Timothy J. Standring, 2005, Ten Thoughts about Ugo Riva

1. There are milliaia as you Italians say of hits on the web when one searches for information on Ugo Riva. He is not unknown by any means. Born in Bergamo in August 1951, basically trained locally, has a sense of art history, knows techniques, and eventually developed a sensibility all his own. It would seem that the biography on the artist seems yet to be written. Someone will come along and assemble the life facts of the artist and link them with his works of art. Someone will begin to see connections between those life facts and how they impacted the final results of his art.

2. Writing the biography of an artist is an interesting challenge: what is it that counts when we verbalize the final results of the creative act? Did place and presence of the artist play a role in his formative years? What is Van Gogh went to Milan instead of Arles? Did the artist respond to his surroundings? Is psychoanalysis credible when seeking the links between the works and the maker? What collective mentalities come into play when we try to capture the essence of an artist’s work? Do the works themselves betray or reveal something of the maker?

3. How is meaning for a work of art created? Is it far from the materials of clay, water, metals, and then pigments?

4. Where resides the truth of these works? I think it resides in the realm of how convincing he sustains the myth,how convincing he holds the lie of their artifice. Like a novelist whose task is to sustain the dream, Riva also has the ability to sustain the balance between that which is recognizable, even tangible, and that which deals with the imaginative, and less concrete, but not less substantial as a reality.

5. Sensuality of Riva’s sculpture functions because he has the ability to create works with the suggestion of settings or situations that are private, like making love to your wife in the kitchen when the kids are in bedrooms 5 meters away. The sensuality of the sex is heightened because of the imminent appearance of a child seeking out a parent. Or the love making that takes place at an impromptu moment down a quiet unpopulated viccolo: but the thrill comes from the knowledge that the sensual intimacy might terminate with the appearance of another person, or the opening of a window above. So we are voyeurs of situations that Riva has captured.

6. The presence technical means—of twisting clay with hands,softened by water, manipulated with fingers, palette knives,wires, and god knows how many other instruments—is always present in Riva’s works. At first I found this disconcerting and thought that it was a function of irresolution, of his inability to pull the overall work together. But the more I learned about Riva’s works, the more I came to appreciate this aspect of his works—it offered me a link to the creative process similar to a Navaho weaver who leaves a small woven trace outside the frame of the overall composition which links the creation to greater forces outside the realm of the object. Without the appearance of unformed clay, Riva’s pieces would lose their energy and their “life spirit” as well.

7. When I was first introduced to Riva’s works, my art historical roll-a-dex turned to prior works in clay. I recalled Tangara terracottas, Etruscan works, fast forward to some clay pieces I had seen in the Bargello, to clay works by Bernini, Duquesnoy,and Mochi. And I especially thought that Riva had been taken by the brilliant works by the scapialitura sculptors who works in Milan and Rome at the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries. Collectively, it is these works that fed the imagination of Riva to move to his own world of manipulation of clay.

8. But the negative spaces of Riva’s works—those areas that are not filled with materials—are also important, and one wonders if he had looked to his earlier 20th century brethren such as Giacometti, and to Gonzalez. I have a feeling that somewhere back in Riva’s studio there are earlier experiments of his work in this realm of the surreal, of the absurd, that he too had produced works that feed off of this outer realm of our consciousness.

9. The big imponderable for me with Riva’s works is his use of color: I’m undecided whether it functions or not. What is certain, however, it that its inclusion gives his works an edge that I guess would otherwise leave the work bereft or deprived.

10. Works of art never function in a void and come alive with discourse and engagement sparked any number and combination of means: by allusions to art history, a sense of place, to biographical data about an artist, and to descriptions to their works. How these elements come together is also part of the game. More often than not it is a rebus as to how to put these thoughts and observations together, and more often than not, it is what we bring to the discourse that creates a deeper experience with the work in question. Perhaps because of the musings above, your own engagement with the works of Riva are richer than ever.

Timothy J. Standring Gates Foundation Curator of Painting & Sculpture Denver Art Museum