New York

Angelo Filomeno

Opulent symbolism does not equal erudition, but in the world of contemporary art we sometimes let things slide. We allow baroque excess to stand in for meaning, symbols to become trademarks that suggest generic “significance.” A diamond-encrusted skull becomes shorthand for violence, for excess, and, most of all, for Damien Hirst.

Angelo Filomeno’s embroideries run the risk of inviting such facile reception. Lavishly sewn with metallic threads on silk stretched over canvas and often appliquéd with crystals and semiprecious stones, the works boast a sheer luxury matched only by the overdetermination of their subjects: skulls, crosses, scarabs. Recent works have depicted a skeleton shitting swirls of leafy fronds, a rooster excreting jewels into a skull’s upturned mouth, and skeletons flying over the nocturnal cityscape of Los Angeles. Many recall the grotesque humor of the traditional Totentanz (dance of death), in which the skeletal figure is simultaneously terrifying and comical. In the prints of Hans Holbein or Alfred Rethel, however, moral judgments are always at hand, and the personification of death is frequently accompanied by Vanity, Cunning, and Dishonesty; in Filomeno’s images there is no attempt at admonishment, and Death—often called “the philosopher” in the titles—is alone, albeit ornamented.

For his recent exhibition “Betrayed Witches,” which featured eight new embroideries and two new sculptures, Filomeno simplified his imagery and pared down his palette, minimizing the threaded arabesques of the silk shantung and typically rendering a single mono- chrome emblem in the center of it. The astounding Rex et Regina, 2008, is a moiré diptych almost ten feet tall. On the right panel, a shimmering owl butterfly is splayed as if pinned; on the opposite panel, a spiny insect seems to play dead. The species is ambiguous, but given the temper of the show, it is hard not to see it as a praying mantis, a Surrealist symbol par excellence in its conflation of eroticism and death (the male is devoured by his mate during copulation). This regal pair recalls an earlier diptych by Filomeno, King and Queen, 2003, in which ornate part-skeletons are encased in a pink amoeba, but Rex et Regina dominates the earlier work through its formal restraint.

Filomeno’s sculptures do not hold up as well. Cold, 2007, a black glass skeleton prostrated on a mirrored platform and surrounded by over- size insects, flounders, its sheer gaudiness draining it of the embroidered works’ gravitas. And it is gravitas that gives the silk works their authority. What distinguishes Filomeno is neither his craft nor his imagery—other artists have mastered the macabre just as well—but his ability, displayed masterfully in “Betrayed Witches,” to hold his materials’ excess in check.

Rachel Churner