Giancarlo Calicchia at Tregoning & Co: Re-Imagining the Scale and Power of Ancient Mysteries
In the Odyssey, the Greek word used to describe the wily hero Odysseus is “polutropon” – many-sided, multivalent. It might also serve as an epithet for the sculptor Giancarlo Calicchia, a man accomplished in a variety of disciplines, whose unique imagery and personal symbols chip and twist through time, reimagining the scale and power of ancient mysteries. Calicchia’s sculptures in bronze, marble, onyx, granite, and wood seem to visit the contemporary world from the depths of a heroic past. His studio practice also is a time-travelling experience, involving cavernous spaces, months of strenuous, deafening toil, and an immersion in the process of large-scale carving rarely seen in the modern world. Watching Calicchia work or touring his boulder-strewn studio, I imagine the volcanic forces and titanic chthonic powers that made them, and remember the deep history of stone working, the backbone of so many ancient cultures.
On the sturdy tables in his various workplaces, or on display at the current excellent sampling of works at Tregoning & Co. Gallery at West 78th Street Studios, exotic heads and busts weighing hundreds of pounds, hewn from granite and marble, or jewel-like chunks of onyx, divide and guard the space. Cut loose from their beds in Africa or Asia or our own continent, they wake to another life. Any gallery populated with these works, gleaming in spotlights as if washed by underground streams, becomes a home for spirits that otherwise inhabit the depths and vastnesses of the world.
That sounds more like a religious experience than most art gallery installations intend to provide, and in fact Calicchia’s work does aim to participate in a spiritual world, though not a religious one. Often he carves primal scenes, reminiscent of Eden or its inhabitants, for instance. One large carving made from a single piece of mahogany wood, whittled thin and flat to produce a panel eleven feet long and five feet high, hangs on a wall. Titled “Invitation for Dinner,” it depicts a woman, lounging, leaning on one very long arm. In fact it arises from the earth, not the woman’s body, and might well be a snake; to the right of her mask-like face a bird is about to alight. We almost know this story – but not quite. The image itself seems old beyond reckoning, like a myth lost to recollection in this late era, and there is besides something quite modern, like Picasso and Gauguin, in the depiction. Yet “Invitation” has its own terribly persuasive presence, and a strange ambivalence. Even the wood feels like it carries a message, perhaps about the island (Calicchia lived in Haiti for many years) where the tree grew, about the earth and the sun, and about flesh. Calicchia’s sinuous and fruit-like forms add up to a description of the heat and length and sweetness of desire, suggesting a ratio between distance and velocity and the fullness of need. I find myself thinking that this work isn’t a parable about any one situation, but about the eternity of suspense. And it’s a story older then the tree itself, a tale knit in the wood.
Mounted in the sizable room at the back of Tregoning’s gallery are just three sculptures. Against the far wall, weighing several thousand pounds, is a 27 foot long, five foot high slice of an African sapele tree. “Genesis” is deeply scored and carved with hands and lines, nut-like bulbs, seeds and other forms. It’s a landscape and also a narrative of creation and growth, — a map of creation flowing back and forth across the wood. The enormous panel is reinforced with steel on the back to prevent cracking, and at Tregoning is propped up in the middle on a sturdy stack of wooden blocks. Opposite to it, set on gray marble plinths in the corners of the space, “Thoughts” and “Inca,” hewn respectively from green Pakistani onyx and a nearly white Iranian onyx, seem to contemplate the proto-textual, narrative Genesis. At the same timetheir dark and light coloration might be seen as the incarnations of the morning and evening of the first days of the world.
Giancarlo Calicchia, like Odysseus, has travelled far and wrestled with a few monsters in his time (he once survived an unfriendly interview with the head of Papa Doc Duvalier’s notorious paramilitary police, the Tonton Macoute). As a young man he studied at universities and art schools in his native Rome, Italy, at the Instituto in San Miguel, Mexico, and afterwards worked as a professional stone mason, among many other professions and businesses. His experiences in quarries around the world and his studies of history combine in his sculpture to address far-reaching concerns. His art (which at Tregoning also includes remarkable work in bronze) seems rooted in an eternal present, more than in the “now” of current artistic fashions and preoccupations.