Sometimes, an exhibition comes by that nestles itself into your whole being. Like a newly made friend that you immediately know will be one to stay. Camden Arts Centre’s Giorgio Griffa: A Continuous Becoming is such a show. Incredibly light yet substantial, deceivingly simple yet addressing a universal truth.
The show is curated by Camden Arts Centre’s recently appointed director, Martin Clark. Clark co-curated an exhibition by Griffa in 2015 at the Bergen Kunsthall, when he was the director there. But it fits perfectly too within the Camden Art Centre’s aesthetic: gentle, intellectual, revealing itself slowly.
International recognition of Giorgio Griffa has been slow too; this exhibition is his first in the UK. Born in 1936 in Turin, and working alongside many of the Arte Povera artists since 1968 – a group of artists who explored unconventional processes and non-traditional ‘poor’ materials – Griffa has always remained somewhat on the sidelines, working in the same studio for nearly fifty years and traveling little.
But it is almost as if the world had to wait for the right moment for Griffa’s oeuvre to truly show its nature. As Camden Arts Centre’s poetic title ‘A Continuous Becoming’ suggests, we are witnessing an ongoing motion. In Griffa’s canvases, shapes take form only to stop in the middle, as if pausing mid-sentence. Each painting or drawing consists of a shape or line in that starts inside the canvas or paper and repeats itself rhythmically until it ends, only to be taken up again on a different canvas and continue its gentle dance. The colors change, but the motion remains. This is like the story of life itself: sometimes moving into new territory, sometimes looking back, but always coming back to its core.
That core consists of colour, line, rhythm and repetition. The colours are bright, pastel hues and incredibly fresh. The paint is water-based, often diluted so that it creeps into the fabric of the canvas. Griffa’s paintings are all abstract, although he himself prefers the term 'non-objective': his shapes do not derive from anything but exist purely in their own right. Griffa only deviates from that pattern when he pays homage to other artists and painters who have influenced his work. A 1982 painting, Paolo e Piero, is dedicated to the Renaissance artist and mathematician Paulo Ucello and Italian minimalist Piero Dorazio. Upright lines recall the spheres of the soldiers in Ucello’s The Battle of Romano, but the scene is completely abstracted and rendered contemporary in the bright, Matisse-like colours.
In Canone Aureo, a series that began in the early 2000s and is ongoing, Griffa plays with ‘the Golden Number’, a mathematical number articulated by Euclid in the third century BC that has captivated mathematicians, physicists, architects and philosophers for thousands of years. In a short video accompanying the Camden show, Griffa tells us that his paintings are “made with signs that are the signs of everybody. The memory of painting is 30.000 years old and much stronger than my memory”. Griffa's signs are universal; they cross time and geographical place. Influenced equally by quantum physics and Oriental philosophy, Griffa believes strongly in something that goes beyond our rational system.
Griffa also applies a non-objective process of making art. Paint, brushstrokes and artist all come together, without hierarchy. Griffa sees the canvas itself as an indistinguishable element of the work. Working horizontally on the floor, he lets the paint seep into the canvas and interact with its substance, whether linen, cotton, hemp or jute. Griffa strongly believes that the fabric must remain fabric, with its own natural history that changes over time. He never stretches the canvas once the painting is finished; his paintings are always pinned loosely on the wall.
But maybe most interesting of all is that when Griffa's paintings are not on display, he folds his canvases away neatly and saves them in his studio, only to be unfolded for the next exhibition. There is a beautiful interview with the artist in which he likens putting his works up in an exhibition to ‘awakening the paintings from their sleep”. The folds become integral parts of his paintings, like wrinkles on a face.
Unlike many Arte Povera artists, who cut through canvas or layer different materials onto the two-dimensional plane, Griffa’s canvas remains whole, an example of his integrity. An exception is in his 1980 work Frammenti, where fragments of coloured canvas are dispersed over the walls of Camden’s light-filled Victorian gallery. But no violent tearing or ripping here: the fragments are carefully cut, floating like parts of the solar system in an infinite universe.
Griffa’s work has been incredibly consistent. Griffa refers to his painting as “something that comes and goes and comes and goes. I don’t do linear time, I do arabesque”. Here is an artist who has found his language, and stuck to it. Not tempted to try different styles or materials, unaffected by the specificity of everyday life and our temporary moment. We are so used in life and in art to the narrative of progress, that it takes a moment for this to settle in.
Of course, we need artworks that place themselves in time, artworks that put a mirror up to society. But we also need art that reaches us on a purely emotional level, and that can transcend time and place. When times are tough, I will try to think of Griffa. His art will lift me up and remind me that we are all but bright sparks on a continuous journey through the infiniteness of time.
Giorgio Griffa: A Continuous Becoming is at Camden Arts Center until 8th April 2018