Lydia Silvestri says that her mountain education in Chiuro, near the Italian-Swiss border, taught her to take pleasure in “weaving baskets, carving bowls and wooden clogs, cooking utensils, seeing a wall pushing stone by stone chosen from a pile of stones with a watchful eye, and silkworms building perfect golden cocoons, making vats for wine, mending a doll’s arm or a child’s hoof calf. His words shine with a sensual enjoyment of all sorts of creature-created fabrications and ancient practices, and suggest a curious fairness between these processes. Although she often worked in the most enduring classic materials of Italian sculpture, such as marble and bronze, the forms she created were extravagantly fluid. Many of his sculptures seem to incorporate buttocks, breasts, penises, testicles, and other harder-to-name body parts: blade-like bones or collarbones, lumpy rolls of flesh that stretch, contort, stretch. A number of works by the artist, who died aged eighty-eight in 2018, have been included in the 2020 Rome Quadrennial along with those by a younger generation of artists who have emerged at a when gender fluidity entered the mainstream. In this context, Silvestri’s sculptures from the 1960s to the 1980s asserted a cheerful perversion of the modernist principles of statuary developed by Constantin Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, whose work Silvestri studied closely.
At the bar, “studied by vetri, poi sogni(Studies for Glass, Then Dreams) focused on a series of designs (1969-1970) for glass sculptures that Silvestri developed and made between 1970 and 1971 on the Venetian island of Murano. Primarily executed with a combination of charcoal lines and watercolour, these studies explore the potential of glass – through its melted translucency and flexibility – to represent metamorphosis. In a brightly colored example, a pair of bulbous yellow and black shapes (eggs, breasts, buttocks?) could also be wings spreading out from the back of a green and red figure. In another, a red streak emerges from a quartet of proud bodily bulges, two with cherry-like nipples, two without. The glass sculptures eventually produced based on these designs were all titled sogno (Dream). In them, Silvestri’s erotic freestyle achieves a sort of limitlessness, evoking a seeping world of transparent honey that sometimes seems to solidify with a splash of color and a half-recognizable body part. The fact that the blank paper represents both the transparent glass and its surrounding space gives the compositions a great openness. Looking at them, I thought how much the feeling of desire in a body, of wanting, resembles both a radiant fullness and an extreme emptiness. More than the work of any other artist, the drawings reminded me of Alina Szapocznikow’s most jubilant body sculptures: visions of dissolved and reconfigured bodies without rules.
Although some are now tired of the revisionism that constantly resurrects the work of recently deceased female artists who have been overlooked or forgotten, it was truly a pleasure to see this work come out of storage. Silvestri’s dreamlike visions of transfiguration are as old as carved wooden bowls, but his particular expressions of bodies and dreams unhooked from biological gender polarities are able to open an important channel between 1971 and today.