Is young Belgian artist Renato Nicolodi (born 1980, Brussels) one of the most exciting new sculptors to have emerged in recent years?
A hefty supposition, perhaps, but the more we see of his work, the more gripping it becomes.
Nicolodi creates starkly imposing architectural fantasies in concrete - often as scale models or 3D visualisations, but increasingly as full-sized buildings or environments.
Characterised by mathematical precision and systematic attention to purity of line, Nicolodi's works are informed by precedents from both the classical and modernist canons.
What chiefly differentiates his designs from these referents, however, is a lack of obvious function. There is no evident purpose to his works and their ambiguity is perplexing.
Sweeping flights of stairs - a recurrent motif - operate less as logical pedestrian routes than visual bridges between the various planes of his constructions. Their dominant presence carries overtones of Piranesi's famously oppressive 'Carceri', or even the impossible constructs of Escher. Yet they also serve as visual guides, leading the viewer into the depths of the model or building towards what Nicolodi terms a 'dark space'.
This uncertain place can take on various forms, from a shadowy colonnade to (more often) a single portal within which, as Nicolodi says, " ... nothing can be observed except the darkness itself."
Among the variations of light and shade that play across the surfaces of Nicolodi's sculptures, this point alone provides an instance of absolute blackness, a void onto which viewers must project their own meaning: "The spectator cannot physically enter the dark space, so he is invited to approach this space mentally."
While Nicolodi stresses the autonomy of individual experience, disturbing conclusions are difficult to avoid. For a start, the concrete monumentality of his work evokes uncomfortable comparison with the grand architectural propaganda embraced by Hitler or Mussolini.
And in the tellingly titled Oblivio I (2008) (left), the dark space at the centre of this streamlined though ultimately bunker-like structure consists of a deep hole hewn into the ground; a forbidding space inescapably evocative of the dungeon or grave; an entrance to the underworld.
If a place of no illumination provides the absolute focus of Nicolodi's architecture-as-metaphor, it's hard not to see this as a heart of darkness, an obvious allusion to the blackest recesses of the human psyche. In such a reading, the balanced lines of Nicolodi's rational architectures always lead to an inverse, an irrational, imbalanced kernel of chaos.
Nevertheless, Nicolodi's sculpture always evades definitive conclusion. His stylistic references to the classical canon clearly extend far beyond appropriation by 20th century fascism, encompassing the achievements of its ancient origins as well as the visionary designs of 18th-century neoclassicists such as Etienne-Louis BoullŽe and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.
His frequent recourse to structures reminiscent of the arena or temple (tropes which also occur particularly in the work of Ledoux) can be seen in a spiritual or pedagogical light. Additional allusions to 20th-century architects such as Le Corbusier reflect utopian optimism as much as the ultimate failure of the modernist ideal.
Nicolodi's visual prompts are, in short, far less determinate than they initially appear - as the artist states, it is the spectator's own interpretation of the void within each work that completes its function as metaphor. And in so doing, we add the final building block; ultimate meaning is ours to construct.
Nicolodi's sculpture reverberates with open-ended potential, his understanding of architecture as a mirror of human endeavour and desire the key to its extraordinarily moving power.
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