New York

Diego Perrone

From Alberto Burri’s tachiste allusions to blood-soaked bandages to the quasi-alchemical experiments of arte povera, postwar Italy has produced numerous artists captivated by the transformative properties of elemental matter. Diego Perrone’s new series of photographs “I Pensatori di buchi” (The thinkers of holes; all works 2002) depicts solitary figures posed at the edges of yawning pits in the dirt. These pensive loners seem to be pondering their gritty surroundings before merging with the darkness.

Perrone hails from the Northern Italian town of Asti, not far from Turin, Milan, and Genoa, where the arte povera movement, promoted by the Genoese critic and curator Germano Celant. first flowered in the late ’60s. Perrone has recently carried out projects that speak to both the artistic legacy and the more general local flavor of his home region. In his 1999 photographic project As If Fascinated by What Remains Still in the Background, Perrone shot elderly citizens of Asti holding animal horns, aligning weathered faces with brittle organic surfaces. In preparation for the eleven photographs from “I Pensatori di buchi” on view here, the artist and his father spent three months shoveling several holes as deep as nine feet on the family property, first burning the earth with a gas torch to soften it. This arduous labor was followed by visits from townspeople, who were photographed while balancing precariously on the ridges of the crevices, straddling terra firma and the backyard abyss.

The works themselves occupy another kind of border zone: between photography as documentation and photography as self-sufficient image. The documentary aspect links them with countless photos, usually black-and-white, from performance and Land art in the ’60s and ’70s. Yet Perrone’s are self-conscious constructions that make use of artificial lighting and rich color printing to create strong pictures that hold their own. For one work, the camera was poised above the mouth of a hole, the lens directed toward the black-and-gold soil of the interior (some photographs do not include people). The highly textured, moist earthen wall takes on a quality that can only be described as painterly, calling to mind Robert Rauschenberg’s early monochromes or Anselm Kiefer’s blasted landscapes.

Perrone’s physical manipulation of the land might be read not only as a reference to ’70s Earthworks but as a metaphor for widespread forms of environmental manipulation. It is no accident that in these works he only portrays men, the “thinkers of holes” who seem to plot the earth’s destruction. A video shown in the gallery office, which one could view only after reading a warning, heightened the undertones of aggression evident in the photographs. Called Angela & Alfonso, the six-minute scenario plays out in gory and repulsive detail the slow and deliberate removal of a woman’s ear with a box cutter by a man who appears to be her boyfriend in a parked car at night. She seems to take part in the act voluntarily, though any possible motivation is left entirely unaccounted for. In light of this video, the photographs in the gallery suggest a darker side of human behavior: Just what dirty deeds are these men planning? In one photograph, Perrone himself is seen naked, straining to maintain a backward “bridge” position without tumbling downward. He seems simultaneously rooted in the soil and close to being swallowed up by it. In his efforts to excavate Asti’s terrain and chronicle its inhabitants, Perrone maintains a two-sided relationship with his locale, transfixed by its past while struggling to understand its present.

Gregory Williams