These are two ceramic pieces which embody some of the key features of the artist’s oeuvre. As such, this is an interesting chance to delve into the production of a key figure of the Italian 20th century, which she has contributed to shaping throughout her outstanding, long career.
Lai was born in 1919 in Ulassai, Sardinia, and from there she travelled extensively throughout Italy. She studied fine arts in Rome and, once of age, she enrolled in the Accademia di Belle Arti of Venice. In the coming years, she often returned to the capital to exhibit her works, first in 1957 with Obelisk Gallery and later in 1971 at Galleria Schneider. She thus led her life between Cagliari and Rome before finally returning to Sardinia in 1993, when she moved to the rural town of Cardedu.
The two works presented at auction are a clock and an assemblage made of hand-painted ceramic and twine mounted over a cardboard panel. In both cases, the material resonates with Lai’s broader oeuvre, which also includes creations based on embroidery and fabric constructions. Indeed, her works always present notable textural qualities and fully express their visual potential when observed and handled in close proximity. Her technique also presents an alternative approach to sculpture in the second half of the 20th century and show the influence of the Arte Povera movement, which invited artists to reconsider traditional materials. Indeed, with Arte Povera the art-making process of Italian artists became more conceptual and detached from the realm of tradition. In the two works included in the catalogue, Lai sets the soft and malleable quality of ceramic in opposition to the hardness and durability of bronze, stone, and marble which otherwise dominate the history of Western sculpture.
The clock (lot. 23) presents a peculiar union between a utilitarian object and a work of art. The irregular outlines of the ceramic base make the reading difficult and aleatory, reminding of Salvador Dali’s famous soft clocks, whose meaning is rooted in the relative flow of time. At the same time, the brownish tones of the plate remind of the second object, Catturando Spiritelli (lot 111). In this case, the work of art was made using simple, found materials combined with the hand-painted ceramic plate. These are twine and a cardboard base. The work itself emerges in its simplicity and presents the process of transformation that has defined contemporary art since the 1970s, when international artists such as Judy Chicago have begun re-evaluating the importance of techniques previously related to the field of the decorative arts. Lai’s work follows such developments and brings them to a further step during the 1990s.
Catturando Spiritelli (Chasing Fairies) refers to the rich cultural substrate that Lai acquired through her Sardinian upbringing. The materials stem from what she has called the “prehistoric” identity of her land, which has survived in the rural context of Ulassai, where the artist staged several creative projects. These included her most famous work, Legarsi alla montagna (1981), where she used a long thread made of jeans fabric to link together the local houses in a relational experience that also involved the locals. In this way, she made physically visible the daily interactions that constitute the fabric of every town and city. In the two given works, the colours of her ceramics (white, dark brown) remind of the rocky landscape and the mountains that surround Ulassai. Therefore, Lai’s oeuvre becomes a medium for the Sardinian spirit and traditions, not only through the chosen materials but also through the visual evidence of the artist’s own experience, which is embedded in her creations.
The two works included in the catalogue outline the oeuvre of an artist whose long career embodies the essential dichotomy at the core of Italian modern art, which is indeed capable of interpreting the most revolutionary tendencies coming from the international art world while maintaining a close connection with the local sphere. In the case of Lai, this is the Sardinian countryside, her homeland. Indeed, the two ceramic works fully embody this creative model.