New York

Jannis Kounellis

Sonnabend Gallery

So different from the experience of Martin’s paintings, there is never one predictable, refined moment of recognition when viewing Jannis Kounellis’ work. The method and ideology manifest in his work pay homage to a complicated, unresolved condition. His recurring images (fire, water, animals) refer to Judeo-Christian ritual and sacrifice, and to mystical belief. Steeped in European tradition, Kounellis “paints” idiosyncratic images.

In two rooms, lining perpendicular walls, were a series (seven in one room, nine in the other) of India ink drawings on heavy yellowish paper of repetitive, circular shapes evoking Munch-like skeletal heads, piled en masse. Against a wall, next to one of these imposing death-visions, sat a pile of slate, below a smoke-stained artist’s palette, attached to the wall. A vigil for painting? Perhaps; but just as easily as this simplistic reading provided me with access to the relationship between pyre and paint, the relationship grew secondary. The dramatically haunting effect of the whole image counters any interpretation—though the work pushes towards something other than itself, something as confounding as the notions of ritual and sacrifice themselves.

Kounellis is a risk-taker, but he is also a powerfully theatrical imagist. This is the strength and frustration of his art. The images tell us it is reverently about tradition, their structure has the spirit of iconoclasm. Those culturally definitive signals that we read “easily” in Kounellis’ art, such as sacrifice and death (fire and skeletons), are merely allusive lines from a dialogue that shares affinities with poetic free association. His art holds me at some indefinite point, or should I say at some transient point in the cycle. Kounellis obviously believes in a relationship between past and present. But one can’t be too sure.

Joan Casademont