PRINT January 1977

Italo Scanga’s Torn Loyalties

ITALO SCANGA IS A REGULAR GUY. Everybody says he is a real nice guy, and somehow it seems important to repeat the opinion. For at least three major exhibitions he has produced books with testimonials from a variety of collectors, curators, critics, former students and fellow artists. Of course, they were testimonials to the art, but the work and the man do not allow themselves to be separated. Those little books, besides the testimonials, carry photographs of the artist, his family, his friends, his studio, his hometown in southern Italy and stories and pictures of local saints, sometimes with a stray, like St. Cuthbert or an engraving of a chain attributed to St. Ethelwold. If a few shots of an installation are squeezed in, they are as like as not made up of pitch-forks, baskets, brushes, shovels, herbs, spices, hoops, horns and cheap antiques.

Our first impression is of bric-a-brac, of personal mementoes, of an identity made up of the associations of material objects. It is likely to be a favorable impression, of warm, human, earthy things, easy to accept and readily appreciated. But Scanga is not quite the lovable Italian peasant tumbling off the boat clutching references in one hand and all his worldly goods in the other. To a point he may seem to go out of his way to foster that image but, in fact, he left Italy when he was 15 and has now been in America almost 30 years. Though his work seems to plead for our approval, he is not prepared to accept our condescension or to be cast in the role of low comedy.

It is not just the fact that his art gets shown at the Whitney that lifts it to a more serious level. The introduction of the abstract shapes of utterly bare plaster cubes to prop up the objects and the self-conscious positioning of the things themselves invoke a sense of high art values that is oddly incongruous. Suddenly the work becomes very difficult. Profusion has become pretension. Developments of the last three years seem to isolate the area of unease and probe at the causes of our discomfort.

There is something ambivalent about the low placing of that basket in the Whitney and, likewise, about the marked up prints that form the bulk of his recent work. Look at it one way, the picture down there is expressive of its own lowly status; look at it another, the art is asking us to abase ourselves before it. The length of cord from the ceiling of the Whitney, the expanse of wall space above the paintings, advertise a formal bravado that is the reverse of genuine modesty. The contradictory interface of humility and arrogance is the paradox of sainthood. In Italo Scanga’s case the paradox is compounded by doubt as to whether he is dealing with religion or art-for-art’s sake: “I am also very formal about the pictures too.”

The truth is he has been away from Italy a long time and would shape up badly as a peasant after Philadelphia and San Diego. When he does go back, he is suspect in art circles because his religious themes have political overtones for the left wing. In retrospect, the photograph of a statue of St. Anthony may be the most telling plate in those early books. The saint’s pious grief pales before the violence that time has done the image. The surface is wrecked, the plaster laid bare beneath the paint and, at the side, an open wound gapes where one arm has been smashed off altogether.

“Restoration” is a word that has cropped up frequently since 1973. In 1975 he called a whole show “Restoration Pieces.” The word is worth dissecting. In the first place it is an art-centered term. It has to do with the application of modern laboratory methods to the art objects of the past. In the end the restorer’s efforts may be thought of as a tribute to what the piece once was, but actually they supplement the fading relic of former devotions with the fruits of modern scientific method. It is the same with Raba Scanga, except that the frame of reference is translated from the laboratory to the studio. The fading image of former devotions is supplemented by modern artistic method.

For the last three years the bulk of the work has centered on old prints and plaster casts that he buys up cheap and then marks with paint. In some cases there are geometric forms that equate with the square blocks in the installations, but over these, in both two-and three-dimensional pieces, is an open mesh of slashes, loops and spatterings of paint that determine the work’s final look.

The prints are not all Italian, but they do not need to be. All pre-modern art pays tribute to the Italian Renaissance, so even an English print may rouse his nostalgia. For him they speak of his own past, but in fact it is the past of art he is dealing with. His marked-up prints are cultural layer-cakes, with the Renaissance at the bottom and Action Painting on top. Since Renaissance art and life were centered on religion, religious subjects inevitably predominate, but he is not specifically a religious artist. Equally, the Abstract Expressionist gesture itself is not expressive of any particular personal meaning. Rather it is a token of a social outlook that would give a central place to individual self-realization.

The coincidental parallels between personal biography and cultural history accentuate the Everyman image—the person uprooted and wavering in his values, the art an unstable mixture of incompatible styles. What aggravates the problem is that Everyman is a man of the people. Each style appears in a debased form. Scanga’s torn loyalties are not to the high-art achievement of 15th-century Florence or 16th-century Rome, but to their degenerate progeny in cheap sentimental kitsch. The type case is not the martyred saints but the two bleeding hearts on a background of flowers.

If the contemporary overlay contains no depth of personal revelation, it goes out of its way to make its shallows accessible. In an interview Robert Rauschenberg once said of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, “The trouble is the red didn’t know it was meant to be blood.” Italo Scanga’s red does know it is meant to be blood and his pictures spout it in all directions. Underneath, on the floor, he places specially hand-made vases to catch the drips. The glass has the streaks of blood already crafted in.

The sort of old, kitschy prints that Scanga uses, despite the perspective of a little history, are still difficult to deal with because they force the comparison with their high-art sources. By contrast the material on which Pop art draws—the Seven-Up sign, Campbell’s soup cans and comic strip—gain a certain toughness and even a measure of integrity from the impersonality of business-world motivation. After the initial shock, they accommodate readily to the artistocratic aloofness of a high-art stance. Scanga is more challenging because he confronts us with the sincere reality of vulgar sentiment. His art touches its deepest level of meaning through our feelings of guilt at not being able to like it.

Eric Cameron is director of the graduate program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.