The recent work of Mario Dalpra



Survival of the Fittest


A yellow jute bag stands on the floor. Stuck into it is a wooden figure, reduced to a long neck (at least this is all the viewer can see), which merges into a vague head form with gaping mouth and eyes. Someone has stuffed up the figure’s mouth, for a spherical shape can be seen gagging it inside; it is yellow with black spots, like the rest of the visible figure. You instinctively have to think of an Indian snake charmer, then again of kittens bundled into sacks and dumped on the rubbish tip. A tormented creature seems to be edging towards us, begging us for help. We find out the reason for its misery in the writing on the bag: “This sculpture is not yet ready to be shown in a museum collection”


In this work and an extensive work group, Mario Dalpra grapples with the same theme by addressing the mechanisms of museum collections, exhibitions and of course the curators who select the works for an institutional public presentation. An exhibition normally evolves in an exchange between artist and curator, but increasingly from a specific angle set by the curator, who makes a selection of works based on his or her interpretation. “The good ‘uns into the pot, the bad ‘uns into the crop” – the Cinderella principle applies as well to the curator’s selection. Dalpra’s sculpture puts on the guise of being quite modest, reduced to what is necessary to make a figure. Nevertheless, the statement is clear – anything that hasn’t made it into the exhibition is cast out and avoided like the plague.


In a second work, a wooden cart is filled with sculptures piled on top of each other uncaringly like broken-off decorations in a municipal building yard. Mario Dalpra stages situations with a gusto that pushes the art lover to the limits. Can he get away with this? Yes, he can. A fixed canon is repugnant to the artist; this is why works are just right for him that do not fit into any kind of set context. The conscious avoidance of context is one of his artistic strategies; his art is a laboratory in which practically everything is conceivable and where works that have even been branded as freaks have a right to live – a little corner can always be found for them.


“Survival of the Fittest” is also the title given to a work that faintly recalls the classical-Hellenistic Laocoon Group. Almost dancer-like with myriad extremities, the figure moves forward inexorably as in “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman”, a B-picture from the fifties by Jack Arnold. The head is too small for the body and is hollow to boot, but serves its ruthless progress. Painted in shrill metallic lacquer, the figure could also pass as the radiator emblem of an S-Class Mercedes, parked in front of a high-rise building in the Frankfurt bank quarter. Movement is a key motif in the sculptural works of Mario Dalpra. Should nothing move any longer, and “un-modern sculptures” land in the high-gloss rubbish bin, at least something moves in the head of the viewer – ideally. The figure “Ferrari Transformation” has been transmogrified completely into movement; endowed with a medley of arms and joints, it takes over the whole room. Octopus-like tentacles swing around in the air and generate a noise of speed, although the figure is rooted, fixed on two legs in a base. The whole thing is accelerated by its glossy Ferrari red; we almost hear the purring of a twelve-cylinder in its depths.


It is not in vain that Dalpra juggles with such ideas as “un-modern” and “non-compatible” – his works refuse a streamlined classification into the art market, insist obstinately on independence and demand their right to life, in the studio and even more in the museum. It is often the title that initially gives us a hint, which however immediately misleads or touches only one level of the work. A strongly ironic component is innate in them, a visual joke, yet it is never obvious, but tends to jump at viewers from behind, should they dare turn their backs to the work. Dalpra’s works always have at least a double meaning; they are full of allusions and difficult to grasp. Whenever we grapple with them with our habitual conceptual approach, they wriggle snake-like out of our grasp only to snap at our heels when we turn our backs to them.


The sculptures owe their existence to many of the artist’s influences and autobiographical topographies. We can expect cultural specifications from them just as little as unambiguous statements – after all, art raises questions and doesn’t answer them. Actually, Dalpra’s figures want to be perceived as living beings; in all their complexity, with all their contradictions, beauties and ugliness. Only the sum of these parts makes up a whole. They stand there like idols, seemingly unapproachable with their glossy surfaces, mysterious and full of life.



I feel sense in what I do



We approach the artist through his work. Just like his art, he is completely committed to different cultures. That he lives and works in such fundamentally different countries as Austria and India doesn’t disconcert us when looking at at his work. And the fact that he doesn’t only work as a sculptor, but has also made a name as a painter, draughtsman, musician, film and performance artist doesn’t really surprise us. His multifaceted talents enable him to create world art in the best sense, art that is at home everywhere in the world. In the age of globalisation his works occupy a terrain that has been accessed only very recently.


His paintings are scarcely easier to grasp than his sculptures, and this has to be seen as a compliment. At first glance, many works seem like woodcuts – mostly in resolute monochrome and committed purely to the power of the line. No planarity, no painterly element is permitted to enter these pictures. The restriction to this linear structure is, however, not a hindrance; on the contrary. Almost as in an illustrated broadsheet (though more chaotic, or better: simultaneous), human figures, fauna, flora and texts fight their way through; in a mighty all-over complex they tell stories the viewer has to think out for himself. In his paintings, too, we find life in all its abundance, the real, the fantastic, the inconceivable and the dreamlike. As in a dream the narrative strands become superimposed and the viewer is unexpectedly confronted with the task of disentangling these Ariadne threads. It is only natural we should come up against a dead end as in the labyrinth, endless offshoots, and it is more than uncertain that there is a way out. Astonishingly, the paintings convey a depth, but removed from the visual world of central perspective. Dalpra’s pictorial spaces have more affinity to medieval space-time constructions, in which everything happens at the same time. We instinctively take a few steps back when confronted with the abundance of visual stimuli; we try to win insight into them before we are sucked in. As in a tapestry, there is no beginning and no end, and if you haven’t seen enough you simply start all over again at the beginning. The trouble is, the story that is now told is completely different.


In other works a different kind of painting comes into play. They show pastose areas and an energetic use of colour; figurations are developed, an eruptive painting action and yet again text fragments and quotations. The colour areas are placed like islands next to and over each other, sometimes penetrating each other and thus forming a scenic foil for the visual narrative. Comic-type elements alternate with seemingly childlike scribbles and expressionistically running paint. Dalpra’s pictures burst with narrative energy. The connection of image and text is one of the characteristics of his visual narrative. The texts, textual fragments or even single words are placed in the picture apparently without any relationship between them. They function on the one hand as part of the visual syntax, form elements of the picture along with the colour areas and the figuration, and on the other hand extend the picture onto a linguistic level, which points into the picture but doesn’t necessarily clarify a context.


There is no denying that Mario Dalpra has forged his way towards wholly inimitable and unique powers of expression and visual imagery, and this applies to his other areas of work such as sculpture, film and performance. His works are marked by the uttermost complexity and multi-layered significance. They encounter us like narratives in hieroglyphics, full of the joys of story-telling, full of unexpected twists and surprises, certainly understandable, but not necessarily decipherable in individual details. And this is what is so marvellous about this work: we are privileged to discover the artist’s universe in it, and in the end perhaps rediscover ourselves there as well.



Martin Stather