Mike Bidlo

Wessel O'Connor Gallery

Mike Bidlo’s decision to duplicate the paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964)—a sacred presence in 20th-century Italian art—for his first one-man show in Italy seems to have been an inspired one. The show contained 17 small still lifes on the exact scale of the original paintings by Morandi, the representational artist whose work—tireless reproposals of the same subject, with slight variations—comes closest to the serial repetitions intrinsic to Conceptual art. Bidlo, then, was superimposing the post-Conceptual artistic gesture upon a pre-Conceptual one. His work made a strange impression on a viewer who had first seen the exhibition “Morandi e it suo tempo” (Morandi and his time), in Bologna, which examined Morandi’s relationship to the contemporaneous international painting scene. Bidlo’s projection of Morandi’s paintings into the present, 21 years after the artist’s death, would have been a fitting ending for the Bologna show

I approached the two shows differently. If, in the show of true Morandis, the paintings were examined with the help of the most traditional tools (analyses of form, texture, composition, space), in Bidlo’s “Morandi show” this sort of formal examination was completely useless. In fact, focusing on an individual painting became a superfluous exercise, since nothing was really articulated or qualified on the surface. What did it matter that Bidlo could skillfully mimic Morandi’s thick brushstrokes and simulate his dusty hues? The question of technical execution was made irrelevant, and the usual criteria of esthetic judgment lost their value. An initial glance around the gallery was sufficiently revealing: there was no emotion in the appropriated image, nor was there, perhaps, true esthetic pleasure. The sense of a task fulfilled by the artist was immediately intuited. But why? Why do we discover that we don’t need to get close to a Bidlo painting?

Bidlo’s appropriated signs and icons have the quality of processed food: appealing in appearance but with no authentic flavor. They seem to have been overheated by conceptual concentration and then frozen by the detachment (or boredom) provoked by the lack of a creative spark. But the operation as a whole—the systematic copying, the representation—is so extreme, is carried out with such consistency, that it passes itself off as an original creation. Thus while no single painting matters, the analytical stance chosen by the artist does.

Bidlo confronts us with our conditioned reflexes, our esthetic attitudes, and forces us to reconsider the parameters by which we judge pictorial quality The perfection of his simulated Morandis causes a complete upheaval of meanings: the image becomes a nonvalue, or perhaps a true parody of value. Its worth resides in the artist’s choice of a complex esthetic position, balanced on a precarious point. What lies between “nonsignificance” (when form, through the copy’s excessive fealty to original detail, becomes opaque) and “oversignificance” (when the clone of the work of art is accepted into the ambiguous province of the marketplace) parodies the production of academic art and rebuffs contemporary esthetic taboos. A painting by Bidlo is both more than a copy, because it accelerates mental demands, and less than an original, because it doesn’t invent original forms. It is a nonpainting.

Yet Bidlo is no iconoclast. There is no rupture of the original in his appropriation of preexisting forms. His is an all-inclusive method: in strictly adhering to the original, he consumes it. His mimeticism could be compared to the replicant in science-fiction films, who assumes perfect human form without ever becoming human. But if Bidlo apparently renounces his own personality to duplicate the styles and techniques of other artists, in reality he is known unequivocally as a “character” His esthetic-utopian attestation is in line with that of the historical avant-garde: the paradigmatic assumption of a life style as art. Passing through the lives and the art of others, Bidlo places an unsettling Pirandellian metacharacter on stage: someone, no one, a hundred thousand people.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.