A Conversation with Marco Palli, V.2

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 6, 2020

Marco Palli, a New York-based sculptor from Venezuela, opened an exhibition of new work at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture (NYSS) last week. The show honors the Larry Einbender Travel Award, which sponsored his anthropological research in Europe last fall. As a friend and colleague who often writes on the subject, he graciously agreed to meet in the gallery before the opening. I sat down with Marco to find out why “The Origin of Sculpture,” the title of this body of work, seems so dramatically different than what has recently been on view in New York, Malaga, Spain, and Kent, Connecticut.

Peggy Roalf: Marco, you have stated that your purpose in visiting Stonehenge, and studying prehistoric sites in Europe, was to uncover the origins of sculpture. What did you discover that had the most immediate effects on your own practice in the 3D? 

Marco Palli: I discovered how great our ancestors were: they were driven, intelligent and they got things done. The reasons why they were motivated may be controversial, but their intelligence is absolute. No one is questioning what they have achieved. How many of us will have done something that will last four thousand years? 

What made me connect with the Stonehenge monument is the clarity in which the stones struggle to stand, and how throughout the years the monument has gotten help to continue to do so. I comment on this because my own ability to observe is directly proportional to what I know about. Most of my experience is about a struggle in which for years I have not been able to stand on my own two feet—as an independent self-sufficient individual. I am grateful for all the help I have had to keep me standing; but until now I have always felt embarrassed for needing help. Now, thanks to experiencing Stonehenge, I have changed my mind. I am proud to belong to a community that cares about one another’s ability to stand. I have realized that there is little point in being an “obelisk”. The best way of standing is in a circle where we stand with the support of the others—where the individual’s success is the success of all. 

PR: Ceremonial, ritualistic practices—honoring the dead, celebrating life, for example—are central to the human desire to create monumental structures, megaliths, in architectural settings. Did you come away from those studies with any clues as to why this seems to be so difficult to envision and to execute  in contemporary societies?

MP: If you mean “Why was/is life/death so important in the past and now it seems not to be?” I can only attribute this to the Internet. In the past, when grandma died, that was the end of her cakes, lasagna, home remedies, and much more. When grandpa died, we would miss his expertise in fixing everything, his rules, experience protecting the family, and the like. They were the source of knowledge and wisdom, and they provided wellbeing. When experienced people, call them leaders, kings, or simply parents were gone, the loss was great. 

Today, we just need to type “How to” on the browser (and fill the blanks) to get a variety of options from all around the globe. Our grandparents, and their values are obsolete, therefore devalued. Even our parents are becoming obsolete. I know these hundreds-of-thousand-years-old monuments had a purpose, but I am putting all that speculation to the side for a moment and giving these objects the chance to place on them my own reality, and that is what I understand as “The Origin of Sculpture.” I want to highlight that I did research as far back as possible in history and pre-history,  yet having done that, I came to realize that the origin of sculpture that matters to me does not relate to the most ancient or the very first sculpture ever made (if it still existed), but the place in a person’s mind/heart that makes that person excited about an object.

PR: On your visits to prehistoric sites—Stonehenge, The Altamira Cave Replica in Madrid—what did you find, in terms of a remaining human presence of those who built these places?

MP: I found supporting evidence that we depict the cave dwellers as animals, barbarians if you like, as if we have come a really long way in becoming “the sophisticated humans” that we are today. Well, generalizing is a common mistake. As I grow, I have come to realize that the ignorant confuses wisdom with ignorance but the wise can tell the difference. Perhaps we are less intelligent than ever, but we feel like we are really smart. Apocalypse today is a smartphone out of juice. I have found that we have access to information, but we have lost the drive to use it correctly. We are spoiled, we don’t understand history, we are entitled yet we are miserable, and we do not know how to live. Yet, if the apocalypse happens, as soon as we enter “survival mode” we will amaze ourselves with the things we are capable of doing, and that  we owe to our ancestors.

PR: After visiting your exhibition at the NYSS, I felt as if there is a sense of mystery, especially in the wood pieces, that I feel might come from the way in which you have dematerialized the cypress.

The condition of the edges, for example in the piece here [left] is so like the feathered clay edges in the Strongholds that you showed last February. Likewise, in the Trilithon [above], which is a highly abstracted version of [or: progression from] the Trilithons you were making just a couple of months ago [above left; photo: © Peggy Roalf]. Could you speak about your thought process and the physical manifestation of your ideas on this? 

