by Whatsupin@rt – Roberta Foglino and Paola Zanchi – 2011
Piero Leonardi was born in Rome, Italy in 1957. Starting from the Eighties his passion for photography intercepts the experience of Tazio Secchiaroli – master of social reportage in the years of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, first recognized photoreporter of the Italian cinema: He is the one who, in 1981, selects Piero’s shots for his first exhibition – “Irpinia un anno dopo” – a photo-reportage on the reconstruction of the places and the human fabric that come back to life one year after the earthquake; his photographic gaze oscillates between a sensitive participation to the human and social degradation and a caustic irony that captures the paradoxes in the drama.
Between 1981 and 1982 Piero met Ugo Attardi, Giacomo Manzù, Carmelo Martinez and Miguel Ortiz Berrocal, with whom he had a fruitful artistic exchange and a dynamic confrontation that led to the project of a photographic exhibition entitled “Animated Scultur”.
Attracted by details – circumscribed forms that, alone, could have narrated the essence of the work – from the beginning his vision of sculpture is instinctively focused on synthesis and matter: its structure, its forms, its language.
To take photographs means to tell the intimate story of what exists: lines, lights and shadows that are able to give back the atmosphere of the sculptor’s thought and not only of his work.
The same narrative synthesis is sought, a few years later, when in 1984 Piero turns to macro.
His photography focuses on minimal universes, where the detail, such as a spool of thread, worn out by the everyday life of the consumerist gaze, regains the dignity of a living reality of colors and shapes.
In the 1990s, with the spread of new digital technologies, photographic art underwent a socio-cultural metamorphosis, transforming itself into a so-called “mass phenomenon”.
If the wide diffusion allows anyone to become a “photographer”, how is it possible then – Piero wonders – for each of us to identify ourselves through the photos we take? The perception of reality is individual, so being able to photograph from this point of view means showing a subjective point of view: our unique vision.
Between 1999 and the early 2000s, the founding intuition of the artist’s “photographic thought” was consolidated.
Determined to investigate the new inspirational sensibilities, he develops a technical-artistic approach of a more speculative and systemic nature.
Now he intends to photograph not only the material, but rather the perceptions that arise from the relationship between the photographer and the object-subject. Piero himself defines this type of research as “The Soul of Things”.
Penetrating the soul of things means revealing imperceptible links between the world and the observer and therefore capturing aspects that go beyond the common sight, drawing on the essence most hidden to the superficiality of the glance.
It is this intuition that leads him to develop the concept of Perceptive Photography, according to which it is not the object that is photographed, neither as a document nor as an interpretation, but rather the message between the photographer and that object-subject.
In Perceptive Photography, the viewer is led to accept the artist’s distortion, at times further transfiguring what the photographer “has seen”. After all – Piero maintains – in a photograph there is both what we show and what we make people imagine.
A phase of intense experimentation begins around the concept of pareidolia, at the basis of the artist’s intuition.
The instinctive and automatic tendency to re-find familiar or subconscious forms in images or details taken from nature converges, between 2004 and 2005, in the Pepperlife collection: twists, transparencies and colors are explored with a freedom of look and mind that allows the artist to re-read with amused irony the seductive drives of natural forms and organic structures.
Surprises to see Piero in the Roman countryside while he frees some poppies from the constraint of the stem and, no longer anchored to the earth… he makes them fly, even if through his shots; he catches their desire of infinity and freedom and releases their soul in the Butterflowers collection.
At the same time the artist “discovers” the marble quarries of the Apuan Alps, Tuscany, in Italy.
His attention moves into the folds and cracks of the rock to capture, or rather, “dig out” that interiority which is still intact, preserved for millennia in the memory of the material. “If they let you in”, he says, “it means that they want to be discovered, understood, scrutinized. I decided to please them, entering more and more into their intimacy: paintings within paintings, or sculptures. A game of Chinese boxes made of natural art.”
The artist-photographer enters the geological forms of the rock, through a surface exploration and sudden cores in depth. Simple signs, veils, dripped traces, spots of color, cracks and graffiti, linear or chromatic geometries constitute the informal and abstract alphabet, sometimes connoted by allusive and pareidoleic meanings, at the base of Color on the Rock’s research, still in progress.
It emerges with increasing clarity a subjective vision of the photographic operation, where the medium is transformed into an artistic poetics.
Piero’s approach aims at focusing and developing the awareness of his own “Photographic Calligraphy”: a peculiar visual writing, able to fix the perceptive-artistic observation of the world and, consequently, to transform it into a recognizable visual style, representative of the uniqueness of perspective observation, what he himself defines as “Style of View”.
With an act of courage, the artist’s photography frees itself from the duty of the representation of an object, of the human document, the original vocation of the photographic language, to investigate rather its autonomous and cognitive potential. He proceeds through fragments torn away from reality, suggesting an “other” dimension, where the change of context makes his shots take on the force of readymades that short-circuit the experience of our material presence in the world.
