During the first lockdown in Milan, Alice Ronchi embarked on a transformative project. A project that began as a method of self-care developed into a crucial statement on the capacity of visual art to heal. The result, her solo exhibition “With a Rose in Your Teeth,” showing at the Francesca Minini gallery until July 27th. The exhibit revolves around a vulnerable, almost confessional request – the request for care.
On first encounter, Ronchi’s creations have something mysterious about them. Round, translucent shapes appear to float and interact with each other in an impossible way, creating shadows that swell around cloudy petals. Visible only from the side, the viewer discovers the delicate layers of extremely thin film that create this effect. Housed in Perspex containers, sheets of polycarbonate almost touch. They appear to float. Bars of plexiglass at the top and bottom of the frame hold the transparent sheets in place. The floating shapes are meticulously painted in a water-based varnish on each delicate layer of film. Ronchi’s materials are so light as to create an almost-intangible softness. A precious vulnerability is evoked.
“Lightness only exists because of the darkness. Lightness isn’t something superficial but rather it is part of a deep dialogue”
Lightness is a term Ronchi uses often as we talk about the meaning behind these works. Although she employs lightweight materials and uses a largely soft-hued pastel pallet, the term has for her a deeper, philosophical connotation. Ronchi speaks of lightness as an attitude or feeling. As a way of creating art, or even, of processing trauma.
For generations Ronchi’s family have lived in a small village between Monza and Bergamo on the outskirts North of Milan. As a child, Alice would play in the countryside, collecting flowers, her hands so full that she’d carry stems between her teeth. She is full of love and talks excitedly of her family and art’s capacity to bring people joy. Both her parents are artists who gave up their creative careers to raise a family. “Me and my brother are super lucky. Our parents really believe in the art we are making,” Alice tells me. “From the beginning, I decided to always think about what I am giving people through my art. I want to share a wonder…to give something beautiful, a perspective.”
At six years old Ronchi experienced a traumatic event. In the countryside three hours from her village, where Alice’s family would spend holidays, a naked man physically assaulted her and attempted to run her over with his car. Eventually, she managed to escape but the event instilled in her deep feelings of fear and mistrust. It changed Ronchi’s perspective on what it meant to be alive. “I had a tough childhood because of that incident. I was lucky to be able to escape, but it was terrifying. It did change my perspective on life,” Alice explains. “I stopped looking at the world with wonder and searching for beauty. I was very brave, but under the surface I felt this fear.”
Art has been a way for Alice to transform this trauma into something beautiful. There is an innocence to Ronchi’s work, likely coming from a desire to reconnect with this part of herself she lost as a child. “When I finally decided to follow the path of becoming an artist, it was the last year of high school. I had been processing that event for fifteen years. After the anger passed, I was left with a deep longing to get that childhood feeling back, that pure way of looking at things, searching for wonder rather than logic. I decided to work on myself and transform that pain.”
In Ronchi’s search for this feeling she finds inspiration in music. As she worked on the pieces that make up this exhibition she listened to Debussy and Enrico Morricone, “and when I found myself needing to process feelings of sadness and pain, I listened to Leonard Cohen. I am so in love with music,” Alice tells me. The title of her exhibition, “With a Rose in your Teeth,” is a lyric taken from the Cohen song, “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Alice cites her inspiration not as the song’s narrative but rather its atmosphere. “This exhibition is about a feeling, something intangible, a nostalgic, romantic longing.” She tells me of a 1994 interview in which Cohen expresses the same sentiment. “In this interview, Cohen says that he doesn’t even remember if the love story in the song was real or imagined.”
The lyric has a multitude of meanings for Ronchi. “There are multiple sides of me in this title… me as a child with my mouth full of flowers and me as a woman posing with a rose. I recognise myself in this image. It is not necessarily sexual. When you put something in your mouth and propose yourself to someone, you become so vulnerable. It’s a strange image because of this extreme vulnerability. It expresses a need for care and tenderness.”
To enter the exhibition’s first room is a healing experience. “True Care” contains eight large works, 150cmx130cm. The room moves and billows with Ronchi’s organic pale shapes. These gentle giants have a deeply soothing quality. The journey of care and protection continues into the second room, “Talismano” (meaning, Talisman). A single sculpture stands confidently in the centre of the room. Two large legs made of pink Portuguese marble give the piece an almost-human presence. The legs hold up a sun-shaped golden altar. This object is holy, though not religious as such. It is a protective charm.
The final room is the strangest. In a small office space, the vulnerable request underpinning the entire exhibition is enshrined in iron. An iron sign hanging on the wall reads “Voglia di Tenerezza,” meaning a desire/need for tenderness. You can spend quite some time in this space without even noticing it. This is in many ways the point. By placing it hidden in the office, Alice points to the universality of this often-unspoken human need. This childlike need for care and affection that we carry into the world of adulthood, and into our work spaces.
Contemporary art is saturated with daring explorations of the darkest parts of the human psyche, and Ronchi’s previous works have explored this (see “Majestic Solitude” 2018). But today Ronchi’s bravery takes on a new form. “With a Rose in your Teeth” explores the lightness and vulnerability of expressing a need for care while at the same time offering that care. This is a story of transcendence, an exhibition showcasing a perspective that lights up the world rather than solely pointing to its shadows.
At present, Ronchi is creating a mural opposite a centre of therapy for autistic children. What is currently a grey wall will soon be home to Alice’s tender art. Ronchi will run making and writing workshops with the children, helping them discover the therapeutic potential of art making. Ronchi has a calling – to heal through art. It is a call she answered for herself and now gifts to others. “These pieces created an atmosphere that during that first lockdown I really needed. I am grateful for all my negative experiences. I am grateful for this dialogue between light and dark as it is the lightness that allows us to accept the darkness and heal.”
“With a Rose in your Teeth” runs until July 27th at Francesca Minini gallery, Milan.