Let me try and describe this to you. Walking into Tony Romano’s show at Clint Roenisch gallery you see a poster for a film and a welded bench inviting you to sit and watch the short film that plays before you. The film is an ode to How it’s Made and shows the deconstruction of a Universal Carrier, a small armored tank from the 40’s, and the reincarnation of its parts melted down in a foundry to make the bench that you are seated on. The film’s Looney Tunes score, which Tony orchestrated, gives it a slapstick, perilous, mad scientist, Frankenstein air that gave me real tears of laughter. The metal was also transformed into a new railing for a Legion in Whitby, Ontario, which is shown in a small photograph on the wall. Entering into the main gallery space, there is a bright blue stage presenting several striking sculptures positioned like actors or like tinkling ballerinas pirouetting in a jewelry box. The sculptures have also come to life out of the dismembered tank’s steel, and Tony talks about the karma of reinventing a material once used for violence and transforming it into art. His research of the warfare efforts of WWII—wherein many peaceful objects like benches and railings were turned into munitions and tanks during a steel shortage—inspired him to work in this reversed, metamorphic way. The work is incredibly romantic. The idea of a purely mechanistic universe, the hard material world of objects and impacts, and the favouring of a softer dynamic of mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change, is wondrous and child-like. It reminds me of the Romantic Revolution and the endeavours and adventures of the romantic spirit: ballooning, soul-hunting and, of course, vitalism. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein keeps coming to mind with this alchemy of gothic, romantic, sci-fi and theatrical elements. As a boy, Tony grew up in a family of woodworkers and metalworkers and is fascinated by the ever-changing nature of objects. His sculptures suggest aspects of his life: a garden, a sleeping woman, an artist’s studio with tools and self-portraits. Tony has created a fantastical realm which is altogether brave, spiritual, and heart-breakingly charming.
Here we ask him a few questions, present his short film, and provide show documentation.
Is the sequencing of the show in chronological order from the point of entering the gallery? I understand this work was completed over two years—starting with the deconstruction of the tank and the reincarnation of the steel into the bench, the railings for the legion, the sculptures in white and red, and then lastly, closer to installation, the sculptures painted black. Is this true? Very curious about the process.
Yes it is. The show took some time to make. After I bought the tank it took a while to find the right foundry to melt it. I needed the ability to just melt my tank and not mix it with other metals, but I also needed a big enough foundry that could cast what I needed. After the metal was casted I made the bench and railing for the legion. I asked them if I could replace their railing, so I told them about my project and they were into it. But then I had to put the project on hold. I had a few exhibitions but I was mainly working on a feature film which I co-directed with Corin Sworn called the The Coat. It took up most of my time for a full year. We filmed in Italy and there was a lot of travel back and forth. So after that I began to finish the project.
Let me tell you a bit about the project. As a young boy I always worked in a metal shop with my dad. I started welding when I was in grade 7 at my Dad’s shop. I remember when I was even younger my dad built me a stool so I could reach the drill press. I have vivid memories of going to the metal scrap yards to discard our metal scraps from the shop and seeing mountains of metal objects like bikes, cars, stoves. They were objects of a recent history. The idea of seeing these objects that would then be melted down and returned back to a kind of blank slate, raw steel, void of any meaning, kind of blew my mind as a kid. I remember going back to the shop and working with steel knowing that it was once another meaning and my little brain exploding. The history of this constant reincarnation of metal is ancient and kind of always associated with war. I researched the Second World War and the metal drives by European and North American countries was very interesting to me. Even Toronto had many public debates over which fences and sculptures to melt down. It was a kind of recycle effort to show your patriotism. Donated metal to make tanks and armor. This tank which I bought was Canadian, made by Ford, and most likely parts of it were from these drives. But anyways what I was more interested in was this kind of karmic energy in objects. What do we make as a society? What objects have meaning? What gets saved? How easily things die and get reborn. It’s a constant flowing river and I was interested in the energy that moves it.
Do you give names to your sculptures, like pet names or gallery titles? I loved reading that each piece was a fragment of your life “complete with garden, kitchen, a muse, a sleeping lover, a studio with tools.”
The title of the collection of sculptures in the back space is Kissed By a Mule. I’ve always been obsessed by mules. The mule for me is the saddest animal because they are always the end of the line, bred only for work. Made from a donkey and horse, they are sterile animals and cannot reproduce. I once met a man that told me a story that the first time he saw his father cry was when his mule died. The mule is a recurring image in my work. From when I was a child I’ve spent a lot of time in the south of Italy and the mule was a symbol of labor, and for me a symbol of the people of the south. I think a lot about the misery and poverty that existed in the south in which my family grew up. While making this show I was reading Ernesto De Martino and his research into the mysticism of the southern villages of Italy. Influenced by his writing, the shadow figures in the back room became these sort of terroni spirits of labor.
Can you tell me about the last sculpture, with the veil? I think it’s your self-portrait. It reminded me of the Tarot card “The High Priestess,” where she sits in front of draped fabric veiling whatever mysteries she guards.
Oh that is nice, I just looked up what that card looks like. I’ve never done a Tarot card reading, it is too scary for me. But I think of the whole show as a self-portrait. I think a lot about the creative act within us. I think a lot about my day to day and my labor as a welder/carpenter and my labor as an artist.
How did you choose to present the works like a “cobalt-lined jewel box”?
I definitely want to create a theatrical stage. I thought of the blue room as the Bardo state, which in Tibetan Buddhism is the intermediate world where your consciousness goes before it is reborn into another life form. It’s a scary place and it’s what you prepare for your whole life. I created the colorful sculptures out of the pieces of tank that I didn’t melt down. They exist in this limbo state of being. Formally, I like the idea of not being able to go around the object in the way you experience a theatrical play. I wanted the viewer to create their own narrative. I wanted the blue of the morning sky before the sun rises.
An element that I wasn’t expecting was the comedic soundtrack from the film, which carried over and became the soundtrack for the sculpture. I read that you orchestrated it yourself? I’d love to hear more about the soundtrack and your intentions.
I pieced together sounds from cartoon animations. I want to offset the seriousness of the video. Also there are obvious references to that TV show about how things are made. I was also looking at these amazing British shorts made in the 1970’s called Look at Life, you should watch them. They document Britain and the new growing developments in the country, like highways, cars and escalators.
Could you tell me about the dismembered and sometimes melted or chewed female body parts?
The figures in black are the shadows on the creator, the guide through the Bardo. The creative spirit that labors and that cannot be defined. I wanted all the black shadow sculpture to represent one being.
What were you listening to or watching leading up to the show? I’m curious where your inspiration comes from.
I’m trying to think about what I was reading around that time, I was kind of all over the place, reading Ludwig Wittgenstein and Kobayashi Issa, and rereading some Soren Kierkegaard. But also watching a lot of bad movies.
What’s up next for you?
I’m not sure what’s next for me. I’m working on a few different projects, a children’s book and a new film. Maybe I should ask a Tarot deck.
New Work: 2014-2016 is up now until February 25th, 2017
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