To best vicariously appreciate Mimmo Paladino’s evocative installation Dormienti (Sleepers), poke around the internet and find composer Brian Eno’s electronic score of the same title. At Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, this trance-inducing music plays on a loop in a large, dark gallery space, creating a moody and surreal soundscape for Paladino’s ambitious installation, in which 32 life-sized abstracted terracotta human forms rest in the fetal position. It’s as if their inert earthen bodies have yet to experience the spark of life. Although unmistakably contemporary, this collaborative work seems timeless and universal, as do many of Paladino’s other sculptures on view. Even Eno’s electronic music, for all its technological modernity, seems evocative of free-rhythm Gregorian chant.
This retrospective exhibition is quite appropriately called “Present into Past,” and features an impressive array of sculpture spanning twenty years of Paladino’s career. But also on view, making their debut, are a dozen new lithographs specially created for and gifted to Meijer Gardens (these abstractly depict the twelve months, and were created in close collaboration with the Garden’s horticultural staff). In the 1970s and 80s, Paladino was active in the Italian Transavanguarde movement, which sought to restore the human figure and objective forms to contemporary art. Viewers will detect many and varied influences as Paladino impressively straddles both contemporary art and ancient forms.
This duality is best seen in an adjunct gallery which features a large ensemble of 71 small bronze sculptures all arranged together on a platform, which visitors are encouraged to walk around. It’s a single-room retrospective representing sculptural projects from 1987 through 2007. In these works, many of them maquettes for larger sculptures, we see the human figure in many guises, often fragmented, and rarely complete. Many seem like excavated objects from the ancient past (which is indeed an influence on much of Paladino’s work). These forms recall, for example, a votive Cycladic figure, an ancient Corinthian helmet, or the head of some forgotten ancient Egyptian deity. One figure plays the ancient aulos, a double-pipe reed instrument frequently appearing on Greek vase paintings, a direct reference to classical antiquity.
Some works from this exhibition can be found outside the park’s primary interior gallery spaces. Observant visitors who wander into the Garden’s tropical conservatory will find three terracotta crocodiles, also part of the exhibition. Previously, they’ve been displayed in other venues as part of Paladino’s Dormienti installation, where they wander among the humans. Here, they furtively hide under tropical underbrush, and seem quite at home among the conservatory’s palm fronds, orchids, and butterflies. Like his lithographic calendar, this strategic placement is acknowledges Garden’s intentional fusion of sculpture and horticulture.
Present into Past is a fully immersive multi-sensory gallery experience. In keeping with the aims of the Transavantgarde movement, which rebelled against many of the principals of modernism, Paladino’s work acknowledges the importance of the past, and is infused with a subtly understated spirituality. His work gently reminds us that there are more eternal things than the pressing here and now. It summons a cathartic experience akin, in a very small way, to what one might experience while looking up at the stars in the night sky; pressing trivialities, annoyances, and cares dissolve, vanquished by sublime beauty.
Mimmo Paladino: Present into Past runs through August 14.