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Arts & Culture

Remembering Artist Italo Scanga

The artist Italo Scanga in his San Diego studio.
The artist Italo Scanga in his San Diego studio.
Remembering Artist Italo Scanga
The Oceanside Museum of Art remembers artist Italo Scanga, who lived and worked in San Diego for many years. We'll talk about the work and career of this internationally acclaimed visual artist.

Italo Scanga is often described as an alchemist, an artist who created sculptures that referenced high art despite being made of the most mundane found objects. Scanga died in 2001 in his Pacific Beach studio after an impressive career of international acclaim. With the Oceanside Museum of Art hosting an exhibit of Scanga's sculpture, we'll talk about the artist's work and passion for objects.

An exhibit titled “Looking for a Miracle? Italo Scanga” is currently on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art through August 21st. On Saturday, there will be a panel discussion about the artist, which will include our guests. The discussion begins at 2pm at the Oceanside Museum of Art.


Robert Pincus is an art critic and writer.


Ernest Silva is a professor in the visual arts department at UCSD.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: For many years, a cluttered busy studio in Pacific Beach was the home of native Italian artist, Italo Scanga, before his death in 2001, Scanga pushed the boundaries between artist and craftsman. He work said in many different mediums as a parent, sculptor and class maker, but his hallmark was using objects he found into his work, and in the process, elevating miscellany into high art. The Oceanside museum of art is presenting an exhibit of sculptures by Italo Scanga, and here to talk about the artist's work are my guests. Robert Pincus is an art critic and writer. Bob, good morning.

PINCUS: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ernest silva is a professor in the visual arts department at UCSD. Good morning Ernest?

SILVA: Good morning.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the ways I thought it might be best to give listeners I point of reference for Scanga is is to describe his studio. It sounds like it was a fantastic place to visit, bob, tell us what it was like inside Italo Scanga 's studio.

PINCUS: Well, I'll give my impression, I'm sure Ernie would like to give his as well. But my impression was, it just had like, these sort of wonderful, you know, conglomerations of objects everywhere you turned. Some of them were his object, and the other ones were objects waiting to be used. Because he was a -- I have to say probably an obsessive collector of things because he had a belief that all of these things would eventually end up in his art.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kinds of things could you see in there?

PINCUS: You could find brass ducks, you could find candleabras, you could find any kind of wonderful kitsch that you could probably imagine. And it didn't -- he'd seem to have it all very categorized, although I couldn't quite tell what the categories were.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ernest, what was it like to spend time in this studio?

SILVA: Well, there was something always going on. Anditialo was a very complex man and a very vibrant man, so each of the studios I had a chance to visit, there was always a kitchen, he was always preparing food, and what you would find is if he was in the swap meet on the weekend, there could be a cobbler's tool that was, you know, maybe manufactured in 1900, and along with it would be an imagine of a madonna, and you know, a shoetree from -- that was constructed 50 the years ago, and a bird house that was 20 years ago, so there was always a sense of pots and pans and objects and works of art.


SILVA: Everything, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sounds like a wonderfully productive place, give us a sense, if you would, bob, of the range of media, the range of Italo Scanga as an artist.

PINCUS: I think range is definitely the word you want to start with. Because he seemed to love all media, in other words he just like sculpture was wonderful, painting, prints, you know, in a way I felt like he saw things in terms of the object almost as an icon, and the icon could make its way from sculpture to painting. So he loved to paint what I perceived to be cypress trees, which reminded him, of course, of his roots in southern Italy, inicalabia, but he could just as well, you know, make them out of chain, bicycle chains, and make them into a contour and a sculpture. Soap it was like these things spilled over from media to media to media.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you also talked about, bob, the fact that he used found objects in his art. He was always on the hunt for those found objects of but tell us if you would, I want you both to chime in on this, how he would actually use them in his art. Let me start with you, bob.

PINCUS: Well, I would say that he often used them in very witty ways of I'm thinking of his candle stick series, where you'd often have -- it hooked like one thing balancing on top of another, on top of another. So you might have a duck on the bottom with a poem sticking out, and a tall candelabra on top of that, and it had kind of a beautiful sort of fragile sense of balance to it, and yet it could be very funny too. Of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Ernest, he's found objects, how did you see him incorporate them in art?

SILVA: Well, Italo as you said, was an obsessive collector. And once an object came into his studio, or he became fascinated with it, it was the object itself, and who the craftsman was that constructed it. Who was the maker that used it in a very work of art? What was the symbol? What was the metaphor? Did it have an echo of an art historical precedent? Was it reminiscent of the churches he grew up on the other hand in Calabria Italy as a young boy. So it was constantly, every object could have a relationship to a renaissance master piece, folk art, Picasso's constructions, everything was both object, symbol, and metaphor. And he was constantly telling stories through objects and images.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Because one of the things that he's famous for is taking these random bits of what other people might think of as junk and sort of elevating them because of the references that he used into high art. Would you agree?

PINCUS: Yeah, I'd say that everything -- he had a, from my experience, in talking to him, he had a very strong sense of everything from, you know, Greek mythology to Italian renaissance, you know, all the ways that things had been used as symbols. And you know, it was funny because I was thinking about this, and why -- aside from the fact he loved the si-Perez tree as a symbol of his own background, I was thinking -- I looked it up, and it said it was often the symbol of Artemis.


