In the nineteen-sixties, the inclusion of natural materials in art was a moment of physiological transition. The avant-garde revolution resulted, as a side effect, in the clearing away of all superstructures; a return to basics appears to be the predictable and inevitable outcome of this development. While Anglo-Saxon culture expresses this need through Land Art (think of Richard Long’s solitary walks, which leave paths of flattened grass, or Robert Smithson’s poetic constructions such as the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake), in Italy there is the ‘Arte Povera’ [literally: Poor Art] movement. Examples include Mario Merz, who piled up branches to construct his igloos, bringing over-domesticated man back to the rules of nature (with his obsession with the Fibonacci progression), and Giuseppe Penone, the man who whispers to trees. In one of Penone’s delicate interventions a cast of his hand clings to a young trunk, impressing his mark upon it and remaining fused there throughout the tree’s long life (which will grow around it in an embrace). In another, his systematic excavation work around the adult tree reveals its essence, the young plant which still sleeps within. This unveiling speaks not of nature as being different from ourselves; instead, it ends up bringing us closer to it, by allowing us to relate to it.
Nowadays, talking about nature is a need which goes far beyond nostalgia or a return to our origins for some artists; they cannot but take a strong stance regarding the problem of safeguarding the planet, something which is more urgent than ever before. Olafur Eliasson, for example, who, on the occasion of the 21st conference on climate change in 2015, transported blocks of ice to the centre of Paris, to show everyone the speed at which ice melts, constantly, without respite, including where it should be eternal. There are also artists like Wolfgang Laib or Ernesto Neto who, like top-class chefs, delight us with the scents and colours of nature — from milk to pollen or spices — through immersive installations which act upon our neurons like Marcel Proust’s madeleine, taking us back to a primordial time with which we have lost touch.
Silvia Canton learns from those who came before her and reworks it in her own personal language by actually inserting nature — specifically a piece of virgin cork — into her paintings. Each time she takes upon herself the task of interpreting it, making it a metaphor for a changing world, or even making it symbolise humanity’s own wish to return to being at one with nature. Cork claimed her attention a couple of years ago. It seduced her with its rough and irregular consistency, with its uniqueness and unpredictability. She wanted to make it hers because she was won over by its indomitable character, by the fact that, inevitably, in deciding to commandeer it and make it part of the painting, she would have to take a few steps back, to give it a space for manoeuvre. This would take the work on roads that she herself was unable to imagine. She chooses it (and confides that in that moment there is a sort of falling in love) and then, of course, she cuts it. She modifies it. Sometimes she paints it, so that it becomes blended into the pictorial material, and at other times she brushes it with resin, so as to preserve as much of the plant residues which cover it as possible (the residues of life). In some cases, she decides to treat it with iron powder and oxidise it, so revealing a hybrid identity, metallic, rusty and unsettling. However, its wild and authentic soul remains intact and discernible. There are also the times when the piece is so perfect, so magnificently already finished in itself, that the artist decides to give the cork priority, to simplify the pictorial narration and to allow Mother Nature herself to speak with her most authentic voice. (Think of a work like Abissi [Abysses], a symphony of transparent, dripping browns which rotate around the cork fragment as if it had been the cork itself which had transmitted movement to the brush).
True nature which actually bursts so violently into a story, real nature, in fact, does not limit itself to giving us an account or a suggestion. Silvia Canton does not just paint landscapes with pieces of landscape, the work she performs is much more complex. This is an essential point. The fusion of the artificial — the painting — with the real — the cork — never aims at mimicry: instead, the artifice becomes permeable to the truth, it abandons itself, allows itself to be penetrated by the piece of reality to the point of identifying with it. The artist’s story, therefore, is never simply a natural one; it reveals a path of consciousness within the nature it conveys; it is an analysis which aims to trace history back to its primordial simplicity and down to every detail of its infinite and inexhaustible metamorphosis. It is evolution from chaos to order. The evolution of our planet and of our own being. When we observe a work like Crisalide [Chrysalis], for example, we cannot help but see a moment from the creation of the Universe in that golden exploding nucleus. Yet that sleeping furrow in the brown earth also holds the humble seed with its secret journey to become a plant. The macro and the micro: millennial history and the second, a fleeting segment of time. The introduction of the object — and thus, in fact, the passage from painting to mixed media — allows Silvia Canton to give further room for her thirst for depth and reality. In addition, the three-dimensional and material nature of the works is not just a way to weld us to the concrete, it is also the pretext for triggering a sophisticated trap for the gaze. It invades our space, takes us by the hand and draws us inside, to the centre of everything.
Silvia Canton’s painting is not easy to classify. The gestural calling which often pushes the work towards the abstract constantly clashes with an apparently unavoidable need for representation. There is always, under the surface, a conflict, a friction, between the primitive pictorial material and the gracious references to the great history of art, between instinct and control, and between feeling and reason. Even before this new series, so strongly rooted around the presence of cork, the flowers of the Liberty style, melting in sinuous curves, and the powerful brushstrokes of abstract expressionism on her canvasses, seemed to achieve an unbelievable harmony. The colour exploded, the material spread over the canvas following the bristles of the brush and then melted and trickled into watery rivulets, almost calming itself as it drizzled away. Later, when the gaze was drawn away from the direction of the brush strokes and allowed to explore the pictorial space in detail, the eye discovered small mountains on which fragile shrubs could be glimpsed, or encountered inflorescence. Alternatively, it discovered the sudden light of a red flame amid the swirling of the blues and the browns (the colours of the earth, sea and sky), almost a vision, one which drew the attention suddenly and became the very centre of the work.
