Mimmo Paladino

That trusty critic’s tool, the Art Abstracts, tallies over a hundred entries for Mimmo Paladino, but these turn out mostly to be pictorial reproductions; few are substantial articles. The art world evidently likes looking at Paladino’s neoprimitivist paintings and sculptures, but not taking them apart. Maybe the artist’s key apologists have a hand in this. Achille Bonito Oliva’s rote 1982 endorsement of Paladino’s work in terms of the canonical virtues of trans-avantgardism (decentering, fragmentation, “delicate turbulence,” and the like) doesn’t exactly lay the foundations for a more detailed criticism. The main alternatives to this account—the ones that wax lyrical over the mythic timelessness, spiritual yearning, or deep cultural memory embodied in Paladino’s “symbolism” (see, e.g., Norman Rosenthal, 1994)—do the artist even fewer favors. Eleanor Heartney (1984) heats up the debate by flagging the question of inauthenticity. By definition, neoprimitivism involves contemporary consciousnesses masquerading as Other, but there are many ways of wearing the disguise.

The South London Gallery’s show was spread over two sites: its home space in Peckham and the Roundhouse in Camden Town. The former featured two series: “Zenith,” 1999, twenty two-dimensional mixed-media pieces hung high on the gallery walls (so that their main function could really only be decorative); and “Testimony,” 1996–99, a collection of twenty pale stone statues that recall various archaic sources (Egyptian sculpture, Cycladic figures, medieval stone carving). But “Testimony” also loudly announces the mediated nature of its primitivism: Brancusi, Modigliani, and Jacob Epstein turn out to be Paladino’s influences here. His figures’ formulaic faces recycle Modigliani’s recipe of long, delicate noses, small, demure mouths, and thoughtful expressions. Several Paladino figures sprout small supernumerary heads—smooth Brancusi-like eggs that ask to be nestled in one’s hands. Soften the aggressive mechanical features of Epstein’s Rock Drill, 1913–15, and one of Paladino’s wide-browed, long-nosed animals might appear.

Work supposedly in mourning for a lost spirituality (or whatever) has no business being this chic. Paladino’s figures stand almost seven feet tall, but they are fey, not monumental. They have slim, elegant fingers and sport stylish skullcaps. Some are ornamented with cords, pleats, fluting, or smooth ripples, like an Art Deco cigarette case. (Twisted ropes, braids, ripples: more reminders here of Epstein, or of Brancusi’s treatment of hair in versions of The Kiss). In this installation at least, Paladino’s archaic motifs are filtered through a very particular early-twentieth-century sensibility, revisiting a range of sources precariously balanced between modernist purity and Deco style—in other words, kitsch. (Even the silver leaf used extensively in the “Zenith” pieces has a subliminal flavor of ’20s and ’30s interior design.) Paladino emerges as a deft, affectionate pasticheur, and the implications of his double mimesis could sustain further consideration.

Sadly, Ravel was unavailable to compose a lightly wistful score for Paladino’s “elegaic” installation I Dormienti (The sleepers), 1999, in the brick-vaulted undercroft of the Roundhouse, but Brian Eno stepped gamely into the breach with a melodiously eerie arrangement of ambient sound. In the central space, a group of terra-cotta figures lie curled up on the floor. With heads or arms coming adrift, they hover between being bodies and artifacts. Some are bound (like Epstein’s Lazarus, 1947–48) with grave wrappings. Descending on them from the surrounding passageways is a troupe of terra-cotta crocodiles. With plump affable faces, gently smiling jaws, and empty eye sockets, these have the look of charming, slightly chilling toys. All in all, this explicit piece of theater feels ragged, maybe too hastily put together. (The lighting is clumsy; Paladino drawings tacked onto walls add nothing to the main ensemble.) Nevertheless, Paladino and Eno’s collaboration insinuates itself into the imagination. Like Eno’s music more generally, the work is playful, ambient, ephemeral, but somehow not disposable.

Rachel Withers