Susanna De Angelis – The Meditative Dimension of the Face
Andrea B. Del Guercio
This monograph, accompanied by a series of drawings, is based on the two years of work Susanna De Angelis devoted to creating a cycle of twenty-two bronze sculptures. Now that this creative journey is complete, I find myself eagerly reviewing a collection of established iconographies and its range of related variables. The direction this critical analysis will take is to first examine the succession of faces, both the interconnected works and those that are autonomous, and the links that exist between the various expressive choices. I will then focus on certain individual pieces and the particulars that make them unique.
This body of work represents a completely new creative process for Susanna De Angelis, a desire for expression that has succeeded in resolving all the difficulties and issues related to the ancient technique and art of bronze working. It is not hard to imagine how complex, and at times arduous, the learning process has been, including all the pitfalls of a craft that is still profoundly linked to the experience gained over time. But it is equally evident how much the artist has discovered and accomplished in her preparation to explore the numerous variants of this craft, which is still majorly dependent on expert manual ability.
Exactly as occurred during her years dedicated to painting, De Angelis’ approach to sculpture stems from a personal need to communicate visually through an all-encompassing experience: “Its three-dimensionality fascinated me from the word go, and its ‘strength’ became instantly mine. The pleasure of touching the material and feeling in my hands the power to shape it gave me an extraordinary sensation.” Susanna De Angelis has dedicated all her energies to this task, becoming increasingly attracted to the processes of refinement in her desire to learn all the passages that connect the mental image with the three-dimensionality of the work. Each sculpture is a demonstration of the total response to a creative path where even the prerequisite skills for certain technical passages have not only been addressed and applied, but also used to enrich her expressive range and achieve the best result.
Khloe is among the most luminous sculptures due to the choice of patina, which integrates and alternates sudden flashes of light with surfaces in shade. This technical choice is developed and fully controlled by a process of reducing the anatomical elements by increasing the extension of the surfaces of the face and along the neck, and in the important movement given to the plait. This added fragment appears exemplary, and despite its reduced size and lateral position, it proves fundamental even at the level of the search for beauty that is natural to the realm of thought. The choice of a lustrous material, very similar to gilding, is fully appreciable: as the gaze moves over the form, it discovers the vitality of the sculpture in the way it spreads and expands through the “floral” arrangement of the small chairs that project and branch beyond the three-dimensionality of the work.
Throughout the whole volume one can fully appreciate the unity of organisation that encloses the entire cycle of Susanna De Angelis’ sculptures. One perceives how it has been developed and constructed on the basis of selected and discernible stable points,namely the face and the chair, the head and the supporting surface, the geometric volume and the coiled sinuosity of the tubular forms, thus systematically renewing the iconographic solutions. I listened with great interest to the account of the production processes undertaken during these years to achieve the present result of undoubted aesthetic value. In this recent phase I have been able to study the complete group of perfectly defined works with their stone and marble supports installed in the rigorous environment of her Lugano studio.
I have been intrigued by this way of forming a collection from a series of diverse works, yet linked to each other through references, processes, and a succession of solutions that reinforce the message, and it is at this stage that the idea of realizing a monograph finds its place. This edition has in fact the important function of photographically documenting each sculpture, but also of providing a written accompaniment – in its entirety – to the visual appraisal of the complex artistic history of Susanna De Angelis. Through this book we see how the sculptures perfectly respond to the creative will that engendered them.
Eirene is among the pieces in which several formal iconographical elements confront each other and generate an actual story, a communication that avoids description but nonetheless directs attention towards the personality of the portrait. Elegance prevails due to the minimal presence of stone characterized by a patina that is slightly lighter-toned and rippled with warm variations. While here the thought-chairs, unlike the majority of the sculptures, are held in place by headwear, with the desire to be taken back to the intimate time of reflection, the braid, layered with golden highlights, establishes and underlines the power of the image by giving it a flash of personality.
The artist does not choose sculpture as confirmation and certainty about what is real, instead she establishes a process of observation concentrated on her chosen motif and on the reduction of formal values in order to reach the meaningful essence of the subject. A process of “subtraction” that has determined the expressive practices of modern art and involved a cross-section of its artists despite coming from different creative backgrounds. Susanna De Angelis begins from the legacy that from Picasso to Brancusi, from Expressionism to Cubism and the later experiences of the second avant-garde, responds to a direction in art based on a process of “work in regress”. This type of approach, suggested by Claudio Costa in the 1970s and a current determinant in art, marks a watershed in the processes of aesthetic judgement and aims at recovering the collective origins of history as a way of affirming the present.
