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Body Language: The Visual Poetry of Ketty La Rocca

At Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London, two series of work from the 1970s show the late artist’s playful, powerful intertwining of text and image

‘It is not the time for women to make declarations; they have too much to do,’ wrote Ketty La Rocca in 1974, ‘and then they would have to use a language that is not theirs, within a language that is as alien to them as it is hostile.’ Associated with the poesia visiva (visual poetry) movement and the avant-garde activities of the Florentine Gruppo 70, La Rocca began making subversive visual-verbal collages in the 1960s, cutting and pasting images together with short text clippings to critique patriarchal norms. She had struggled to establish herself as a female artist and this work, literally, read as an alternative to male discourse, writing her into existence.

The issues around which women were organizing across the world during the period of women’s liberation were particularly amplified in Italy, with complex issues left over from Benito Mussolini’s fascist ideology, which had sought to suppress, silence and subjugate women. Campaigns of resistance included the Wages for Housework movement, along with introducing a law for divorce, reforming family laws and regulating birth control and abortion. Although often framed within the broad scope of women artists using the body as a subject or medium in the 1970s, La Rocca tended to avoid nudity or exhibitionism – as disparaged by contemporary critics including Lucy Lippard – for a more abstract conceptual practice, focusing on bodily expression through gesture and language.

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Ketty La Rocca, installation view, 2018, Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London. Courtesy: Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London

 The exhibition at Amanda Wilkinson brings together two of La Rocca’s later series – she died aged 38 in 1976 – the riduzioni (‘Reductions’) and craniologie (‘Cranial X-rays’) from 1973–74. The latter are exhibited in the centre of the space, hung from the ceiling, with the riduzioni on the walls. By the early 1970s, La Rocca’s iconography had become acutely finessed, collapsing photography, drawing and text, and using paper, Perspex, found photographs and x-ray film. While La Rocca never photographed herself directly, in some of the riduzioni she uses images of herself in the midst of making work, either her hands, or with her back to the camera, always obscured somehow. In others, she took found postcards and photographs picked up from markets as a starting point. There is a nude women at her toilette, another shows a wedding dress. Each riduzioni depicts a similar logic. La Rocca follows the basic outline of the original image by hand onto a separate sheet of paper, using handwritten words. This is then traced again, the words replaced with a simple graphic line in differing weights, one thick and the other thin. The process reduces the original image to its most basic form, dissolved and translated into her own bodily, written gesture.

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Ketty La Rocca, Craniologia 5, 1973, 2 parts, overlapped, x-ray and handwriting on plexiglass, 70 x 50 cm. Courtesy: Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London

La Rocca’s presence is indexed by these traces – her sloping and cursive handwriting – as in the craniologie x-rays of her own skull and hands. The aesthetic of the craniology – the reversal of light and dark, the positive and negative – gives a sense of transparency, vulnerability to exposure. These images are mournful, too, when read retrospectively as memento mori. In two of the three works on show, La Rocca has replaced her own body with ancient African masks, including a Fang Ngil mask, elucidating an ongoing interest in spiritual transformation, ritual and relics. In Craniologia 5 (1973), La Rocca has superimposed her finger over the image of her cranium. The position of the finger looks almost as if it is poised to ‘shh’. Around the edges of the form, she has written ‘you’, ‘you’, ‘you’, again and again, like mantra. When La Rocca writes ‘you’, does she mean ‘me’? And, in viewing her work, is it ‘I’ that imposes this distance between us, between the artist and the viewer?

Ketty La Rocca, ‘The Ritual of Gesture’ runs at Amanda Wilkinson Gallery, London until 27 September.

Main image: Ketty La Rocca, Nudo di donna, 1974, 5 parts, photo and ink on paper, 21 × 82 cm. Courtesy: Amanda Wilksonson Gallery, London

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.

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