Piero Fenci’s Wall of Vision
If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things. Which is to say there are no limits to vision.
—Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957)
A wall defines a space, a wall defends it, a wall divides it. When punctuated with doors or gates, a wall can designate a destination, and determine points of arrival and departure where a traveler’s journey may be interrupted, deterred, or ended. A wall marks territorial boundaries; and in that demarcation, it brings attention to those boundaries. Referencing the permeable Mexican-American border, Piero Fenci’s La Cerce (The Wall) metaphorically addresses large issues, exploring powerful socio-political structures in all their inherent complexity. Fenci understands that borders do not always work; he knows that a wall can be just as much an image of ultimate futility as one of comforting security or steadfast defiance. Ancient Roman and Chinese emperors erected elaborate border walls not only to keep out unwelcome neighbors, but also to impress them through an awesome display of power, wealth, and will.
The Ancients’ walls were certainly impressive and quite effective for a time but, ultimately, they failed. Today, their remains form the haunts not of guards armed with swords or bows and arrows, but modern tourists armed with digital cameras and sacked lunches.
Insecure individuals build walls just as readily as autonomous states or great empires, and more or less, for the same purposes: to stake a territorial claim, to protect, and to impress. Somewhere near Fenci’s home in Appleby, Texas, there lives a woman possessed by an all-consuming fear of a neighbor, who she believes poses a threat to her property and herself. Over a period of years, she has constructed a makeshift plastic/vegetative fence along their adjacent property line.
Ostensibly an ugly fabrication of torn black plastic sheets, wrapped and tied to the underbrush and weeds, her fence is scarcely adequate for a privacy screen and utterly useless as a physical barrier. Therefore, it must serve a more esoteric function; surely, it is a talismanic device to ward off calamity, a coping mechanism to combat her self-generated and self-restricting fears. In this sense, it becomes unconventionally beautiful as an expression of the anti-entropic imperative, that inherently human determination to bring order out of chaos—a key concept in Fenci’s personal philosophy of art and life.
An artist is someone who sees things more clearly than most. Piero Fenci envisions walls both as objects and ideas, and he constructs them anew in his art. The works in Fenci’s La Cerce collectively form a putative “Wall of Vision” made manifest in clay sculptures and ink drawings.
A metaphorical construct, Fenci’s Wall consists of seven elemental components: a Tower Group (Torre), an Armor Group (Armadura), a Sanctuary (Santuario), a paired Helmet and ShieldGroup (Casco y Escudo), a Rampart Group (Muralla), a gathering of Leaves (Hojas), and a set of drawings of a Topsy-Turvy World (Mundo Revuelto). While each individual piece within these various groups can stand alone as a separate work of art, together they form necessary parts of a gestalt that constitutes the symbolic Wall. Their overall arrangement and their positioning in relationship to each other as groups reflect the artist’s desire for metaphorical unity.
The Tower Group (Torre)
The Tower Group consists of a series of machine-like clay sculptures that formally reference the engines of war and defense. These engines take form as ceramic turbines that reveal their inner workings; we see their armatures articulated with rivet piercings and wedge blocks, their internal supporting struts, and their saw-toothed box-beam handles. The turbines have no actual moving parts, and as such, they cease to be functional and become ceremonial. Their power is essentially aesthetic and arises in part from a rhythmic play of floating and intersecting forms. A neutral palette of bone white and flat grey draws attention to the tangible qualities of these rough towers, variously surfaced either in clean cracked-earth or textured clay-slip coatings that recall finely grained sandstone. These turbines are tours-de-force of exquisite execution and refined detail, and in this way, pay homage to the aesthetic values of craft that traditionally characterize the ceramic arts.
The Armor Group (Armadura)
A flotilla of colorful boat-like breastplates bespeak of their absent occupants. They form shells for missing soldiers who once wore, or who might have worn them at another place and time. Such armor would be impractical on the battlefield and could only function in a purely ceremonial way. In general, the use of metallic glazes evokes the splendor and machismo of armor, yet the colors and textures may also reference the wounds of battle. In the festive Armadura Negra y Bronce, the breastplate is covered with glazed-on patterns of abstract figures, which are linked together like paper dolls to form ornamental decorations—perhaps as tallies of past “kills” or anticipated “targets.” Suggestive qualities of corrosion, pitting, and staining here and there mark the surfaces of some of these armorial pieces to suggest their possible use. Such details awaken our sense of a weighty, sinister human past: we recognize that such ceremonial objects have their roots in more formidable precursors.
