Born in Loiano, Italy in 1969, Maurizio Anzeri studied Sculpture and Graphic Design at the Camberwell College of Fine Arts (1996 -99) and at The Slade School of Fine Art, London (2002-2005) obtaining an MA in Fine Art and Sculpture. He lives and works in London, England.
I work with sewing, embroidery and drawing to explore the essence of signs in their physical manifestation. I take inspiration from my own personal experience and observation of how, in other cultures, bodies themselves are treated as living graphic symbols. I then use sewing and embroidery in a further attempt to re-signify, and mark the space with a man-made sign, a trace. The intimate human action of embroidery is a ritual of making and reshaping stories and history of these people. I am interested in the relation between intimacy and the outer world.
“I put tracing paper over the photo and draw on the face until it develops. ……When I begin the stitching something else happens, drawing will never do what thread will.”
Round Midnight, 2009
Embroidery on print, 62 x 45 cm
Maurizio Anzeri makes his portraits by sewing directly into found vintage photographs. His embroidered patterns garnish the figures like elaborate costumes, but also suggest a psychological aura, as if revealing the person’s thoughts or feelings. The antique appearance of the photographs is often at odds with the sharp lines and silky shimmer of the threads. The combined media gives the effect of a dimension where history and future converge. The image used in Round Midnight is an early 20th century ‘glamour shot’ that at the time would have been considered titillating for both the girl’s nudity and ethnicity. Anzeri’s delicately stitched veil recasts the figure with an uncomfortable modesty, overlaying a past generation’s cross-cultural anxieties with an allusion to our own.
Previous work: Enduring Seconds
The Embroidered Secrets of Maurizio Anzeri
Shifting from his previous project to his current practice, Maurizio says that he is interested in everything a photograph represents. When travelling, he visits flea markets and collects photographs that are later transformed into pieces of art.His portraits maintain the quality of a photograph but then start to become three-dimensional something that prompted him to invent the term: ''photo-sculpture''. It is this three-dimensional element, achieved through embroidery and the form of intervention it brings that transforms the portraits into photo-sculptures.
Talking about photography as a media Maurizio explains that he is more interested in its use as an object and material rather than in its process. >> When we all look at a photograph, we somehow believe that we look at the truth or at some kind of reality but we know that it’s not, It’s just a moment << he says. Capturing a moment on that piece of paper is to Maurizio truly fascinating. >> We all still look at it as if it’s real. It’s trapped in there and it’s like you managed to cast some kind of magic spell on that piece of paper to entrap some kind of reality to use and reuse every time you look at it <<.
Vintage photographs without a doubt carry with them something from the past but to Maurizio, his work is not about preserving or celebrating the past. >> I don’t want to be nostalgic. When I work on them, to me they become very present. The catch is that at some point these photographs were to some people really important and suddenly they ended up in a box << he says. When confronted with his portraits it’s as if Maurizio wanted to create a passage for the character to escape from their present form. You can see that a part of them is still there and the other part has become something else. >> I think that what makes them work is that the image and the embroidery at the top feed each other, << he explains. He has no intention to cover or to erase. >> It’s about feeding another dimension << he says. For Maurizio, the physicality of puncturing a needle in the actual image ''is an action of penetration''. >> I have been told many times that one of the characteristics of my work is to cover when there is nothing to cover. And I like that and it’s not even hidden the fact that there is nothing to cover, << he explains.
His intimate relationship with the people in the photographs is so powerful that Maurizio seamlessly admits: >> I develop relationships with each one of them. It’s impossible not to<<. Almost all of his portraits are sentimentally charged objects and it’s obvious that he took great care of them even if the characters portray some kind of dark and eerie aspects. >> It’s a quality of the work that I respect << he says. >> Every time I decide it to do it on purpose it doesn’t work. It happens while I am working on them. Sometimes a moment can be dark <<.
The Italian-born, British-based Anzeri searches out vintage portraits in flea markets and junk shops, viewing them, he says, as landscapes on which to map out his own unique geography of suggestion. Faces are criss-crossed with coloured skeins, or patterned in curves and circles until they are barely visible. Sometimes the end result resembles an elaborate mask; at other times an interior landscape made by a latterday surrealist plundering his fertile unconscious. Here, the poignancy that attends all discarded photographs – remnants of another time, another life of which we know nothing – is literally covered over.
Anzeri has said that his embroidered images suggest "other possible evolutionary dimensions for the people pictured", but his work has a surrealist rather than a Darwinian undertow. Sombre-looking children and sophisticated adults take on an absurdist aspect. The people pictured all but disappear in the process, becoming shadows or outlines beneath the lines. What was once a portrait is something else entirely: a formal, sculptural, diagrammatic artwork in which identity and expression is camouflaged. Anzeri creates something new and surprising by applying an old-fashioned craft to old-fashioned artefacts.
The British artist Julie Cockburn also uses embroidery to alter found photographs, though her technique is often more wilfully childlike. She also applies marker pen, correction fluid and geometric plastic shapes that she finds in old toys and games from the 1960s and 70s. Where Anzeri uses Christian names as his titles – Giovanni, Peter, Angelo – Cockburn is more mischievous, calling a woman whose head has been covered in an embroidered net The Beekeeper. Another woman, whose face is concealed by what looks like long swathes of ice-cream coloured felt, has been rechristened Madame Gelati.
Cockburn's embroidery can make her found subjects look as though their heads have been encased in a 3D geometric sculpture or simply scrawled over. One of my favourite images is entitled The Funster: a cheeky-looking boy whose head, eyes and mouth have been encircled roughly in what looks like Tippex but on closer inspection turns out to be carefully applied embroidery in white thread. Cockburn also cuts up her portraits to kaleidoscopic effect, making a child on a sofa look like a small explosion of triangle entitled Tantrum.
I am intrigued, too, by her landscapes, where circles of coloured embroidery pattern a river valley or outline a small boat on a grey sea, making it look like a bleached-out John Hinde postcard. Her work is full of echoes, both artistic and everyday, and is less tied to surrealism than Anzeri's, having its roots in a more English vernacular tradition. A recent book of her work is intriguingly calledConversations, hinting at the way she brings found photographs back to life as something new. Both artists are making old photographs live again, in work that is not quite photography but has the photograph at its heart.