Susanna De Angelis’ commitment to sculpture is also governed by a desire and orientation towards abstraction, for the elimination of excess and detail in order to capture the symbolic essence of reality.
Daphne is among the sculptures that manifest a greater desire for self-assertion by means of a powerful luminosity. The vertical projection of the form between a base-neck and a head-face, already expressing in itself a powerful polychromic effect due to refractions and mirroring, is matched by the extension on the two horizontal sides of two additional “pages” of light, which are once again reinforced and placed at the extremities of the sculpture. The work communicates the idea of an extension of beauty, in which even the thought-chair seems involved: an aesthetic experience mingled with one of pleasure, which is revealed and offered by the opening of a passage to a restrained silence, vaguely alluded to by subtle suggestions perceived in the face.
With evident centrality, the human head is the iconographic theme around which Susanna De Angelis has constantly worked, creating solutions throughout the cycle in which the head assumes a prominent role, although the use of flat surfaces is not excluded, as in the case of Artemis. In this process of the image’s self-renewal, the aesthetic effects of the different patinas make a large contribution, from the darkest bronzes to the lightest, which verge on the preciousness of gold and are polished to the extreme brilliance of a mirror. Each sculpture assumes its independent symbolic and chromatic characteristics, demonstrating the artist’s ability to constantly renew the visual narrative with great emotional engagement.
When observing the succession of sculptures, whether directly or through their photographic documentation, one cannot fail to recognize an intentional rapport with the original idea of sculptural portraiture found in classical antiquity, namely art’s intention to incorporate the experience of memory into the portrait, to keep alive the biographical history of a human being.
Susanna De Angelis has not been afraid to address the iconographic legacy represented by Roman bust collections and their later development between the Renaissance period and neoclassicism. She has known how to expressly link her work to the historical avant-gardes of the modern period, from painting and sculpture to drawing. She has become an independent part of this extraordinary journey of innovative initiatives due to the intensity of her period of experimentation and her assumption of a precise array of forms for additional emphasis, ranging from the chair to the cockerel and from the beam to headwear. A journey during which she has constantly found the right balance between irony and rigour in her search for beauty without the loss of expressive intensity.
Kalliopi is part of a core of rigorous sculptures in which the adjunct of the thought-chair appears stronger and certainly challenges the values pertaining to the head. The particularly dark patina applied to the face indicates a mood of great inner concentration, underscored by the two side pages. In their turn, the thought-chairs are large in both size and number. They make their mark through their strongly developed three-dimensionality, thus becoming the primary subject of the work. Thought, the whirl of ideas, and the presence of writing for the Muse of Poetry assume an extraordinary centrality bringing warmth and colour and physically dilatating the luminosity.
A second stage in Susanna De Angelis’ creative process suggests that we pay particular attention to the face as a further indication of the centrality of the head. This direction has allowed her to relate to but also to abandon the historical dictates of portraiture by means of a process of abstraction, less anatomical detail and the non-personalisation of the face.
In response to the contemporary tendency towards regress in art, the subject assumes the universal essence of human features and therefore the symbolic dimension of humanity by the elimination of signs of racial identification and by extending the concept of self-recognition. The few essential traits, in formal and linear continuity between the horizontal and the vertical plane and projecting only slightly and elegantly, generate a profound silence, a state of concentration and intimate reflection. By excluding lips, De Angelis seems to want to relinquish words and the spread of ideas through sound, and in their place to propose exclusively the communicative power of thought.
Although the sculpture Karékla is closely linked to the cycle of works, it has a structural independence and therefore an original aesthetic. Its distinctly different elements and values enable it to make a further contribution to the visual story that stems from Susanna De Angelis’ curiosity and artistic experimentation: an expressive process focused on drawing attention to the potency of the work, in this case signalled by the presence of the cockerel, symbolising “inner rebirth and awakening”. Karékla is the perfect outcome of an analytical process that “designs” the sculpture, independently confirming the icon of the chair as a metaphor of thought. In this particular case De Angelis has given the thought-chair the weight and dimension for its complete self-assertion and powerful interaction with its setting.
