San Francisco

Italo Scanga

The Oakland Museum / John Berggruen Gallery

Fairfield Porter once said of the Italian abstract painters of the '50s that they had “a common sense of humor that prevents them from taking their art seriously enough. They are like wise clowns inhibited by a knowledge of the vanity of all human effort” The same might be said of Italo Scanga, a Calabrese by birth and a naturalized Californian as if by temperament. His sculptures are spirited without pressure. He seems to want them to have style and meaning but cheerfully refuses to go flat-out for either. Hence, his best pieces are the most easygoing, the ones in which his materials—wood, mostly, but he also uses glass, rope, wire, gourds, and other found things—are left pretty much to their own devices. Scanga's work refers generally to furniture, and as with most furniture, a handy and untroubled arranging of nice-looking stuff would seem to be preferable and enough.

Among the best work in the retrospective organized by the Oakland Museum (which is sending the show on national tour) are the earlier pieces dating from 1972–76. These are votive, or rather mock-votive, floor-and-wall tableaux of glass bowls, white cubic blocks, popular religious prints, and twine- or straw-girded farm implements. The blocks serve as pedestals for the objects, and the prints—images of saints in simple wood frames—are splashed with watercolors suggestive of blood or, as in Immaculate Conception, 1976, airborne semen. They are blithe, inconsequential, and decorous. Similarly, the trimmed-off branches, carpentered strips, and rude chiseled bowl of Potato Famine Trough, 1979, have a live succinctness, which the strut-and-suspension work serves mainly to showcase. Wires, as Scanga uses them, are strictly servile; as Gertrude Stein said of commas, they have “no life of their own”

By comparison, Scanga's more ambitious projects tend to get in their own way, and in the way of their parts. They fall over themselves. They represent, in fact, a potent pathos, that of an inherent pastoral impulse caught in a Mixmaster of late- industrial-age styles. Perhaps this is what the series “Fear,” 1980, is really about, even though its stick figures are supposedly set upon by lighter-weight concerns such as success, drinking, and the metric system. In the vale of generic figuration, they court ambiguity to a fault. Their nostalgia is such that they forget to be present. A present-tense conviction is also missing or baffled in the sentiments of the “Monte Cassino” group of 1983. These tall, shocked witnesses tell no tales; they are blankly solicitous.

Toyed-with styles are the furnishings of the latest work in both shows. There are Cubist veneers and Giorgio de Chirico–like humanoid armatures and trouble over color. Thick oil color over lacquer seems to barricade the solid forms. For instance, in Red Figure with Banjo, 1984, a pileup of painted arcs and wedges clings to the planes like a kudzu vine. In Metaphysical III, 1985, this overload is mitigated by areas of clear shellac through which the wood is visible. There are wooden shoes, musical instruments, table legs, frames, balls, toy animals, letters, and a cuckoo clock. But the real hero of the brighter new pieces is rope, which functions either as a spine or as coiffure, and is sometimes varnished so that it glistens.

Bill Berkson