Materia or material has long defined Italian modern art. While Francesco Perilli resists classification with his enigmatic investigations into the possibilities of material, he is nonetheless part of a rich lineage of artists who have explored the outer possibilities of painting. The concept of materia is of fundamental importance in modern art and holds a particularly significant place in both Italian and American art of the twentieth century. As the title and guiding principle of Umberto Boccioni’s masterpiece Materia (1912), the word points to several lines of thought central to avant-garde thinking of the time and brings to the fore myriad artistic aims. As Flavio Fergonzi has noted, the etymologies of materia (matter), madre (mother), and mano (hand) all derive from the same root and are inextricably linked in Boccioni’s work1. Philosophical understandings of the word matter were heavily influenced by Henri Bergson, who saw all matter as indivisible and interconnected. This more philosophical/scientific preoccupation overlaps with the alchemical notion of prima materia, defined as the first fundamental matter from which all elements are derived, suggesting a universality or common origin in all things. The implications of these three facets of materia - materiality, origins, and gesture - are central to Francesco Perilli’s project and can be similarly traced in the works of numerous seminal figures in the history of modern art.
Physical substance has played a paramount role in Perilli’s work, beginning with his series of bronze sculptures from the early 1990s. In one work indicative of the group - aptly named La nascita della materia (The birth of material) - the twisting forms, reminiscent of an ancient and gnarled olive tree trunk, reveal what seem to be old shoelaces and chunks of bone.
Even more suggestive of human traces and fossilized remains, as well as the stratified layers of earth in which they are discovered, are works from Perilli’s fossilli ibridi (hybrid fossils) series, such as Pleurodictyum problematicum of 2002. In Perilli’s more recent Neutralist works the mixed media surfaces are created from plastic sheets and industrial pigments which he exposes to flame and heat to create pocked and furrowed asteroid-like surfaces which he incises with enigmatic symbols and marks.
Perilli—dissatisfied with much of the terminology assigned to current art practice—has created his own “school” which he calls “Neutralismo” (Neutralism). Perilli characterizes Neutralism as an inquiry into the very issue of materiality, which he pursues through an instinctual and emotional approach. In fact, Perilli eschews the conceptualism of much contemporary art, which he feels is cold and calculated, devoid of emotional participation. He insists on engaging directly in what he terms the “pictorial action.” However, this pictorial action is not meant as performance. Neutralism is a sort of call to arms that rejects what Perilli deems overly performative, ironic and strategic aspects of contemporary art. He considers these aspects of cultural production, as well as contemporary society’s surrender to consumerism, responsible for our disaffection from our own creativity. Central to Perilli’s concept is a form of neo-humanism. Humanism in the Italian Renaissance was characterized by an increasing focus on the secular (as opposed to the divine) and an assertion of individual expression. However, the humanist mindset stood midway between medieval Christian beliefs and modern scientific and philosophical concepts. Perilli similarly seems to take up this position halfway between the worlds of faith and reason. In fact, Perilli describes Neutralism as an embrace of the seemingly oppositional categories reason and chance and the material and the spiritual. In this sense, Neutralism can be seen as a kind of regeneration of an authentic, personal expression that gives form to abstract thought and emotion through pure artistic gesture.
The intersecting concerns of gesture/materiality/origins were also explored by many American Abstract Expressionist painters. For both Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko the importance of myth and the need to create imagery that corresponded to our shared genesis were intensely felt. An understanding of the use of arcane ciphers inscribed into often heavily pigmented grounds in the early works of these artists deepens our appreciation of Perilli’s relationship to both mak and medium. Rothko gave voice to his interest in the primordial through what he perceived to be universal symbols, derived in part from Surrealist investigations into the subconscious. In his early paintings, biomorphic creatures float amongst elusive signs. The organic forms hover between abstraction and representation. Perilli’s Neutralist compositions, which can be read as close-up views of asteroids and also can be understood as completely nonobjective, similarly straddle the two categories. In fact, rather than being antagonistic terms, the two are intimately related, as Kirk Varnedoe suggests in Pictures of Nothing: “You cannot draw a circle around the mind and say that everything inside the circle is pure creation and everything outside is mere observation. I prefer to roll with the circle: to insist on the constant cycling between representation and abstraction, between drawing forms out of the works and adding new forms to it.”2 Thus, the two work in tandem, rather than in opposition. Pollock’s paintings of the early 1940s also veered between abstraction and representation and were deliberately rough, crude images that contained mysterious markings. The cryptic signs and swirls which are laid down over a ground of colored paint have distinct affinities with the art of the Northwest Indians, as well as to the work of Picasso. As his works progressed, the pigment became more noticeable as a force in itself through its coarser and heavier application. Ultimately, with Pollock’s development of the drip technique, the medium itself became the subject of the work, epitomizing his concern with materia. The tight gestural marks of Perrilli’s recent indagations, as in Neu 6, bear a distinct relationship to those in Pollock’s early painting. The obsessive, ritualistically inscribed symbols are scattered across the globe-like form, creating a sense of intimacy, but also of timelessness. Finally, though, Perilli work’s is a maverick descendant of the material investigations of Italian artists across the 20th centuy. The interest in varied materials and their physical properties, which is recuperated and underscored in the later postwar years by Alberto Burri, occupies yet another point in the thread of materialism leading back from Perilli’s work. Burri’s sewn sacks and rags, burnt plastics, and abraded surfaces create compelling formal qualities. Like Burri, Perilli emphasizes the tactile quality and experimental nature of the materials in his work. Similarly, the polymaterialism of Fontana’s constellations executed in his later years suggest the outer realms one could reach with such explorations, realms overtaken and perhaps transcended by Perilli’s current work - paintings which defy canonical definitions and announce things to come for the 21st century.
by Lisa Panzera
1 Flavio Fergonzi, “On the Title of the Painting Materia,” in Laura Mattioli Rossi, ed., Boccioni, Materia: A Futurist Masterpiece and the Avant-garde in Milan and Paris (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2004); p.49.
2 Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing: Abtract Art Since Pollock (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006); p.48. Pleurodictyum problematicum of 2002. Lisa Neu 62