Laura Pugno. Nature as an Atelier
by Manuela Pacella
In the nineteenth century, especially during English Romanticism and then with French Realism and Impressionism, outdoor painting became a real synonym for "authenticity", at least since the painters of the so-called Barbizon school, settling near the forest of Fontainebleau, became the leaders not only of the careful observation of nature, but of the contrasts of light and shadow, as well as of the chromatic variations determined by the passage of time. The en plein air painting has been charged with such a powerful mythology that even today, for the most fierce and conservative landscape painters – certainly in Italy and among the heirs of academic painting of the early twentieth century – is considered an essential and indispensable prerequisite.
Laura Pugno with the work on her back, Landscape behind you, 2011-2012.
However, the art history is obviously filled of artworks created outdoors that use nature and the landscape as their own favourite palette, at least ever since the rock paintings whose representations were nothing more than the depiction of a sound phenomenon at the time inexplicable as the echo, which was being attributed animistic properties.
Art history books are filled with examples of Land Art artists or solitary walking performers. We are surrounded by many generations of artists interested in using nature, not so much as an expression of a romantic or sublime relationship with it, but rather as a starting point for a critique of a certain anthropocentric vision of the world.
Among these artists, is the Italian Laura Pugno. Born in the heart of the Piedmontese mountains, in Trivero in 1975, she then moved to Turin to follow the Academy of Fine Arts of the city, where the artist naturally developed a strong passion for the mountainous landscape she grew up with. Passionate about drawing and painting since she was a child, Pugno has gradually been able to use the tools of visual art to provide us with visions of the landscape that undermine those of art history or, at least, that question them through methods of erasure and subtraction. Laura Pugno, Primati, installation view at Saussurea Alpine Botanical Garden, 2018.
This is how the artist defines her practice:
“I am interested in a critique of the traditional vision. I do so by analysing the way in which humans establish relationships with the natural environment under the influence of mass cultural events. In recent years I have been investigating the sociological and cultural factors that have most influenced the emotions that humans live in everyday life and in turn impact on their perception of the world. My aim is to create artworks that offer an alternative view of the reality, highlighting these conditionings and offering a sort of evasion from cultural rules.
Over the last few years I have also analysed the limits deriving from the domination of sight over all the other senses, moving towards actions that renounce vision in favour of a primitive sense such as touch. This method is what I call ‘the liberation of the parts’. I am convinced that there may be personal ways of being in the world, in respect of that delicate balance between what we project on the observed subject and what it really is.”
Laura Pugno, Morphogenesis / Mantegna, 2016, engraving printed on plaster, 35x50x4cm.
Regarding the stereotyped and cultural vision of the landscape represented in art, some works by Pugno are very important: the Morphogenesis series, one dedicated to Dürer (2015) and another one to Mantegna (2016). These are engravings printed on plaster, where the style of both artists is chosen as an example of how the perception of reality and its representation are always evolving; are evidence of how visual culture has changed over time. Mantegna, for instance, never preferred the landscape as the only subject of his work and Pugno decided to create a single image by extrapolating portions from the backgrounds of his paintings. By engraving this "landscape of Mantegna" on a zinc plate, then transferred with a new technique on the plaster, the artist has let the corrosive action in the printing process to erase some parts randomly.
The action of erasure is central to a series of works (at least from What Hannibal could not see of 2012) where this practice is made explicit through the use of sandpaper directly on prints of landscapes photographed by the artist who then intervenes manually on the edges, on the borders, blurring a too fixed vision – which still follows the linear Renaissance perspective, among the most mathematical visions of reality that delude man to be at the centre of the world.
Laura Pugno, What Hannibal could not see 01, 2012, abrasion on digital print, 61x46cm. Courtesy of the artist.
In this way Pugno reveals the technical part of her art: “I often find myself using different media: from drawing to engraving, from sculpture to videos. I also use photography, a massively expressive media that, better than others, lends itself to critical discourse around the vision. I use photography not as an expressive media in itself, but as a way to obtain an image that is as ‘neutral and objective’ as possible, on which to intervene with manual or mechanical alterations. In doing so the result becomes a unique artwork.
One of the techniques I use most is a process that has to do with deletions, with the decision of what and how much to show to the observer. What fascinates me is that the complexity of each image is only partially returned as a recognizable detail, which is then questioned.”
