Maurizio Cannavacciuolo

A man with his pants pulled down to his ankles, lying twisted on his side in front of a Vespa, immediately suggests a story: One imagines a gay crime in a Latin country—perhaps Italy, where Maurizio Cannavacciuolo lives. Just over forty years old, Cannavacciuolo is a Neapolitan artist who has been working since the late ’70s; the image of the prone male figure is from his 1997-98 series entitled “La fine di Paquito a Cuba” (The death of Paquito in Cuba). Although one often finds oneself confronting harsh, even deliberately obscene stories in Cannavacciuolo’s work—the “Insults and Bedtime Stories” series he showed three years ago at Sperone Westwater in New York is a case in point—at the same time the style and quality of the painting continually distract one’s mind from the disturbing narrative. Every Cannavacciuolo canvas is as heavily patterned as a Persian rug. The “fringe” characters in these stories exist within the abstract realm of hyperdecoration. For example, the paintings from “La fine di Paquito a Cuba” (on view at Galleria 1000eventi) are constructed in various layers: The background consists of a vividly colored floral design laid out in squares, over which has been placed a meticulous depiction of a Vespa. Atop the realistically rendered motorcycle is a black-and-white grid, like an elaborate wrought-iron balustrade, that covers the surface of the painting, and finally, floating over all these strata of ornamentation, is Paquito. Paradoxically, despite multiple levels, the work has absolutely no depth; everything is two-dimensional, like a tapestry or a comic strip, and every figure, every possible narrative, dissolves in the pattern. The decoration is like an amoeba that envelops and encompasses everything, transforming every character or motif into a strange arabesque in a sort of horror vacui that confuses and eventually blocks all the relationships among the various parts of the work, which becomes a “nonplace” of potentially infinite texture.

Cannavacciuolo might be seen within a line of artists going back to Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard but also leading to Gilbert & George, who are almost his contemporaries, and even perhaps to Keith Haring. Theirs is a world evened out by the repetition of signs, by the iteration of signifiers that annul all significance. Cannavacciuolo renders his relentless onslaught of empty signifiers with an obsessive refinement that stands in sharp contrast to his brutally sexual scenes and the offensive phrases he writes in Neapolitan slang.

At Studio Guenzani, the artist presented smaller works, which incorporated language into their overall design. Using a technique one might call “secret writing,” a decorative device that weaves a word or words (vulgar phrases, in this case) amid patterns so intricate that the writing almost disappears—or, I should say, unexpectedly appears—the artist inserts a harsh element into the repetitive beauty of his debauched decoration. The insulting, even humiliating phrases that emerge from the background—such as “Ricchione di merda” (shitty faggot) and “stronzo” (crap)—are jarring reminders of the hatred and violence lurking below the placid surfaces of things. But then painting immediately regains the tipper hand and buries every word, every story, in the luminosity of the decoration.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.