The symbolic significance of the chair, a powerful presence in this cycle of works by Susanna De Angelis, embodies a considerable number of variables connected to different fields, ranging from dreams to the projection of power relations in the social sphere, as well as references to the wide realm of cultural, philosophical and literary experience; attributes that may even contradict each other, as is true of most of the iconographic legacy that has assumed independent value during the modern and contemporary periods in contrast with the earlier rigid dictates of ancient cultures.
Nonetheless, I believe it is useful to include a brief reflection on the iconographic specificity of the “chair” as an object defined by the particular function of allowing a person to be still but not resting: a functional state for thinking, for working on ideas and for concentrating in a stationary position. It is worth noting how the image of the empty chair was introduced in the modern art period, whereas in ancient times the occupied chair was substantially used in the context of both religious and secular iconography, with particular reference to portraiture. Indeed an exemplary use of the chair in relation to a state of reflection and penitent prostration can be seen in Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene from 1594.
The significant turning point and innovation in the iconographic use of the “empty” chair, currently the central symbol in Susanna De Angelis’ work, was heralded by Vincent van Gogh in two paintings from 1888, one in which he refers to himself, and in the other to his friend Paul Gauguin.
A conceptual change is noticeable in the use of an everyday object that is both able to symbolize friendship and a close dialogue between the two friends, as well as a sense of absence and abandonment, a process that recognizes in the empty chair, once occupied by a now absent body, the role of both self-portrait and portrait: “A few days before our separation, I tried to paint his empty seat. It is a study of his reddish-brown wooden armchair with a greenish-coloured straw seat, and, in his empty place, a lit candle and some modern novels.”
The weight of this intentional symbolic revolution perfectly traverses the modernist period, as confirmed by a long series of artworks by various artists, and joins the contemporary conceptual moment par excellence with Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs from 1965. Perfectly integrated within this course is Susanna De Angelis’ three-dimensional symbolic idea to which she brings a rigorous formal reduction, as we saw already in the process of abstraction performed on the human face.
The artist’s intention is no longer to describe, but rather to emphasize the essential contribution of the iconographic image, to suggest emotions to our stream of consciousness, to make it belong to each one of us, recognized and collectively experienced: “I’ve portrayed these thoughts, which are forms of energy, with little chairs that chase each other and become tangled up together, creating strange shapes in and outside our mind. Sometimes we wish this mechanism that imprisons us would let up and that our thoughts would calm down, ‘sit down’, leaving room for a feeling of peace. The chair is the object that best evokes the sense of being still, of resting, of being.”
In the monograph, the rigorous photographic documentation that accompanies the evolution of each work aims to provide an account of it as a creative process. These images reveal to the reader the meaning of making sculpture. The precise, essential recording of the long hours spent in the foundry performing the various tasks that led to the final result make an important contribution to the knowledge of what is unseen yet fundamental in making art; it is a stage that helps the reader respond, through the images, to the contents of the artist’s expressive message. This is not a mechanical, passive process, schematically composed and technically repetitive, but a way of sharing close proximity to the birth of an artwork, of being able to grasp even from a simple point of welding or the definitive selection of a bronze patina, a series of valuable ideas essential to its creation. Every detail is in fact the result of a perfect balance between the idea of form and the tangible solution, between symbolic thought and its iconographic synthesis.
Along this trajectory of attempts and discoveries lies the long and difficult phase dedicated to one of the most important ‘fragments’ in Susanna De Angelis’ work. The persistent presence of the chair as a characterising element in this cycle is the result of a cumulation of attempts to find the right dimensions and the defining elements from which a series or group could also be produced. The choice of the chair as the icon representing a thought and its aesthetic/ visual translation was followed by a long process of analysing results for both the single chair and the story that developed from a group of them.
In a very similar way to the analytical processes of science, the work conducted by Susanna De Angelis in recent years has required proofs and counter- tests, apparent solutions that were then challenged and led to new trials. After the passage of months, I can confirm that after many transformations and second thoughts, behind what we see today as a definitive work lie numerous, often interesting variations, but never quite able to satisfy the extreme rigour the artist has always applied.
Anthia and Aphia is the result of an encounter between two sculptures, between light and dark, between the curve and the angle. This particular composition is a rare event in this cycle of sculptures and is based on the silent encounter of two faces that barely interact if not through the process of thought and the sharing of ideas and emotions revealed by the small chairs. In two distinct images, the dark patina confronts the wide expanse of light, so that in one head, everything terminates in the opaque matter, whereas the brilliance of the other head broadens its relationship with the outside world; it widens its scope, then returns to the comparison and the interrelation. Even the surface of the support, carefully studied and given a slightly wavelike physicality, maintains and reinforces the search for a gentle intersection between emotions, suggested by the lightness of the psychological aspect of the faces.
