New York

Gianni Dessi

In this, his best show yet, Gianni Dessì has come into his own. His previous works had a somewhat spiritless character, reconciling the melancholy and deconstructivist modes of Modernism (a dichotomy proposed by Jean-Francois Lyotard) in a low-key way. They seemed oddly unprepossessing, intimating more than they delivered. They made a certain minor point about the subjective possibilities of abstraction, but their material means was not equal to their ambitious spiritual effect.

The calculated simplicity of the paintings shown here (all but two from 1987) works brilliantly, jarringly. There is a boldness to each of these abstract “constructed” canvases that comes through no matter how subtle the material content or coloration—in Lacanian terms, pushing through the symbolic and imaginary orders to an unnameably “real” emotion. Here, the emotion is projected as a long wail of shape, familiar yet so absurd in its surroundings as to function with subjective freshness, like a splash of color. Dessì renews our sense of the ambiguity and duplicity of all images, for he presents equivocation as the substratum of form and the goal of art itself.

This surge toward the intangible from a very tangible launchpad is something that we experience as a kind of impacted sensation of the sublime. In Alla lettera (To the letter, 1987), perhaps the exhibition’s signature piece, Dessì has taken a long, double-grooved strip of iron, one end of which he has bent at a right angle and then twisted, and attached it to the painted canvas vertically and slightly off center. The dark bar rises from the painting’s bottom edge and then juts out at the viewer about two-thirds of the way up, the cold, factual metal contrasting with the relatively insubstantial wave of paint that surrounds it like an aura; the truncated end of the grooved bar forms the letter E. This gesture within a gesture is peculiarly picturesque, and is made emphatic by the few strokes of paint that accentuate the emptiness of the large canvas. Arte povera—from which this and many of the other works derive—always had picturesque pretensions, but here they are given a new point.

John Ruskin distinguished between the “lower picturesque,” in which the effect of sublimity is “caused by something external” to the thing that appears sublime, and the “higher picturesque,” in which sublimity seems “inherent in the nature of the thing”; the paintings of Turner, in his view, exemplified the higher picturesque. Arte povera was fundamentally lower picturesque; although this new arte povera (if it can be called that) combines both, it tends toward the higher picturesque. The stark iron bar in Alla lettera, set incongruously in a “landscape” of gestures—a lower picturesque method—is enigmatic and a bit shocking, and thus seems inherently sublime.

For Ruskin, the higher picturesque depended upon the artist’s “largeness of sympathy.” This interior sublimity is conveyed by the way an object is made to seem incommensurate with its own space. Nearly all of the pictures shown here depend on this strategy; many of them extend it through their largeness of scale. Dessì establishes a central, usually geometric element in an indeterminate, rather dramatic space. In North Moore, 1986, this objectlike centering device is a rosette made of two juxtaposed squares of wood; in Alta la vista (Looking up, 1987), it is the overlapping white and black triangles; in Rosa (Rose, 1987) it is a smaller, gearlike version of the rosette in North Moore; in Punto a capo (Paragraph break, 1987) the center of sublime gravity is a black oval “head” above a “body” of collaged canvas strips; and so on. The strategy both objectifies the largeness of sympathy—echoed in the apparently unencompassable and incomprehensible largeness of the works’ pictorial space—and standardizes the means by which the effect of the sublime can be generated. But Dessì’s structure never becomes formulaic; his space remains uncanny—sufficiently equivocal to be experienced as both internal and external, giving its sublimity a special grandeur, that of the unnameable.

Donald Kuspit