Pilot Projects

Since he was a boy, Luca Buvoli has dreamed of flying. Not in the mundane manner familiar to most of us, queuing up to board an airplane in pursuit of business or pleasure. His dream is the old Icarian dream of slipping the bounds of earth and flying under his own power. He comes by this dream naturally, you might say. Voli, in Italian, means "you fly." His father was a test pilot in the Italian Air Force, an uncle was a WWII pilot, and, to really clinch it, his mother's maiden name is Leva, an archaic word that means "she is lifting off." Factor in his childhood love of comic book superheroes, most of whom could fly (or, with their acrobatics, pretty damn near), and you can begin to appreciate the powerful hold that this dream has had on his imagination when you visit two current exhibits, "Flying: Preparatory Exercises," at the Glassell School of Art, and "Flight Simulation Laboratory," at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery.

Luca Buvoli was born in Brescia, Italy, in 1963 and holds a diploma in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in 1985, a master's from SUNY Albany in 1989, and a master of fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1991. He has received numerous awards, grants and fellowships, including a Fulbright Scholarship in 1988 and a Pollock-Krasner Award in 2001. Though he's based in New York City, he's had ample opportunity in the last few years to become well acquainted with Houston.

The show at the Glassell is dominated by a large resin sculpture in the center of the gallery, suspended from the ceiling. But the point of departure for the uninitiated is the film installation in a small room off the main space. Classroom: showing film Flying -- Practical Training for Beginners is just that: neat rows of school desks oriented toward the wall on which Buvoli's 1999 film is projected. The film takes us into another classroom and another film, showing "the 33-step method based on aerodynamic research developed and presented by Professor M.a.S." As class begins, the professor reminds us that there are stringent physical limitations to human flight, and you're thinking, "Well, there you go, then. Class dismissed." But not so fast. Step 2 asserts that, through study and experimentation, the physical laws governing movement "in diverse mediums" now allow humans to practice aerial locomotion.

The student is now directed to discover a "field to survey" where body movements or "elaborations of thought are possible." This field must contain two adjacent areas: the imaginary and the real. Where the fields meet, Professor M.a.S. asserts, flight is possible, and the rest of the 33-step program teaches the student the necessary mechanics, with technical terminology (The Kick, The Catch, The Pull, Arm Recovery) and illustrative graphics and schema, all in reassuringly low-tech animation. Finally, the student is promised "pure flying," but only after considerable practice, "when rhythm has become the sole and unique mode of action." The lecture leaves the world of mechanics and technology and enters the realm of transcendent philosophy. Professor M.a.S. speaks now of "the work," activity that becomes its own reason, to be done "tirelessly and for no reason" other than the work, a constant seeking for the "affirmative No," which rejects achievement in favor of the work.

For Buvoli, then, flying is a metaphor for artistic practice. And it's a pretty metaphor, as Shakespeare might say, both well made -- he admits the obvious at the outset, then sweeps you into the idea anyway -- and thought-provoking. Moving smoothly, even seamlessly, between the real and the imaginary is the task of the artist. Consider the steps concerned with breathing. The neophyte is instructed to inhale in the real and exhale in the imaginary; in other words, to take experience and do something with it, to rework the real in the imagination. For the artist, each of these "fields" informs the other.

Toward the end of the film, a yellow helix makes a brief appearance, with a figure gliding up the spiral before flying off. That helix takes tangible form in one corner of Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, where we discover that it's a Flight Simulator (Helix) (2002). Composed of acrylic, wire, metal and plastic tubing, and suspended and supported by monofilament, it's a light, ethereal sculpture, grounded by the horizon and vector lines "drawn," with incredibly thin black tubing, on the wall behind it. At the top it flares off, like our flyer in the film, and as the helix draws your eye up the spiral, you do "simulate" the act of flight, if only imaginatively.

At the opposite corner of the gallery, high on the wall, is a cluster of small colorful sculptures. From a distance, they look like birds or insects crashing into the wall. Or planes. Get up close, though, and you discover that they are simple human figures, made of resin, arms spread as though flying, with a kind of draft or wake extending behind them. These Provectors (2002-2003) are emerging from the wall, not crashing into it. They are reminiscent of the figure that illustrates the principles of flying in the film, but there is something less innocent about these flyers. Though only approximately six to eight inches in height, they have a forceful energy. A few have escaped the cluster, and they draw our attention to the Propaganda Posters (2003).

Since 9/11, Buvoli's project has changed. The metaphor of flight has lost some of its innocence and taken on darker resonances. He's begun to think about the power of flight and the uses of flight to power. Remember that an uncle of his flew in the Italian Air Force in WWII. The Propaganda Posters recall the appropriation of art and aesthetics by Mussolini's Fascist Party during the 1930s. One of the posters, Adapting One's Sense, is explicitly about adapting your senses to flying (humans didn't evolve with flight in mind) but is also, perhaps, implicitly about adapting to changing power structures and relationships and rules. Another poster, Flying for Intermediates, suggests that we've left the elementary grades and are headed for middle school.

Flying for Intermediates takes us back to the Glassell, where a slightly larger drawing from this series, titled the same, bridges the space between the film installation in the small gallery and the sculpture, Vector Blue (Remembering the End of Future) (2003), that was created for this space. It's big brother to the Provectors at Borden Butler, which is evident at the southern end of the sculpture. But here, the flyer's wake describes his path through time, like a contrail. He rockets in over the north wall of the open room in the center of the Glassell's cavernous space, buzzes around in the space like a fly trapped in a jar, before arcing over the south wall and release. The vertiginous angles of his wake recall the Italian futurists -- and their great modern subjects, motion and speed -- a movement particularly co-opted (not always unwillingly) by Mussolini's Fascist government. (You can compare Buvoli's sculpture with some of the futurists included in the MFAH's MoMA exhibit across the street -- especially Giacomo Balla's painting Swifts: Paths of Movement + Dynamic Sequences of 1913.) With this latest work, Buvoli is steering toward provocative -- and troubling -- coordinates. One waits, in anticipation tinged with a little dread, for advanced classes in flying.

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John Devine