New York

Gianni Piacento

Esso Gallery

For the Italian Futurists, who celebrated velocity, tumult, and the headlong thrust toward tomorrow, a speeding car was more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. For Turin-based sculptor Gianni Piacentino, the choice between a Ferrari and a classical marble might not be so simple. An automobile racing by assumes an ideal smoothness and formal simplicity not unlike that of a stone figure worn by centuries of weather and the touch of thousands of hands, and such are the forms suggested simultaneously by Piacentino’s elongated carlike (or airplane-like, or motorcycle-like) objects, which escape immediate perception to enter the permanence of memory. As a wheel spinning at a certain rate no longer seems to be moving, Piacentino’s sculptures capture that moment of strange perceptual flu when speed turns into stasis and dynamism into immutability—just as they evoke the affective tipping point where the rush toward the future becomes nostalgia for the past.

Though Piacentino is a prominent figure on the Italian scene, this was his first American one-person show in more than twenty-five years. Like others in the arte povera group, with whom he exhibited in the late ’60s, Piacentino began with a kind of homegrown minimalism that quickly grew more richly metaphorical and suggestive, But in contrast to artists like Jannis Kounellis, with his immense historical landscapes ranging from primitive to classical to modern, and Alighiero e Boetti, with his heterogeneous wealth of materials and techniques, Piacentino always adhered to Minimalist values of concision and reiteration. while his treatment of the object as essentially an image revealed his affinities with Pop. He himself has said that he parted company with his erstwhile colleagues because of his conviction that “art had to have something to do with beauty and decoration, even when taken to extremes.” Essential form for Piacentino cannot exclude chrome strips that evoke speed; colors elude precise identification, and his signature becomes a kind of logo in typical automotive style.

This selection of seventeen works from 1966 to the present showed the constancy of Piacentino’s vision since he began constructing his vehicle sculptures around 1970. (Early pieces, colored crossbar reliefs like Dark Dull Pink Large X, 1966, and Purple-Gray Window Object, 1967-68, seem to refer to the idea of painting, its underlying physical structure, and the metaphor of the window.) Even what might be characterized as the asides in his career, like the odd work on canvas, W.B. Flight,1994, an homage to Orville and Wilbur Wright, function as commentaries on the subject and industrial style of the other works. But “industrial style” might be misleading. These are not fabricated objects based on standardized parts and materials. The affinity is more with John McCracken’s “finish fetish” than with Donald Judd’s use of materials to emphasize perspicuous form. Though modernism began by rejecting the smooth, polished surface, the sense of finish soon returned as a kind of internal critique, a revaluation of sentimental attachment to the object—the maker’s inability to let go of it—in the face of progress and the heedless rush forward to the next thing. With this in mind, in retrospect even Mondrian’s delicacy of touch reveals the inadmissible pathos that is the precise subject of Piacentino’s sculpture.

Barry Schwabsky