PIERO LERDA’S FLIGHTS OF FANCY
By Walter “Wale” Liniger, May 2009
Valeria Gennaro Lerda’s exhibit of her late husband’s work entitled “Piero Lerda: Dal caos al gioco” (which I am loosely translating into “Piero Lerda: playing with chaos”) invited me to take a more focused look at a considerable selection of Piero Lerda’s collective work. His artistic symphony of symbols and colors at the prestigious Filatoio di Caraglio rose from the region of his birth in Caraglio, a small town in the fertile valley which surrounds Cuneo. At this time of year the road from Torino is lined with muddy fields of budding rice plants, blooming fruit orchards, and small farms with livestock. It all appeared so beautifully structured and organized, rising mountain ranges on one side and the flat distance on the other. However, sometimes a “well-structured home” can become a rigid place, a prison of sorts. A place that also inspires the desire to break out, the wish to fly.
The Filatoio di Caraglio is an ancient silk-thread factory, designed and built in the 17th century (1676-1678). Today it has become a well-known gallery of exquisite art. Back in the day, the farmers of the region produced the silk cocoons and the female workers turned them into threads of the highest quality. To this day the visitor can see the ancient spindles, powered by an intricate system of water and wooden gears. The woven threads were considered the best in Europe and were sold to its most important centers of silk textile production. The area also provided the needed workforce: young women worked all day long in the hot water vats where they removed the silk from the cocoons before it could be spun. When they were not working, they lived in the other part of the Filatoio, which housed a convent. These young women dedicated their lives to god on one side and to the silk production on the other. My imagination fills the vast workspace with silent questions and murmured prayers asking for strength. I wonder how many dreams of deliverance the scalded hands wove into the threads, again and again.
There is so much more to Piero’s work than I had ever imagined. He had shown me bits and pieces of his imagination, a mix of multi-media collage and philosophical discourse, cardboard, paint, French and Latin. Unfortunately I don’t speak Italian, or Piemontese for that matter. Therefore neither of us spoke in his mother language and much was lost in translation, no doubt. What remained unchanged was Piero’s artistic voice. Of course its interpretation is left to the observer.
One of Piero’s favorite symbols was l’aquilone, the kite. His imaginary creations sore high, frequently into a void, ascending in circular movements. Often they dance around emptiness, a space where the observer senses the existence of an unseen eye. Other canvases are void of kites, but the watchful presence remains. There are sketches of broken rectangles as if there had been a successful escape from the eye; except the felt centering force remains. Other paintings appear to be studies of colors, some of them could be pictures of the birth of a new galaxy taken by the Hubble telescope (except Piero’s images predate the Hubble telescope). Occasionally the bouquets of colors are intermixed with somber, monochrome moods: moments of darkness that exude a sense of entrapment.
Piero’s attempt to “organize chaos” is anything but “chaotic.” I feel quite the opposite to be true: he was methodical in his pursuit, relentless in seeking balance, always leaving open what he had not yet explored. Thus many of his collages are senza titolo, without title. His work is full of self-imposed discipline that only can come from reverence for the Life Force he called “Chaos.” Occasionally he used the term “Le Bon Dieu.”
I remember many of our conversations (again, our dialogues might actually have been monologues due to our struggles with translation) about “the kites.” They could be apparitions constructed of fragments, pieces of matter and pieces of the mind. They arise anew from the debris of Time. Kites float on the waves of the winds, they are anchored by a string. The string, the force holding it back, is part of the kite. The construction wants to fly away but the string is holding it back. However, what happens to the kite when the attachment to its center breaks? Is it still a kite?
The observer engages in such questioning. I want to know what is hidden and undiscovered in the empty space in Piero’s images, a force that tantalizes my imagination. There is balance in all of the paintings, regardless of the swirling animated subject matter that surfaces from Piero’s creative genius. There is a center. I wonder if this represents Piero’s invisible string of attachment to the self, at once necessary to explore the flight of the mind and at the same time an obstacle to further discovery?
