Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Maurizio Anzeri

Maurizio_Anzeri_Crafts_coverBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Stitching a Blank Canvas: Maurizio Anzeri

In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes suggests that every photograph presupposes the death of its subject. Maurizio Anzeri’s series of stitched photographs, Darwin’s Tears, works along much the same lines. “We all have photographs at some point,” the Italian-born artist offers up as an explanation for his attraction to the medium. “I see my mother with photos all around her flat, like treasures…. in the 1940s and 1950s, especially in Italy, photographs appeared around homes like shrines…. It is important that these photos all end up in a box, it is what will happen to all of us at some point.”

Anzeri refers to the subjects of his most recent series, which began in 2007, as “totally anonymous, not stars.” In a recent conversation, he explains that his collection of portrait photographs was collected at flea markets “like any good obsessive” with no plan of how they might one day be used. Development of the series began with over a year devoted to the “need to discover different possibilities, of paper qualities and weight”. This attention to the material quality of his flea market finds suggests Anzeri’s early education in Graphic Design at Camberwell College in the late 1990s may have left more of an impression on the artist than he likes to admit. At the time, Graphic Design proved to be an unsuccessful compromise between what sounded like a palatable enough career choice and what he has hoped would allow for creative space. When he realised the client-focused design was a poor fit for him, Anzeri stumbled into sculpture and graduated with a BA in 1999.

Soon after graduation commissions from the likes of the late Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen appeared. Anzeri sent a dark cloak of synthetic hair on a blond model down McQueen’s catwalk in 2000 and went on to create his work in the context of the fashion industry for a year. The need (again) for creative independence led him to an MA in Fine Art (Sculpture) at the Slade School of Art, which he completed in 2005. Anzeri found his penchant for sewing and textile materials did not go down well in the Sculpture Department at the time. But rather than sway him, this critical tension confirmed his commitment to working with certain materials. More recently, he explains stumbling across images of relatives mending fishing nets on the Italian coast of Loano, near Genova, and now sees his attraction to working with thread as verging on the inevitable.

Under the title One Night in Paris, Anzeri exhibited a series of stitched portraits with The Photographer’s Gallery at ParisPhoto in November of 2009. To his own admission, he “lost interest” in his strategy of following “the line of the faces” and from this series onwards set himself only one standard: “The main thing is to leave one eye open, that is my only rule, the rest up for grabs.” Apart from this self-imposed eye rule, things evolve organically. The composition is drawn on tracing paper, pinholes pricked in the photograph, and he then begins to embroider. “I’ve spent hours with all the rulers in the world, but you just can’t predict what is going to happen, you just can’t control it.” Piercing the portrait’s face is in itself a gesture loaded with meaning and Anzeri notes the “S&M activity” of piercing he is recreating on paper. He is, in effect, creating temporary tattoos on images frozen in their permanency. But the fact that his subjects are no longer treasured puts their new found identities in a different light. They are, in some ways, more interesting now that they are concealed.

Darwin’s Tears, exhibited at the Luce Gallery in Turin, Italy early this year, began to take form three years ago when his collection of anonymous black and white portraits started to appear on his studio wall in clusters of 5 or 7 at a time. “I treat the face like a landscape,” he offers as explanation of the ‘interventions’ that leave his subjects concealed in a web-like disguise. The series title alludes to a genetic crisis and the threads of crayon-box colours suggest, at times, early hand tinted colour photographs. Elsewhere the graphic patterns of the Italian futurists seem present. In combination, the finished images feel unsettlingly anachronistic.

“Darwin was responsible for a massive change in the way we think,” Anzeri explains of the title. “On the one side we have this incredible desire, this wish to live. But there is also a madness at how difficult it is to exist. The two are not compatible with each other,” he concludes, hence the tears shed by the father of evolutionary theory. At his recent exhibition in Turin a further evolutionary crisis unfolds in the form of three disembodied wig-like sculptures that each enjoy such luxurious excess that the entire (imagined) body beneath is concealed. The multiple associations the sculptures offer is their intention: “It could be from Versailles, or African voodoo or a John Galliano show. I like that they have all of these elements in one piece,” Maurizio explains. These works share the uncomfortable beauty found in his stitch work, in part because of the familiarity his materials evoke. But there is also something excessive about their materiality, which the portraits concealed by stitch share. One braid, a few stitches, is familiar. But the whole face, or towering figure of hair, presents something far less comfortable. “I’m still not sure where I am going with the hair work,” Anzeri admits, “and I like that.”

British artist Julie Cockburn terms the portraits she harvests, like Anzeri, from car boot sales for stitching and collage as “rejectementa”. For both, there is a curious tension between the care and attention granted to a photographic subject and the distortion that results. But in spite of the seeming distance between the original subject and their altered identities, Anzeri’s process is not without feeling. “I cannot avoid starting a dialogue with the photographs’ subject,” he explains of the portraits that the passage of time has made anonymous. “Forty percent of the time I use the name on the back of photo [for the title], if not I have a name by the time I finish stitching,” he says, alluding to fictional relationship with the dead and discarded that evolves while he works to conceal the subject’s original identity.

Anzeri admits that the painstaking work that has consumed him recently has taken a certain toll: “Every group I say this is the last one. I am not an embroidery machine, but the series has developed and this is what keeps me going.” He now looks back on the Drawin’s Tears series and describes it as the “tip of the iceberg” and reveals that new work includes “taking photos in all different directions, working on a bigger scale with more freedom, mixing drawing and photos with the sewing machine. It is strange to say, but photographs are a blank canvas.”

Crafts magazine (May/June 2010: 32-35)