La Jolla

Italo Scanga

Thomas Babeor Gallery

Fear is a primal force. It has been registered in the cave drawings of Altamira, the oldest extant images and symbols rendered by humankind, and in their concomitant magical functions, the oldest known form of religion. Pretty heady stuff.

Italo Scanga’s recent sculptures, on the other hand, are images of mundane fears. And though their primacy may be more transient, less elemental, they are no less real or affecting: fear of old age, fear of thunder, fear of drinking and of war, even fear of buying a house. These works are constructed of materials as simple as the fears they portray—rough-hewn planks of wood, twisted wire struts, twigs and branches, parts of toys, wine bottles and corks—and are daubed with sticky blotches of paint that serve both to unify their discrete elements and to animate their surfaces in nervous twitches of somber color. Built in a style that could best be described as folk constructivism, these naive, childlike sculptures are reminiscent of backyard whirligigs, the kind in which woodchoppers chop and washerwomen wash, Sisyphus-like captives of the wind.

Throughout these works Scanga exploits the interaction of stable and dynamic forms in space. Each of the anthropomorphic figures is supported by a base whose form demands stability. Fear of Drinking is rooted in a blocky wooden cross; Fear of Working and Fear of Earthquakes rest on skeletal platforms that look like ironing boards; Fear of Old Age and Fear of War are supported (literally and figuratively) by canes. Atop these sturdy bases the stick-figure “fears” aggressively wield their symbolic attributes: a weaponlike stick, a birdhouse, an empty bottle. Visually they are held in check by thin wire struts.

Scanga borrows liberally not only from folk sources, but also from the concepts and forms of Russian Constructivism and the work elicits memories of the Stenberg brothers’ “KPS” constructions, ca. 1920. Perhaps the most direct quotation from that period is found in Fear of War where a stick-figure soldier with a funnel-helmet clearly derives from El Lissitzky’s soldiers (built from the letter “K”) in his design for a child’s arithmetic book The Four Mathematical Processes, 1928.

The technologically-based dreams inherent in those post-Revolutionary works, however, are as heady a conception as capturing the forces of nature in a prehistoric cave and as such are alien to Scanga’s work. The self-conscious naïveté, the private, folk art character of these pieces, give passing acknowledgment to their sources while celebrating their own quirky, totemic selves.

Christopher Knight