Renato Leotta, Lighea, 2019, clay, 7 7⁄8 × 6 1⁄4 × 5 7⁄8".

Renato Leotta, Lighea, 2019, clay, 7 7⁄8 × 6 1⁄4 × 5 7⁄8".

Renato Leotta

Renato Leotta’s recent research focuses on the slow, meticulous observation of the landscape, which the artist investigates through photography, sculpture, installation, and video. Leotta generates a personal emotional geography populated by traces and fragments of reality that intertwine references to mythology and literature with autobiographical experience. Like an archaeologist of the present, he identifies and selects elements that weave together notions of time and space, suggesting an ambiguous relationship between real and ideal settings. For example, in Giardino (Garden), 2018, the artist’s 2018 commission for Manifesta 12 in Palermo, Italy, Leotta created the perfect garden inside a large, decadent room of the historical Palazzo Butera by covering the floor with clay tiles that bore the imprints of fallen lemons. 

“Lighea,” the artist’s second solo show at Galleria Fonti, borrowed its title from the name of the mythological daughter of Calliope, protagonist of La sirena (The Siren) (1956–57), a fanciful tale by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (and the last he would write). The exhibition staging was rarefied, with an almost metaphysical atmosphere. The evocative power of the myth was amplified by the powerful metaphor of the sea: an image of perpetual beginnings and ends, births and deaths, voices and silences.

For the poetic series of monochromes titled “Multiverso” (Multiverse), 2019, Leotta partially submerged blue canvases in the sea. As the fabric dried, the residual traces of the salt imprinted each canvas with a wavering horizon line. The effect was akin to a bare-bones seascape, where the constituent elements of sky and sea encounter each other in a gesture that becomes simultaneously a stratification of memory and of time, articulated by the perpetual churning of the water. An analogous act of registration produced the “luminograms” of the “Plankton” series, 2019, for which the artist exposed photosensitive paper to moonlight to record the roving movements of the eponymous primordial organisms as they drifted in ocean currents.

The show included two works titled Calco di spiaggia (Seaside Molds), one dated 2018–19, the other 2019. Made from molds that reproduce the ever-ephemeral form of sand shaped by wind and sea, these sculptural casts allow the artist to capture the beach’s constantly shifting topography at different instants. A mix of clay, sand, and shells, the sculptures look like thin crusts of the seashore, placed atop pedestals like archaeological finds. For Lighea, 2019, Leotta used clay to model the face of the siren who inspired the show, though the figure inevitably brought to mind another mermaid: her sister Parthenope, whom mythology ties to the homonymous city that was rechristened Neapolis (from the ancient Greek for “new city”), or Naples, in the sixth century BCE. The siren is an ancestrally ambiguous figure in that she bears signs of the indistinct origins of life itself. A hybrid creature, tied to the earth and all-too-human emotions, she is at the same time indissolubly connected to the sea. Leotta’s Lighea is a small sculpture whose archaic features hearken back to a remote past. Two canine teeth sprout from an enigmatic smile, giving the work a disquieting vampire-like appearance in line with another literary, oneiric, and visionary incarnation of the siren, that of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 short story “Ligeia.” In Leotta’s most successful work, the artist layers narratives to forge an intersection between biography, literature, history, culture, and geography. Here, as in the exhibition as a whole, this strategy had the effect of leaving the viewer suspended between material presence and evoked fantasy.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.