Born in Toronto, visual artist Robert Marra studied and created ceramic arts while living in Italy in the 1980s. He continued his studies in fine arts at OCAD and Sheridan College in Toronto. Since the mid-1990s, his work has focused on styles that can be described as modern and post-modern. His more recent, mixed-media, contemporary work walks a line between painting and sculpture. Robert’s art has been displayed in collective and individual exhibits in Italy and Canada, and is featured in public as well as private collections. It has also been used on the cover of numerous poetry books.
Your father is from Calabria, your mother from Lazio, and you were born in Canada. How has your Italian heritage influenced your art?
Growing up in an Italian home in a working-class neighborhood is definitely part of my influence. If you add to that the enormous role that Italy has played in the history of Western art and design, it would make sense that my Italian heritage has had a fair bit of impact on me. Even so, I admire artists who hail from all over the world. Historically, there has been an incredible amount of cross-pollination in the arts and among artists. For example, in the art of late 18th and early 19th century, some prominent European artists were greatly inspired by Japanese prints as well as by African art. These artists influenced particular schools of art of that time, which, in turn, impacted future schools of post-modern art and so on. Many of these schools play a role in what I create. I would say that every artist has a broad set of multicultural influences, whether they’re aware of it or not. The simple answer is that my Italian heritage has significantly contributed to my aesthetics, along with other sources of inspiration.
Who are some of your favourite Italian post-modern visual artists and why?
Italy has produced a great number of contemporary artists who have had an impact on me as well as on the art world as a whole; there are too many to mention here. But among them are Lucio Fontana (Argentinian Italian), Piero Manzoni, Agostino Bonalumi, Enrico Castellani, Afro Basaldella, Emilio Vedova, and Alberto Burri. I have an admiration for artists who historically demonstrated courage by the risks they took by following their contra-herd instincts, and experimented creatively. Some have even played a role in starting cultural revolutions. This type of artist throws down fresh breadcrumbs for others to follow out of overgrown forests. At the very least, such artists have helped us make more sense of the things around and within us.
How would you describe your art?
The art I am producing is mostly reflective of a number of modern and post-modern schools of art and is primarily non-representational, apart from a few exceptions. My most recent work walks the line between painting and sculpture. It consists of a wide variety of materials, namely traditional art materials, but also construction-related materials and found natural materials.
What draws you to this type of art?
I like that it holds the promise of endless possibilities at its core. Once you eliminate the object and expand the material resources at your disposal, you are free to create something with fewer restrictions, something in your own language. I find the notion of introducing something novel or unique compelling because the eyes and mind have an opportunity to engage with something different. In such a way, developing a new and distinctive relationship becomes more of a possibility. Individually and collectively, the artist and the viewer have the potential of experiencing something remarkable and transformational. A fresh and more effective way of seeing or communicating might transpire as a result. I can’t say whether I succeed at influencing such an outcome, but it’s the prospect of doing so that offers me some degree of inspiration and satisfaction. What I’m speaking about is hardly new. The arts have always played the role of directing a lens towards the world we live in. Art interprets the human experience; it can inspire spiritual transcendence, suggest new possibilities and demand change when needed. It often rises above the cacophony and routines of daily life and offers a bigger picture.
I have noticed greater experimentation in your recent pieces; can you elaborate on this?
The questions I have, the tensions I experience, and the scars that form along the way are played out on the surface of what I create. My current paintings are objects in and of themselves, as opposed to literal representations of the surrounding world. It’s not to say that my work is solely a practice in design or architectural form; it is more than that. My focus in recent years has been towards how best to represent the emotional landscapes that exist internally as opposed to the external landscapes that surround me. What I have found fascinating is how, at times, one’s internal and external realities become estranged in one’s mind, often leading towards a sense of alienation from the surrounding world and the people in it. Many experiences are difficult to contextualize; they are too nebulous or complex to fully understand. My current work is an effort towards shedding more light on such things in order to get a better grasp on them. To do so, I’ve incorporated a more sculptural approach to my paintings. This methodology has felt more effective towards formalizing what I find to be elusive or difficult to pin down.
In your artistic statement you mention the line quite often. Why has the line become central in your work?
