Twisted Fate 

One artist’s take on reality and fatality.

Such an honor is difficult to top, but a solo museum exhibit comes close. As we chat on the sofa, technicians are everywhere — hanging sculptures, touching up paint and tending to last-minute details. But despite the eleventh-hour activity, Lazzarini exudes the same qualities he praises in the museum staff mounting his exhibit: “gracious, warm and generous.”

“This is an unbelievable honor,” he tells me with humility that confounds a slew of young, hotshot, artist-on-the-make stereotypes. He’s a genuinely likeable guy — and not nearly as weird as his work.

Lazzarini makes some of the most visually stunning art of recent years — immaculately crafted works that merge elements of realism, abstraction and conceptual art into a single form. Each piece is a life-size replica of a familiar object — a chair, a skull, a hammer — that has been stretched and distorted into a bizarre new shape that strains the eye and confuses the brain. His sculptures retain the essential characteristics of their sources, but have been formally reconfigured according to the loopy physics of some extradimensional realm.

But for all their sci-fi morphing and high-tech razzle-dazzle, there’s nothing shallow or “one-liner” about these very thoughtful works.

“My current work grew out of thinking about the temporality of things and my emotional response to that idea,” Lazzarini says. “I want the works to suggest these introspective, dark notions about how things pass.”

They do. While their “solidity” as sculptural objects implies permanence, their “instability” as shape-shifted forms points to the ephemeral. Lazzarini calls them “objects slipping towards their own demise,” and like the elongated skull of Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” (1533) or the melting timepieces of Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931), they describe a reality influx. But Lazzarini’s warping of form and perception is inexorably tied to his own era of cyberspace, genetic engineering, chaos theory and postmodern relativism — an unsteady reality that makes those earlier iconic mind-benders seem comparatively quaint.

These remarkable objects are difficult to make. “The process is extremely dense,” he explains. “In most cases it’s designed digitally, fabricated using industrial processes, and then there’s usually some sort of hand finishing that takes place.” Collaboration is essential to this multitiered process, and the artist has worked with a variety of engineers and artisans, including a gunsmith and a violin maker, to maximize the realism of his work. He further tweaks its mimetic quality by constructing each piece from the material of the represented object. So his “Skulls” (2002) are made of crushed animal bone and resin, while his “Hammers” (2000) are oak and steel — just like the Stanley claw model.

The complex, compound distortions are designed with computer technology and yield multiple views. These change as you move around the work, but never resolve into a coherent and geometrically rational image. No matter how many times you adjust the angle of your vision, the image won’t “correct” itself.

This disconcerting quality is partly what attracted Virginia Museum curator John Ravenal to Lazzarini’s art. “There’s something about a work,” he says, “where there’s this kind of intense involvement of the viewer that always interests me — where you can’t stay passive.” When Ravenal met the artist in 2001, he was struck by his intelligence and by the levels of meaning layered into his art. “There’s a lot of thinking, a lot of thought behind his work.”

In his catalog essay for the exhibit, Ravenal links Lazzarini to the 17th-century vanitas tradition of still-life painting, in which artists “often presented objects as emblems of life’s pleasures and accomplishments and, simultaneously, as reminders of life’s brevity.” It’s a resonant context for much of Lazzarini’s work, but the association is most powerful in “Skulls,” a quartet of distorted death’s heads that command a small room with eerie authority. Each faces the room’s center with empty sockets and frozen grin, mounted one to a wall on short, thin posts. Standing alone here is a disorienting experience — one that speaks volumes about the transience of life and our awkward relationship with its termination.

Lazzarini constructs his content like he constructs his sculptures — in a complex, multitiered fashion that is rich in possible meanings but never didactic. “The works are dense,” he says, “but there’s never a linear narrative.” Instead there are layers of associations — art historical, philosophical, psychological — that reveal themselves over time.

But for all their cultural sophistication, they are as down to earth as their maker. When I describe his work as “intellectually rigorous,” he gently takes exception. “I don’t know how rigorously intellectual my work really is,” he says. “I’m definitely looking at a lot of artists, but I’m not looking at a lot of theoreticians.” He is more comfortable when I describe it as “expressive” and “romantic,” and he becomes effusive when I suggest that its mind-boggling design and from-the-gut “wow!” quality are populist in spirit. “It’s very important to me that my work be accessible,” he insists. “I don’t want to be like a marginalized family member.”

It’s getting late, and the artist must return to the installation of his exhibit. But before I leave, I steer the conversation back to his labor-intensive process. How long, I ask, does an idea germinate in his mind before he takes any physical steps toward its creation?

“My subjects stay in a mental reservoir for a while, and I really mull them over,” he says. “There’s no object in the show that I probably didn’t think about for four or five years.”

He hopes his audience will mull them over as well — that the questions posed by the paradoxes in his work will remain stimulating for a long time. “It’s not like you have to digest it in one sitting,” he says, and then smiles through tired eyes. “If you live with it for 50 years the piece will unfold like a flower.” S

“robert lazzarini” is on display through Jan. 2 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, located at the Boulevard and Grove Avenue. Tickets cost $5.


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