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Stefania Orrù. Into the world

by Alessandra Redaelli

There are artists who tell stories: skillful narrators capable of hypnotizing us, offering us reality through their painted or sculpted words. There are artists who – obsessively – choose to reveal themselves, with an absolute need for self-reference which seems to scream out to the world: “Love me!”. And then there are artists who use themselves and their tiring personal everyday experience of life to tell us about the world and, somehow, about ourselves. Stefania Orrù belongs to the third category. Her story unfolds clearly, resplendent and yet complex, tiring, suffered, work by work, portrait by portrait. Clearly – because it enters us immediately, at first glance: it hypnotizes us and accompanies us inside our awareness. We read a sense of absoluteness and of truth that leaves us happy and amazed. Suffered – because once it has inexorably involved us, we realize that the reading is anything but simple. As if we were to relive, in using it and making it our own, the long and complex process that the artist has experienced in creating it. As if a transference comparable to that created in a psychoanalytical relationship were to be formed between her and us. Stefania Orrù is an intense woman and artist. Attractive, with soft, even features, characterized by an ancient, primordial wisdom. It is true that she made independent decisions very early on in life. It is true that she decided to take charge of her life and follow her dreams when she was little more than a girl, but her approach to the world is, nevertheless, disarming. Even before we come to the “hot” matter of her work, we sense that we are entering a dense and complex terrain. Used to spending long periods of time on her own, she has matured a view of reality which is both detached and extremely deep; never cynical, attentive and loving, capable of surprising and of holding judgement – waiting to understand – as befits men and women of wisdom. She is the elder sister you would like to have by your side, yet at the same time, you feel like you want to protect her against the pitfalls of a life too chaotic and dirty for a soul as bright as hers. Bright is the perfect word. It brings us to touch the heart of her work. Which is not “work” as we usually mean it when talking about the path of an artist, made up of series, evolutions, key moments, rethinks, stoppages and sudden solutions. Obviously, all of this has taken place in Stefania Orrù’s story, but what we read, sharp and implacable, above and beyond everything else, is a journey. Stefania set out on this journey when, for the first time, she began handling art, when she encountered the physical joy of rough materials and plaster, which she has never put aside, having set herself a precise target: the truth. A spiritual journey, even before becoming artistic. An essential inner need which she has succeeded in transforming into something to sha- re with the world. And for us too, this sharing is a spiritual and emotional experience before anything else. The first time I actually saw Stefania’s works close up, I had yet to meet her. The photographs I had already seen had aroused my curiosity, but despite being the most excellent shots, I hadn’t the faintest idea of how much explosive power those faces would transmit when seen live. I had also read about her and was fascinated by her story, but nothing had prepared me for what I would feel. A personal show of her works was being held at the “Opera del Duomo” Museum in Prato and her faces opened up suddenly, assertively and absolutely under the frescoed ceilings. There was no end to the mystical poetry of those places. The rough, cracked and rugged matter from which the faces emerged in a triumph of light see- med to be made of the same stone from which the images of saints and the Madonna looked out. The face whose hair stood up in the wind like a flame was that of a timeless young girl, perhaps a playmate of those who had walked through those rooms while they were being frescoed. At that time I knew nothing about these works, yet their immediate intensity struck my heart. They looked into my eyes, seeking me out, and what they sent me was a message of luminous serenity; souls speaking to my own. Then I met Stefania, and what had been little more than a sensation became a certainty: all those faces, all those profiles, all those eyes that stared into mine and even those that shyly lowered their lids, were Her. She was her own muse, her own privileged territory of analysis. She needed nothing else: she had taken the face she knew better than any other and that was easiest to reach–herown–andhadmadeither way of telling the story of the world. Hers and that of the others.

It is quite common for artists – particularly women – to choose self-portraits as their medium of expression. Women come from thousands of years of segregation, from roles in which they have taken care of others and from solitude. Men have been associated with war and social affairs, and women with the family. The decades – because this is what we are talking about – of self-awareness that are behind women are still not enough to make them look explicitly outwards. Naturally there is more than just this. Women “are” inside: mother and womb, and with this womb they communicate much more deeply than with words. But usually, when female artists tell their story through self-portraits, they do so by structuring emotional stories, narrating their frustrations and their joys, their insecurities and their triumphs, their bodies, love, eroticism, suffering and sickness. Conversely, Stefania Orrù’s “self-portraits” (and in this case inverted commas are mandatory, because they cannot really be defined as such) are actually a totally original species. That face and then that body are shape: a pretext for talking about man as a human being, as mankind.

