The spectator as a lost pilgrim

There is not worst way of sabotaging a short art review than starting by quoting, or even worst, paraphrasing a French Philosopher. Nevertheless, I am going to take the risk, even if I lose a few readers. I’m referring to one of the thesis of Regis Débray, argued both in Life and Death of the image as well as God: an itinerary. In some parts of these two long essays he basically explains how, in the past three decades, at least for a Western Liberal and educated mass, religion and faith have been replaced by a cult to entertainment and culture: “When the ‘living stones’, believers or militants, dry out and crumble, the stones themselves regress from relics to mere residues. Museums have begun to fill up as churches have gradually emptied out. And a church, too, can turn into a museum.”

Although we could write pages and pages on this subject, what interests me is the analogy between religion and art as a lens to look at the recent exhibition of the Italian born artist Enrico David, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago. Titled after one of the main works on view, Gradiations of Slow release, this 20 years first survey of David in the U.S., proposes a very Catholic experience.

First of all, the way the artist expresses himself in the didactical video of the entrance is already setting the mood. “Signal the possibility… a sense of mystery… initiate your own journey… traumatic thing… visualizing energies… emerge… decipher something… proceeding blind faith… own spire and energy…”, he says in front of the camera. Unconsciously, there is a sense of spirituality that get stocked in the back of your head. Then, once you are about to enter the show, is unavoidable not to think of it as a threshold into a Catholic church. The Foyer or Narthex, in this case, is generated by the big wall in front. This one is holding, at the right side, a giant canvas with a pink and black figure made out of wool and acrylic. At the left, it works as a background for one of his uncanny body sculptures made out of a mix of poor and sophisticated materials that turn into a reddish flesh color (See Figure 1). This simple gesture of generating a barrier that makes you stop before seeing the totality of the space is a very similar experience to the one of a church.

Once inside, whether you decide to turn left or right, you realize that the space is arranged in four squares formed by four floating walls and marking a giant cross with a void in the center. The curatorial approach and its premise seem very simple: wander around, do your own connections, avoid chronology and show all the wide range of techniques and materials used by the artist to approach the body. Or should I say the body of Christ? I’m talking about figures trying to stand, to levitate, to come back from the deathly weight of gravity. Faces and legs, arms and torsos, hands and necks, deformed figures that usually start from a drawing and then get transformed, or copied, into a tapestry, a Yosemite sculpture, a cast, wire and stone, a painting, etc. The multiplicity is evident but not really justified, as for example in Figure 2, where the translation from some kind of brut object made out of austere and precarious materials becomes an unexpressive weaved caricature, probably easiest to sell, but that doesn’t reflect the precious sensibility of materials and play embedded in the preliminary sculpture/toy. In a general sense, although there are very beautiful and mysterious pieces (See Figure 3), I feel that we are being tricked to see a modern artist as if it was contemporary, instead of presenting it as it is. And maybe this is why I started with the religious analogy. Because even if the curator Michael Darling wasn’t thinking in a subliminal display to convert us to David’s faith, it is obvious that there is an excess of discourse about cycles, transformations and process.

In that sense, I’m missing the risk of bringing more difficult meanings and connections. As for example the relationships that this could have with the imagists and the tradition of Chicagoan artists depicting figures. Or maybe tracing the legacy of Italian craftsmanship as well as their material tradition in fine arts and architecture (he even has a Roman aqueduct structure instead of a pedestal. See Figure 4), just to name a couple of possibilities. Instead, the spectator, like a lost pilgrim in a church, is confronted with 50 diverse works arranged at the level of the eye or timidly pointing into the floor. Or, to put into the exhibition itself, a chaotic walk in between two pieces that for me frame the whole exhibition and this idea of the museum replaced by a Roman church: Life Sentences (See Figure 5) and Tools and Toys III (See Figure 6).

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