PINCUS: The Greek deity of birth and regeneration. And I felt like the way he used objects in a way, was a kind of regeneration of that object in his art.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Ernest, you taught with Italo at UCSD. I've heard that his critiques were quite interesting. Could you give us an example?

PINCUS: I want to hear about that too.


SILVA: Well, a critique that I remember, this critique probably took place in the early 1970s, and Italo was visiting the university of Rhode Island and actually talking to a friend of mine who was a sculptor who made kind of minimalist sculpture, very clean, very refined, geometric. And Italo's critique was the simple comment to put a potato under the sculpture, which for him meant, you know, go from a plattonist sense of purity and geometry, and get back to the earth, deal with sustenance, and simple things, and what sustains life from day to day. And he was constantly going towards opposites. I think it's really good to talk about renaissance painting and Greek and Roman mythology because Italo was very much somebody who had a very intense personal psychological life and was also always reaching out and comparing himself, and internalidesing and reexpressing, you know, when he saw in the master work. So for Italo the renaissance was Christian iconography, payingan iconography, the science of perspective, and there was always a sense in everything Italo did that it was science, symbol, poetry, and autobiography.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Bob, give us a sense of how Italo Scanga became mesh enmeshed in the art world of San Diego.

PINCUS: I saw him as a very warm person, he sort of embraced the idea of, you know, being -- extending his world out from academia into the community, and for example, he had that -- his own studio or one of his studios in Pacific Beach, and he loved Pacific Beach. And so therefore it was very natural for him to say, well, I want to support the Pacific Beach library because they're doing exhibitions. So to help them raise money he made a print for the library, which they could use to sell, and then I'm not sure if they came as gifts or whether they were acquired works, but there are sculptures still outside the library there. Because he felt like he was a part of that community as well as the university.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I just really want to get our listeners to understand the fact that, too, Italo Scanga worked in bronze, he worked in paint, he did some frescos, and he was also a glass artist. And in that, Ernest, he became great friends with the well known glass artist, Dale which I high schooly. Tell us a little bit about their relationship.

SILVA: Well, Dale and Italo were both teaching at the Rhode Island school of design, and I think that was some time in the 1960s. And Dale was, you know, always a technically gifted glass blower, and the collaboration of the two working together would be Italo's impulses and particular 19ing, Dale's impulses and technique, and Italo started to introduce some things that were completely impractical. He'd take a peasant tool from Pennsylvania farm country and ask Dale to blow glass through it. And you know, nine times out of ten the glass didn't have a glass to really heel, anneal, and it would explode. But some beautiful objects came out of it, so it was really challenge and provocation, and the multiplication of many realms, many symbols, and seductiveness of glass, and then embedding it in the symbolic and the everyday. So it was an extraordinary class action over many years.


PINCUS: I was just gonna add, in talking about the glass working it always reminds me that -- and we talked about how he used such a vast repertoire of symbols as well, and then on top of that, I would say he was a real incorporator of so many art styles. You'd say that most artists who would try to sort of use cubist ideas, you know, in contemporary art, that sounds sort of a little bit hackneyed. But he did it in such a beautiful, graceful way, incorporated everything from Russian constructivism, to cubism, to renaissance ideas, and it all seemed to be part of that Italo repertoire in a very natural, organic way.

SILVA: Yeah, when I think about the way Italo worked, it's the same way that I think about art museums. Is that you can see them as arcan I haves of the past, sore you can see them as in a way a geography of the human mind. And I think every imagine, every artifact, every museum that Italo every went to, he came away thinking that this is something of our universal heritage, we all have these thoughts, we all deal with these necessities, we all share similar fates. So there was always a sense of the mythic and the archetypal in everything that he did. Whether it was a cobbler's tool, or it was a renaissance painting issue it was something he lived through and he realized.

PINCUS: In one interview I remember doing with him, apropos of that he said talking about personality, and his work, he said, well, as Gertrude Stein said of James Joyce, he smells like a museum. And I think he thought that about himself. He was like a walking archive.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, we're here to talk about the exhibit, I mean, the reason that we've gathered here to talk about Italo Scanga is because there's a new exhibit of his work at the Oceanside museum of art. But I'm wondering, can people see his art on permanent display elsewhere in San Diego? You mentioned that there are some sculptures where his old studio was, in -- in Pacific Beach?

PINCUS: No, actually the branch library, in Pacific Beach, there's a few pieces there as well. And unless I'm mistaken, I hope it's still up, there was a piece he did for the airport for the international terminal that was quite place, incorporating both glass work and paintings called continents that was done, I think it finished in 2001, the same year that he died. Go ahead.

SILVA: So the Pacific Beach library, and also Shiley eye center, which is on the campus of UCSD, in their lobby, there's multiple Italo Scanga pieces. Two dimensional and three dimensional.

THE COURT: Wonderful, okay.

SILVA: And there's -- before I forget, there's gonna be a show of Italo's work at the Athenium in La Jolla in June, which is gonna are very exciting.

THE COURT: Okay, well, a lot of places that people can go, but I want to let everybody know that this exhibit, titled looking for a miracle, Italo Scanga is currently on view at the Oceanside museum of art through August twist. And this Saturday, there will be a panel about this artist, which will include our guests, and will apparently be very informative and lively, the discussion begins at 2:00 PM, as I said, the the Oceanside museum ever art. Robert Pincus, Ernest Silva, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SILVA: Thank you.

PINCUS: Thank you very much.