MP: I am delighted about two things: one, that you took the time to experience the work, and two, that you have experienced earlier works to the extent that you can appreciate subtle characteristics in the different bodies of work. I don’t think I have dematerialized the cypress. I did appropriate them in the same way Lucio Fontana appropriated the stretched canvas before he slashed it open. I know that many people understand different things when they use the word “dematerializing” but having a background in science, I can say that the materiality in my work is the foundation of the explorations I engage in. 

The works made with cypress are the result of an exhaustive selection from many hundreds  of found cypress roots. I only appropriated the ones that met the qualities I am after. The cut that I made to level the bottom of each work is almost the only edit I did to the roots (and perhaps the insertion of a screw here and there). Think of that cut as “the tape that holds the banana on the wall.”

Each of these roots reflect a great deal of what is in me, and I am testing the possibility that this result is not my personal impression, but a universal condition/truth. For instance, the icon, “Madonna and Child”, perhaps the most painted and sculpted subject of all time, is in this installation. It won’t take you long to find that icon here [below]. This is real, and it is material.

PR: What were you involved with immediately prior to creating this new body of work? 

MP: There are many different ideas developing simultaneously in my work and process, although the progression is not necessarily chronological. There is some sense of harmony and it is unequivocally self-supporting. As if they are ideas that stand together, as in Stonehenge, rather than separate isolated obelisks.

The New Herd of Thoughts” (TNHT), where the Strongholds [below; photo: © Peggy Roalf] were exhibited for the first time in 2019, resulted from a process that came about through personal reflection, when I gradually arrived at the conclusion that “experience” is the story performed by any material, and it is “perpetual” (meaning ongoing, rather than permanent). This is the law of the universe; it is nature. I established that physical power is directly related to intellectual power, which I believe to be also true in reverse, as I shared my intellectual achievements in that exhibition via the “thoughts” on display. Because those material objects have the physical power to touch one back (in reaction to one’s own touch on them), they can also touch one’s mind. 

The Strongholds embodied the fragility of a baby. Inexplicably, I felt the need to help the “baby” stand (perhaps influenced by circumstances that had inspired both my previous and later bodies of work). At the time, I had just begun to accept that things can be allowed to be what they are, and we don’t have to impose meaning, narrative, allegory, and/or the like to everything we do.

I began to enjoy questions like: “What is it? “What is it doing? Rather than “what does it represent? Or “what is does it seem to be doing? The Strongholds were standing, they couldn’t pretend or seem to; the honesty and simplicity of them is pure/clear. And I think it is worth reiterating: “Those pieces do not represent the ability to stand, they were/are standing.”

“The Origin of Sculpture” is a body of work that both “is supported by” and “supports back” the TNHT. The result of exposing myself to some of the greatest museums in Europe, which allowed me to closely study vast amounts of artworks, helped me simplify my questions to the following: “Why do we do/make this/sculpture?” Evidently we have put, and keep putting, a great deal of energy and resources into producing art. Through many months of questioning, the answers have become simpler and simple—and the simpler it gets, the more charged with truth it feels.

PR: In “The Origin of Sculpture”, I sense that you conjure up a world of silence, perhaps the island of Atlantis in prehistory, where a young tribe is creating megaliths to celebrate life, to honor their ancestors. Can you speak to this idea of silence—something that many people today almost never experience? And how it inflected your process in making these pieces? 

MP: There is a lovely waterfall in Orquevaux,  France, where I spent two weeks in residence last December. The sound filled my head until I got used to it—the very same way I got used to sirens in the city. There is no silence. For me, the only thing comparable to “silence” is “not paying attention.” And this brings me back to my earlier work, “Listen With Your Eyes” (2010), from which I learned that there is a vast conceptual abyss between “hearing” and “listening”. 

I can only think of one way of answering your question. The simplest way I can put it is the following: To me, silence is being horizontal, meaning dead. Where to be standing is to enjoy Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” being performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and even then… people will cough, sneeze, and comment during the performance, a reminder that there is no heaven, and hell is, indeed, “other people.” [Laughter]

I dare to say that if you feel the silence in that piece, it is because you are connecting with the Origin of Sculpture within you, and for that I am glad, because your testimony proves that this particular work contains the power to ignite the necessary excitement to elevate the viewer’s mind. 

PR: In the show, there is a piece [at top of page] that is hosting plant life that is utterly haunting...speak about this one please? 

MP: I think that it is the norm for all living creatures to fear the unknown. We have very limited access to works of art that are actually alive, but they find a place in the art world more often than we think. The “art market”—not to be confuse with the “art world”, is repulsed by the idea of something alive, perhaps because it could decay, become ugly, perish and be gone. Who would buy something like that? Well, I don’t know for how long the small plant life on that cypress root will be able to last but all I hope is that the “thoughts” the piece has to offer last and transcend the terms of the market. 