Today, in these works built around cork, it is as if Silvia Canton chooses a different point of balance each time. A focal centre (abstraction, narration, suggestion, reference) which offers us a starting point for an interpretation which always reveals itself slowly, a series of successive realisations and revelations which will never achieve — and should not — complete mastery of the work, always leaving us some of the uncertainty which is so enchanting. Take Il grande pesce [The Big Fish], an emblematic work which could alone explain all the artist’s poetic creations. It is a large painting: a rising tide of gold and earth which seems to want to envelop the viewer in an embrace, an embrace which is both seductive and terrifying at the same time. The title is apparently simple and fits the iconography, but the story taking place on that rectangle, so full of substance and colour, is immense. The fragment of virgin cork which gives the work its title appears as a brown wound in the centre of the work; an open wound, a wound sutured in a hurry after having been disinfected with makeshift materials. Around it, the material is rough, coarse, incised with scratches which suddenly reveal possible plant matter, but from a hostile, aggressive vegetation: a tangle of brambles. They may instead, however, be the tentacles of a sea beast. In fact, although the title seems to direct us to think of the sea, the shades of the palette seem to contradict this; they point to a barren, autumnal undergrowth, where life is dormant and only a few traces remain. Because all of nature, from the earth to the sky and the sea, is a single element dominated by a single soul of immense scope, and Silvia Canton is well aware of this. Il grande pesce is a strong work: tough, complicated and beautiful. Its beauty comes from the primitive simplicity which seems to tell of an as yet unorganised primordial chaos; it can boast of important precursors. One such is the work of Alberto Burri, including Burri’s rough canvas in luminous, iridescent earth. Burri also used cork subtly, brown and leathery like the earth’s cracks, to draw the gaze. Incidentally, fish are a recurring element in Silvia Canton’s work, in part because of their rich religious symbolism. In addition to Il grande pesce, there is the spectacular Mattanza [Tuna Fishing], in which the shape is reconstructed in sections and the death of a small animal is suffused with solemn drama. There is also the gold fish of Amo (an exquisite title, as there is a play on words in those three simple letters which can mean either ‘Hook’ or ‘I Love’). This makes us think of the first fish, the father of all fish, while the red, rusty sea seems to be gushing out from a beating heart. While the works which allude to original chaos remind us of the beginning of nature, the origins of man are brought to us by works like Piccola madre [Little Mother]. In this the cork is encrusted with plant residues to evoke the uterus, an embrace, and the circular movement of its background, which opens into a vortex into which spectators might let themselves fall, reveals the pulsing of a red light like a small heart. The instinctive power with which the artist imbues the action of painting thus does not prevent her sending us some subtle messages, or giving us some more or less explicit homage to the great art of the past. This is shown in the joyful colours of Regina [Queen], in which the circular movement and the choice of reds, turquoises and yellows seem to stage a dance dedicated to Sonia Delaunay. However, there are also situations in which the painting feels the need to become news, to make a statement. In September 2019 the artist decided to take a trip into the woods of Croce D’Aune, in the Belluno Dolomites. Anyone who has ventured into the areas devastated by storm Adrian — the storm which hit Italy in October 2018, flattening millions of trees — is fully aware of the sense of desolation and bewilderment felt when faced with the spectacle of what remains. Those who have had the opportunity to see places, after the hurricane, which they had known before, places where they used to walk, have realised that they have lost all points of reference. These have become the victims of an altered landscape, in which only previously inconceivable, alienating perspectives remained. It is still disconcerting to be faced with those mountains of destroyed and mangled trees, pale as corpses, stacked one on top of the other, as in a macabre game of Shanghai. Looking at these fallen giants, our total insignificance is evident to us. The artist also gazed, tormented, upon this sight. It imprinted an image on her retina she would have preferred to have immediately forgotten. She then returned home and finally picked up the piece of cork that she had been keeping for a while because it was so beautiful, and so powerful! She picked it up and, suddenly, Vaia [the Italian name for storm Adrian] was born; a dynamic, swirling work. The brushstrokes on the canvas sometimes convey a pressing wind, sometimes a broken trunk, a trunk whose years can be read in the concentric circles of the section. The painting rises up in waves which are at the same time both gusts of wind and branches, with the cork planted in its midst like a paladin, a protector. A possible redemption and a desirable rebirth.
Acqua Granda was also created from similar premises, dedicated to another of the places devastated by the fury of an exhausted nature. A vision of sea and land, colliding and fighting in a Venice, symbolised by its cathedral of San Marco, which is now nothing but a memory. It hovers like a ghost ship, now uprooted, whisked away from the world.