It seems important to mention here the years Susanna De Angelis dedicated to painting, which began unexpectedly in 2006. It was a long and difficult phase, but one that taught her the lengthy period needed to create a composition based on photographs taken in the world at large, both the animal world and human world of the less advantaged. It is an approach that has been refined over the years, so that the technical and narrative aspects have advanced to achieve a balance between the incidence and fading of light, between the power of detail and the elusiveness of the deeper meaning of a look or gesture: “The subjects were inspired by people I met on the street, like the old Guatemalan or the Indian beggar sitting on the ground or the little girl from Honduras with her basket, or again the little half-naked Chinese boy from Yunnan, eating alone on the pavement. These people caught my attention and left their mark on me.”
This long-term experience, rigorously undertaken with a strong sense of ethical responsibility, is also significantly present in this cycle of work, confirming a personal attitude towards art. The years of painting, pursued with great passion, as is true of her current work in sculpture, reveals how in the process of creating an image, Susanna De Angelis has explored the intimacy of visual thought. It is evident how in her work she has set herself the objective of respecting not only the secret realm of a face and the emotional extension of a look, there is also the suggestion that viewers should pursue and recognize the experience of depth. Susanna De Angelis is interested in the depth that lies behind and within reality: a reality accepted without exception or censure and addressed by embarking on an adventure that leads towards a dimension the artist neither reveals nor intends to interpret or describe, suggesting only that it be acknowledged.
Eudokia is a sculpture that demonstrates how De Angelis has succeeded in finding a language of variables for the same theme while maintaining constant quality. Her in-depth exploration of the dimension of volume, enhanced by a thorough acquisition of technical processes, enables her to draw on the wide range of creative solutions offered by bronze and its various patinas. The duotone of bright and dark and the relationships between vertical and horizontal are the elements that make Eudokia an extremely organic work and therefore an intense experience for the viewer.
There is also a thematic connection between the previous painting phase and the current one dedicated to sculpture: in both cycles the face is a central source of expression.
The features that define the face, whether human or otherwise, characterize the painting phase that came after the period dedicated to the animal world. Along these two distinct and often broad paths, photography acted as the “strict companion” to a desire to document, which, thanks to the presence of colour and sign, has over time continued to enrich the sphere of interiority. The goal was to discover the particular contents that the stages of refinement provide in a way very close to the process of meditation.
The expression in the eyes, whether those of an elephant or an old man, was achieved by a gradual reduction of realistic colour conflicts by using diffused light, which was able to externalize the subject’s inner life.
If the expressive orientation of Susanna De Angelis’ work remains for the most part a search for profundity and interiority, values upon which the idea of creating an extensive cycle of sculptures was based, on the other hand there has also been a clear break with the descriptive process. Each sculpture, determined by the constant presence of the female face, is the outcome of a process intended to go beyond actual reality. The constant iconographic centrality of the head is joined and intersected by the extension of the thought process represented by a geometric fragment, the reduced form of a chair, which in its turn is also insistently present in most of the works.
The two elements, the face and the chair, have no narrative inclination; they are there to usher us into the uncontaminated area of interior emotion, where we are willing to relinquish reference points and certainties and let our gaze journey within the broad confines of new cultural geographies.
The Bestiary of the Heart
Susanna De Angelis entered the world of art in a light, original and discreet manner. She exhibits her work with a sort of admirable modesty, underscoring—without saying or wanting it—that her aesthetic journey also implies an attitude filled with morality, responsibility, and deep relations with and respect for her creatures.
The choice of carving out a reserved space for herself, a long intense executive colloquium, forcefully states her entire affective aspect toward a natural and wild world, a world of freedom and fierceness far from the banal everyday that so often oppresses and overwhelms us.
(NDR. The artist) makes tangible as well as visible her courageous commitment to revisiting, in a decidedly post-Pop style, the beauty and crouching quietude of the animal world. Her work appears almost hyperrealist, profound and intense. Susanna De Angelis paints with great determination and with a technique that is clearly not casual.
