The debate over the role of monuments that celebrate White supremacy hit a fever pitch last year after the murder of George Floyd. That conversation has included statues of Christopher Columbus across the United States, almost all of which were only erected during the course of the 20th century, when Italian Americans were grappling with how they fit into what has long been termed as the American melting pot. Most Americans were, and continue to be, indoctrinated to believe that these monuments are innocuous and pay tribute to an adventurous trader simply trying to get to India but happening upon a “new world.” That fiction is slowly being replaced by a more accurate image of a genocidal maniac who was not the first European to set foot in the Americas (Leif Erikson beat him by half a millennium) or particularly good at anything but theft, rape, and murder.
Statues of the colonizer are often placed in prominent locations, like at the center of Manhattan’s busy Columbus Circle, named in his honor. The history of those monuments whitewashes his role in the genocide of the Indigenous people of the Americas. This narrative was first popularized by Washington Irving’s fictional A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), but also by its association with a campaign by Italian Americans to be recognized as “White” in the United States. Attempts to remove the statues across the country have often been met by angry Italian Americans who feel that their place in the mythology of the nation is being erased and that Columbus is being “canceled.” In one public hearing in Staten Island that Hyperallergic covered in 2017, residents of the borough, which is largely Italian American, came out to decry the attempts to remove the Columbus Circle statue. One person even claimed, “Removing Columbus would be as obscene as removing the Statue of Liberty.”
With this in mind, I visited John Avelluto’s curious exhibition at Bay Ridge’s Stand4 gallery that explores lesser-known aspects of Italian American history. In the front room, Avelluto employs the distinctly Italian-American rainbow cookie and overlays them with the Italian-American slang term “Foogayzee” (a phonetic misspelling of “fugazi,” meaning “fake”) in one instance and “Manzoenee” (a phonetic rendering of the name of iconoclastic Italian artist Piero Manzoni), in another. The former is an oversized rainbow cookie fashioned out of foam and acrylic paint, while the latter is made of marzipan and hangs on the wall with the clumsy delight that would fit perfectly into Pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s 1962 Store installation. Avelluto intends to invite friends and art lovers to join him in eating the marzipan sculpture when the exhibition ends.
“FooGayZee” (2021) appears to sit atop a Corinthian capital, referring simultaneously to the Ancient Mediterranean world that the Italian peninsula is central to, as well as the faux decor of Italian American homes, restaurants, and banquet halls, not to mention their shared aesthetic with early US Republican aesthetics (the Capitol and other federal buildings evoke the grandeur and power of Ancient Rome). But here, the oversized cookie floats just above the capital, emphasizing the illusion. On the wall to the right, four rainbow cookie-like paintings echo Blinky Palermo’s “To the People of New York City” (1976) and their hard-edge aesthetic, transforming the more austere German flag colors (Palermo’s birth name was Peter Schwarze, and he hailed from Germany) into a more vivid Italianized version. (Schwarze adopted the name of a famed Italian-American mobster, though no explanation I’ve ever read has provided me with a convincing explanation as to why.) The crisp edges of Palermo’s arid work give way to the handmade, even alluding to the skilled plaster and stucco work many Italian tradespeople brought with them from their home country. Avelluto’s work is titled “To the People of Bensonhurst (after FooGayZee Blinky Palermo)” (2021), and it uses the language of adaptation to conjure this anew, mixing and matching freely.
In the back room, the artist recreates the death mask of Italian-American inventor and candle maker Antonio Meucci in marzipan and foam. Meucci’s house museum is one of Staten Island’s most popular cultural attractions and it is also where Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy’s “father of the fatherland,” lived for a few years as he plotted and planned the country’s unification. Each aspect of this exhibition thwarts the notion that Columbus is central to the Italian American community, and it’s a welcome expansion of an identity that is often stereotyped and lampooned as mobsters and genocidal maniacs. In the one instance that the Italian American mob is evoked, like in the case of Schwarze’s name, it is a parody that seems to poke fun at the German artist’s attempt at playing dress-up.
But it is in the hallway, which bridges the front and back galleries, where the most complicated works appear. In “Untitled I—III” (2020–21), Avelluto has taken the trompe l’oeil tradition into new directions, using acrylic paint he has created the rainbow cookies that are so convincing it takes a while to clearly see the artifice. Placed on boards with faux marble-painted finishes, they speak an American language of commercialism — like an advertising display — with the intimacy of immigrant hospitality and the excitement of stepping into a favorite bakery. Only at the edges of the board does the visual cleverness come into clear focus.
Overall, this show explores the lived reality of Italian American experiences, with its heroes and culinary and visual markers, along with the language of contemporary art and even museums. This show looks past the hysteria of Columbus supporters and the supposed pride he engenders in Italian Americans to focus on more substantial and artistically interesting subjects. He refuses to fix Italian identity in America, preferring to circumvent clichés for something unexpected. The deconstruction of Whiteness in the US is going to require more projects like Avelluto’s, probing the foundations that pushed communities to embrace anti-Blackness.
It’s important to mention that Avelluto never slips into provincialism, as his inclusion of Piero Manzoni (who has no major connection to the US) demonstrates, and his take is clearly influenced by his Southern Italian heritage. Manzoni is an interesting addition to this constellation of work, as he represents a break with traditional markers of Italian identity around the world and is best known for canning “artist’s shit” that now fetches absurd prices among super-wealthy art hoarders. Avelluto doesn’t take this shit seriously though, and if one day a giant rainbow cookie replaces artist Gaetano Russo’s statue at the center of Columbus Circle, I, for one, will be delighted.
FooGayZee by John Avelluto continues at Stand4 Gallery (414 78th Street, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn) until December 18. It was curated by Jeannine Bardo.