Nicolas Ceccaldi, Apocryphal Masquerade, 2014, deer skull, ribbon, red wine, 12 3/8 × 4 × 6 3/4".

Nicolas Ceccaldi, Apocryphal Masquerade, 2014, deer skull, ribbon, red wine, 12 3/8 × 4 × 6 3/4".

Nicolas Ceccaldi

Kunstverein München

Nicolas Ceccaldi, Apocryphal Masquerade, 2014, deer skull, ribbon, red wine, 12 3/8 × 4 × 6 3/4".

“Red Wine,” the title of Nicolas Ceccaldi’s first solo show in a public institution, was apparently intended as a catchall reference to intoxicating substances, to pleasurable means of withdrawal from reality. Then again, the poster accompanying the exhibition included an image of someone holding out a red pill, somewhat incongruously recalling a famous scene from the 1999 movie The Matrix: By taking it, the film’s protagonist, Neo, chose to be confronted with the dystopian, machine-dominated real world. The poster’s design was clearly based on DIS magazine’s stock-imagery initiative DISimages, while a kunstverein-produced booklet introducing the exhibition aped the French publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit. Ultimately, these references bypassed one another, resulting in so much white noise. In being both framed and permeated by an aggregate of cultural references and vernaculars, “Red Wine” cast cultural production as a more or less clumsy process of integration.

The first thing visitors encountered on entering the space was a sound installation, I-doser, 2014. It consists of music tracks downloaded from the website, intended to mimic the experience of taking different recreational drugs. But the narrative of intoxication stopped there. In the sober, lofty white rooms of Kunstverein München, hung sparsely with medium-size canvases and smallish deer skulls, the sound track only contributed to the show’s halfhearted attempt at gothic ornamentation. Two of the canvases, showing photographed computer screens, were, in fact, giclée prints—often considered a decorative cousin of oil painting. Onto one of the two, Ceccaldi glued a few nearly indiscernible sequins. The other had a skull suspended from fishing line hanging in front of it.

The three other canvases in the exhibition combined acrylics and spray paint as well as, in two cases, red wine. Together, these elements formed patterns and decorative motifs (a malformed skeleton, an orb, totemic symbols) in a gaudy palette of pink, black, gray, and purple. Such colors hardly contributed to a convincingly gothic atmosphere; nor did the lace, the jewelry, or the tattooed symbol (a semicolon in black acrylic paint) that Ceccaldi applied to various skulls. On the contrary, this was a homemade kind of pop goth—like what a teen curious about the subculture might glean from the Internet. Only one work included has an imposing presence: Untitled, 2014. But, as if deflating the work’s own formal grandeur through the poverty of its materials, the sheet draped across the fully grown buck’s broad antlers is bubble wrap, pierced through at points and loosely joined with Scotch tape.

If Ceccaldi had wanted to achieve a convincing sense of drama, he would have needed to fashion a more fully encompassing spectacle and forgo his naive craftsmanship. On the other hand, if his intention had been to address the institutionalization of his work, to stage his works as artifacts of today’s bluntly integrated sphere of cultural production, then all the elements were already in place: He could have just covered the walls grimly with skulls, as in a trophy room. He could have rigorously occupied that spatial plane in a manner exemplified by his 2012 exhibition “Wearables” at Real Fine Arts in Brooklyn, in which fifteen sets of store-bought fairy wings covered the floor, instead of spacing such unimposing skulls so sparsely and erratically throughout this space. As it was, “Red Wine” left open the possibility that the artist was intentionally withholding, that he was exhibiting disparate, unresolved, and often artless material in an attempt to disappoint or alienate viewers. If so, Ceccaldi wouldn’t be alone in answering, when the museum or market comes calling, in a way that doesn’t reject the invitation but still resists easy assimilation. The question is, What role do viewers actually play in the process of institutionalizing culture and what purpose is served by sidelining them?

––John Beeson