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Exhibition Review

Claudio Parmiggiani: behind the delicate sooty residues

Grace Storey

Sep 21, 2021


Installation view of Claudio Parmiggiani's solo exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery, London (Jun 16 - Sep 25, 2021)




This is the third exhibition of Claudio Parmiggiani (b. 1943 Luzzara, Italy; lives and works in Parma, Italy) at Simon Lee’s London space. On entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted by Senza Titolo (2010), an enormous, cast-iron bell suspended from the ceiling by its clapper, immediately establishing a feeling of stasis, which continues throughout the show.


Bells form part of the artist’s visual lexicon, which has evolved over the past forty years. Parmiggiani collects bells from churches that have been damaged or destroyed, re-presenting these dislocated fragments in the context of the gallery, perhaps as a comment on religion and censorship. The silenced clapper, bound by rope, might reference a punishment common in the Middle Ages, whereby heretics were silenced by the removal of all or part of their tongues. 


The feeling of displacement continues through four new 'Delocazione' works - the artist's signature body of work which begun in 1970. Here, the artist uses soot and smoke on board to depict the silhouettes of books on shelves, which together form a shadow library. Though on the one hand, the image of bookshelves is familiar and domestic, the absence of the books leads the viewer to question which volumes once stood on the shelves, and the reason for their removal. 


The imprints created by the sooty residue that remains after the burning recall the time Parmiggiani spent in the studio of still life painter Giorgio Morandi in Bologna, Italy, during his studies at the Istituto di Belle Arte di Modena, Italy, from 1958–60. Archival photographs of Morandi’s studio show the ghostly silhouettes created by coal-fired ovens and heaters, made visible once the finished works were removed from the walls. 


Despite their delicate and serene appearance, the surface texture of Parmiggiani’s paintings prompts the viewer to consider the violence implicit in their creation – which involves placing the objects in front of boards and filing the sealed room with smoke from burning tyres. In these works, the artist alludes to the traumatic historical relationship between books and fire: both the burning of books for reasons of censorship and the threat to and loss of knowledge through the burning of libraries as a process of cultural cleansing.


Parmiggiani’s paintings also have a sense of the otherworldly. Facing the paintings of the library shelves is an older work, Scultura d’ombra [Shadow Sculpture] (1999), also created using the artist’s technique of smoke and soot on board to depict an enigmatic phantom reader whose body appears to dematerialise into vapour, leaving behind a kind of corporeal residue. 


In the final work in the exhibition, Untitled (2021) a kaleidoscope of butterflies – another motif frequently employed by the artist – emerge from a powdery background. Recalling the depiction of insects, fruit and flowers as symbols of transition in seventeenth-century Dutch Vanitas paintings, Parmiggiani’s winged insects are a meditation on the ephemeral nature of life. 



Claudio Parmiggiani's solo exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery, Lonodn will be on view through September 25, 2021