Willy Verginer creates life-size sculptures layered with humour as the hook

Italian sculptor Willy Verginer chisels wood to make realistic figures that react to serious contemporary issues.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Sep 14, 2020

“As a child, once during a stroll I saw a man busy painting a canvas, and I curiously asked who he was. My father said he was an artist,” says Willy Verginer when asked about his earliest interest in art. Something struck deep within him that day. On telling his father that he too would like to become an artist, his father said “…but that is not a job”. Several years later, Verginer is a sought-after sculptor and has his life committed to art.

Chimica del pensiero | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
Chimica del pensiero Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

He grew up in a small town in north Italy, that housed baroque sculptors through 17th and 18th century. Val Gardena became a major centre for wood carving, but the focus remained religious renditions. This had an influence on the impressionable mind, but Verginer decided to tread a different path with his work. His figurative sculptures are always made with a live model in front and conceptually the installations react to contemporary events. Man’s abuse to environment has been a recurring theme in Verginer’s recent works.

STIR speaks with him about his process and fascination for the absurd as a point to attract the attention of his viewers.

il sorriso dell agnello | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
il sorriso dell agnello Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

Rahul Kumar (RK): Why figures? Are they representational, actual portraits of people or made out of your imagination?

Willy Verginer (WV): It is interesting that you ask this. Actually, I began my practice with abstract wood sculptures. They would be simple forms, usually accompanied with tree branches. In that period, as well as now, I greatly admired the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone for his large-scale tree sculptures, and the association with art movement, Arte Povera. However, it began to feel to me that it was not ‘my way’. It felt like a dead-end street. It is then that I began with portraits. Initially, the portraits were commissioned requests, mostly of children. But gradually my artwork also revolved around portrait sculptures. My figures are of people of my area. Most often young people who attend the art institute of my city, boys and girls who are happy to be models so they could see how the sculpture is made. I always work with live models.

Komm lieber Mai und mache | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
Komm lieber Mai und mache Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

RK: It is intriguing to see only part of your works painted. It is almost as though they are drowning. What is the conceptual reference for this renditioning?

WV: I think colour is the most important part of my work. In art school I studied painting and not sculpting. The colour I use overwhelms my figures. It does not underline a narration, but the narration itself revolves, questions and changes with this additional visual. A tension, a conflict, as well as unity and harmony occur between colour and wood.

Colour often has a symbolic value. I often use a range of colours according to the symbolism, or in connection with a specific expression, but it is not a rule; sometimes I also use a completely opposite colour (something that is counter intuitive) to surprise the viewer. I want the viewer to feel liberated and think with their own head, applying their vision to it. People have their own cultural understanding. I like that a work is not too prescriptive in its message, but contains hints. I prefer a work that can have many interpretations.

Verschiedene Holzarten | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
Verschiedene Holzarten Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

RK: Please talk about your process, both how you conceive or plan your sculptures and then how do you go about making the work?

WV: I use the chainsaw and other woodworking machines to reduce manual effort, but most of my work is done with chisels and files. The same tools and the same way of working as the wooden sculptures were made in 1300s! I do not use whole logs, the tronchi (Italian for trunk) must be cut into thick boards and aged for five years. Then the boards are glued into one single block. Once the block is formed, I start sculpting with the chainsaw. First step is to remove the most inconsistent parts with the chainsaw, and then I sculpt with a mallet and chisel. The work becomes more and more precise and detailed as I work along. In the last phase of the process, I use files and sandpaper. And finally, the paint is added to the sculpture.

Willy Verginer at his studio | STIRworld
Willy Verginer at his studio Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer
Adesso è piu normale, adesso è meglio, adesso è giusto | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
Adesso è piu normale, adesso è meglio, adesso è giusto Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

RK: Several of your works have an element of surrealistic component or those that evoke a sense of humour, sometimes even absurdity. How would you like your viewers to engage with this aspect in your work?

WV: I don’t like when people see me as a surrealist. The surreal movement had the concept very different from what I try to achieve. However, humour and absurdity is very important for me. Both help to see the reality better. My greatest effort and my greatest research focus on not remaining fossilised on the naturalistic representation of the figure, but on giving something more. Through a dreamlike study, or better still absurd, rather than fantastic, because I often see real situations it is those that stimulate and greatly influence my work. Paradox is also a source of inspiration for me. For example, the work of the donkey with the child crying and the shit of gold - this was born from the crisis situation that started in America, with the collapse of the banks. This banking world and the whole connected system was so absurd that it led me to recreate an equally absurd situation, starting from a really existing fact, from a real social problem.

ricordi di una stanza | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
ricordi di una stanza Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

RK: Given the life-scale of your work, and the hyper realistic renditioning with details of expressions, there is a sense of theatrics in your art. Would you agree?

WV: Absolutely, I agree. I personally have no interest in theatre, definitely not through my art. But given the life-size works I create…the viewer is confronted one-to-one with the figure. And that context does put the audience itself in the same space in correspondence to the work.

La notte di San Lorenzo (detail)| Willy Verginer | STIRworld
La notte di San Lorenzo (detail) Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

RK: You are trained as a painter. Have you considered making two-dimensional works?

WV: Actually no. It is a great advantage if you can work with the space, the three-dimensional work gives me a lot more possibilities. When painting, you are always tied to the wall.

Willy Verginer | Willy Verginer | STIRworld
Willy Verginer Image: Courtesy of Willy Verginer

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