New York

Jannis Kounellis

Sonnabend Gallery

For three consecutive Saturdays Jannis Kounellis, a Greek artist living in Italy, sat astride a black horse in a corner of Sonnabend Gallery. Wearing street clothes, Kounellis covered his face with a plaster mask, a classical face. (The horse wore a saddle but no bridle.) A small lamp was one a nearby wall. The entire gallery was painted intense, egg-yolk yellow. Kounellis is the art historian’s dream: a contemporary artist with iconography. His work sets up all kinds of reverberations between the past and the present (gallery) situation. Experiencing the work can almost become a trivia quiz: the more you know, the more it means. And Kounellis’s work touches on what you know from various sources: conditioning, perception, and education.

A horse in an art gallery goes against conditioning and education, but you can’t fight perception, so there it is. It’s such a surprise that at first the yellow walls go unnoticed, but this too is totally unexpected. The walls are oppressive in their sensuousness, they have a quality of heavy thick light, and so while yellow intellectually symbolizes daylight, the actual weight of the yellow is more like a shadow, like night, which the lighted lamp also symbolizes. The opposition of artificial and natural is complicated and shifting. The gallery, a place of exhibition and business, is artificial compared to the horse, which in turn becomes quite incongruous, of course, when placed within it. The yellowness of the gallery goes against our expectations too and against the gallery’s “nature.” Yellow makes it more artificial, by making it a part of Kounellis’s art, but also more natural, because the color is ametaphor for natural light and the real world, even this unnatural nightly yellow. Kounellis on the horse, also natural, is made less so by the artitice of the dramatic mask, which makes him suggest an equestrian statue, a rider on the Parthenon frieze. This brings one to Greek light, the special light of the Acropolis and back to the yellow walls again. It’s not great, but it’s not bad for a Saturday afternoon in SoHo.

Roberta Smith