Slowness of execution and meticulous detail are not always per se values in art. In our case, technical mastery complements a global vision and substantiates a well studied and thought-out compositional style. This vast compendium of beasts, wild animals, and aggressive displays are transfigured in her impeccable painting, which launches a bridge of affection toward those penetrating eyes, gaping maws, sharp teeth, and abeyant leaps.
Susanna De Angelis provides tried and tested proof of a positive attachment to testimony, to the document, to iconography. With great resolution she follows the way of joy in sacrifice, of originality in execution, of quality that guides her through a world where she pretends she doesn’t know the rules.
Her gentleness and strength are good lessons for all to read and learn.
Gleams – A Flash of Image
Notes in the margins of Susi De Angelis’s paintings
Painting as a desire for communication, as a tangible trace, as a track that we may follow back to its author, intuitively retracing her inner world, ideas, aspirations.
Paintings—images thus become paltry signs left along a path, they lead us to surprise, exchange, discovery.
Susi De Angelis belongs to that category of people who were suddenly seized, captured, by a need to tell the tale, her own and that of others.
She didn’t grow up painting, she followed no particular course of training in her youth. She had the magical encounter in full maturity.
Sustained by what immediately manifested itself as a felicitous talent, sustained by a critical spirit and certainly by a stubborn will, she approached images with intelligence and sensitivity.
She directed all her attention—and this is perhaps the fundamental characteristic of her painterly self—to a single subject: animals.
This is the first surprise: painting as the appropriation of an image that becomes an attempt to appropriate a spirit, a yearning for closeness to a vital instinct; and once again, painting as an exchange, an enriching act, which seeks to make visible, interpret… to do no more than intuit the natural elegance of an entire kingdom (since the work with the first painted animals of the savannah is just at the beginning), its indomitably fierce pride, majesty and elegance, with laws that dictate the destinies of predator and prey.
Painting thus proposes itself anew as it was when it appeared on the dark and mysterious walls of Cro-Magnon caves in the late Neolithic age, it becomes again a ritual dating back over boundless time, riddled with the countless issues that a symbolic representation implies and has to resolve—an eye, a coat of fur, skin.
Stylistically, Susi De Angelis aligns with the polarisation of the image proper to Pop Art, with a rigour, constancy and coherence that leads her willingly to forego colour almost out of a desire for extreme distillation in defining her subject: the animal appears alone, only minimal notes are made of its landscape, its suggestive setting, such as a tree trunk, a blade of grass, the glare of light off water.
And once again the artist surprises us, because in this formal synthesis she lets herself go—and here her dissociation from Pop Art becomes absolute—in an absolute and realistic description contaminated with the beyond, with hyperrealism.
When the artist indulgently roams these pathways, she sometimes returns to colour, she returns to oil paint for the sole purpose of greater definition, and then hints at a vibrant humidity in the eye of the animal, she runs over its coat spot by sport, its fur hair by hair.
This dedication surprises us, for the love in its gesture, the love of giving the most to the subject, the love for the world she represents and from which nothing of importance is taken away.
The act of painting is referential, it does not lose itself in the expressivity of the gesture, in the internalised meanders of the informal, it does not seek the gratifications of pictorial matter applied densely, sensually. Everything submits to the subject being rendered, a lesson in true modesty disciplined by manual expression.
And she surprises us again because she intuitively picks up various aspects that are strictly part of pictorial syntax. Not everything we see is painting: if we survey her images with a careful eye we discover whiskers on a panther that were not done with a brush, they are uncovered, they depend on removal since we glimpse the canvas through them, and their existence is entirely achieved by the support affirming that they have been spared from being covered.
Sticking to the theme, she intuitively discerns the lesson of the great realists of history, such as Courbet, rendering the subject in its real dimension, or close to reality.
And so huge becomes the canvas on which the flash image of an oncoming elephant appears and rises to the status of a vision.
Once again the artist surprises us because what we have before us seems to be well executed nature, and it takes no little effort to realise the extreme artificialness and difficulty in crafting the painting.
Degas, whose ballerinas seemed so natural, used to say: “I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament— temperament is the word—I know nothing.”
Once again the artist surprises us: controlled pictorial gestures, whose slowness and repetitiveness correspond to the awareness of what she is pursuing. We discover complex, unexpected qualities in this self-taught artist, an equilibrium that subjects the entire creative process to an empathy, a spiritual identification that comes so close to the sense of intelligĕre [discernment].
And the artist surprises us again.