Interview: Emilio Cavalini

Art advisor Eva Zanardi talks to Emilio Cavallini about kinetic and op art, his own work and current exhibition in New York.

I have known Emilio Cavallini for over 20 years and I consider him a dear friend but you have my word that I will stay utterly objective. After all these years, I still marvel at Emilio’s boundless, irradiating energy and positivity. Always ready to praise someone, always ready to forgive, no matter what.  We met in Milan in the early nineties and we immediately bonded. I instantly felt drawn in by his exuberant and gregarious personality. At that point, Emilio was at his peak fame as a fashion designer and he hired me as a model for many of his whimsically original fashion shows. Needless to say we had a ball. I have always known that he personally created and designed his groundbreaking pantyhose patterns, something that set him apart from all the other fashion designers. One day, I had the privilege of observing him at work, in his studio/laboratory. Emilio, with the help of applied mathematics, was creating perfectly interlocking patterns out of stubborn lines and shapes that didn’t want to collaborate. Like a mad scientist, Cavallini was guiding and submitting chaos into order. The resulting art works are at once muscular yet ethereal, their beauty lies both in their objective elegance and grace and in their deeper conceptual strive of trapping the infinite in the finite. It was then that I understood how he channeled his peculiarly boundless energy. When talking about Emilio’s work, it’s simply unchallenging to find analogies with the great mythological weavers like Penelope, wife of Odysseus and her genial ruse, the Three Parcae, the personifications of destiny, Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur labyrinth, etc.…In those ancient myths the thread always appears as a metaphor for the act of connecting and disconnecting, a tool to control and release chaos. In continuing this narrative, Emilio Cavallini uses his threads as a leash to connect with, trap, tame and finally crystallize chaos/energy. Simply put, Emilio makes energy tangible.

EZ) I would like to start our conversation by asking about the title of your exhibition at GR gallery New York: Harmony Runs On A Thread” Could you tell us how this title came about and what you mean by it?

EC) The title of the show derives from the idea that the thread represents the quest for harmony, beauty and symmetry which, according to the laws of mathematics that govern shapes and patterns, materializes beyond time and reality. I see my works as the materialization of an abstract music symphony transformed into an actual object. 

EZ) In the past 10 years we have seen a worldwide comeback of Kinetic and Op art, do you have an explanation for this phenomenon? Having experimented for years with both, do you have an “insider view” on why lately the public seems to be receptive and responsive to these movements?

EC) Kinetic and Optical art are not really coming back: they never went away. They exist as the visual outcome of the prolific conversation between art and science. They both focus on the direct observation of nature and the geometric principle of optics and perspective and on the latter’s evolution through time. In my Optical work, by creating a sort of perceptive instability, I stress the infinite combinations of reality and how our observation of them shapes my artwork. I try to distract the focal point from the objects themselves to the complex relationship between them.

EZ) Kinetic and subsequently Op art feature both visual instability and the alteration of perception given to the illusory or real movement of the artwork. In the mid to late ’60s these artistic languages, in particular Op art, found a very fertile ground in the social context that could be defined as “the psychedelic era”. Why are Kinetic and Op art still relevant and able to represent social commentary today?

EC) Op art is more than ever relevant because, thanks to the advances and discoveries of the past 80 years in optical technologies, artists are now able to create images that convey movement and depth without the strict restraints of the established pictorial rules of perspective constructions. I have noticed, more and more, that contemporary artists have a keen inclination for large-scale abstract works and how experts in advertising are not anymore afraid of using hyper saturated colours and shapes that challenge and even unsettle the retina.

EZ) Some of your artworks are the result of long hours spent weaving one single nylon thread through an invisible frame which traps and models it into spellbinding geometric patterns. I always thought that to obtain the same end result it would have been much easier for you to use many different threads instead of one. Is there a conceptual meaning in using one thread only?

EC) My artworks are the result of profound mathematical studies of the shapes and patterns: they are a sort of three dimensional, visual rendition of abstract mathematical concepts. When I use a single thread I create an ethereal connection between the precision of architectural geometric figures, I play and experiment with the principles of symmetry, I apply to art the Combinatorial Calculus laws…If it sounds complicated…It is, very! (smile). My threads and fabrics are the uniting force of my artistic output. Through the use of unconventional materials (designed and produced by my company throughout the years) I strive to discover relationships between chaos/disorder and organization and placement. I always try to break down the barriers of conventional perspective, going beyond the limits of pictorial censorship.

EZ) In your show at GR gallery you will be featuring works from your series “Attuale/Infinito”, “Biforcazioni” and “Diagrammi,” all which share the idea of meditation’s temporal continuity and of the quest for perfection. Could you expand on how the development of the creative process connects your ideas to the final artwork? 

EC) My work always starts with a complex yet very clear drawing, not too dissimilar from an architectural plan. It consists (the drawing) of a system based on a complex order scheme of which I am in total control. Thanks to my knowledge and years of study of mathematics I am able to dominate and force chaos into our dimension in time and space and shape it into three dimensional objects.

EZ) Which series do you feel most represents your work?

EC) I truly believe that the series that represents me the most are the Bifurcations. My artistic journey started in the early 70s, I experimented with diagrams, installations, fractals, etc. I have been applying to my artwork, among others, the mathematical concept of the “Complexity Theory,” the theory of classifying problems based on how difficult they are to solve. Such theory highlights certain aspects of reality which had been considered peripheral until then. The chaos and instability which I already mention, now allows me to understand the limits of our knowledge. Instability or impermanence suddenly develop into the infrastructure of my artwork on which we can finally rest our gazes and minds. With my Bifurcations series I believe I finally reached a creative and compositional rigour which is inextricably bonded with the awareness of infinite metamorphosis of the creative process.   


About the artist

Emilio Cavallini (San Miniato, 1945) is a renowned artist and designer whose forty-year contribution to the fashion world includes singular creations for the houses of Mary Quant, Dior, Celine, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Gucci. His eponymous label is exported worldwide, from New York to London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and beyond. In 1989 he was awarded Venice’s Leone d’Oro for creativity and innovation. His artistic and industrial contributions were recognized in the last decade by Italy’s Prime Minister and President with several national honors including “Knight of Industry”, “Officer of the Republic” and “Commendatore”. An artist’s book published by Skira was released in 2010 to celebrate three decades of his art practice. Cavallini’s work was presented in a solo exhibition at the 2011 Triennale of Milan, during which he constructed a site specific, four-meter cube of stocking thread. His work has been the subject of critical texts by Sergio Risaliti, Laura Cherubini, Silvia Pegoraro, among others. Rosai Ugolini Modern- New York (2015), Opera Gallery, Paris-France(2015), and Galleria Valmore, Vicenza-Italy (2015) presented his most recent solo exhibitions. 

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