New York

Arte Debole

Queens College Art Center

Arte Debole, which means “weak art,” originated in northern Italy in 1986, when artists from Turin and Milan began to draw inspiration from the contemporary intellectual movement “pensiero debole” (weak thought). An Italian variant of post-Modernism primarily associated with the writings of Gianni Vattimo, “pensiero debole” proposes weak or non-foundational thinking as a radical alternative to the structured, foundational thought that characterizes modern metaphysics. In art, this recipe constitutes yet another counter to the hegemony of Modernism, in which expressivity is replaced by rhetorical play, depth of meaning rejected in favor of calculated superficiality, and formal resolution superseded by infinite incongruity.

Although the four official members of Arte Debole vary in the ways in which they actualize “pensiero debole,” they share a recognizable sensibility. All make assemblages that poetically combine materials ranging from wood, metal, and fabric to synthetic grass, Plexiglas, and Xerox paper. Practicing a combinatory mode of production, each adheres to the laws of incongruity, asymmetry, and paradox. Yet the emergence of what might almost be described as a unique style is only one of the many internal contradictions that crop up in this body of work, dedicated as it is to the weakening of the Modernist canon. Indeed, the phenomenon of a group of artists united under one name and guided by a manifesto in its pursuit of a radical agenda feels anachronistically avant-garde. In Arte Debole, one discovers a bid for the strong lurking behind the rhetoric of the weak.

Deriving its raison d’être from a specific philosophical movement, Arte Debole inevitably lapses into illustration. This is especially the case when frames are a featured motif, in works such as Rapporti (Relationships, 1990) by Renato Alpegiani. This wall-hung assemblage presents four ornate frames organized in a deliberately asymmetrical configuration, each containing perfunctorily abstract fields of various materials. This seems like an obvious translation not only of Vattimo’s notion of framing as a means of problematizing modernity, but also of Jacques Derrida’s use of the frame in his critique of Kantian esthetics.

As might be expected, irony is the order of the day, and it is wielded more effectively in some cases than in others. The words scribbled onto a painterly blue surface in Gian Carlo Pagliasso’s Chemiotherapia (Chemotherapy, 1990) suggest a send-up of the Surrealist practice of psychic automatism, but without the support of an explanatory text, any intended irony paradoxically gives way to an apparent expressionism. A more successful use of irony as metacritique animates Renato Ghiazza’s installation, L’Arte della guerra (The art of war, 1991), which deftly comments on the infantile nature of war by covering a floor-space with two large wooden shapes and 1,000 toy boats and airplanes made of paper.

Curator Peter Caravetta’s exhibition title, “Metapsychosis,” is defined in one of the catalogue texts by Robert Morgan as a “metaphor of the subject in a nearly forbidden state of play.” Here a number of post-Modernist clichés are operative: the idea that one can speak of a universal, nonspecific subject; the diagnosis of this mythical subject as psychotic; and the characterization of the psychotic mindset according to a fragmentary esthetic. Luigi Antinucci self-consciously summarizes this esthetic in Naufragio #1 (Shipwreck #1, 1991). By simply gluing pieces of a broken tile, which bear the image of a ship, to a framed surface, he plays in an overfamiliar manner on the radical disjunction of image and referent.

If anything, Arte Debole is exploring a decadent, mannerist phase of post-Modernist esthetics, one that involves a hyper-stylization of ’80s developments without necessarily venturing into new territory. The free play of surface color and texture that is the group’s forte is limited by its indentured servitude to “pensiero debole,” which is in turn contradicted by the avant-garde bravado of their manifesto-style polemics. Indeed, Morgan’s “subject” turns out to be the white male artist in search of a new style, thrashing like a fish out of water in an art context currently preoccupied with the nuances of gendered and culturally specific subjectivity, for which there can be no easy blueprint.

Jenifer P. Borum