Ignazio Mortellaro is an artist, curator and co-founder of Radiceterna - a collective which visually, audibly and literarily explores notions of botany. Ignazio, a Palermitan practitioner, exhibits work predominantly in his home country, Italy. His practice is an intriguing one; his studio is a cavernous, basement space, hidden from prying eyes behind wooden doors. Inside, it's an orderly box of curiosities, something that he describes as a laboratory. Tools are placed in quantifying symphonies: patterns emerge from height-ordered utensils; visual rhythms arise in the tones and textures that echo back-and-forth between natural and metal surfaces. Iron is a recurrent material - nature, then iron. "But what is iron?" Ignazio asks rhetorically, "it's the stuff of nature."
Ignazio is generous with his time: he's someone who reads a lot, thinks a lot, collects a lot and, as per his architectural and engineer-training, measures - both mathematically and visually - a lot. His studio, deep in the depths of an age-old palazzo, is spotless but rustic. Ignazio admits that he has been away from his studio, installing work in Turin, and so the space is abnormally tidy - but normal for him to a certain extent. He speaks quietly but enthusiastically about elemental matter: we return to iron, one of his favourite materials, which, he describes, contains within it a plethora of Earth-based connotations. Iron, he says, is found at the Earth's core: its production of magnetic fields is what keeps us physically grounded.
Delving into his practice, we speak about the shards of rusted iron laid out on his worktop. Each piece, unearthed by the artist on the seabed, reflects the cyclical nature of matter. These shards are the remnants of a boat: disregarded, their brilliant grey sheen is exchanged for a patchwork of mottled, orange tones. The surface of each shard has bubbled under the ocean's caress, colliding with the natural elements of water and salt. Placed delicately upon a holder, individual shards are treated with care and attention: Ignazio spends hours picking and scraping, revealing layers of age-conscious narratives. Here, the artist finds value in a discarded object: what was once functional is now a beautiful relic, with potential for another lease of life.
Ignazio's work is grounded by the notion of infinity. In his eyes, matter is merely matter: it flows through the iron shards and also throughout our own skeletal structure - the bones inside us are matter and will, one day, return to dust. Though near-morbid, the knowledge of this cycle empowers his enthusiasm: through it, the artist reflects on the wonder of life - and the importance in showing individuals, young people in particular, the sublime cycles of material matter. His practice is a way of breaking down the barriers of scientific calculations and theories, and evoking concepts through more accessible means.
Upon first meeting with him a few days earlier, he spoke about his love of plants and gardens - in particular Palermo's horticultural jewel, Orto Botanico. I note a lack of green, verdant tones in his monochrome pieces: instead, the emphasis is on the chemical structures that make up the natural world. The underlying message is that everything - all matter - is connected, and that plants, like other matter, have infinite life cycles. In many ways, Ignazio is part alchemist, part gardener - an alchemy-gardener, if such a thing ever existed. He nurtures the reactions occurring on the surface of found materials, carefully categorising them. It's easy to compare the iron shard in his hands to the brittle bark from a pine tree.
He turns to speak about the historic traces found in the surface of metal spacers, once used in typography to set letters in their place. They are the forgotten, but essential parts of a printing technique. The specimen he shows me are from an Adana press. He points to the years of ink that have tainted the brass spacers - each one has varying horizontal lines, as though to mimic a miniature landscape painting. As we speak, he shows me how he's been arranging them in a type of mosaic: the spacers interact with one another, forging a pictorial horizon line - blurred as layer upon layer of ink has been added by former auteurs.
These spacers remind me of the architect's process: they're arranged in a blue-print manner as though to represent a continuum of windows or planters in a garden. Here, again, Ignazio uses a material that has been discarded: not only is typography a lost art in today's digital world, but he plays attention to the spacers - which, in his words, are the gaps in between the main subject. Brass, also, is a significant material which, though less precious than gold, is witness to its own journey: it tarnishes and picks up on its own histories. Naturally, I'm drawn to the elevated status which Ignazio has afforded these objects: but there remains something humble and low-key about the way in which they are presented and spoken about.
Across from Ignazio's metallic collection sit exotic shells of all shapes and sizes. Also derived from diving excursions around the world, the focus of these objects is not only their association with infinities but also with the notion of purpose: each shell was once home to a creature (or two, if frequented by a hermit crab). They are now objects, which will eventually turn to dust and fulfill a different function. For now, they chatter quietly in Ignazio's studio awaiting their next vocation.
In addition to nature, matter and infinities, the artist is fascinated with measurement. He explains that, measurement is mankind's way of connecting with nature, of understanding the world around us. Looking towards his prints of the Sicilian landscape, I notice each scene's beautifully disjointed composition. Black and white, they feature collated and collaged scenarios from land-surveying archives. The artist is drawn to the dozens of imagery produced by this industry as tools to measure changes in the land: he renders them useful once more by reconfiguring scenes into partly-fictitious landscapes. While he adopts the formalities of measurement in his cutting and pasting process, he favours a more liberal approach when arranging compositions: he flips and connects lines in the land to create new narratives - here, again, he repurposes a forgotten material.
When leaving the studio, I reflect upon the multidisciplinary nature of Ignazio's practice, which, though wide-ranging, often returns to tactility - even his image-making illustrates notions of touch through textural depictions. Ignazio's sensory approach nurtures his curiosity in the world around him: his work embraces the universality of all matter and aids the ebbs and flows of various life cycles through his elegant process of excavation and recovery.
Text based on a conversation with Ignazio in his studio, Palermo, Sicily, on 13 July 2018. His work is on show as part of Radiceterna, Orto Botanico, until 4 November 2018.
Studio images provided by the artist.