Laura McLean-Ferris on Lydia Silvestri

Lydia Silvestri said that her mountain upbringing in Chiuro, close to Italy’s border with Switzerland, taught her to take pleasure in “weaving baskets, whittling bowls and clogs out of wood, kitchen utensils, seeing a wall grow stone by stone chosen out of a heap of stones with a careful eye, and silkworms constructing perfect cocoons of gold, making vats for wine, repairing a doll’s arm or the hoof of a calf.” Her words gleam with a sensual enjoyment for all kinds of creaturely manufacture and ancient practices, and suggest a curious equity among these processes. Though she often worked in Italian sculpture’s most durable classical materials, such as marble and bronze, the forms that she created were extravagantly fluid. Many of her sculptures seem to integrate buttocks, breasts, penises, testicles, and other harder to name body parts: bladelike bones or clavicles, lumpy rolls of flesh reaching, contorting, stretching. A number of works by the artist, who died at the age of eighty-eight in 2018, were included in the 2020 Rome Quadriennale with those of a younger generation of artists who have emerged in a period during which gender fluidity entered the mainstream. In that context, Silvestri’s sculptures from the 1960s through the ’80s affirmed a joyful perversion of the modernist principles of statuary developed by Constantin Brancusi, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, whose work Silvestri studied closely.

At BAR, “studi per vetri, poi sogni” (Studies for Glass, Then Dreams) focused on a series of drawings (1969–70) for glass sculptures that Silvestri developed and made between 1970 and 1971 on the Venetian island of Murano. Mostly executed with a combination of charcoal lines and watercolor, these studies explore the potential of glass—thanks to its translucency and molten flexibility—to depict metamorphosis. In one brightly colored example, a pair of bulbous yellow and black forms (eggs, breasts, butt cheeks?) might also be wings blossoming from the back of a green-and-red figure. In another, a streak of red issues from a quartet of proud corporeal swellings, two of them with cherry-shaped nipples, two without. The glass sculptures eventually produced on the basis of these drawings were all titled sogno (Dream). In them, Silvestri’s erotic freestyling reaches a kind of boundlessness, conjuring an oozing world of transparent honey that seems to occasionally solidify with a pop of color and a half-recognizable body part. The fact that the blank paper stands for both the transparent glass and its surrounding space gives the compositions a great openness. When looking at them I thought about how the sensation of desire in a body, of wanting, feels both like bursting fullness and extreme emptiness. More than the work of any other artist, the drawings reminded me of the most jubilantly corporeal sculptures of Alina Szapocznikow: visions of bodies dissolved and reconfigured without rules.

Though some might by now be fatigued with the revisionism that constantly resurrects the work of recently deceased women artists who’ve been overlooked or forgotten, it was truly a pleasure to see this work brought out of storage. Silvestri’s dream visions of transfiguration are as ancient as whittled wooden bowls, yet her particular expressions of bodies and dreams unhooked from biological polarities of gender are able to open an important channel between 1971 and today.

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