Roberto Barni

Palazzo Fabroni

This Roberto Barni retrospective, which included paintings, drawings, and sculptures from 1960 to the present, was splendidly organized by Alberto Boatto, a critic and writer who has followed Barni’s work for a number of years. The show’s tone was set by a selection of photographs from the early ’60s—many of which were shown for the first time—portraying Barni as a young man in playful and ironic poses: dressed as a knight with an open umbrella for a shield and a funnel for a helmet, or standing next to a poster that announces his untimely death.

Early in his career Barni began creating works that explicitly referenced art-historical masterpieces, such as his Battaglia di San Romano (after Paolo Uccello), or Ouel che resta e quel che manca (What remains and what is missing, 1972–74, after Piero della Francesca). Boatto obviously chose to omit most of Barni’s somewhat pedantic work from the ’80s, which quoted from Baroque and Surrealist art, and the exhibition was largely devoted to Barni’s recent output, especially work from the past two years. These mature pieces tend to be dark monochromes with unpolished surfaces, in which the space is orchestrated by the drawing’s insistent reverse perspective. Some of the canvases are enormous, with backgrounds made up of a myriad of newspaper clippings glued in such a way that they often create bas-reliefs. The imagery includes enormous human profiles, recalling Malevich’s “primitivist” phase, that are strewn with images of animals reminiscent of prehistoric cave painting.

The relationship between these animals and faceless figures constitutes the poetic heart of this work. A man sleeps peacefully alongside his dog (in the beautiful Sonno [Sleep, 1993]); some donkeys, pursued by human figures, run off toward the sides of a canvas (in Animali ai margini [Animals at the edges, 1966]); or a man carries an ibex on his shoulders (in Sera animali riottosi [Evening of the unruly animals, 1995]). The canvases are crowded with dark figures that emerge from carpets of newspaper clippings amid fragments of old buildings, cabins, and bare trees that constitute a harsh, stripped-down landscape.

Barni is very much a painter: he has even stated that his sculpture is largely an extension of painting. This does not detract, however, from the expressive power or visual impact of his three-dimensional work. Vacina, 1995, is a large round basin around the edge of which run seven precariously balanced men, as if following a path that has neither beginning nor end. In Colonna di asini (Donkey column, 1996), small donkeys clamber up a vertical pole almost five meters tall, at the apex of which stands another donkey covered in gold paint. In Atto muto (Mute act, 1995), two blindfolded men hold up a large slab upon which one can detect modeled plant forms. And Filastrocca (Nursery rhyme, 1996) is a column over two meters tall formed from a vertical accumulation of various figures and scenes: heads; men in a boat; a horse; a large hand; and other images. The sculptures are cast bronze, and the material has been dramatically worked, with deep furrows and modeled protuberances that correspond to the traces of the artist’s hand. It's almost as if these mysterious works have taken on a life of their own.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.