The story she tells us is very similar, in lots of ways, to myth, because it is a primordial story of order and chaos, a story of creation and birth. A coming into the world – or, as specifically befits this case – a coming into the light, slow and suffered, like the labour before giving birth. And the hard, rough, dusty material chosen by Stefania, so paradoxically in contrast with all that resplendent light, is inseparable from the message it offers us. It is a perfect synthesis between ancient and modern techniques, her own, which at first glance makes us think of the rough and stony consistency of a fresco. Canvas lain on a board, spread with a mixture of scagliola and marble dust, in finer and finer layers, already knowing what the base structure of the painting will be and proceeding accordingly to build up areas of light and shade, blurring contours, creating mists, scratches and cracks. And then again, finishing off with a brush, a spatula or a blade. A long job which requires an almost endless series of steps, alternating with long pauses, with works proceeding alongside each other and then stopping, together with the artists, like serious and curious guests. “When I am in my studio, with my works in progress all around me, I feel like they are looking at me”, says the artist. And it is a feeling that the spectator understands immediately, because that material in which flashes of light and depths of darkness swirl is alive and mobile, and it draws you in. It is a material that never forgives.

And while Stefania’s journey continues inexorably towards the truth, the subjects of her works very slowly experience a change. If they were once mostly evocative and assertive close-ups, like icons, where sha- pe was formed by clots of material which lost its contours, the works on show today represent a new stretch of road. In a slow, age-old movement, like the shifting continents, light and darkness begin to separate. They are two antithetic principles, affirmation and negation, not necessarily good and evil: this is not the message that the artist wants to send us, but for there to be birth, there has to be distinction, separation. Hence the light is condensed into an increasingly clear and legible form, while darkness thickens all around, deep and unfathomable, like never before. The powder that surrounds the faces and bodies like the tail of a comet suggests movement, the unstoppable thrust towards a purpose, energy restrained for so long which is exploding in that very moment. The compositional approach surprises us with its originality, with the figures that seem to flutter in flight, upheld and carried by that energy. Sometimes they are warrior angels, or female pagan saints, wrapped in drapes that imprison them, but only just for a moment, because the gesture is one of liberation, and it is so evident that you almost want to reach out your hand and take those bandages apart to speed up the process. Around the body – with its soft round shoulder and pale back – the dust looks like a flame, as though the contours were burning with incandescent light, and in that mysterious trail we sense how much our every action, even our every thought, is inextricably linked to everything around us. There is no interruption between the body and the material that has generated it, in the same way that there is no interruption between us and others, the world, nature, the sky, God. More defined than the close ups that date a little further back, these figures are characterized by facial details. They look like full, tangible volumes, while the fabric – pale, sparkling light like a blanket of snow – comes together in close, soft folds which design the body. Yet unlike the faces that come before them, it seems that it would take nothing to take them apart, as though the mere extension of a hand would enable us to lose them once more in the darkness from which they come.

The fascination is complete. The feeling that this being, this entity of beautiful female forms which represents us all, has come into the world, is evident in the works in which the background begins to take shape. There seems to be an albeit vague di- vision between earth and sky. Like in creation. The figure no longer seems to flutter in emptiness, but rests on the ground, or even lies down. It doesn’t sleep, but nor is it awake: it is in this intermediate phase that precedes being. This is, perhaps, the birth of the soul, which thus appears naked and defenceless, while the fabric that enveloped it before, imprisoning it, is slowly falling loose, disintegrating in the darkness, abandoned prison or placenta. Or the figure is standing straight, its back toward us. As though it had already begun to walk away. Its feet planted solidly on the ground.

Birth, we said, is complete. And we sense this completeness, this solar awareness, in the large face that Stefania Orrù offers us. A face that is close, in terms of iconography, to the works of the previous series, but that differentiates itself through a completeness which could not be achieved before. The face is no longer an aggregation of luminous material in opposition to darkness, but is light alone, pure light. The light now comes from within. It is the light of wisdom and of awareness, achieved via a tiring, yet wonderful and essential path. It is the truth. Stefania has reached it and painted it. For us.

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