New York

Ugo Rondinone

Matthew Marks Gallery | 502 W. 22nd Street

Much of Ugo Rondinone’s work occupies the indeterminate space between standardized pop culture and high art (the latter category ever more difficult to locate). The Swiss artist is as well known for his Gesamkunstwerk-like engagements with cinematic spectacle and semiotic codes (for example, Roundelay, 2004, an immersive, multichannel video installation that intermixes tropes of Hollywood and of avant-garde and structuralist film in its portrayal of a man and a woman separately walking the streets of Paris as if heading for some star-crossed rendezvous) as he is for meticulous landscape drawings and scrupulously engineered sound works. Rondinone’s recent exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, which at first glance appeared to be yet another reenactment of a painterly and sculptural endgame, was, on closer inspection, marked by a painstaking attention to process in the form of artisanal craft.

Entering the gallery, one was immediately confronted by twelve nine-foot busts apparently modeled in unglazed clay and standing on seemingly makeshift bases made of wooden cargo boxes. The sculptures’ cartoonish features, recall both the moai of Easter Island and Jean Dubuffet’s figures, insofar as they cite the quality of regressive fecal smear that characterized Art Informel. This double register of Primitivism is undermined, however, by the standardized facture marking the works’ surfaces. This too-regular pattern of “fingerprints” spoofs early modernist sculpture, in which the indexical mark of the artist’s hand purportedly signified affect and interiority. On closer inspection, each print on Rondinone’s sculptures proves identical, as though mechanically applied. This effect was produced by Rondinone’s dialectical procedure: making each piece in clay and then casting it in aluminum painted to look like clay. Short texts written on the wall, which looked, at first, discontinuous with the rest of the show, emerged as corroborative of this simultaneous offer and withdrawal of interiority and attendant meaning. One statement read: I WANT MY HEART BACK. I WANT TO FEEL EVERYTHING AGAIN.

While the original moai speak to a historical-mythical horizon of art as bound up with humanity’s very survival, Rondinone’s grotesque equivalents are more ambivalent, melancholic but also hilarious. His citation of Easter Island’s iconic statuary therefore quotes a moment of necessity and relevance in the history of specialized cultural production, one endlessly lamented in the end-of-art discourse (itself now thankfully ended) while simultaneously appearing to be a juvenile jest, a failed attempt to codify expression in an obsolete medium. It is as though expression were itself arrière garde and could only be pitifully recalled as a joke: I want my heart back. I want to feel everything again.

A series of small drawings rendered in black ink on small, roughly gessoed panels of stretched linen circled the walls. Many called to mind Cézanne’s village landscapes and Picasso’s 1909 “Horta de Ebro” paintings. Yet the careful investigation of the interplay of figure and ground, oscillating so as to disarticulate spatial certainty, emerged in this context as a sad nostalgic indulgence. Just as the sculptures caricature their sources, these works seem to caricature themselves caricaturing the history of art. What emerge, then, in Rondinone’s inquiry are the high stakes of historical reflection on artistic practice. The relevance of history to contemporaneity is asserted and troubled.

Big Mind Sky, 2007, a cast-iron keyhole set into the gallery wall, is a metaphor for the absence of a fixed key to the show. This seems to betray a desire for legibility that was continually frustrated by the show’s tenuously related themes, tropes, and mediums. While the keyhole rehearses the fact that the institutional container of the gallery brackets the terms through which sense is constructed, it also opens onto the possibility of a reading grounded in metaphor and myth. This dangerous last word, myth, threatens to qualify Rondinone’s most all-encompassing projects, but could also be understood as representing the importance of displacement, disarticulation, and reiteration in art-making in general, and in Rondinone’s practice in particular.

Jaleh Mansoor