Orthodox iconography is also often part of the repertoire. In doing so, Viale not only revitalises the candid but cold medium of marble, he also references the Greek and Roman practice of painting sculptures, which was lost in history after centuries of whitewashing (on this note, here‘s a readworthy article from the New Yorker).
Fabio Viale’s art is a concentrate, if not a pastiche of tradition. Marble is embedded in the history of Italian art and the subjects that he chooses are often drawn directly from it. However, he also re-elaborates creatively, joining distant worlds in a postmodern process of layering. The result is imaginative and open to interpretation, but it does not let go of the technical skills and precision that are needed to master a medium as hard and delicate as marble.