New York

Italo Scanga

Charles Cowles Gallery

Brauntuch defers closure as if loath to confront the shame of a disingenuous looking. The irresolution of Italo Scanga’s new series of drawings is more like the ceaseless agitation of a stream of consciousness in which chunks of private, religious, and art histories tumble around with motes of the quotidian. Nevertheless the work of both expresses a will to confound. Because Brauntuch’s references are so specialized there’s a better than average chance that his audience won’t be familiar with his source photograph or drawing. Because Scanga’s iconography is so generalized an excessive number of associations haloes each image, making identification vague—an effect sometimes mitigated, sometimes exacerbated, by Scanga’s subtitles, which can tag a figure as specifically “Mussolini” or laconically label what strongly suggests a Christian saint merely “a woman.” When is a fish a fish, a cock not an emblem of betrayal, a stylized tree neither the tree of life nor tongues of flame?

Like Brauntuch, too, Scanga sets up altars or shrines: in front of each drawing is a pedestal with a glass vase of flowers on it. But whereas in Brauntuch’s work ritual form is a trap for acquiescence in the flexing display of power, in Scanga’s it is a vessel that, in the manner of his glass containers, can be filled with many substances—politics, the personal (for instance, the portrait of fellow-artist Dale Chihuly in one obscure tableau). It’s form for form’s sake. Like the rows of apples and oranges in a math primer (which, by the way, Scanga’s ranking of items in the drawings resembles—his lineups create no relation of figure to figure or figure to ground), the placement is more philosophical than functional; it expresses a preference for order in the universe for its own sake, rather than as something necessary for the task of counting.

Likewise Scanga preserves signature elements from series to series, but to different ends. It’s as if he were saying one cannot choose the histories one is born or stumbles into, but there they are. As a youngster in Italy, for example, Scanga was apprenticed to a maker of religious images, and so he goes on making religious images. And, universally relevant or not, those histories are the material at hand; one might as well use them. In the new work the Jackson Pollock-y, “all-over” scribbling survives, and Constructivist/folk references continue to hover in the blunt joinery of frame and stand, while the previous concern with the childhood myths of martyrdom rises into an obsession with slaughter pure and simple. The saints are probably there; so are the devils (besides Mussolini they include the accoutrements of evil in the form of bombs, gas masks, clubs, etc.). But accompanying them are animals and food, an eat-or-be-eaten, dinner/diner, heads (a ponytailed patriarch in profile)/tails (a buffalo) dichotomy. Scanga has always been melodramatic. This time the “given” mold he’s pouring his operatic gore into may be the Apocalypse. Certainly it is at least apocalyptic, that overused adjective. A Fear of Fire construction prefaces the installation. Autistic or screaming faces, at one point dubbed “singers,” register horrified reactions such as might be felt by the authorial Saint John or Scanga himself (a self-reflexive muscle twitches). In the last drawing the witness presides over two men carrying a millstone. Is it the one in Revelations that was cast into the sea as an announcement of the destruction of the “great city Babylon”? There are many juxtapositions that seem pointed but make no attempt to be intelligible, as if hugging their privilege of mystical cabalism. That’s no problem. What these productions are about seems somehow less commanding than the way in which they ravel up old threads, demonstrating along the way how autographic style operates less as identity than as an identification badge, to let us know whose fancies are passing in and out.

Jeanne Silverthorne