Piero and I both wondered whether a kite without attachment would eventually fall apart into its many fragments and return to Time, to Chaos. In order to find out what lies beyond our world of imagination we need to tumble through Space without anchor, probably without will. How would we be able to return?
I feel humbled by Piero’s dedication to his visions. After visiting the exhibit with Valeria Gennaro Lerda, who presented her late husband’s oeuvre in the current form, I find myself full of imaginary lights and colors, and yet in a strange way without words. How could I write anything complimentary (and possibly insightful) about such a richly layered life? I remembered some of our unanswered questions instead.
Il Filatoio di Caraglio. A place where years ago young women produced the most coveted silk threads in Europe, strong and almost invisible threads. These hard working nuns must have had dreams which life in the factory & convent could not match. Piero’s kites took to flight in this culturally significant place. The artist’s orgies of colors, rhythms and shapes encouraged many school children in the region to create their own kites. Inspired by Piero’s ideas, these kites ended up in the exhibit as well. Silently moving in the wind. Attached by invisible threads. Waiting.
Piero subscribed to the ambitious artistic goal of organizing Chaos. I believe Piero understood on a very deep level that through his imaginative explorations he was entering a space where our words fail: the Great Unknown, a sphere he called “Chaos,” a space beyond our Time where the forces dance. In his Kites he left behind his very own roadmap, one that can only be contemplated and believed.
Is there any other way to organize Chaos?....
…Maybe Piero never did get to fully organize Chaos as such, but I think we all understand his noble endeavor. Fondly I am remembering our conversations covering this very topic: how well he used his many language skills in order to create new metaphors that would enlighten me! He not only used the visual artist’s skills and perspectives, but he employed the many tools of a linguist as well, speaking light into the darkness where a paint brush couldn’t go.
Occasional excursions took us from his beloved studio in Oulx to the borderlands between France and the Piedmont, a place where his native Piedmontese culture embraced and inspired his ongoing reflections and creations. Maybe it was due to this intimacy that his Kites unfurled from the perceived center of Chaos with enthusiastic force, dancing dressed in colorful masks and ribbons across the canvas, a canvas always too small. Thus his dazzling mind fashioned visual symbols, creatures at once so fragile and yet so resilient, unpredictable in flight, emanating from a distant vanishing point and dissolving into the vastness of any observers imagination.
We also talked about the Blues, not as much about its musical form as about its philosophical platform. Similar to Chaos, the Blues seems to elude satisfactory definition, it remains an individual’s concept. I have been trying to personally define the Blues for almost forty years, and so far I have failed. The Blues is elusive and slippery, and yet sticky and insistent. It always is: sometimes we are aware of it and sometimes we are not. Attempts to describe the Blues through our artistic voices are temporary at best as they fall short of definition.
Contrary to Chaos, the cause that leads to the Blues is known to the individual. The Blues is felt. It seems to slow down our experience of time, and yet it can never be adequately described. For example, visual reflections on the Blues appear to prefer dark-mood colors. The inherent energy however is always dynamic. In spite of its almost suspended time the Blues moves, it flirts and jabs, it caresses and abandons, it escapes our control into uncharted territory. The skills of improvisation help us with our respective narratives.
Maybe Piero actually did get to organize Chaos. Chaos not only lives in the absence of logical and reasoned organization, but it also exists beyond our evolved language. We lack the words to describe it, but we can play with its metaphors. Chaos forces us to let go of all constraints of constructed logic; it invites us to float on its unpredictability instead. Piero was a firm believer that the absence of reasoned cause and effect in Chaos was its beauty: a place of renewed chances, a place of freedom not founded in the often quoted “cogito ergo sum” but rooted in the intact imagination of the child instead.
Piero reminded me of the ancient philosophers, or at least of what has been passed down to us. He walked with Nature inspired by her artistry; he described what he saw and felt in either Latin or French, English or Italian (and of course Piedmontese), always searching for a clearer metaphorical image. And then, as he painted, cut & tore, glued & shuffled the pieces, a puzzle was born. And yet there was always this sense of not being able to finish his roadmap of Chaos, territory that had to remain uncharted in order to surrender one’s self to the notion of Piero’s “Chaos.” His was a place of close existence not one of distant contemplation.
