Drawing and the Object
Elisabeth Scherffig bases her work on her virtuoso drawing skills which she uses to transform the ways we see objects. Stefano Casciani reports
Some dimensions of traditional art are studiously avoided by contemporary artists, and one in particular is that of representation. This dimension generates forms of compassion and empathy, if not emotion, for the object represented. As in everyday life, emotional connections and relationships tend to be shunned as soon as they penetrate the inner spheres of social, family and existential balances, so the subject represented in a work cannot and must not leave its condition as a subject. It must confine itself to indicating a state – emotional, fictional, aesthetic – from which observers are explicitly invited to keep their distance, and not even to dream of attempting a less superficial approach. In all of the recent Italian figurative painting, the work of Margherita Manzelli is exemplary in this respect. Her scrawny, anorexic figures adopt mysteriously balanced postures and stare wide-eyed like lemurs at the observer. Hypnotic creatures, they do not ask to be understood by those observing them, but only to be looked at and perhaps admired, for their physical peculiarity. The voyeuristic process that has played such a major role in psychological theories of art is thus turned upside-down and subverted. It is no longer the observer who looks at the work, but the work that observes the viewer, scrutinising and hypnotising the onlookers in search of ‘their’ presumably unconfessable truth.
Situated in exactly the opposite side of this contemporary idea of art, is the work of Elisabeth Scherffig. It lies heroically outside time, our time, precisely due to its evident desire to spark in the other eye – the spectator’s – some sort of emotion vis a vis a work. The artist’s peculiar landscape – however mysterious and indecipherable it may be – belongs to wholly to human intelligence and its attempts to alter the existent, to change the panorama bequeathed to it by nature, provided it does not over distort its significance. In Scherffig’s drawings, this memento, the warning not to attempt any excessive avant-garde desire to rebuild the universe, is represented by the almost imperceptible traces of life that can be faintly glimpsed among the detritus, the skeleton of iron rods for reinforced concrete and the other infrastructural devices used by this artist – by dint of intelligent conceptual abstraction – to support her best pieces. What makes this work different and interesting is, in fact, the artist’s fascination with the secret life of creation, with traces of humanity, of the decadence and transience of the things we create. It may therefore appeal to architects, engineers and designers as well as to those who in the days of the Russian avant-garde would have called them constructivists. Obliged by now to obey above all the laws of the market and the media, architects and designers – excluding superstars – must make a huge effort to express, in some remote corner of a building or a manufactured object, that scrap of soul still left in them or, rather, left to them by the business organisation of their design. The sinews of construction, the passing moments (sometimes of permanent interruption) in the design process, narrated by Scherffig in her extraordinarily accomplished drawings, will thus also be for such people the memory of many moments of doubt, hesitation and sometimes depression, whenever they are confronted by the dilemma of choosing between compromise and innovation, resistance or temptation. That sensation of deep malaise is familiar to anyone who has ever, even only once, been committed with ethical conscience to the realisation of a project. It is a malaise soon transformed into defeat for those who, be they architect, designer or others, when called upon to decide their fates, can only retrace their footsteps back to the renunciation, self-oblivion and the possibilities that fate would have been ready to offer them.