Scene & Herd

Comfort Food

Alba, Italy

Left: Artist Lynn Davis. Right: Deste Foundation's Marina Vranopoulou and artist Maurizio Cattelan. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

SINCE THE ART WORLD is never in one place very long, membership often means flying hither and yon without knowing what’s in store. After an unmemorable Art Basel, the lure of more exotic climes was irresistible. So on the weekend of June 18, I headed into the Italian countryside and across the Mediterranean to Greece in pursuit of more art, and not just the kind that turns a profit.

My first stop was Milan, and the theater of obsession that is Paul McCarthy’s Pig Island. Located in a subterranean labyrinth below the crumbling Palazzo Citterio, around the corner from La Scala, the installation is McCarthy’s Decameron—a Santa’s workshop gone mad with moral abandon. The work, the centerpiece of a miniretrospective of McCarthy’s videos and sculptures, is curated by Massimiliano Gioni for the nomadic Nicola Trussardi Foundation, and is on view through this weekend. It also marks the palazzo’s first opening to the public.

Greeting visitors just inside the entrance is Static, one of McCarthy’s Pepto-Bismol pink tableaux of George Bush ramming a submissive pig. Guided by Trussardi publicist Flavio del Monte, I descended a winding, slightly creepy stone staircase that seemed out of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado,” catching a glimpse of McCarthy’s giant ketchup-bottle inflatable in an interior courtyard.

Hair-raising screams from the sound track of Pirate Party, a four-channel escapade in rubber masks, ketchup, and other effluvia, resonated throughout the underground lair. We made our escape into a whitewashed, high-ceilinged stone chamber featuring a cracked model ship that del Monte called “Paul’s Bilbao,” as well as a solid Minimalist cube of tomato ketchup that McCarthy had poured on the spot and sealed under a glass top. From there it was on to a smaller, darkened alcove, where the grinning figure of a bald Paula Jones spread her legs across a low platform. “Paul’s Étant donnés,” offered del Monte.

Left: A view of Pig Island. Right: Restaurateur Federico Ceretto and designer/architect Bill Katz.

Pig Island itself is in an even more subterranean bunker dug out in Brutalist style and left unfinished. Set on a raised platform measuring about a thousand square feet, the installation is a chaotic mess of puppets, maquettes, stray lumber, battered musical instruments, and found objects that McCarthy has accumulated in his Los Angeles studio over the past seven years. Here we saw the big, decapitated George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Paula Jones heads happily doing the dirty; the Disneyesque dwarves; the butt plugs, spilled paints, used coffee cups, empty KFC buckets, and dusty shoes associated with McCarthy, all piled onto tables and plywood crates under bright movie lights. Looking it over from a loge above the floor, I couldn’t help but think that all the people who say contemporary art is a tasteless joke would rejoice at the sight. But power isn’t pretty, and it often makes human beings act like pigs, be they politicians, movie stars, or collectors.

Still, truth-seekers need fresh air, so I made a getaway in a rented Fiat for the two-hour drive to the Hotel Somaschi, a converted monastery in Cherasco, a medieval Piedmont Valley town near Alba. For those who don’t know, Alba is a foodie paradise, ground zero for white truffles and hazelnuts. Nutella comes from there. So do Tic Tacs. And so does a wine-producing family named Ceretto, who were celebrating the fifth anniversary (and second Michelin star) of La Piola and Piazza Duomo, their art-appointed dining rooms at the center of town.

Among their guests for the weekend were the artists Kiki Smith, Francesco Clemente, Donald Baechler, Thomas Nozkowski, Terry Winters, Lynn Davis, and James Brown, all of whom had contributed signature plates for the restaurants at the behest of New York architect Bill Katz, the establishments’ designer. All were also friendly with the late Steven Shaller, a Katz associate who died last December. In his memory, Katz had organized an exhibition of works on paper by these and other artists including Robert Indiana, Anselm Kiefer, Philip Taaffe, Marina Karella, and Simrel Achenbach, dealer Andrea Rosen’s other half.

Left: Dealer Andrea Rosen with artists Francesco Clemente and Simril Achenbach. Right: Artist Thomas Nozkowski.

The festivities began Saturday night with the opening of the show in the baroque choir of the Chapel of Mary Magdalen, a twelfth-century church on a narrow street in Alba. There the artists were joined by Shaller’s parents, Katz’s family, two generations of Cerettos, and various friends who included the remarkable man-on-wire Philippe Petit and his wife, Kathy O’Donnell; the Paris-based art writers Brooks Adams and Lisa Liebmann; Leo Castelli biographer Annie Cohen-Solal; the male fashion models Bertil Espegren and Norbert Michalke; Dior leather goods designer Leonardo Pucci; Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman; former Gagosian Gallery and Phillips de Pury specialist Rodman Primack; and art dealer Lorcan O’Neill.

It’s possible that such a gathering could take place in New York, but it still seemed unnatural to see this soigné crowd in a church instead of a bar. With Shaller as the binding force, the event provoked an intimacy that underscored the way art can make friends of strangers and family of friends. Federico Ceretto welcomed the group with an amusing anecdote about meeting Shaller—in a New York bar—and his later introduction to Katz. “My father is the vision behind all of this,” Ceretto told me. “But Bill is the one who made it happen.”