A demonstration of this is the Purgatory collection, born from the ethereal and evocative landscape of the winter hills and valleys of the Umbria-Marche Apennines.
Observing the artist’s photographs, one feels a sense of disorientation. Where is the high and the low? Clouds or patches of light? Air or snow? Sky or earth? The natural signs lose their consistency and become instruments of a disorienting process of dislocation, where “the thing” separates from its anchoring points.
If photography in its ontological essence, according to some, acts through cuts within reality, in Piero the action is even more radical, until it reaches a form of re-writing of reality, where signs fix the trace of something invisible and are transformed into non-natural signs.
In Landsigns the seriality of the cut is a constant: the technical instrument, the camera, is reduced to a pure extension of a gesture that forcefully incises the spatial sequence, expels the relationship with the earth, tears from the material fabric signs of a language where light and shadow become the ink of a visual writing.
The idea of the absent thing is there, indicated by “vectors” and axes that divide the field into light and dark zones which, if they apparently appeal to our sense of orientation, in fact disorient us in the unpredictability of the solutions.
The result is a “double-edged” photograph, where the linguistic sign “doubles” its potential, as in a mirror. However, here, the artist’s photographic investigation does not stop only at primary geometrical forms, but explores different values, also linked to the specificity of materials in their opposition of consistency – earth/snow – destined to be consumed by processes of transformation and deterioration of nature to be assumed as artificial signs.
Piero deliberately chooses to move, almost as if to engage in a challenge with a worn-out subject, within a landscape – that of Antelope Canyon – exploited by mass tourist photography, easily involved by the suggestive chromatic characteristic of the underground context. Here, again, he descends into the depths, chiseling in direct contact a plastic writing that distorts the anatomy of the rock and creates involuntary sculptures. In this phase of his research, the echoes of “Animated Sculpture” resurface in Piero.
His images metamorphose at the moment of the shot and are charged with an ambiguous and strongly allusive value: distortions, stratifications, cavities, sliding of matter and light evoke archetypal signs that rise to semiological statutes, suspended between a dreamlike reading – which sometimes borders on erotic symbolism – and an autonomous plastic interest.
In the balance between visual writing and plastic investigation, in a new spatial extension, are the shots of Graphics. Minimal objects of the landscape, isolated within wide non-colored backgrounds, reconstruct a visual syntax that is the result of an autonomous mental operation, through which Piero develops a photo-non-photo, an informal language on the borderline between abstractionism and spatialism, between poor art and surreality.
The artist’s intervention amplifies the minimal detail, detaches it from the inert world of things to insert it in an ideal sphere, where it acquires a reversible and interchangeable value.
Piero reinforces the conceptual investigation: the artist’s operation becomes exclusionary, it goes through a process of reduction that leads to the focalization of primary structures. Rhythmic extroversions, material surfaces, monochromatic purity, dimensional deviations, imprints and sculptures kinetically drawn by lights and shadows – such as unusual mobiles – create an osmosis between reality and sur-reality, re-capture that “other” dimension, as secret, where time, space and form are synthesized in an abstract suspension.
In recent years, the artist’s photographs have brought into focus the univocal sense of his research: his collections reveal coherent transversal elements, indicating the priority of his artistic language and highlighting expressive orientations and narrative choices that give a peculiar character to his production.
Piero’s research therefore ranges from the visual excavation within the graphic and sign resonances of matter, to the ethereal and metaphysical evocation of spaces of light; from the washed-out and chiaroscuro mapping of visual traces, to the reconnaissance of sculptural and chromatic form, recovered from visceral depths, and focuses on abstract and minimalist compositions in empty and white spaces. Piero is now mainly interested in photography generally identified as “conceptual”, in addition to the new epistemological categories he elaborated.
In what language does Piero’s work speak to us? His visual calligraphy has the ability to unveil the object in its presence-absence, in its allusiveness, in order to re-evocate it, re-construct it and present it in its panic evidence.
His poetic perspective rereads backwards, in the sign engraved in the material, in the void of space, in the single element, in the plastic form, the trace of time, not to measure it, but rather to become a medium with its origin, through a manipulation that recreates its memory.
This kind of action takes the artist away from the idea of photography as representation, and strengthens, rather, the conceptuality of his language.
In this sense, the artist’s photography seems to collect the inheritance of the experiments of the ’60s and ’70s, for which photography functions as a medium of a process of relation virtually proposed to the user and becomes the privileged instrument of conceptual intervention on reality, operating a synthesis on the sense of the image, on the act that generated it.
Even more Piero becomes the interpreter of that total liberalization of artistic operation, acquired in the 80s with the conceptual: his photography becomes an object of reflection, a sign of an artistic language to be created.
The result is a “Calligrafia Fotografica” (Photographic Calligraphy) that manifests in an increasingly clear way other relationships, other afferences, reconnecting to linguistic contaminations of contemporary art and that fits well in the connotation of a language on the border between Art-Photography/Photography-Art.