The cypress roots are remainders of actual cypress trees that were ripped out of the earth for timber. We are talking about cypress trees that took hundreds of years to grow to their glory. Very well, these organic forms that I selected, appropriated, were doomed already to dematerialize, and here I feel comfortable using this word, because, a cypress tree cannot grow out of these roots. Imagine that someone has been murdered and the toes were left on the ground. And that is haunting indeed. I opened the exhibition stating that the work explores the object as a mirror, where one can see what one already knows. And when I see what we are doing to this planet, I often see in the reflection of humankind a monster. 

PR: Sculpture—in my view, at least—is the precursor of time-based art in the sense that it must be seen by a viewer in motion and can only be appreciated through interacting with a work in all of its parts, over time.

MP: All art demands interaction that will consume time; that is a toll that every viewer, or rather percipient, must pay. Ask: “What is sculpture to Marco Palli?” Well, sculpture is everything to me. It is the bridge between the material and the mind. Sculpture is an open door, actually, a portal, that elevates my existence. It could be a simple rock I have picked up from the sidewalk on Mercer Street, but the excitement the object produces is often in a realm without words. This is why it is always hard to articulate what I mean for the purpose of this conversation, yet that  (lack of words) is how I know what sculpture is, and that definition of sculpture that you articulated—in your view, is something I feel obligated to challenge.

PR: Continuing along the lines of what you just said, would you please walk me through one of the pieces in the show?

MP: I am usually unwilling to express with words my vision about an individual piece, because my learning experience with it continues beyond the moment when I decided to leave it alone. However, I can elaborate on one piece to manifest the power embodied in sculpture for the purpose of clarifying what I meant before: The piece labeled “11 [right] may be easy to overlook. It is a block of granite. I have gotten humorous feedback like “anyone can do that, a quick walk to SoHo would do to find a loose Belgian block, stressing that this 19th-century curbstone would at least have some historic value.” And that joke really made me laugh. Funny, but every joke has some truth in it. And in that truth, we know how the artwork can be a mirror. 

To me, this piece is a living poem. The block is the result of six powerful blasts that split the mother stone in the quarry, separating forever the piece of granite that now stands on a plinth, far away from the place where it was resting for millions of years. Every face of the stone is actually its weakest part, as in fact, it is the place where the block broke  free. The irregular natural surface of each face has attributes that make it hard for me to look away, and it was hard to decide which side to give up to the cutting disk in favor of helping the block to stand vertically on its own. 

Imposing my will on the found, yet chosen and appropriated granite block, I proceeded to cut the stone, perhaps my most significant physical intervention. There was a lesson for me to learn: as if by chance and without design, I needed to witness that “in losing one might win”: as the stone became smaller it gained, in exchange, the ability to stand. In the picture frame hanging behind the stone, one can find the offcut from the process of cutting the block. This fragment of the granite block is bonded to paper: not standing, but suspended. It is a reminder of the power of the bond between two elements such as paper and stone, in agreement with the concept of marriage: where two fundamentally different participants become better by espousing one another. Yes, it is nice to stand on our own two feet, but it is nice, perhaps even better, to bond with those who make us better. 

All these thoughts may have not been spoken with characteristics of a written poem (with poetry rules if there are any) but they have empowered me to explore, to discover and to reaffirm: that attitude and logic are the main drivers of decisions, and evolution is the path made, one decision after the other. 

We choose what we see; we see who we are.

Marco Palli | The Origin of Sculpture, continues through Friday, February 7 at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. 8 West 8th Street, NY, NY Info  All photos © copyright 2020 and courtesy Marco Palli except as noted.

Marco Palli  is a classically trained sculptor based in New York City who has exhibited works in marble, clay, aluminum, steel and other media. Works in his current exhibition, “The Origin of Sculpture”, were realized with the support of the Larry Einbender Travel Award, granted by The New York Studio School. He holds Master of Fine Arts degrees in Sculpture from both the New York Academy of Art and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, an MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management in New York, and a BS in Civil Engineering from Universidad Nacional Experimental de la Fuerza Armada (UNEFA), in Caracas. His work has been exhibited internationally, earned several awards, and has become part of several private collections including the Sir Elton John Photography Collection. In addition to his artistic works, he has assisted medical examiners and law enforcement agencies by engaging in forensic facial reconstruction of the skulls of long-unidentified deceased persons. His work in this area has been profiled by national and international media including The New York Times, The Financial Times, CNN and the BBC Worldwide. He occasionally writes commentary and criticism on sculpture for  DART: Design Arts Daily.  palli-conversation @marco.palli roalf.dart.interview sculpture2019.19 PRinterview2018