October • 25 • 2020

Cortney Anderson Kramer
Performance Art and the Sculpted World of Silvio Barile
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Silvio Barile, American Forum, c. 1990–2019. Photo credit: Fred Scruton, 2018.

Grassroots artists like Silvio Barile (1940–2019) have a propensity to blur the boundaries between art and life in a way that art-world insiders can only theorize. Barile’s work stands in colorful contrast to the ordinary places on its periphery, transporting curious spectators to alternative worlds. The very activity and ritual of art-making as a part of one’s daily life and space communicates something significant about the artist’s values and character while indicating their resilient will to promote specific ideologies.

 

In its original state, or rather the state in which Barile occupied it, his artwork included the garden behind his home, titled American Forum (c. 1990–2019), the courtyard behind his bakery, titled Apian Way (c. 1990–2019), and the bakery itself. American Forum and Apian Way feature miniature and monumental concrete statues with all manner of political, historical, religious, and popular culture imagery, made legible by inscriptions carved across the sculpted surfaces. Apian Way also has metal picnic tables and chairs that encourage guests to stay awhile, chat, enjoy a meal, and take in Barile’s visual program. At the same time, this space was a garden with grapevines, tomato plants, and cacti. The interior of the bakery is a Rauschenberg-esque collage in three dimensions. Photographs and clippings from magazines cover the walls, figurines and collectibles are piled up on every surface, while concrete statues speckle the periphery. The materials reference all manner of popular culture and political figures from Princess Diana to John F. Kennedy.

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Silvio Barile, Apian Way, c. 1990–2019. Photo credit: Fred Scruton, 2018.

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Silvio Barile, Untitled (bakery interior). Photo credit: Fred Scruton, 2018.

In a traditional sense, artworks are aesthetic objects or artifacts typically imparted with cultural meaning and ritual use. While the most obvious works of art are Barile’s individual monumental concrete statues, I argue that his personality and performance were an integral part of the artwork, essentially imbuing the individual statues with life. Barile’s performances, stories, and songs participated in the artwork’s creation of meaning. In a way, the sculptures relied on Barile to translate them — to connect the dots between personal experience and worldview — comprehendible through shared memory and visual literacy.

 

Alter Egos

 

Through our relationship with the subjectivity of the creator, the work is born and continues to grow in our minds. This perspective has the potential to revive the relationship between the creator and his work — not through a biographical approach, but rather by assessing the characteristics and circumstances of an oeuvre inhabited by the artist, conceived to reformat his ties and points of entry to the present. (1)

One of Barile’s sculptures includes elongated figures identified with his characteristic all-caps script as Louis Armstrong and Lincoln Naumoff to the left, Barile at the center, and The Three Stooges to the right. While The Three Stooges and Louis Armstrong are widely recognizable names, Lincoln Naumoff is a far more personal addition. Naumoff was a local trumpet player and beloved band director for the Redford Union School District. (2) Naumoff and Barile’s heads protrude from the same block of concrete as their famous compatriots, closing the distance between the larger-than-life musician and comedians and local creative personalities.

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Silvio Barile, Untitled (Three Stooges), n.d. Photo credit: Sergio De Giusti, 1975–2019.

Crowded together with nothing to distinguish them but their names, Barile made himself, the central figure, taller than the rest and the subject of a comical conversation. Scrawled across Silvio’s chest are the words “TORNA A SURRIENTO,” referencing the Italian song “Return to Sorrento.” We can imagine Naumoff and Armstrong providing the musical accompaniment to the singing statue, gesturing to the flesh-and-blood Barile who loved to sing Italian songs for guests. We can imagine Curly of The Three Stooges playfully reacting and laughing, saying, “Hey Moe! Silvio is singing! Nyuk nyuk nyuk nyuk.”

The artist, representing himself as a soldier in Roman pteruges, created an anachronistic concrete world in which he communes with characters across different times and places. Sometimes the characters are fictional and so Barile’s art transcends not only time and space, but also realities. The effect is to transform the artist into a character, an occupant of an Italian-American world assembled according to his preferences.

Throughout the concrete garden, Barile casts himself as characters to occupy his imagined society. The unlikely cohabitants seem to have little in common other than Barile’s affinity for them. He models himself as Pope Silvio XXVII and Silvianov after Russian hockey player Selvianov. Somehow, they both qualify as figures to be featured in Barile’s Italian-American Historical Artistic Museum. Perhaps they contribute to the history of Italian-American culture, as it ought to be according to Barile. By casting himself as the characters, the artist traces his identity onto theirs, altering them to be more Silvio-like and perhaps associating himself with a bit of their character in return.

 

As much as visitors came for the artwork, they also visited for an “Ay, paisano!” greeting and entertaining performance by Barile. For instance, reporter Tom Long’s article “Silvio’s is Larger” recounts the story of a group of visitors dining in business attire, who asked Barile to sing Happy Birthday. (3) Though Barile was happy to oblige a song, he instead asserted his own preference, which better adhered to the space he had created and the persona he projected. Rather than singing Happy Birthday, the artist chose to entertain his guests with his usual selection of Italian ballads. Everything in Barile’s life supported this public persona; even his car, an old Buick Roadmaster, was painted in the colors of the Italian and American flags. Barile himself was a literal moving advertisement for his business and his artwork, which were intimate extensions of his identity

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Silvio Barile, Untitled (Car), n.d. Photo credit: Sergio De Giusti.

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Barile even tailored people to fit within his theater. Marie McNallen, who worked for Barile when she was a teenager, recalled that Barile changed her name from Marie to Maria in order to make it more Italian. (4) He cast her in the performance of Italian-ness within a quintessential American community. Likewise, by calling his customers and visitors paisan, Barile included them in the performance. All who entered were fellow Italians and were somehow transformed by the experience. On the other hand, Barile calling Americans paisan might suggest his new identity as an American and that his fellow countrymen and friends belong to this new, geographically-based identity. In effect, the usage of paisan both embraces a new identity and resists it.

