Artist Q&A > Tristano di Robilant

MCASD talks with artist Tristano di Robilant, whose exhibition opens December 16 at MCASD Downtown. In the month following the opening, di Robilant will remain in San Diego as an artist in residence at MCASD, as he develops his next series.

MCASD: You have worked with a range of materials, from bronze and aluminium to ceramics and glass. How do you see these various materials and what are the qualities that attract you to working with them?

TRISTANO DI ROBILANT: I found myself working in different materials often in a serendipitous way. As one goes along one sees which material, like a new skin, fits what one is trying to do best. Materials most definitely have their strong and singular characteristics and “untranslatable” intentions that can only be expressed in that medium, on that surface, with that weight. With Cy Twombly, who was my godfather, I learned how to pour plaster into hollows dug out from the sand, revealing small sand coated sculptures. One of my first pieces was made in plaster in the late 1980s and more recently I cast the piece in white ceramic—a transmutation of material, which will be shown in San Diego.

With the encouragement of the gallerist Marilena Bonomo, I began my work with Murano glass. Blown glass as opposed to cast glass is a very different type of process. It was fascinating to tap into the millennial tradition of Murano glass blowing, in my case with the maestro Andrea Zilio. You develop your sculptural language within a set of quite stringent rules dictated by the material.

Through the years I have also worked in ceramic and bronze. My studio is now in Ripabianca in Umbria, which has a long tradition in ceramic and terracotta. Again, I enjoy the dialogue with craftspeople belonging to a long and uninterrupted tradition. In fact, my studio originated as a terracotta factory. Lately I have been working with wax, which, like clay, affords more time than working with glass. The wax is then cast into a more durable bronze shell.

MCASD: While your sculptures have been made in many sizes, could you discuss the intimate and personal scale of much of your work?

TDR: One of my first memories regarding scale and contemporary art was in my early teens in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1976, directed by Hugh Davies. I recall vividly Richard Tuttle’s artwork. It was just a small piece of plywood in the middle of the wall. The public’s reaction was at times bemused and at times verging on hostile. I was curious at how such a small sculpture could provoke such strong reactions. Outside of the pavilion, on the grass, was a string piece by Robert Irwin. The space it contained and the space surrounding it conjured in my mind a sense of scale that was new to me, vaster. I start working on a small scale because there is an immediacy to it, a closeness of gesture and thought that comes spontaneously. They often remain small though they may imply a larger dimension. Scale is not only physical but emotional, or to do with memory, where scale dissolves and mutates.

MCASD: A lot of the titles for your sculptures reveal a connection to history and literature—how do you find these sources, and how do they relate to the finished works?

TDR: Titles are often originated by a phrase taken from a book. For example, the piece I think I can see more distinctly through rain, (2011) was taken from a letter that Jane Austen wrote to her sister. I liked this notion of seeing more clearly in lower light as if there was another, maybe higher form of viewing. La Lumera (2014) is a title taken from the 4th Canto of Dante’s Inferno. The Canto is imbued in a strange suspended light and the architecture that is evoked is impressive and calmly mysterious.

MCASD: You were raised in England and Italy, but came to California to attend UC Santa Cruz. How did your time in California influence you and your work?

TDR: Arriving for the first time in California, I felt far away from Italy. I immediately appreciated its freedom and open mindedness. I particularly enjoyed following the lectures of the architectural critic and historian Reyner Banham. There were only five or six of us studying architecture of the Renaissance with Banham. The lectures were of course on the Renaissance but he would pepper them with citations on modern American industrial buildings or the relevance of temporary architecture: surfer huts or bicycle sheds. He definitely opened my eyes. He revealed to me how to view buildings differently and cities too, and in the process gave me tools on ways of seeing beyond architecture.

MCASD: You also write poems—which share a certain sensibility with your sculptures. How do you see these two practices alongside one another?

TDR: In 1986, after moving to California, I discovered that a dear friend had died quite suddenly—an early victim to the AIDS epidemic. Writing poems for the first time seemed to be the only weapon against the absurdity of death. It went hand in hand with developing an interest in sculpture. In a certain sense they are two sides of the same coin.