New York

Enzo Cucchi

Blumhelman Gallery

In 1990, in a tour de force homage to the city of Rome, Enzo Cucchi produced nearly three dozen small paintings. Butted up next to each other to form a fast-moving stream of images, they are noteworthy for their whimsical method and general air of ironical fantasy. Certain motifs—skulls and black birds, for example—proliferate ominously (sometimes in collage form). Jinnilike figures perch on famous monuments, and grimacing ghosts and cosmic signs populate the otherwise deserted streets. Cucchi’s eternal Rome is home to a horde of spirits that appear impulsively like stray thoughts. Indeed, the works are perversely lyrical—a kind of capriccio, in which scale is thrown off by larger-than-life emblems, overloaded with archaic associations. Cucchi’s Rome, for all its grandeur, is an intimate, morbid, haunted place, having more to do with unconscious processes than historical reality.

Cucchi is attempting to accomplish a double job of redemption: he wants to save Rome from becoming a tourist spectacle of clichéd appearances—the fate signaled by the kitschy pictures of its famous sites that he creates as his point of departure (he then draws and paints on top of these renderings)—and from the bankruptcy of inner meaning visited on the city by its modernization. In several works in which a giant light bulb invades Rome like a monster from outer space, Cucchi seems to be asking whether the city can hold its own against modernity. In one startling work, the bulb appears in a black void, as though it were either a sun that has come too close to the earth, destroying it, or an electric comet signaling the apocalypse. Indeed, there is a generally apocalyptic mood to these works, as though only doom will remind Rome of its mythical character, restoring the city’s ancient faith in itself.

Also exhibited are three rather remarkable marble sculptures and a huge painting with the same improvised, sketchy look as the smaller ones. In the painting, the hands of God seem to hold a number of orbiting chariots in place; the whole picture becomes a heavenly chariot touching down on earth with the steel wheel attached to its lower left-hand corner. This painting, by reason of its grandeur and title—Trasporto di Roma su un Capello d’Oro (The transport of Rome over a golden hair; all works 1991)—seems to summarize the themes of the smaller paintings: in Rome one is “transported” to another world, a cosmic inner space. But it is the meticulously carved sculptures that are especially striking. Taken together with the murky surfaces of the small paintings, their subtly smooth finish confirms the extraordinary textural range of Cucchi’s work. Two of the sculptures are very little, and one, while long, has a small “tip” that is its true point. They are all of weird female figures, with long, flowing hair, turned in on themselves: the muse or goddess in miniature, which seems her appropriate size in these skeptical times. Indeed, Cucchi’s sculptures are icons of the ancient faith in art’s power to divine mystery where there no longer seems to be any.

Donald Kuspit