Maurizio Cannavacciuolo

Neapolitan artist Maurizio Cannavacciuolo is known for his puzzlelike paintings and wall drawings that densely intertwine decorative patterns, sketches of architectural elements, and images of humans and animals. A recent participant in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s artist-in-residence program, which was founded in 1992 to showcase contemporary art in a gallery separate from the unchanging permanent collection, Cannavacciuolo (selected by contemporary curator Pieranna Cavalchini to help celebrate the museum’s centennial) spent his fall 2003 residency studying and photographing the museum’s interiors as well as Mrs. Gardner’s rare-book collection and personal travel scrapbooks and journals. Upon his return to the museum in February 2004, he and his assistants took five weeks (during which time visitors could watch the creative process unfold through a window) to cover two white walls with hordes of extremely faint graphite outline drawings by tracing onto them the details of some three hundred projected slides. The other walls are painted in solid bright primary colors, and in contrast the drawings become even more elusive; bright lights from above chase the shadows away. In seeming homage to the Gardner Museum’s displays, which are themselves a hodgepodge of personal treasures mostly without labels, Cannavacciuolo blended images and text from its founder’s journals with his own comprehensive diaries, details of his paintings, appropriated esoteric book illustrations, and popular comics. Careful scrutiny revealed an endless lacework of images in a variety of scales: pages from ’60s comic books models in their undergarments accompanied by designer outfits, African tribe members in ceremonial garb, Siamese-twin skeletons in an eternal embrace, a newborn catapulting from a coffered dome, nude mutants, luxurious palaces, a bomb shelter, guns, and a grenade. With its brightly colored walls and wildly interwoven pencil narratives, this first US solo museum presentation of Cannavacciuolo’s work calls up figures as disparate as Sol LeWitt, Henry Darger, Stan Lee, and Federico Fellini.

The work’s title, TV Dinner, 2004, appears to be an example of Cannavacciuolo’s ironic wit, which for me was lost in translation. But it must be a nod to the rapid, packaged ways we often nourish our senses and an indicator of the fact that in order to take in his installation we have to make a serious, lengthy effort. Though the work sometimes seems to verge on chaos, each layer and link was meticulously planned. Repeated patterns are used as backdrop—from Gardner’s sprawling script to Islamic tile to William Morris wallpaper. One of the more beautiful images is that of an oversize steed, composed of countless continuous ornate swirls in a style dating from eighteenth-century Britain, galloping past architectural details from a Venetian palace, above a Shakespearean quote from Gardner’s journals and a reproduction of a photogravure of jovial Harvard men.

Cannavacciuolo also likes to talk politics and tell morality tales, employing what he calls a “babylike attitude.” Weapons and fashion figures populate a world where an image of the Capitolio in Havana, a US Capitol look-alike, has been placed next to a toy grenade. Creating a delicate fantasy web of transcultural pranks, patterns, and politics, Cannavacciuolo also re-creates the real-life experience of information overload with a critical and philosophical array that is difficult yet ultimately satisfying to navigate.

Francine Koslow Miller