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There is a photograph hanging on the wall of Orazio’s studio that he took over 20 years ago on his family’s land in Italy. It is not a view of the sloping hills or the olive trees or the mountains in the distance; the camera is pointed straight down at the earth beneath his feet, capturing the dirt: dry, cracked and uneven, strewn with sticks, bits of straw and small stones. This land, his earth, has always been central to Orazio’s work. 

His earlier series, Terra, explored this geography in maps, both imaginary and personal, using handmade lime paint, pigments, oil pastel and graphite. For his new work, Terra Bruciata, Orazio takes on the role of alchemist. Alchemy or Al-kemi derived from the Arabic/Egyptian meaning “divine chemistry” or possibly “black earth”. Simply, it was the process of transforming base metals into gold. But it was so much more than that. It was an early form of the investigation of nature and and ancient path of purification and transformation. It was a seemingly magical process of a combination of materials, a burning off process and a transmutation or metamorphosis.

For this new work, Orazio collected buckets of dirt from the street being excavated outside his Brooklyn studio. He combined the dirt with crushed charcoal, bits of straw and ash, then took this mixture and pressed it onto 500 pound watercolor paper, making a thick durable surface. This is the prima materia to which he then adds handmade lime paint, earth pigments and shellac. To this, he takes a blowtorch; the fire setting off an alchemical/chemical reaction, creating a deeply encrusted surface, rich with color and rare patinas. By combining and experimenting with raw, organic natural materials and utilizing the four elements: earth, air, water and fire, Orazio has succeeded in creating objects of rare beauty, evocative of place, emotion and breathtaking experience.

Linda Marchisotto

Orazio calls them “Terra Bruciata”, scorched earth. They are that, factually, burned into existence with a delicately handled blowtorch. But they are more than simply seared soil welded into thick paper. They are the track and trail of Orazio’s physical and spiritual engagement with the land. It is a land as actively alive as any animal, but a gorgeous, ferocious beast. The southern Apennines where Orazio was born and grew up are what geologists call orogenic , upthrustings from tectonic plates: restless dragons, breathing fire. He retains that environment in mind through all his decades in New York City. In Orazio’s work, a lively awareness of his birthplace and youth conjoins with what is here and now. The view of the landscape in the background of Leonardo’s paintings, where the land gives way to infinity, has always captivated and inspired Orazio. In his work, however, he moves his “landscape” from being a view from afar to a tangible experience of dirt and eternity. He goes directly into earth and sky: the heart of the matter. The materials he finds to use are active substances with which he established an intimate relationship: rare 500 pound paper nearly as thick as cardboard and soil rescued at night from city street improvement excavations, its stew of detritus as old as the City. Into the mix, he adds crushed charcoal, straw and ash. These elements are mixed and pressed into the paper, becoming as thick as leather. Then he paints over this dried surface with handmade lime colors, raw pigments and shellac. Finally, everything is burned with the flame of a blowtorch, creating a chemical reaction, a rich patina and a crackled surface. In one piece the ground of that heavy paper, impregnated and bearing the load of New York earth, supports blue pigment tumbling down like a waterfall to burned over reds. In another, a light mist of nearly white sweeps over peaks, dark like cooled down lava. In yet another, mist and cloud-like whites and grays are sky that is crackled like dry chalky earth. Who seeing those white and gray patchy edges would not imagine clouds? Who, seeing them would not remember drought-dry earth under foot? It is an evocative kinetic stretch. Orazio stretches us into yet another dimension: there on the wall, views of a memory of mountains and water and sky made palpable with city earth here and now - the invisible brought to light.

LeGrace Benson

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