To evoke a sense of calm and quiet refuge in the sanctuary works, the artist fuses cultural sources, simultaneously referencing Japanese pillow forms and architectural elements of the Pueblo kiva to create a set of small reservoirs, each with an accompanying detached handle that rests loosely on top. Cloaked in green and bronze glazes, the duck-like bodies of these reservoirs seem to waddle playfully forward in the comfort of their asylum. Fenci has glazed some of the reservoir surfaces in hues of bronze, and these areas are heavily textured with striated crinkles that recall not duck feathers but aged skin. It is the skin of an elephant, a skin impervious at least to gnats and small darts, though not to arrows, spears, or bullets. Sanctuary can only be temporary, it seems.
Helmet and Shield (Casco y Escudo)
The imagery of this series takes inspiration from the Japanese armorial tradition, more specifically, it references tosei gusuko armor of the late 16th- and early 17th centuries. In this series, the artist usually creates sets composed of two separate correlative helmet and shield units in order to establish binary relationships, which can be altered as he determines. The shield may rest apart from, slightly touch, lean against, or be partially inserted into the helmet. These alternate arrangements variously suggest emotional states, ranging in intensity from a distant affinity to a close attraction, and possibly even to intimate erotic attachment. One of the freestanding shields is purposefully cracked, as if under duress during some ancient battle, or by the slow reclamation of the Earth after eons of silent disuse. Unlike the others in this series, the helmet in Casco y Escudo Conectado has its shield fully inserted like a ceremonial comb and fused with it as a solid, intractable unit. In all these works, weathered surfaces in rich metallic glazes evidence alchemical forces at work. The sky blues, golden yellows, rich bronzes, deep blacks, coppers, greens and variegated rusts are the fruits of Piero Fenci’s forty-year exploration of color in clay and glaze.
Rampart Group (Muralla)
The Ramparts or battlements align with the four points of the compass: North, East, South, and West. Facing outward in these directions, with a fifth rampart forming an inner sanctum commanding the center, they collectively impart the idea of preparedness. Unlike the turbines of the tower series, the ramparts lack immediate reference to mechanization. The forms here stand immobile, like gondolas detached from their balloons and, thus, incapable of flight. All these gondolas rest on short stumpy feet (some pierced, either for anchoring to a stabilizing base, or as a last resort, for mooring the gondola to a stowed inflatable balloon). Architecturally engineered for security, the ramparts somehow seem vaguely organic, but the artist has fragmented and reconstructed their suggestively biomorphic forms in a synthetic cubist manner. Piero Fenci knows from experience how the various forms (in their smoothness or irregularity, and in their structural verticality or canter) actuate the flow and character of the glaze slips flowing over their surfaces. The dipping process itself—the alternate cantering of multiple, layered dips— ultimately determines what the glazes will do, long before they are tempered by the heat of the kiln. Richly decorated in an array of colors achieved through multiple glaze firings, the palette is similar to that of the helmets and shields, but here the emotional expression is bolder still. The ghosts of the missing warriors yell loudly through the cacophonous mixture of camouflage and boasting peacock colors. Theirs are the colors of war: taunting with rancorous confusion and daring in boisterous display. This metaphorical uproar is amplified by complex structures, the origami (folding and bending) of the ramparts’ internal walls.
A Gathering of Leaves (Hojas)
Piero Fenci incorporates a vegetative element into his ensemble in this pair of organic vessels, Hoja Bronce (Bronze Leaf) and Hoja Verde (Green Leaf). The delicacy of leaves and restrained beauty of shaker boxes inspired the creation of these transitory, boat-like harbingers of fall and spring. Also suggestive of the passing of time, their copper and rust colored glazes reference the concept of patination. These leaf-vessels seem to communicate with each other in the way they are juxtaposed; the arrangement in close proximity becomes emblematic of attraction: like that of actual leaves dangling closely on a twig, of boats assembling together in a harbor, or of two lovers preparing to embrace one another. The ceramic medium also symbolizes the fragility of such relationships, for leaves may fall, boats collide, and lovers part. Ceramic vessels can last for many thousands of years, yet clay cracks and crumbles, and iron continues to rust.
Drawings of a Topsy-Turvy World (Mundo Revuelto)
Based on the model of the ceramic works, these drawings address the theme of uncertainty. Like ceramic glazes melting in the kiln, ink from a paintbrush goes where it will. Piero Fenci delights in this shared quality of indeterminacy. He conceives his drawings as short recordings, second takes, reprises of the ceramic productions. Ultimately, drawing for Fenci is a matter of orchestrating an event or setting things in motion, what he calls “climbing in and climbing out.”
In his allegorical drawings of Eddies (Torbellinos), Fenci conjures up a fictive maelstrom inhabited by improbable sea creatures, impossible organic turbines, and absurdly dancing urns. Arranging the drawings in four diptychs, he symbolically establishes multiple dualities—before and after, positive and negative, animate and inanimate, arriving and departing—and as such, Fenci reasserts the value of alternate ways of looking at our Topsy-Turvy World.
