Nature’s apostate: on Gianna Bentivenga’s Mutamenti

Ten years have passed since Gianna Bentivenga chose engraving as the main technique through which to explore the themes that inform her research: transformation, mutation, metamorphosis. Unlike her more illustrious predecessor, she is fascinated by the visual and mental liminal states and processes that elude our most elementary certainties on space and time, on the animate and inanimate. Unlike Ovid, she will push us into an epic narrative without the standard elements of narrative. Rather than relying on illusion and disguise, she will challenge herself and otherness. Rather than exploring the transformative power of desire, love and arrogance, she will elaborate on the saga of entropy and the forms of time. Hers is a single protagonist, as refracted, multiplied and relentlessly challenged in its identity. Instead of taking two stable identities, whether earthly or divine, and investigating the deep connections emerging from their mutual transformations, she will explore the transformations of a form we are able to know, but not define.

This form emerged in 2010 through the six or more drawings disgorged in graphite that make up the Disecdisi series. Each shows a Blattodean shape taking flight among insects and fruits. In these large drawings on white paper treated with leather tannin, the full organic shape is shrunk, partly to suggest the process of biological differentiation. The sense of their being vital, their peaks and asperities being excrescences ready to evolve into something different, is perhaps what most astonishingly sets them apart from Ovids images and from the fantastic visions Odilon Redon committed to prints or drew in pen.

Bentivengas shapes are alive: their transformations enact the fictional passage of time and movement. In her 2014 Teriomorfismo, a series of 50 x 50 cm multi-matrix engravings on zinc, the six works narrate the metamorphosis of a black ovoid with spindly legs. The artists extreme technical proficiency creates the suggestion of a three-dimensional shape floating across a space that is too small or too macroscopic to be perceived. Although both the scale and the identity of the protagonist elude us, we can read the shape as if vanishing from the centre (print I), then descending (II) as the shadowed image is repeated, halftone (II and III), in its initial position. Whether these black images are to be read as traces of the progress of the dark shape or as its encounter with othters is impossible to say. After encounters, repetitions and superimpositions (II to V), we find our protagonist alone and again motionless at the end, as if leaving the representational space (VI). Seen individually and compared, the prints show they were made by using a single plate, printed in different directions: what we have read as a difference in shape is for the most part a difference in orientation. Yet when viewed as a set, the six prints suggest that movement across space influences alterations of form. The bristling ciliathin hairs attached to mucosaechange and oscillate. The pedicelwhat is left of the stem of a citrus flowerjuts out, bends back, changes direction and juts out again. The long thin filaments attached to the body of the main shape extend, bend and multiply. The Teriomorfismo series, created by Bentivenga in her studio at the Atelier InSigna in Rome, was exhibited at Temple Universitys Art Gallery in 2018 as one of the most promising new directions of the Roman printing school.

For her 2015 work Muta, created during a residency in Luxembourg, Bentivenga incised a single 50 x 70 cm zinc plate on both recto and verso, printing in different phases: the lower shape to begin with, followed by the upper shape in a loamy black obtained by salt treatment. Figures evolve in a space troubled by scratches and smudges that transform the distinction between figure and terrain. The grey-greenish obloid, given volume by light and shadow, is read as an increasingly dense proliferation of filaments, like an acceleration of the surrounding chaos of marks. Whereas the black shape turns its own line above and across, holding back and structuring a centre space of apparently accidental marks, the lower one pushes us to reconsider the emerging of form as a precarious balance of clusters and visual differentiation.
The fluttering of filaments seems no mere background, but nothing less than the condition for the visible to emerge. The way we distinguish mesh from entity or sign from form is here recast as a change in perception provoked by a parasite field. This effect is for the most part the result of Bentivengas decision to re-use her matrices: by discarding the usual process of carefully cleaning them between print runs, the subtle variety of spottings and shadows is for the most part welcomed into her experimental technique. In 2016-2017, revisiting the prints of Teriomorfismo, the artist further played with the accidents planned as liminal moments of perception and of being: the resulting monotypes eschew the opposition between plate and paper on which printing is largely based.

Bentivengas most recent series, Mutamenti 1, 2 e 3, consisting of one monotype and two engravings, created with 140 x 60 cm plates, gathers in one triptych the elaborate network transforming her previous research. The biological devolution we project onto the first piece speaks of our deep need for narrative and narration. Viewed from left to right, the overripe fruit or the organic shell grows darker, as if oxidized. The filaments filter through the attraction of time and gravity that conveys an upended and progressively weaker version of itself. It is hard not to view these three pieces as stages of a single being whose vitality is in fact signalled by its decay. Entropy, used here as a sign of its own opposite, becomes a radical affirmation.

We are ushered into the disquieting world of spores and mouldorganisms that need no sunlight or air and yet are very much alive and in constant growth. A very deeply interconnected world, structured by invisibile networks of nutrients and dark juices that, introduced into the tissue of printing paper, point to an experimentation pursued via orchestrated accidents that narrate the passing of time and the dark interplay of vitality and decay. The mesh of marks expands into the very fibres of the paper and becomes a subterranean network generating further relationships and crossovers and their strange apparition in our visual field. These carefully tended spores continue the artists work, staging the physicality of the object inside the wider and longer-term process of the works fortune.

Relationships and crossovers between organisms are, in a literal reading, the core of the second work in the series. The upright hulls exist in a mutual relationshiptheir tense or relaxed distance, their thick or tenuous ties, the rhythm of their void density portrays not so much interconnection as the possibility that these variations of form and texture may flow back and forth. Like spores. The very notion of form, on which we base our identification of units we then bracket into dychotomies and narratives, no longer seems pertinent. As in the third and last work in the series, structures of transformation and connection exceed any attempt to pinpoint a single moment of transformation or even an initial, original state vs. a final one. What we are instead invited to do is closely observe the joins, the many roles a single line or a cluster of marks can take on as they suggest the passing of time in its material transformation, as they convey finiteness, andthrough decaylife itself. Nature resides in fleeting germs, in alibis, the elsewhere, in surreptitious presence and absence, through forms and time, in the spores and moulds that are metamorphoses.

Sarah Linford