He was speaking not just of the show and the restaurants but of the plates and the artist’s residency that his family was inaugurating that weekend in a Katz-designed house and studio on the family winery’s estate. The plates, Ceretto said, derived from an old tradition in Italian restaurants that preceded printed menus; diners ordered from pictures of classic dishes painted on platters. But, he added, “a meal is not an exhibition. It’s about the pleasure of eating.”

Those words rang in my ears during dinner at Piazza Dumo, in a formal pink dining room frescoed by Clemente. It began with an amuse-bouche of a little green cube that looked like a sponge. In fact, it was a sponge, with a bit of tuna puree on top. What can I say? It was scrumptious. Next came a salad of fifty-one tiny ingredients served in hand-painted blown-glass bowls and eaten, one ingredient at a time, with a pair of long-handled tweezers so fabulous that everyone present ached to take one home.

Left: Guggenheim deputy director Ari Wiseman with dealer Lorcan O'Neill. Right: Dealer Sylvia Kouvali with curators Cecilia Alemani and Massimiliano Gioni.

Each course was more delectable, and more beautifully presented, than the last, especially a panna cotta overlaid with paper-thin, fruit-flavored leaves. It was nothing if not a painting. Afterward, the young, unbelievably svelte chef Enrico Crippa appeared in the dining room to accept our appreciation, and half of us got on a bus back to Cherasco like Midwestern church ladies on their first tour of the Continent.

The next day, after breakfast, we set off for the winery, to visit the first resident of the new artist’s studio, James Brown, and enjoy a Crippa-produced buffet lunch for two hundred. It followed a surprise performance by Petit, whom Katz introduced as “that poet of the air,” which involved a juggling act and a slide show touching on the high points of his career. More than one of us had a lump in our throats when an aerial picture of the World Trade Center came up. “My towers,” Petit sighed. “Now our towers.”

After a stop at an abandoned chapel in Barolo painted in 1999 by Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett, we hardly had time to change for a dinner that seemed a little anticlimactic when we had hardly digested lunch. I didn’t stay for breakfast the next day, but only because the art juggernaut was still in motion and I had to catch a plane for Athens and a boat to Hydra, where collector Dakis Joannou was holding a scaled-back version of his annual party for the artist commissioned to make a new work for the island’s former slaughterhouse. Last year, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton had done the honors. This year it was Maurizio Cattelan, who kept it simple with a single work, We, a child-size bed on which two diminutive mannequins of himself lay side by side, dressed in funereal black suits.

Left: Collector Dakis Joannou. Right: Kathy O'Donnell and Philippe Petit.

“So you finally came out of the closet,” I said when I saw it. In response, Cattelan handed me a copy of Toilet Paper, a surreal new picture magazine he has produced with Italian photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari and Micol Talso, with support from Joannou’s Deste Foundation. It comes with two different covers. Mine has a black-and-white close-up of a woman’s eye staring up at the open mouth of a man with a fake eyeball between his lips. The other is a color portrait of a deranged priest. They are both quite scary.

There was a dinner, of course, on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Aegean. Most of the fifty guests were Greek, with a spray of foreigners like artists Doug Aitken, Josh Smith, and Kerstin Brätsch; dealers Thaddaeus Ropac, Lawrence Luhring, Daniele Balice, and Massimo De Carlo; collectors Adam Lindemann and Amalia Dayan; and curators Cecilia Alemani and Massimiliano Gioni. I asked Gioni what made him want to make an exhibition of Pig Island. “I knew no one else would,” he said.

Aitken is Joannou’s pick for next year, though he is not an artist that previously interested the Koons-mad collector. “Doug has an ambition I like,” Joannou said, and went on to describe a transmission project that would spin out of the tiny slaughterhouse to points across the globe. “I’m not going to put an object in a room,” Aitken said. “We have enough objects in the world already.”

That may be true, but we have to make some use of the ones we have, and Gioni’s picks for the Deste Foundation’s latest show, “Alpha Omega,” make a good case for keeping them in view. When I saw it the following day, I was struck by how much more varied Joannou’s collection is than Jeff Koons made it seem in “Skin Fruit,” the sex-and-death show he curated this year for the New Museum. Most compelling was the hypnotic film Barney made from last year’s Hydra performance, Blood of Two. Had I really come halfway across the world to relive a past experience? Well, some art just doesn’t wear thin, especially in these social circles. Clearly, the farther you go for art, the closer to home you get.

Left: Artist Doug Aitken. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Maurizio Cattelan with We.

Left: Artist Terry Winters, curator Hendel Teicher, and Alba Clemente. Right: Artist Kiki Smith with Lorcan O'Neill.

Left: Artist Kerstin Braetsch with dealer Daniele Balice. Right: Collectors Silvia and Fabio Bassan.

Left: Writer Brooks Adams with artists Donald Baechler and James Brown. Right: Writer Annie Cohen-Salal.

Left: Artist Josh Smith with dealer Lawrence Luhring. Right: Dealer Massimo De Carlo.

Left: Bertil Espegren and Norbert Michalke. Right: Collector Adam Lindemann.

Left: Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. Right: Artist Angelo Plessas and curator Caroline Corbetta.

Left: Writer Lisa Liebmann. Right: Chef Enrico Crippa.

Left: Artist Juan Hamilton. Right: Dealer Amalia Dayan.