Ketty La Rocca

Galleria Carini

Ketty La Rocca, who died prematurely in 1977, was one of the most distinctive Italian artists of the ’70s. The interdisciplinary nature of her work places her amid events, typical of the decade, that oscillated between visual poetry, installation, and performance. The pieces selected for this retrospective showed the broad scope of her work. La Rocca first appeared on the art scene in the mid ’60s with collages made from newspaper images and words. Freely put together, the combinations resulted in fresh viewpoints that work ironically to undermine the tranquilizing messages of advertising. Here socio-political reality (for example, the exploitation of the woman’s body, the threat of war, and the political and ecclesiastical manipulation of consciences) emerges as the hidden, repressed part of mass-media discourse.

Language is made autonomous from its relationship of reciprocal dependency on the image, and it is shorn of its semantic value to the point where it, too, can be dealt with as an image. This can be seen in the installation of letters and punctuation marks, the large I seen here. Yet language implies visible writing, and for La Rocca this made a direct reference to manual movement, to the body. The language that she intended to reestablish is beyond both the verbal and the iconic language, with which it appears in conflict. This original language, tied to the affective dimension, is expressed through gestures, and La Rocca concentrated her attention on the hands, which she saw as an extension of the body and as the first approach of one subject to another.

All of La Rocca’s work is an exploration of the “other.” Her most famous pieces contain black and white photographic images of hands, isolated or joined, attempting to define a new, elementary alphabet. Here, the text, the writing is reduced to the word “YOU,” which, traced manually over the photographic image, designates the body as a place of desire. Using photography, books, video, and performance, she explored this territory, touching upon anthropological values. She used X-rays of her own skull as an icon upon which she traced those invocations; she turned writing, action, and image into the vehicle for a sentimental journey that announces, at its point of departure, the forbidden means to be taken. The artist then experimented with negativities of language to open yet another horizon, that of the non-signifying sign.

The pieces executed during the second half of the ’70s deal with the derealization of preexisting images. There are reproductions of works of art, film posters, and early-20th-century photographs, or of autobiographical sites, where the artist retraces the outlines of her journey. The first retracing bears the dense handwriting that repeats the words of a deliberately hermetic and disconcerting text, created specifically for the piece. The second and succeeding tracings delineate the very concise margins of the same subject, until the lines and the arbitrarily distributed stains make the initial image illegible (as in Mogambo, 1975, where the image is the playbill for an Ava Gardner film).

The sign eclipses the very memory of the icon, the writing is lost in the pure graphic gesture, the gestural quality is diminished in the weak agitation of the tracing. Probably La Rocca would have known how to take this state of exhaustion and reestablish a dialogue, to satisfy the need for communication that her work continually addresses.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.