Sergio Soave's Visual Space

An essay by Paul Krainak

Accompanied the solo exhibition at the Shongdong Contemporary Art Museum in Nanjing, China (2014)


“When we were children we had toys that would make us weep with pity and anger. One day, perhaps, we shall see the toys of our whole life, like those of our childhood once more”.

Andre Breton, from the First Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924

Two principal trajectories in Western modernism are commonly considered to be reductivist with critical texts espousing a materialist narrative. Beginning with Impressionism this discourse designates landscape and figuration and evolves formally as an organic, painterly style with its culmination in Abstract Expressionism. The second visual thread stems from Cubism and Constructivism and is consigned to technology, the city and rationalism. It’s chronological terminus is geometric abstraction with both strains of modernism assuming ascendancy in the mid 20th century. Each were plausible and striking responses for artists to mediate the alienating conditions of capitalism and industrialization at the turn of the century. Each account still has heirs as analogous oppressive conditions continue to exist in today’s world economy.

Both theories of art production emphasize the immediate present, stressing the physical nature of art practice and are simultaneously conveyors of utopian desire – artists substituting new formal language to ameliorate the past. What’s missing in these views however, are the psychological conceits of painting, anecdotal data and mythology, to name a few. And while their formal narratives legitimize the role of the individual hero on a cultural quest, they do little to engage the irrational, the imaginary, or the personal. That was left to DaDa and Surrealism. Here we find more malleable forms including found objects, text, and an abstraction that would never totally abandoning representation or devolve into decoration.

Sergio Soave’s prints follow in the more surrealist response to the dilemmas of modern and post-modern alienation in a struggle to contain images that are at once innocent and angst-ridden.  Hand-drawn images with computer generated and altered symbols, children’s toys and psychotropic after-images sort themselves into oddly contemplative and obscure art meta-data. Their center of gravity reels in a liquid atmosphere of handmade objects, fragments of old-word architecture and flat, painted bubbles. Refuse floats solemnly in dreamlike disassociation with wooden birds, ornamental tiles, broken pottery, and foam soaked in a solution of gelatinous ink and shadows. Some images seem foreboding, and others comic, but all invoke a hypnotic improvisational refrain asking viewers to play along and see where these pictures lead.

For years Soave has explored and massaged the dramatic narrative of his family history and it’s immigration from Italy to Canada after World War II. His interest is not in illuminating specific events but crafting the general texture of stories and the images they call up for him.  The children’s toys in the prints were literally his and the amoebic abstractions that buoy them are actually cellular structures of a congenital pulmonary condition. Because of the obscure pathology and the fog of the past he is more interested in revealing persistent patterns that makes visual and aesthetic sense and take on a life of their own. The war trauma, the family health narrative and its iconography defer to the schematic structure of a reliable post-modern alternative to conceptualism. Applying appropriation and hybridization he upends his ancestral history, absorbing the intimate and private into a more immediate narrative of his discipline as a print artist.

Soave selectively displays a sequence of objects that oscillate between post-modern pastiche and fragments of ancestral history, between conscious and unconscious intelligence, and between play and introspection. The most recurring forms are that of painted birds which foreground a proscenium of phantom-like designs derived from artifacts like illustrated manuscripts or sepulchers. Everything but the colored bubbles are pre-modern with stark juxtapositions between folk objects and classical antiquity. The prominence of the vernacular is striking, delineated in the handmade toys, and is clearly a recognition of the status of folk and primitivism within contemporary art. Toys anticipate post-modern play and establish innocence, identity, and ritual. Subsequently his most spirited and engaging works exist in stages of becoming, rather than in closure and resolution. They embrace the power of the anecdote and one’s instinct to narratize disparate events in order to mediate the world and identify oneself within a bigger picture.

Soave also incorporates the technologies of the studio press, the computer, and the labor of the print as a kind of game and zeros in on surrealist precepts about common objects and the uncanny. This posits artworks as strange, elaborate amusements that channel much of our desire to more fully inhabit things that we have little control over such as nature, technology, and history. Soave reveals the gratification, but also some of the anxiety in having one’s interior and exterior worlds unmasked, integrated, and reformed. His response to an alienating world is to produce a charismatic union of formal and conceptual traditions in which he derives not only pleasure and but a comfortable degree of personal autonomy.

Paul Krainak is an artist and art critic based in Peoria, IL, where he serves as Director and Professor of Art at Bradley University.


Reification of Remembrance: Sergio Soave and Print as Process

article by/Amelia Sargent

Sergio Soave is a master of enchantment. His serene energy, playful approach to image making, engineer-like precision and attention to detail, and strong narrative sensibility enable him to create thoughtful, intriguing, process-driven work. This latest series of work now on exhibition in China is no exception.