The line is a major formal element in producing art. Much has been discussed and written about it over time. After reading something that Paul Klee wrote about the properties of the line in art years ago, I began thinking more intensely about ideas related to the line. This eventually led me towards experimenting with some of the line’s aesthetic values. I also considered the role that lines play in the way we physically and psychologically organize ourselves in the world, and I saw a parallel between our structured lives and art. In both life and art the main function of a conventional line is to measure, to organize, and to define what we see, as well as what we create. Broadly speaking, those functions typically have to do with rules and formalities related to being, to thinking, to doing. I have also noticed that lines or rules have paradoxical characteristics. On one hand, they help to anchor and stabilize us in our natural environment so that we can better delineate it, understand it, and more freely navigate within it. On the other hand, too many lines, or rules, can over-regulate and over-organize us. When this becomes extensive and too restrictive, people risk becoming oppressed by the very rules they either create or support. If one follows the logic, it suggests that true personal freedoms and genuine self-expression become the price people must pay for a sense of safety and security once they become entangled in the “lines” they’ve created. Henry David Thoreau implied the potential consequences of living an overregulated life when he wrote in Walden, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” The arts have always played a major role in breaking down social rules and conventions as well as establishing new ones, particularly in modern and postmodern times.
Can you elaborate?
For instance, the lines of abstract expressionists flew across and off the edges of the canvass in their effort to liberate themselves from the formality of the day so they could experience more personal and social freedoms. Materials and ideas were stretched and combined in broader and more imaginative ways. Because of this, probabilities that never existed before became a reality and the propagation of possibilities has not ceased since.
So the line is central to this revolution, to this innovation?
Yes, it is. Artists of that period started eliminating the line, painting outside the line, and breaking out from the very edges of the frame, which are in effect, lines. Recently, I’ve used the idea of a proliferating infinite line. It generally emerges from beneath the skin of my canvases to encounter an arranged composition on its surface. All the disparate parts must now share a common space. A new composition becomes necessary in order to establish a sense of harmony on the canvas, similar to real life. When we express ourselves or create things, such things meet and are compelled to engage with the world outside. There is a shift in balance and one hopes that reciprocity or compromise can be had, a new balance so to speak. Organization and reorganization continues always, without end, and usually at the cost of what came before. Everything is continuously changing, including us. We live in a constant state of flux and are persistently trying to organize the state of chaos that we are actually part of. Therefore, this absurd striving towards organization, predictability, and stability becomes our primary aim, even though it can never be totally achieved… except perhaps in marginal degrees. My art represents my own efforts towards accepting this fact and re-establishing a sort of connectivity between my internal reality and the external world.
What ideas lie behind your infinite line and how did it come about?
Artists such as Piero Manzoni, Akira Kanayama and Hans Hoffman, to mention a few, have explored similar ideas about the infinite line. Their work and my own reflections led me towards ideas surrounding my own conceptualized infinite line, and the more I thought about it, the more intriguing it became. For me, unlike a conventional line, which generally starts at point A and is then stretched towards an inevitable point B, the infinite line never arrives at a point B. Sometimes I wonder whether a point A even exists. If this is so, the typical aesthetic and psychological functions of the conventional line, such as measuring, defining matter, and organizing things can no longer apply in the same way. The infinite line can provide the same functions, but does so only temporarily, in passing. When I speak of an infinite line, what I am suggesting is an infinite space in which everything exists and where the possibilities are endless.
You will have to explain that a bit more.
If one thinks about it, we all exist, and have always existed in infinite space, and within us, we carry the concept of infinite time. Time is something we utilize to organize ourselves within infinite space in an effort to create order amidst the chaos around us. The notion of an infinite line is just another means of trying to make sense of things that may otherwise be nebulous and ineffable. My logic tells me that, the fact that we live in infinite space makes us all, in some way, infinite as well. People, past and present, and everything created by them not only make up part of the infinite line but, in actuality, are the infinite line. The arts have contributed to our collective efforts towards better understanding what role we play within the universe as well as what role it plays within us. They are a means of tracking, documenting and recording our collective journey through infinite space and time. By virtue of what I’ve described, I think that the infinite line, as I use it, is an apt metaphor for our individual, as well as our collective journey and human experience as a whole.
How is all this represented in your recent art?
My thinking leads me to ask the question of what such a line might look like if represented on a canvas. I ask the question with the full understanding that what I want to formalize is something that is elusive, beyond capture and difficult to fully grasp. While attempting to figure out how I could best represent what I’ve been talking about, I arrived at a version of an infinite line that best suits my ideas. I actualized a line that appears to be folding and unfolding, seemingly thriving and multiplying without end. This is something I hope my paintings convey … that they are alive and always in the process of evolving.
When is your next exhibit?
I am currently in the process of organizing a show at the Italian Cultural Institute for late spring 2023, with the generous support of the Institute’s director, Veronica Manson, as well as with the Consul-General of Italy in Toronto, Luca Zelioli. Corrado Paina, the Director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, has also been of great assistance. I am looking forward to sharing and discussing my work with friends, family, and the public at large.
John Calabro is a former educator, publisher, cultural entrepreneur, and author. His books include Bellecour,The Cousin (the French translation of which was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award), and An Imperfect Man. He is currently working on a new novel, The Passion of Laura B.