By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Italo Scanga’s Meta (Violin), 1985, and Meta (Guitar), 1985, in the Thompson Gallery

The late Italo Scanga, as I remember him from a meeting in Minneapolis, was a stocky guy, not too tall, whose major aesthetic revolved around long tall poles, handles, piping, tree trunks, occasionally the human form — anything that had a vertical central axis.  From this base he hung, extended, contrasted or attached in precarious balance, many other forms.  In the earlier, delightfully odd juxtapositions, most of the references were to farming, purposefully drawing from his rural beginnings in Calabria, Italy.  His installations, very popular in the early 80’s, were extensions of that focus, often spare yet elegant in the selection and interplay of forms. They contained farm implements and some surprising elements such as blown glass forms, a framed painting with Catholic iconography, barn detritus and harvested seeds or vegetables. Scanga showed one of these installations from the series entitled The Potato Famine at the Thompson Gallery (Then called Gallery One) in 1979. Throughout his career, Scanga referenced farming, nature, the human form and art world itself in his paintings and constructions.  While the early work was minimal and carefully designed, it seems Scanga began increasingly to cultivate a more spontaneous, even primitive energy that had not been in the previous installations and sculpture.  He liberally painted the surfaces of his work – the frames on the flat work and the pedestals under the sculpture – incorporating everything into the viewer’s encounter.  Stylistically, his painted surfaces drew from the Cubists and a European fluidity in representational line. Sometimes his assemblage sculptures incorporated a lot of stuff, embracing in The Metaphysical series an explosion of complex forms that were a 3-D manifestation of Cubist inspirations:  musical instruments, picture frames, multiple actual paintings, lathe-turned ornamental wood fragments from furniture or architecture, and full pieces of both small and large furniture.  An artfully placed section of a shoe, an oval frame, a rope or a stringed instrument provides an organic contour in these architectural constructions, an upside object becomes some new entity entirely.

Scanga’s Meta (Clarinet), 1985

Scanga’s life was one of major and continuous moves, each of which provided material for his art. During the years of WWII, he apprenticed to a cabinet-maker in isolated Lago, Calabria, at the “tip of the boot”. In 1939, he and his mother had made an attempt to leave Italy to join his father in the United States, but it was on the day the Allies invaded Italy, and so delayed their departure for the US until 1945.  After the war, they settled in Pennsylvania where his father worked as a laborer for the railroad.  Later, Scanga himself worked as a laborer for General Motors.  He received his art education in Michigan, in the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts and later received a BA and MA from the University of Michigan.  From these beginnings, an emphasis on the earth, the honor of Labor and a love of physically crafting materials from wood to steel and glass unfold.  His big personality was consistent with an era of post-WWII artists that had a lot of worldly experience to invest in art, and an ego and confidence that propelled them forward.

The figurative Metaphysicals have a conversation.

Scanga began his teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin and taught at many schools from RISD, to Penn State, Tyler and more, eventually settling into a longtime tenured position at the University of California, San Diego.  Major landmarks in his career were a 1973 NEA Award and his first retrospective exhibition at the Oakland Museum of Art in 1986.  He had numerous prestigious gallery shows, and mounted many projects in his beloved Italy.  He was not involved extensively in public art, but one of his few public commissions was Figure Holding the Sun in front of the San Jose Museum of Art.

After Scanga’s death in 2001, the Italo Scanga Foundation was formed to protect his work, place it in appropriate collections and further education and opportunities for artists.

From the collection of the Foundation, Thompson Gallery Director and Curator Jo Farb Hernandez selected works from the Metaphysical Series for the current exhibition at SJSU.  A few flat works accompany a big array of tall painted wood works, elevated beyond their own painted bases onto white pedestals, filling the gallery like a dense forest or a crowd of giants.  They are tree-like, figurative in many cases, with a back, front and sides, and in every case like a surrealist or cubist easel, loaded with studio props and decorated with energetic and freely painted motifs.  There is so much going on in these sculptural assemblages that the eye can go on to one new discovery after another, continuously, finding new elements and relationships.  For all the shapes and color, one always returns to the wood as a primary substance that can be carved, turned, manipulated, and serves as a strong foundation for building, having an aesthetic in its own right.

Scanga’s 1985 assemblages play architectural and organic forms off of each other.

The whole exhibition experience is one to convincingly seduce the viewer into an affinity for the art of Italo Scanga, particularly in the mid 80’s.  A lot of his European and Italian heritage can be appreciated in this body of work, along with those personal experiences and influences that thread through his entire oeuvre.  Above all the energy in the Thompson Gallery is upbeat and the forms are entertaining.

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