Both from the Val Gardena in Northern Italy, a convergence of several small villages in which wood-carving is a long-standing tradition, Demetz and Walpoth are two of my favorite contemporary sculptors. Their work is saliently austere, quiet but intense, commanding the spaces in which it is situated with a kind of solemnity. I have never had the opportunity to see either artist’s work in person, but I hope to visit this valley one day, not just for the art but also for the landscape, which is, like the work of these two artists, a combination of warmth and severity: the valley itself is draped in soft, rolling green during the summer, and the surrounding mountains (the Dolomites) stand in jarring contrast, looking like bleached dragon’s teeth.
Both artists have a talent for making wood look eerily like skin. Just as Bernini somehow made marble appear soft (I’m thinking of the fingers of Dis pressing into Proserpina’s thigh), so too do Demetz and Walpoth make wood appear heavy and full, like flesh. I look at their work, knowing that the wood is dry, and yet the way they work the material makes you convinced that it would be slightly moist underneath the layer of white-wash. The white-wash itself is never excessive but is applied to just the right degree to be suggestive of the translucence of skin. And yet for all this illusion, both artists also clearly love their chosen material and allow its qualities to come through. Demetz is most obvious in this love–he allows gaps between the boards that have been laminated to make his work, sometimes showing splinters. The gaps themselves are not arbitrary nods to process but are rather integral to the emotional underpinning of the work. Almost all of the sculptures I’ve seen are of children, and these voids, along with the props the children hold, suggest formations of trauma. I never feel, looking at these pieces, that the artist is exploiting childhood trauma for shock value. The faces of these sculptures suggest a plea for adults to take responsibility; you can’t look away–the aestheticization of trauma amplifies the need for action rather than excusing us from it. Walpoth’s lamination tends to be more seamless, but he experiments with levels of finish, sometimes letting gouge marks remain, sometimes only file marks, and sometimes effacing such marks completely. These purposeful imperfections acknowledge the material without marring the illusion of life.
Unlike Demetz, Waltpoth primarily crafts figures of adults. His figures characteristically look as they’ve only just stopped movement to gaze back at you. You catch them mid-stride, mid-gesture. My favorite piece, entitled “Tania” seems like her chest will heave with air at any moment, like her scrutinizing eyes might just widen if you wait a few more seconds, and like her nostrils might very well be flaring before you. Another figure, entitled “Should I,” stands with her hands hanging in front of her hips, and you can almost see blood pooling in them. Demetz’s figures, in contrast, seem much more rigid, as if they’ve been sustaining their poses for some time, and yet they too, seem alive, they’re faces expressive and decidedly un-idyllic.