Shots of the studio of Laura Pugno in Turin (IT), 2019
Laura Pugno's studio is situated just a few steps from Turin central station. The artist tells us: "It is a former laboratory converted over the years into a home-studio through the creation of different environments so you can study and work, but also cook and – why not, do the gardening.” The area she prefers is in fact that of the inner courtyard where many plants go to shade the entrance from the back, as if to give her a little daily contact with her beloved nature. The main work environment, the real studio where the artist sculpts, assembles frames for her photographs, creates pedestals and experiments, is the one that faces the road. Here, on the way in, it is possible to notice not only the two large windows that provide light to the interior, but also a detail that indicates a significant belonging for the artist; a logo that unites her name initials with those of her husband, who is a graphic designer and shares her studio space.
Pugno wants to underline that she has two places of work, two laboratories. In addition to the city studio, which is dedicated to the first part of her method i.e. reading, studying and researching – and the terminal part that is, the finishing – the main laboratory is "the landscape, in the wide sense."
Laura Pugno working at Moto per luogo, 2018 Laura Pugno, Moto per luogo (2018) installed at Alberto Peola, Turin, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
A quite visible example of her working at high altitude and intervening "in the nature" is the photographic series Moto per luogo of 2018, where the idea of cancellation above-mentioned becomes even more striking. This time the artist does not use a tool like sandpaper, but the abrasion is caused by Pugno’s body itself: after having photographed several places in Piedmont and printed the images on large aluminium sheets, the artist returns to the same places and abrades each photograph by the direct contact with the snow, as she descends the mountain. Laura Pugno, A futura memoria 02, 2018, jesmonite, 15x21x12 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Laura Pugno, A Futura Memoria, installation view of the exhibition Under Water at Filatoio Caraglio, Caraglio (IT) 2019.
The need to work directly in nature is certainly more present in recent years, as the latest works revolve around the desire to 'stop the snow': “My research can very often lead me in action in the natural landscape in search of subjects to photograph, rather than to create sculptural artefacts, as was the case in the past year. The choice of a sculptural medium was inevitable, when I decided to ‘capture’ the shape of the snow. A sui generis form, since it is composed of ice crystals interspersed with air spaces, something very simple, but infinitely different from one case to another. Developing from these experiments, the artwork series A futura memoria (For Future Memory) was born – an ‘archive’ of snow, collected at different altitudes, and temperatures.
With the same approach, I made a series of ‘snow surface paints’, where I captured the infinite diversity of snow crystals, just fallen from the sky and inspired by the American photographer Wilson Bentley, whose images have enriched the imaginary of the winter of all of us.” An example of Laura Pugno working with the snow. Laura Pugno working at Omaggio a Wilson Bentley, 2018 Laura Pugno, Omaggio a Wilson Bentley 14, 2018, pigment and snow on paper, 70x50 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
The series of white sculptures A futura memoria is the result of the union of snow and jesmonite (water-based acrylic system). Nature and artifice combine to create a shape of the invisible: the casts of something that not only melts seasonally, but risks never returning. For this reason the artist defines it as an archive for a future memory.
The same is true for the canvases and papers titled Omaggio a Wilson Bentley (Tribute to Wilson Bentley), where there is a direct reference to the photographic process; in order to imprint the image of snow on paper or on canvas, Pugno had to wait for the snow she had coloured to melt naturally.
Laura Pugno truly thinks she is in a privileged position in being able to do what she does, also because she is surrounded by people who support her, from her parents to today by curators, gallerists and collectors who often enable her to realize ideas that are sometimes a bit “crazy”.
At the very beginning of her career, an important experience was the close relationships with other artists. She was part of an artistic collective – Progetto Diogene in Turin – which was in a certain period a point of reference for many artists and art practitioners in Italy and abroad.
“It is very important to talk with other artists, to create a dialogue with them and ask suggestions about the work we are doing; it is far better to talk with them than with curators or gallerists as the connection is direct”, she says. She urges the younger generation of artists to communicate with their colleagues – and, she adds, “it is essential “to have immeasurable passion.” This has been the best advice ever given to her and Pugno wants to impart this key insight to others.
This reminds me of the best advice ever given to me as a young art historian under Professor Enrico Crispolti. At the age of 74, with his blue eyes, full of energy and light, he said to me: “Do not forget to enjoy what you do – only when you feel that that sensation is fading away it is time to worry.”
Paul Devereux, Ears & Years: Aspects of Caoustics and Intentionality in Antiquity
, in Chris Scarre & Graeme Lawson, Archaeoacustics
, McDonald Institute for Archaelogical Research, University of Cambridge, 2006, pp. 31-39.