David A. Lewis
Nacogdoches, Texas, May 5, 2010
The Spanish word for frontier and border is the same—la frontera. The terms frontier and border have very different meanings to those living north of the line that divides Mexico and United States.
This linguistic distinction can be traced to 17th-century English colonists who perceived their western boundaries as dynamic rather than static. Rapidly changing borders of the western United States during the 18th century deepened American attachment to changing boundary lines. By the 19th century, a philosophy of Manifest Destiny inspired filibustering adventurers who radically reshaped Mexican history and Mexico’s northern border. James Long’s failed 1819 expedition into Spanish Nacogdoches is almost forgotten in Texas history, but not in Mexico.
The term filibuster, to follow another linguistic anecdote, is derived from the Spanish filibustero, meaning pirate or buccaneer.
Herodotus, of course, first taught us that history varies depending upon one’s vantage point. Knowing the lessons of Herodotus, Frederick Jackson Turner thought it significant that Americans held a unique perception of the frontier. In Europe, he noted, a frontier was a fixed and fortified border whereas a frontier in U.S. history was perceived as geographically dynamic. The boundaries of the United States changed as unorganized territory succumbed to the Jeffersonian grid. Because Mexican history unfolded in a very different way from that of the U.S., the line that separates the U.S. and Mexico is naturally viewed through a very different historical prism.
What remains on either side of the Mexico/U.S. border, however, is one shared reality. As different as Anglo perceptions of geographical boundaries may have been historically, the line between Mexico and the U.S. has long since transitioned from frontier to fixed (and fortified) border. As a colleague who teaches American history recently pointed out, the people and cultural traditions of what is today Texas, Arizona and California haven’t change much over the last two centuries. The border simply moved.
Thus history on either side of the U.S./Mexico border—wherever that border may be physically, culturally or psychologically—is actually more intertwined than divergent. Although borders separate and divide, history shows how porous these divisions are. The Great Wall of China, for example, stands as a fixed icon for a fortified defense against intrusion; it also stands a symbol of failure as a defense against cultural exchange. Acclaimed filmmaker Yimou Zhang contributed a segment to Lumière and Company (1995) that features two Chinese artists atop the Great Wall. One performs traditional music while the other dances in historical attire. Seconds into the sequence, the performers transform into a go-go dancer and flailing rock guitarist. Rock-and-roll quickly achieved what hordes of barbarians could not.
What would a United States look like with borders, but no frontier? Turner’s famous 1893 thesis declared the frontier “closed” and pondered the meaning of a post-frontier world with no battle line between what was secure and what was unknown. Nearly seven decades later, John F. Kennedy answered, “We stand today on the edge of a new frontier, . . . a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.” The young presidential candidate just as well could have been summarizing the complexities of the Mexico/U.S. border.
Ronald Reagan understood the fragility of borders decades later when he demanded, “Tear down this wall!” He recognized that the heavy lifting was nearly complete as so much of American culture, from Coca-Cola to democracy, already had poured over the barrier. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a student revolt against Nicolae Ceauşescu toppled the communist dictatorship in Romania. A Romanian colleague of mine put his life on the line then. Western television broadcasts were outlawed during those dangerous days leading to the overthrow, yet my friend never missed an episode of Dallas. Texans and Texas history inspired him and many other Romanian dissidents. They found heroes among those who signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, including Texans with names like Navarro, Ruis and Zavala.
Culture and history on either side of the Mexican/U.S. border are inextricably intertwined. So much has exchanged between Mexico and the U.S. that it often is difficult to know what—and sometimes who—belongs to which side of the dividing line. Perhaps history teaches us to focus on what we have in common rather than the differences, and of the inherent weaknesses of walls.
Piero Fenci’s study of a peculiar and eccentric barrier is a metaphor for all borders. La Cerca explores the psychological and physical walls we create in response threats, whether real or imagined. La Cerca is a brilliant exploration of what barriers mean. On a personal level, La Cerca is a cautionary tale that asks us to examine our own perceptions of the physical and psychological borders between others and us. La Cerca also asks us to examine the physical and psychological borders between our two nations, and perhaps the futility of separation.
As we consider the view from both sides of a border, perhaps we can move beyond the “unfulfilled hopes and threats” to discover the “unknown opportunities and paths” of a new frontier between our neighbors and us. The states of Chihuahua and Texas share so much more than history. The future is one filled with opportunities and paths. La Cerca represents one of those opportunities to establish a path between people on either side of a common fence.
Dr. Scott Robinson