High on colour and hooked on form: the sculptural work of Mario Dalpra



Art is the great enabler of life …
Friedrich Nietzsche



When you walk into Mario Dalpra’s spacious, daylight-flooded studio, you think you are in another ethnicity, in another world. Myriads of sculptural beings populate the room as if from outer space, reminding you of a graffito from the early eighties on a Paris building wall: “Figures are just a virus from outer space.”


After the first impression, a feeling rapidly sets in of familiarity and alienation, of the known and unknown. Are they over-dimensional toy figures from fairy tales or comic series? Post-modern creations from biological and genetic engineering labs? Biomorphic figures from science-fiction fantasies or real aliens from outer space? All these guesses seem possible, especially if you take the titles into account, which allow a narrative access to them and demonstrate the artist’s subtle sense of humour.


You are quickly caught up as well in aspects of contemporary art: whether pop art, so-called kitsch art or post-modern blow-ups; whether the painfully realistic but highly artificial objects of a Jeff Koons, the organic form vocabulary of a George Sugarman, even faraway echoes of art brut, or the organically formed bodies of a Henry Moore – seemingly prosaic, trivial moments combine with dense figuration, which cannot be reduced to western or European references.


Mario Dalpra studied with Arnulf Rainer in a very free atmosphere at the Academy of Art in Vienna. Since the 1980s, he has been unfolding a multi-layered oeuvre in the charged field of painting, actionism, sculpture and other three-dimensional objects. This work was increasingly subject to a process of re-constitution owing to his travels in the Far East and periods of several months spent there, at first seven years in Australia, then Indonesia and from 1999/2000 India. In his paintings, drawings and sculptures, he embarked on an intensive engagement with “artistic” forms of expression from foreign cultures and ethnicities, at first with the First People of Australia, years later with traditional Indonesian and Indian arts and crafts.


He was fascinated by the dexterity, the skills and richness of colours and forms in their art; not least because of the long periods spent there, which also led to his producing a considerable part of his work in these regions, he managed to emancipate himself increasingly from the “western” vocabulary and without any bias absorb the new impressions and stimuli and integrate them into his own artistic oeuvre. We can see this as well in the precise technical execution of the sculptures, carried out with extraordinary standards of quality. The bronze casts are produced and coated with masterly skill and finished by hand with a high-gloss lacquer treatment of great proficiency.


It is the authentic experience with the intense delight in colour and diversity of forms in the cultures of the Far East – an experience which was also very personal and private since his time in India – that has been successively incorporated in his work since the nineties. Years before the hype surrounding the culture and art of the Far East during the last decade, Mario Dalpra followed the trail blazed by one of the most striking paradigmatic turnarounds in European art in the early twentieth century and which also became a substantial part of so-called “modernism”: the opening to non-European cultures and art forms. Whether Gauguin, whether cubism or the Tunisian journey of Paul Klee, they all created new dispositions in artistic self-perception with a view to the expansion and establishment of new dispositions in art.


We can doubtlessly find diverse experiments in the plastic arts with forms from consumer-society and tourism culture (meanwhile global), also with visual advertising strategies and the aesthetic forms that are commonly and rashly labelled “kitsch”. The specific strategies of transporting the greatest variety of cultural-artistic elements, symbols and signs into the works are the very characteristics that determine the basic fascination of Dalpra’s sculptures: from fusion to simple addition, from the generation of amorphous and biomorphic figurations to bodily forms tending towards abstraction, we find trans-cultural semioses that demand precise observation in order to be able recognise the visual complexity of his sculptures. Many allusions are interwoven with a great deal of verve, wit and chuckles to create human, all too human, narratives on the seemingly trivial nature of existence: these might be resourced from the iconography and symbolism of Buddhism (think of the many-armed portrayals of Buddha, or, in the erotic sphere, the many-breasted female figurations), or the iconographies of seemingly banal cultural objects of handicraft.


The great ethnologist, anthropologist and structural philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss described the non-western world as “cold” because unchanging and the western world as “hot”, because of a society based on the principle of change. We are in the middle of a process in which the last “cold” societies are being extinguished. It is the artistic discourse over the last hundred years (often in the slipstream, but often also in opposition) that has developed a sensibility for the disappearance of these “cold” societies. Mario Dalpra continues this discourse in a fitting way for the twenty-first century, without any illusion for instance about the “paradisal” such as we find in Gauguin. It’s not a matter anymore of the (geographical) discovery of the unfamiliar, but a trans-cultural and transcontinental overstepping of what is existent, the transgression of artistic perception as an option for winning new (artistic) continents and worlds – who can tell us, therefore, that the sculptural beings of Mario Dalpra are not perhaps from outer space after all, in so far that life is a dream and death an awakening out of this dream, as Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote?



Carl Aigner