 

Art is Life

Barile created a sort of cornerstone, small enough to go unnoticed, in which he inscribed the words “SILVIO FECIT FOR AMERICA.” The combination of Latin and English suggests that he made the artwork for America and signals to his intended audience, while the symbolic mixture of languages reiterates the amalgamative character of the concrete assemblage. Below the inscription, Barile also wrote the date in Roman numerals, MCMXCII (1992), and his name. The combination of ancient and modern languages, and mixtures of ancient and modern imagery, suggests that Barile identified himself with not only Italian culture circa 1990, but as an heir of ancient Rome and that this somehow gave him a form of cultural, or perhaps more specifically, artistic authority.

Silvio Barile, Empire State Building, 1992. Photo credit: Sergio De Giusti, 1993.

Most importantly, at the very bottom of this sculpture, the artist carved the phrase “ART IS LIFE” in English. To understand the meaning behind this act, I suggest that we consider the phrase as an opportunity to interpret art not strictly as an object, but as an activity or a way of life. For Barile, who lived and worked amidst his artwork, art literally occupied the same space as his place of business and his home. It was an integral part of his life.

At the same time, we can consider the artist’s approach to life as being artistically inclined. From making dough with his hands and baking it like clay in a kiln to mixing and molding cement in his garden, Barile occupied his time with creative endeavors. We might conclude that his life was art. With this in mind, we can conceive of Barile’s artwork as including not only art objects but as a way of living. While it is possible to interpret the phrase in a number of ways, it seems obvious that for Barile “ART IS LIFE” represented the way he chose to live his life and the philosophy underpinning his concrete garden.

In the garden, Barile’s sculptures act as a great equalizer. For Barile, art encompassed any and all materials and subjects that he found interesting, entertaining, valuable, or educational. Going one step further, the way that he integrated them and caused them to share space without differentiation has a major impact on how the work creates meaning. It does not appear that Barile distributed subjects along hierarchies or timelines, but somehow the layering of Italian and Roman symbols upon recognizable American figures creates a sense that one is witnessing an Italian version of American history. It is as though Barile is visually negotiating what it means to be American through the vocabulary of his Italian heritage. Then again, his figures span all of history and popular culture, sometimes extending beyond America and Italy. In these instances, they apparently have only one thing in common — that Barile liked them and found them morally important and constitutive of his idealized vision of America.

 

At the same time, we can think about Barile’s work in the bakery as an artistic performance. In an interview with Tom Long of The Detroit News in 1999, Long and Barile discussed the similarities between concrete sculpture and the artist’s bakery. According to this interview, Barile’s first experience with cement was while repairing his driveway. While working with the material, he was struck by its similar consistency to dough in the way that cement could be worked and molded. Barile began with a playful attempt at making a concrete dog and cat, and gradually developed this hobby into daily practice. (5)

From making dough to making art, Barile’s activities integrated art and life. Fellow Redford resident and artist Sergio De Giusti called the site “a living work of art.” (6) The sculptor referred to the artwork as a continuously changing project because Barile made the habit of working on it for an hour or two every day. But this quote also refers to the activities that make Barile’s artwork a living thing. De Guisti’s words suggest that the garden is always incomplete, always in the state of its own making and transformation because of how Barile worked in and interacted with his artwork and his viewers.

After Life (Conclusion)

They’re not going to be moved, they’re made to stay…

I like things to be solid and long lasting.

Like our lives should be. Like our loves should be. (7)

Through his performance and integration of Italian and American referents, Barile’s work challenges our expectations of the boundaries between art and life. In reporter Josh Noel’s 2011 article, “An Outsider Lives his Art,” Barile states that his motivation was that he “wanted to create an Italian identity.” (8) Does this suggest that the artist felt separated from his cultural identity and that his work was the pursuit of rediscovering it? The questions that arise around what it means to want to create an identity are fraught, but perhaps Barile’s work and how he used it can help us draw closer to an answer. Perhaps, even the fact that he associated his work with creating an identity is in and of itself suggestive of his work as an artist.

I just can’t stop making things…

when I am gone I hope somebody will appreciate the things I make.

They are so beautiful. Just look at the message. (9)

• • •

Cortney Anderson Kramer is an art historian currently completing a doctoral dissertation titled “It’s Gotta Be in Ya:” Heroic Individualism and the Roadside Concrete Sculpture Garden, 1910–1960. Her areas of expertise include American Art, Modernism, Postmodernism, and the development of Outsider and Folk Art. Kramer’s research combines issues concerning class, gender, and race, especially as they relate to the market and constructions of value through an interdisciplinary methodology drawing upon American history, sociology, cultural geography, and material culture.

Endnotes

1 Maria del Curto and Valérie Rousseau, When the Curtain Never Comes Down: Performance Art and the Alter Ego (New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2015), 14.

2 This is common knowledge in the town of Redford, Michigan.

3 Tom Long, “Silvio’s is Larger,” The Detroit News, September 8, 1999, 1D.

4 John Monaghan, “Sculpting a legacy for an artist, baker,” Detroit Free Press, February 28, 2019, A7.

5 Long, “Silvio’s is Larger,” 1D.

Ibid., 1D.

Ibid., 1D.

8 Megha Satyanarayana, “Education through creativity,” Detroit Free Press, July 3, 2011, A10.

9 Josh Noel, “An Outsider Lives His Art.” Chicago Tribune, September 9, 2007, accessed May 20, 2020, Online.