Piero’s Kites swarm forth from a felt center, their colors lift the viewer’s mood. The fragile constructions dance and thus we feel the air. They react to what we can’t see. They invite us to play along, blow soap bubbles and run barefoot through tickling grass. It is only when we concentrate our curiosity on the space beyond Piero’s creations that we discover indefinable shadows, the anti-kites. We sense their counterweight through their colorful movements. Piero knew about the Blues, and he braved it with furious giddiness and sparkling wit. Dancing with light and color was his cure for the unfathomable sphere where imagination and reality have not been separated yet.
Just like his Kites, Piero soared towards the always distant horizon. And just like a kite he was anchored to a home, a spiritual place he called “Chaos.”
(From: Walter Liniger, “Organizzare il Caos”, in Ivana Mulatero, ed., Piero Lerda. Dal caos al gioco. Opere dal 1948 al 2007, Edizioni Il Marcovaldo, Caraglio, 2007, p.208-209,
Walter “Wale” Liniger. Musician; adjunct Professor, Columbia, South Carolina, USA)
Walter Liniger, 2008
Musicista interprete del blues; University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA.
Piero Lerda’s Metaphisical Painting
…It seems characteristic that in “La mia Poetica” Piero Lerda quotes from both Friedrich Nietzsche, A master of startling phisolophical aphorisms and from Jorge Luis Borges, a great explorer of the borderline between the surreal and the absurd : “Everyone must organize the chaos that finds in his self”, and “Nobody can pronounce a syllable that is not filled of tenderness and of terrors; that there is not, in one of those languages, the powerful name of a God. …
Nietzsche and Borges make an unlikely pair, but they are indicators of the peculiar metaphysical suggestiveness of Lerda’s paintings pointing beyond their brilliant surfaces. Those of his works, which radiate a magic aura, but also the paintings conveying a surrealistic clearness, intimate that there is more in this visual art than ‘meets the eye”. It bespeaks Lerda’s artistic power that the philosophical dimension of his canvasses does not conflict with the specific sense of lightness and play characterizing his handling of forma and colors.
The phenomenon of play/gioco dominate his cultural theory as well as his painting ; “civilization is a path that leads from necessity to play”. Finally Lerda’s “metaphysical playfulness” is one of the qualities endearing him to his friends who loved his wit and subtle sense of irony as much as his culture and his humaneness…
(Quoted from: Lothar Hoennighausen, “La pittura metafisica di Piero Lerda”, in Ivana Mulatero, ed., Piero Lerda. Dal caos al gioco. Opere dal 1948 al 2007, Edizioni Il Marcovaldo, Caraglio, 2009, p:35-40)
Lothar Hoennighausen, Professor Emeritus of American Literature, Bonn, Germany.
In memory of Piero
“Piero Lerda was a far more complicated person than one could imagine upon first meeting. He was nothing short of charming, engaging and lovable. At intervals in conversation, he would interject a bit of humor that took one off guard; here was the hint that his inner mind’s eye saw the world just a bit absurd, off kilter, out of sync….
His paintings reflect the same complexity….
To be a boy and to be unable to stop the unjustifiable violence against home and nation (during WWII) must have left an imprint not unlike that which emerged among the post-war Existentialists.
…His paintings are his answer to the chaotic world of his adolescence, his response to innocence and to evil.
…By finding in himself the source of memories, by mustering the courage to realize another vision, his childlike paintings reflect both the horror of the absurd and a newly imagined reordering of the universe.
…His body of work evolved and rotated over time to reflect new and imaginative ways to express a profound longing for humanity’s spiritual evolution. His reverence for life and his hope for its survival is found in every painting .”
(From: Elizabeth Hayes Turner ,“Un ricordo di Piero”, in Ivana Mulatero, ed., Piero Lerda. Dal Caos al Gioco. Opere dal 1948 al 2007, ed. Il Marcovaldo, Caraglio, 2009, p.207 ).
Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Professor of History, University of North Texas, USA.