New York

Gianni Pattena

John Weber Gallery

Gianni Pettena is an Italian artist whose work has features in common with both earth works and Conceptual art, though he stands significantly apart from their tendencies to suspend value and meaning. Pettena is a trained architect and has taught in schools of architecture, but what he himself makes is only “architecture” of a cleverly nefarious sort. In the last few years artists have tried innumerable ways of dealing with (or overlooking) a world that grows increasingly piggish. Pettena’s response is one of the subtlest I have yet encountered. In his work, political considerations are not at variance or in competition with—or even withheld from—the esthetic operation.

I imagine Pettena as an architect actively on strike. Like those artists who have No Comment on the life that surrounds us, Pettena is reticent and guarded. But there aren’t many people who are “on strike” now whose artistic response is as constructive as this. Pettena’s works deserve the respect due art objects, though they are not mere properties. His works are neither the residue of desperation, nor pseudo-philosophical games. They are not “gesture” and not theater. While they comment on the rising temperature of life, they are real works of visual art.

On Wednesday, April 13th, the John Weber Gallery showed a film made by Pettena of some of his recent “situations,” as he calls them. The film begins with a Smithson-likesequence of aerial views of the great Kennecot open-pit copper mine in Utah, Ordinarily Pettena is more urban than Smithson, which is part of the meaning in both cases: the American finds room for a decent ’and sublime neutrality (“I am interested in the politics of the Triassic period”—Smithson), and usually works with a kind of landscape that is both “unimproved” and not likely to be “spoiled” by artistic modification, while the Italian is more at home in the townscape with all its social and political torque (a Futurist legacy?). The seductive approaches to the copper mine are in themselves Smithsonesque, not only in terms of the choice of motif but even in stylistic relation to Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film. The difference will be apparent in the fact that Pettena’s, as attractive as it is, is a raped landscape. Yet Pettena has a gift for the most polite, discrete subversion. There is a legend in Utah that it was the owners of this very mine who were responsible for the frame-up of Joe Hill, the labor organizer and songwriter. Pettena may not have known this, but the subversive tone of other pieces by him suggests, that the reference is apt.

After The mine the film shows three of Pettena’s own works made in America this year. In Clay House; Situation No. 4 a common frame house in Minneapolis was completely hand-coated with clay mud. The result has an unexpected power and solemnity. As with Robert Smithson, this is not “avant-garde,” and ordinary people can get to the heart of the matter without the priestly assistance of theoreticians—ordinary people like the kid who stopped and asked Pettena, “Are you making something or destroying something?” The sheer beauty of the resultant non-house is a real surprise: it is evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright, what with the (literally) earthy naturalism of the “paint-job” that wholly blankets this overstuffed down-home bungalow. And the finished object has something of the leaden numbness of works by Jasper Johns and Robert Morris. Other Smithson-like concerns enter as well, especially where we see a series of beautiful close-ups of the rich brown clay coat on the side of the house, and particularly when the sun cracks the clay—like the surface of an old master painting. Then something delicately subversive happens. When the assertive qualities of this archetypically middle-American house have been effectively silenced by the seeming redirection of a natural effect (the artist has also frozen buildings in ice), insects begin to claim it as a natural part of the earth: they inconspicuously and inoffensively crawl over the walls, suggesting the population of a bombed city in which no property boundaries or title deeds survive.

The next section shows the construction of Tumbleweed Catcher, Situation No. 5. This work has a general affinity with Oldenburg’s projected urban monuments. It is conceived as a giant foursquare wooden, towerlike scaffolding that has “caught” clusters of tumbleweed. The overall form of the tower has a sort of freaked resemblance to Mies van der Rohe, with “homemade” and irregular angles. What is of significance here is that in the midst of a committed activism (much more than a “passivism”) the artist has found grounds for pleasure and enjoyment. This would not be remarkable if it weren’t true that art is largely polarized today between a sometimes irresponsible indulgence and a puritanical, uptight radicalism that gropes for revolutionary direction. Sol LeWitt is a good example of the latter alternative, and I found an appropriate irony and frustration in the fact that his recent works at the Museum of Modern Art seemed to me so suggestive of designs for some newfangled paper currency. Pettena escapes this split because, I think, he has a fair understanding of the politics—rather than the history—of life in the biosphere. But the fact that he knows what is wrong does not disqualify him from guiltless pleasure in the meantime.

All the features of Pettena’s art are lucid and explicit. They are not all obvious, but they are all set out aboveboard. Siege (A Red Plot); Situation No. 6, which is covered in the last segment of the film, was sufficiently obvious for the governor of Utah to fully grasp. His Excellency said he liked the idea but not the color. The piece consists of the painting (or “plotting”) of a line entirely around the city limits of Salt Lake City. Altogether obvious, you might say, yet the more you think the more you understand. The line starts and finishes at the University of Utah (itself somewhat suspect because the Utah equivalent of An Eton Boy really ought to go to Brigham Young U.). Actually, it begins and ends right between the university and a U.S. Army base—a base established during the campaign to get rid of the Mormons. Well, Ingres did say that line was the probity of art.

The film is not in itself a work of art, as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is; simply a record, it is just something to tack down the facts. But it does serve a real artistic function, insuring and guaranteeing that these works are not sterile “concepts.” They are acts, considered and responsible perpetrations which tax the esthetic airwaves with about as much political content as they can be expected to bear without causing a shutdown, or, what might be worse, a premature showdown. I admire Pettena’s work very much because he has along with comprehension of political urgencies a lively interest in making things that, without capitulating, can be engaging and worthwhile . . . meanwhile.

Joseph Masheck