Pushing the Envelope: Angelo di Petta

20 Flowers. Photos by Ted Hodgetts and Harald Glass.

Ceramics as a sculptural medium still concerns me, as do issues concerning scale that arise out of it. So about the latter, then: at what point along the continuum that is scale do aesthetic objects cease being sculptural – or at least, considered sculptural? Certainly towards the large end of the spectrum it really isn’t an issue (see work by any number of sculptors for whom the monumental is critically central), but towards the smaller end of things it perhaps tends to get a bit dicey. What might we say about realm of the nano, about an artist intent on exploring this atomic or molecular area with a sculptural aesthetic in mind? Would we award recognition or even acknowledgement of artefacts created at such a scale as possibly being sculptural intent and execution?

I’m exaggerating, of course, but not absurdly so; after all, there are artists working, for example, at the biologically cellular level, so it’s not too much of a stretch to head deeper into the world of micro. But in the other direction, and going up just a few notches, there’s work aplenty to be found. In the March issue of Sculpture I contributed a short article I wrote about the work of Dorie Millerson, a Toronto-based textile artist working in the realm of lace, exploring its potential as a sculptural medium with minute works, some no bigger than a spool of thread – and to great effect (see “Dorie Millerson: The Matter of Scale”, Sculpture, March 2016, pp. 54-57).

Angelo di Petta Sculpture

Torcitura. Photos by Ted Hodgetts and Harald Glass.

From that end of the spectrum I’ll rebound further yet up the scale to the work of Canadian ceramist Angelo di Petta (dipetta.com). Born in Italy, his family immigrated to Canada while he was a child. He majored in ceramics at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, and then went on to teach there. Importantly, his aesthetic vision encompassed the crossover possibilities that lay in ceramic’s industrial uses and applications, and he spent time in Europe studying those processes. From his own studio outside of Toronto, he has produced work exhibited in Canada, the United States, and Europe, and also undertook public commissions for permanent installations at various sites in North America.

The vessel is, not surprisingly, the dominant theme in his work – but the vessel with a twist (and I do mean that both metaphorically and literally). With his series 20 Flowers, for instance, he married the vessel form with the geometry of the structure of flowers, giving the utile a bit of a sculpturally aesthetic twist via a re-reading of form and function. But it’s most strikingly evident in his major gallery installation, Torcitura. Perhaps not surprisingly the title is Italian for “twist.” And it most certainly does, comprising a single clay sculpture, somewhat cylindrical, that’s 50 feet in length and which at the larger “macroscopic” level appears to be a long, almost worm-like, spiral, twisting itself through three full rotations along its length.

Angelo di Petta Sculpture

Dancing Form. Photos by Ted Hodgetts and Harald Glass.

Of course there’s so much more to it than that, and much of that pertains to the nearness of the more “microscopic” aspects to the piece, for in a very modernist way, it’s an entirely self-referential work. The entire spiral is made up of 56 individual segments – or modules, as di Petta calls them – that are self-similar. He’s not a ceramist of the usual ilk; we tend to overly ascribe the medium to those who throw clay on wheels, and he’s most certainly not that. His work has long involved the use of moulds and casts (here’s where his interest in and exploration of industrial ceramic processes comes into aesthetic focus in a very fundamental way). The 56 hollow modules in the work – low-fired earthenware clay – are absolutely identical, products of a plaster mould that incorporates a slight twist to the shape. When the segments are conjoined into a whole,  that minor twist accumulates into the long, extended spiral that spans a gallery space.

Additionally, longitudinal differentiations in each module – one half is straight slip-cast clay, the other press- moulded clay mixed with sawdust – add additional complexities and layers of possible meaning to the simple, elegant, yet enormously meaningful form that is a spiral. Torcitura, then, encompasses references to the cosmologically vast – the realm of the myriad spiral galaxies scattered throughout our universe – as well as to the microscopically small – the shells, say, of tiny sea creatures.

I know – I’m pushing my metaphors to their limits. But of course that’s what good art does – it pushes at the envelope, doesn’t settle. With a piece like Torcitura, Angelo di Petta pushes ceramics beyond its traditional comfort zones, aesthetically addressing issues of the spectrum of scale by venturing into the large and macro without abandoning the relevance of the small and proverbially near.

By Gil McElroy

3 responses

  1. “What might we say about realm of the nano, about an artist intent on exploring this atomic or molecular area with a sculptural aesthetic in mind?”

    Great question, especially with the implications for the mediation of form at scales that preclude any kind of ordinary, easy tangibility. At first glance seems like an interesting tension between expanding field and contracting object. When autonomous sculpture ‘expands’, beyond simply getting physically larger (so-called monumental art) we seem to locate it less in the domain of sculpture and more in that of environments or architecture so, when we flip it around, when things start getting really small, what domain are we in? And at nano – or just really tiny – scale, when something’s too small to see with unaided vision, what does it mean when that thing/object/sculpture(?) has to be be experienced through a representing or documenting media? How do those now-complicated circumstances relate to sculpture?

  2. Aren’t we in a way experiencing something akin to that with earthworks like Spiral Jetty, Double Negative, Sun Tunnels, etc? Our primary experience of these sculptural works is photographic – so the two-dimensional mediates what is, in many ways, a four-dimensional work. And if I can generalize even further, isn’t our primary experience of ANY art form ultimately via a two-dimensional image? A Jackson Pollock painting looks very different when standing in front of it than it does in a book, where it really becomes a graphic image. I guess it’s maybe akin to writing the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin – perhaps we know it’s there, but any experience of it must be mediated through other technologies.

  3. Interesting to think about the early earthworks and the way in which their experience is so defined by place – remote sites as well as the location of the work in big cultural narratives about The West, nature and the archaic world. I guess that that kind of spatial and cultural location is part of what I was trying to get a grasp on in thinking about the issue you bring up re: interpreting sculpture that’s too small to be seen by the naked eye.

    Work that’s human-scale is casually visible and presents experience options (online, book, museum, etc.) but when direct visibility of the thing is ruled out because of extreme scale then complications multiply. When experience of the work becomes contingent on technologies of representation the place where the work is realized seems to become more central, as it also becomes more speculative. So, like Spiral Jetty etc., the experience is inherently mediated, not only by imaging but by critical spatial distance.

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