Last year at this time, Sperone Westwater staged a show called Marble Sculpture from 350 B.C. to Last Week. Included in that exhibition was “Infinite” (2011), a pair of intertwined automobile tires carved with exacting verisimilitude by Fabio Viale.
Writing about the show, I mentioned “Infinite” in passing as one of five sculptures depicting quotidian objects, each by a different artist (in addition to Viale’s tires, there was a trash can by Tom Sachs, a pair of binoculars by Not Vital, a typewriter by Mario Dellavedova and a set of doors by Ai Weiwei.
Viale is back, and so is “Infinite,” along with a truckload or two (or three) of similar objets d’art — a grocery crate, an I-beam, a boat, pair of paper bags and so on — all fastidiously recreated in marble.
The stone boat, which is called “Ahgalla III” (2008), is actually seaworthy. According to the gallery’s press release, the artist “has navigated Ahgalla in the sea near Carrara and on the waterways in Milan, Venice, St. Petersburg and Moscow.”
The rest of the work in the show, Viale’s first solo in New York, is either life-size, like the I-beam or the tires, or greatly enlarged, like the paper bags or the grocery crate, which lends its title, “Stargate,” to the exhibition as a whole.
I was surprised to learn that “Ahgalla” can float, not simply because it is made of marble, but because the rest of the pieces in the show seem conceptually rooted in the inversion of their functionality: intertwined stone tires can’t roll; the crate is too heavy and enormous to haul groceries; the marble I-beam is too brittle to use in construction.
Even a full-scale replica of Jesus from Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” dominating the back room of the gallery’s first floor, is not a copy of the actual sculpture but rather an enlarged facsimile of a gift shop tchotchke — a unique object derived from a mass-produced one.
Viale’s calling card is his skill at carving, which is indeed masterful; the press release asserts that “Viale works alone, using machinery to roughly carve blocks of marble, and finishing the sculpture by hand. In Thank you and Goodbye (2012), Viale employs a computer-controlled robot to render large-scale “paper bags” made of marble.” But is there anything else to it?
I wondered whether the I-beam is meant as a joke about the tensile strength of metal, in particular bronze, in relation to marble, a disparity that often forced ancient Roman stone carvers, when copying a Greek bronze, to insert unsightly buttresses into a statue in order to hold arms or legs aloft without breaking off.
Perhaps it is; the press release suggests that the artist’s facility with marble is accompanied by a deep awareness of its materiality. “Ahgalla,” it says, relates to the artist’s longstanding fascination with “the relationship between water and marble, which is formed by the sedimentation under the seabed. The artist is retracing the stone back to its origin.”
Still, Viale’s show is a display of virtuosity founded upon the thinnest of conceptual platforms — wasn’t Claes Oldenberg doing the same thing with cheaper materials and less finesse a half a century ago? — that serves up handmade luxury items that are, to say the least, mimetic with a vengeance.
The combination of painstaking realism and exorbitantly expensive materials amounts to a reactionary neoclassicism with a Pop veneer, laying its claim to the mantle of art through spurious rationalizations such as the one in the press release explaining the “Pieta”:
History and memory inspire Viale’s Souvenir series: Souvenir (Pietá) III (2006) is a life-size marble sculpture of the dead body of Jesus based on Michelangelo’s Pietá (1498-99). In Viale’s work, however, the body of Jesus is lying over a block of marble instead of in the arms of the Virgin Mary. By isolating the figure of Jesus, Viale criticizes the commercialism of such symbols, the mass appeal and distribution of these figures as replicas, as “souvenirs”.
Viale’s sculptures occupy the first two floors of Sperone Westwater’s building on the Bowery; the third and fourth are devoted to an exhibition titled A Picture Gallery in the Italian Tradition of the Quadreria (1750 – 1850). The title refers to the salon-style hangings in Italian palazzi, and for the most part the paintings share the fussy and precious neoclassicism found in Viale’s work.
The impression left by the two exhibitions is that the one percent, then and now, prefer to invest in finish fetish and, above all, to play it safe. Still, there are surprises to be had, such as the striking, Ingres-like portrait of a young French woman painted in 1800 by Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli. The picture’s bold lighting and compositional simplicity endow it with a directness and clarity that none of the other canvases approach.
The sleeper of the show, however, is Antonio Basoli, a Bolognese set designer, decorator, painter and teacher who lived from 1774 until 1848. His four imaginary scenes, painted between 1833 and 1842 — a landscape with knights on horseback; a catastrophic flood; a forest fire on the island of Madeira (probably an allusion to the one that burned for seven years after being set by Portuguese colonizers to clear the land for farming); and the interior of Noah’s ark — are imbued with a Romantic moodiness and grandeur that belies their modest size.
Rendered in oil and ink on board, the black lines defining the shapes interact with the thin washes of paint in a distinctly graphic, even modern, manner, allowing the undisguised drawing to be perceived independently of the flickering patches of light and the unnatural, almost metallic swatches of color. These pictures are a real find, upending the predictability found virtually everywhere else in the building.
Fabio Vitale: Stargate and A Picture Gallery in the Italian Tradition of the Quadreria (1750 – 1850) continue at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 23.