Richard Calabro

Tyler School of Art

In a recent installation at the Tyler School of Art on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Richard Calabro created a work reflecting many ideas and concerns that have occupied him over the better part of the past decade. Con le belle maniere is performance, sculpture and installation, but extends the boundaries of each even though it was specifically planned for a large, tripartite display case in one of the campus buildings.

The piece juxtaposes simple elements in new contexts. Glasswax is used to compromise the transparency of the windows on both sides of the cases. Light still enters the cases and passes through them but with novel, unexpected effects. A constant theme in many of Calabro’s objects, performances, videotapes and installations over the past few years has been that evasive negation of sight and light—the shadow. At Tyler, softer, more uniform light is diffused through the cases but the stronger shadows still cast on the case interiors and shift with the time of day.

On six separate glass sheets (three at the rear of the cases forming an exterior glass wall, three at the front within the building) the artist has written an Italian proverb, “Con le belle maniere, tutto si ottiene,” the first part on the front windows and the last three words at the rear. To read the entire statement, which is, in effect, the graphic remains of a personal activity, the viewer must visually and metaphorically pass through the initial part of the aphorism. The irony of the adage—one idiomatic English translation might be “Walk softly and carry a big stick”—is made explicit in Calabro’s installation by a row of blunt nosed rifle bullets lining the center of each case. The viewer must thus perform visually what the saying means—anyone reading and subsequently heeding the first part of the phrase must accept potential force and violence before achieving the result guaranteed by the last half of the saying.

Calabro has always been interested in magical objects and ritualistic meanings. Con le belle maniere seems filled with the multileveled richness inherent in any language system and embellished with the powerful use of several symbols—bullets, glass, shadows, handwriting—that conjure images both mundane and arcane in us all. Once before, in an earlier installation, Calabro used glass cases as objects. The earlier cases were awkwardly designed, flat containers, open on only one side, artificially lighted. Calabro’s choice of written statement in this earlier version—This is not disgust, this is breathing—was at least partly a personal reaction to the ill-conceived cases. This is not disgust might still be seen as a prelude to the Tyler piece, since both respond to specific situations; but Calabro seems to enjoy the more developed possibilities of the Tyler vitrines.

The Tyler installation seems particularly appropriate in Philadelphia since it relates to concepts developed by Duchamp in his Large Glass. Duchamp attempted to deal with glass as both field and space in what he called a glass drawing or a glass delay, negating traditional expectations of visual perspective. Calabro too cancels perspective, or better, seems to reinvent a spatial system, layered in these cases, as he writes across the glass surfaces as if on a cloud. This glass space seems most reminiscent of the earlier master’s Milky Way, the top inscription emanating from the bride.

According to his notes, Duchamp wanted to fill the three compartments of the Milky Way cloud with superimposed images of worlds, “commands, orders and authorizations” in movement, inscriptions on a “less transparent” surface. Calabro has extended and enriched his own conception by incorporating real space, evoking a cloudlike vehicle to convey the significance of his image. Just as Calabro’s text mixes wit and irony with the tough ethnicity of its cultural origins, his visuals commingle the elusive world of light and shadow and language with the reality and power of bullets embodied both literally and metaphorically within his medium and his message.

Ronald J. Onorato