New York

Giulio Paolini

Giulio Paolini’s work is, in contrast to Larry Rivers’, hermetic at the same time that it is about being hermetic. Perhaps appropriately, his current show begins with two plaster reproductions of Praxiteles’ head of Hermes. Atop twin pedestals the two heads face each other off, while behind them two white metal Corinthian columns, part of Sperone’s old loft building, stand like dueling seconds. This kind of face-off, which Paolini can weight either as a confrontation or as a mirroring, occurs in the majority of the pieces in his show, and in all of the better ones.

The Hermes heads recall that ubiquitous scene in old science-fiction films, in which the hero meets his double and, after an initial wave of horror and suspicion, is seized by the compulsion to reclaim him—to recall the double back into his own body. The problem the Hermes-head piece poses is, of course, that neither plaster figure can reclaim the other, since both are inanimate. Under normal circumstances, the viewer of a picture or statue does work, in a sense, to reclaim the art, to bring it back into himself. But here the art has become its own audience, so that it pretends to exclude us, the real viewers.

Paolini, in a theoretical/explanatory essay that accompanies the show, explains the face-off in characteristically esoteric and sober language: “the fixed stare of a picture or sculpture is not directed at either the artist or at others, it admits neither one nor many points of view, it reflects in itself the question as to its presence, or absence.” If I understand Paolini correctly, what he is talking about is the way a set-up like the Hermes one pretends to negate itself by being entirely self-referential.

There is, in this work (if we step back from the supposedly weighty theoretical issues posed here) a kind of parody of all art. With the magisterial apparatus of the museum behind it—i.e., in this piece, the columns that belong not to Paolini but to his gallery—art is monumentalized to such a degree that it appears to divorce itself entirely from human affairs. Paolini submerges this idea in wit: the Praxiteles Hermes loses all of its splendor and majesty when there are two of it and when, moreover, it cannot gaze sternly upon the audience but must stare suspiciously upon its own twin.

Elsewhere in his show, Paolini is blunter and more cynical. The face-off appears in two easels which stand at opposite ends of a room, each of them bearing a canvas which shows the other easel. Here art appears impoverished and bleak for being self-referential, rather than funny. Paolini tries the face-off in one conventional context as well, a series of collages which place paired silhouettes of Canova’s “ebe” nose-to-nose. In some of these pictures, the sculpture is a clear photograph, while its contour alone appears in others. The halves of each collage are never the same, so that unlike the Hermes piece, these pictures pose a series of competitions which do not stalemate easily. These confrontations all seem to be versions of old vs. new, in which the new has the power to revise and undercut the old, to make it transparent and to see through it, while the new itself is hollow and unformed.

It is odd, finally, that Paolini should treat the self-referentiality of art as sardonically as he does in the Hermes piece. Those of his works which are not juxtapositions and confrontations are filled with conceptual jargon as abstruse and dry as any there is. Whether or not the Hermes piece is conceived as self-parody (and whether or not the artist sees that it works that way), a major part of the larger show is called into question by the Hermes pair, its own prologue.

Leo Rubinfien