Soave has established a prominent place in the line of contemporary American self-publishing printmakers who have worked to expand the potential of the medium's form and function. Unlike printmakers at large print studios, who use their technical skills to realize the visions of other artists through traditional printing methods, self-publishing artists use printmaking as the primary medium to create their own art. These artists, conscious of printmaking's history as a way to share two-dimensional images with a broader audience, exploit both the visual effects of traditional printing methods and the formal and conceptual possibilities of the edition as an image with the potential for multiplicity. Many contemporary printmakers are not only masters of traditional disciplines such as etching, linocut, and woodblock printing, but also fluent in newer technologies including digital manipulation and 3-D printing, which they use to create layered, genre-shifting artwork.

Soave first encountered this process-driven approach to printmaking while studying under renegade printer Daniel Dingler as an undergraduate at the University of Windsor. He continued developing his practice in this interdisciplinary, experimental direction as an MFA candidate at West Virginia University under the guidance of Carmon Colangelo, whose influence manifests in Soave's multilayered compositions and use of digitally manipulated ephemera. Over the course of his career, Soave has become known for creating work that honors traditional printmaking values and techniques while subverting conventional ideas of how a print should function. His diverse practice has incorporated sculptural "print constructions," performance, and even musical elements. Soave has explained that he does not want his editions to be "divided and presented at several locations simultaneously. The creation of a single object from an edition or part of an edition becomes a means of restricting the setting and role for the edition."

Soave's technical prowess and visual creativity are abundantly evident. Yet it is the way he masterfully harnesses printmaking traditions and the edition's formal properties to engage with his family heritage that makes his work uniquely compelling. Born in Windsor, Ontario to a large, close-knit family of Italian immigrants, Soave grew up listening to stories of his family's former home near Monte Cassino, which was destroyed in a tragically misguided 1944 Allied bombing of the village and its 1,400 year old monastery. Their home and property reduced to rubble, Soave's family sought a new beginning in Canada, preserving their history and traditions through storytelling. The twin traumas of war and hereditary genetic conditions form a dark, ever-present backdrop to Soave's family experience. Through his artistic practice, Soave is able to visually process the stories he grew up with and which have shaped his identity. The medium of printmaking--a traditionally iterative, often narrative art form with endless possibilities for layering and manipulation--beautifully embodies the process of remembering, retelling, sharing and interpreting. Soave's complex, multilayered prints shift and blur the boundaries between past and present, conscious and subconscious, factual and fantastical.

In the body of work displayed in this exhibition, Soave has created a consistent formal structure for his editions. Each edition is a large-scale, portrait-oriented digital inkjet print, further enhanced with edge-defining hand-drawn graphite line work and etching. The images feature a backdrop of enhanced medical imagery of actual diseased cells layered with fragmented Italian architectural elements, colorful graphic clusters of elliptical dots, and scans of brightly-painted midcentury Italian wooden and tin toys, which function as character subjects within the images' singular dramas. The vibrant, childlike simplicity of the toys and the editions' consistent portrait orientation give the series a nostalgic, picture-book quality, challenged by vaguely menacing trypophobic cell clusters in the background. Soave's lush layering, ghostly echoed and distorted fragments, and large scaling draw the viewer into a disorienting, dreamlike world. The readable sourced images and simple descriptive titles ground the images in narrative familiarity, while psychotropic fragmentation and distortion pull the images back into the subconscious, echoing the way that the act of remembering itself distorts the memory, as well as the inherent psychological distance one encounters when absorbing and reinterpreting the memories of others.  Conceptual and visual clashes—pre-modern architecture and modern medical imaging; bright, crisp confetti-like circles and dark, porous organic cells; simple children's toys and ornate architectural flourishes--add to the sense of disorientation while typifying the uncomfortable clash of childlike wonder with adult anxiety.

What I find most striking about Soave's newest work is the functional parallel between the toys in the images and the interpretive nature of his creative process. Toys are essentially simpler, friendlier versions of real world objects that children can use to explore, reenact, and reinterpret what they observe of adult society. Through toys, children are able to make sense of a world that is often confusing, even frightening. Soave similarly uses his sourced imagery, and the toys in particular, as accessible, symbolic representations of people and events he wishes to process and understand. The act of constructing the visual space becomes a kind of play where he can reenact and manipulate discrete events in his past. Soave thus ingeniously gives us an intimate view less into the specific details of his personal history than into the universal psychological process of consolidation and catharsis through storytelling.

When I visited Soave's studio in the fall, I asked him how he planned to arrange the editions for the exhibition in China. Would he arrange them by the chronological order of the referenced events? By subject matter? Color or tonal values? He smiled and said that he would leave the order of the images up to the curator. In his view, the images function as discrete narratives, created to be read in any order. We as viewers will never be fully informed of the real-life moments and motivations behind the images, and that's okay. In the end, all we can do is take the bits and pieces we've been given--the hazy memories of our elders, fleeting glimpses into the lives of others--and absorb, process and interpret them in a way that makes sense to us.


Amelia Sargent is a Fulbright Research Fellow and graduate of Yale University, currently living in Dallas, TX.