SF Artists for Amatrice

by Frank Holland

With a benefit for the Italian village leveled by an earthquake last summer, San Francisco artists bring some “heart” back to the gallery scene.

Earthquakes are imperfect destroyers. Witness the devastated husks of the idyllic Italian town of Amatrice, roughly hewn shadows of an ordered and rational world deconstructed by a sudden, violent rupture deep within the earth. Four months after the quake, the town is still rendered in abstract. Amid the irregular silhouette of what was, survivors have begun to sketch the future.

This spirit—the performative act of memory tied to the practical work of rebuilding—animated “Artists in San Francisco for Amatrice,” a December 8 benefit for the people of Amatrice, Italy, at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. Organized by acclaimed sculptor Bruce Hasson and longtime friend Aldo Blasi, owner of Russian Hill’s Ristorante Milano, the art exhibition and auction raised thousands for those affected by the quake.

“There’s something missing in much of the art world right now,” Hasson explains. “Sometimes we get caught up in the conceptual aspect of art and we miss the heart and meaning inherent to artistic creation. This event emphasizes the artists’ relationship with the world—our connection to the world.”

With Italian Consul General Lorenzo Ortona and his wife, Sheila, in attendance and a special video message from the mayor of Amatrice, Sergio Pirozzi, the exhibition was an eclectic treatise on memory, resolve and the healing capacity of art. A video by Richard O’Connell, backed by Satie’s haunting Première Gnossienne, set the tone for the evening, an attempt to reconcile unspeakable tragedy with grace, progress and hope.

The first person Hasson approached to participate in the effort was legendary San Francisco poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “My drawing should be called Earthquake Survivor,” Ferlinghetti noted. Within the context of the event, Ferlinghetti’s piece somehow manages to evoke Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, which Walter Benjamin described in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

This is how one pictures the angel of history: His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Corollary themes emerge in the contribution from Umberto Squarcia, Jr., whose Crossroads #14 features a dizzying array of trenches, ridges and angular patterns formed by monochromatic paint layers on reclaimed wood. Squarcia says the work is “dedicated to the city of Amatrice, whose urban texture has been obliterated by earthquakes, and whose survivors now have to travel on difficult roads, full of questions and doubts, obstacles and tears, memories and crossings.”

More than 20 artists took part in the exhibition curated by Lori Sottile, including Jack Zajac, Naomie Kremer, Hasson, Roberto Santo and Paulette Long, an artist whose family lives in an area affected by the earthquake.

Hasson’s affinity for Italy grew from his time as an art student in Florence and, in 2000, when one of his monumental peace bells—made from melted firearms—was exhibited at the Campidoglio in Rome and struck by Mikhail Gorbachev during the Nobel Peace Prize Summit.

“Italians accept catastrophes in a different way,” he says. “They mourn, of course, but there are thousands of years of history beneath these disasters. They just have a way of moving forward. There’s a magic in Italy, a spontaneity; it’s full of surprises.”

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