Roberto Barni

Disegni e sculture” (Drawings and sculpture) brought together some one hundred of Roberto Barni’s pieces dating from 1980 to the present. This title is less minimal, less banal than one might think. It refers to the duality of drawing and sculpture, which, since the Renaissance, has been one of the fundamental premises of the theory and practice of the plastic arts. However, Barni places this relationship within a surrealist and metaphysical context by disordering the cards, leaving only ruins, fragments of the unitary, exalted aspiration of Classical totality. In his work from the ’80s, the very space of the painting is thought of as a place where varied objects, such as fallen columns, monsters, and architectural ruins, indefinitely accumulate along with human figures drawn in soft, fluid lines. But in his more recent pieces the sign becomes more concise and steady, and the figures complete their metamorphosis into characters on the stage of a theater of the absurd, actors in a mechanical play where the unconscious is eliminated and only the automatic and anonymous gestures of everyday life are permitted.

Recent years have been marked by an obsession with the idea of the couple. Two bandaged figures continually appear (a motif that also returns insistently in the artist’s sculpture). They engage in a whole array of relationships: they ignore each other, annoy each other, quarrel, and they do so, not on a true stage, but on the open pages of a book, treated as the terrain of encounter and confrontation. The drawing gesture is rapid and nervous, but the three-dimensional illusion of painting is never forgotten.

Barni shows his ability, not only to spin yarns and narrate stories, but also to tell small anecdotes and morality tales through images: in short, to visualize the troubled and yet poetic content of daily life. And he does this in a comic, sarcastic, sometimes irreverent and cruel vein. In the series of sculptures entitled “Servi muti” (Silent servants, 1987–88), the bandaged and anonymous figures carry in their arms something that they neither see nor know, and that, upon careful examination, is the world itself: a large table-disk with a sort of Western mandala, a sign of totality, carved on the top; or entire landscapes with stones, houses, vegetation, with small or large stairs that surround the parts. These sculptures are made out of bronze with patinas, deeply worked, baroque, carved, and broken by the trace of the artist’s hand, which twists, shapes, and streaks the surface until it becomes sensitive to the air, the light, and the space that surrounds it and in which it is located.

In the watercolors in the series entitled “Filastrocche” (Nursery rhymes, 1993), Barni’s predilection for accumulation and series returns. The depicted objects, drawn in tenuous and delicate colors, follow one after another, seemingly endlessly. “We are not a book that has already been written,” reads the title of a large painting entirely modulated in yellow, in which numerous figures on the pages of a book run away, flying here and there. This concept could serve as Barni’s signature: the tendency and desire to think that one can always escape determinism and imposed dogma, that free will is inherent to men and to artists as long as they have the courage to face risk, chance, and uncertainty.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.