New York

Nicolás Guagnini, David, 2014, vitrified glazed ceramic, book, 8 1/2 × 7 1/2 × 6".

Nicolás Guagnini, David, 2014, vitrified glazed ceramic, book, 8 1/2 × 7 1/2 × 6".

Nicolás Guagnini

Bortolami Gallery

Nicolás Guagnini, David, 2014, vitrified glazed ceramic, book, 8 1/2 × 7 1/2 × 6".

“Who’s screwing whom?” I wondered as I observed the slightly oversize ceramic conversation pieces that occupied the main space of Nicolás Guagnini’s recent exhibition at Bortolami. Formed from an inventory of feet, noses, ears, and penises, these maudlin assemblages of appendages invert Deleuze’s euphoric idea of a body without organs, offering heaps of organs without bodies instead. Handcrafted and doused in a series of variegated vitrified glazes—molten lava reds and drippy ectoplasmic greens—these works, like so much artwork today, insist on a deep interest in a kind of lo-fi materiality that borders on the naive and speaks to the decorative tendencies long repressed in advanced art; Rosemarie Trockel’s silvered ceramics, Michaela Meise’s clay faces, and Josh Smith’s crafty tchotchkes, to name examples from three very different artists, come to mind as kindred spirits. Yet if the pleasure of craft was brought down to the crudest of levels, it nevertheless rested on a pillar of theory: Each save two of these polymorphously perverse objects sat upon an art book—whose subject might be Donald Judd, or Ad Reinhardt; one assemblage perched on the architectural tome Exit Utopia—that was itself placed atop an ink-dyed cedar pedestal (a shrouded reference to Carl Andre). Meanwhile, in a side gallery, two massive heads with proportionally sized penises protruding from their eye sockets surveyed the room. Terrible jokes about how a man sees and senses aside, they are rather convincing as works of art. I thought of the Colossus of Constantine; I thought of Thomas Schütte. But in contradistinction to these precedents, here was something truly, even wonderfully, grotesque.

If you find all this chauvinistic and absurd, you might be right, yet the show raised questions nevertheless. “How can an artist possibly get away with this?” I wondered. “Is this overperformance of masculinity and artistry ‘masterful’ or simply pathetic?” Guagnini offered some “theoretical support” for his project with a long essay pasted on the walls of the main gallery that covered topics ranging from the Holocaust and slavery to fetishism and Egyptian corporal punishment. The text, which contributed to the generalized ambience of mutilation, was written in a font called Dickface, which the artist designed with Bill Hayden, each of its letters bowing and bending the male organ into language. This text also appeared in a pamphlet, available for home reading, where it is paired with pictures of the scarred backs of slaves and of death camps, bodies piled up in piles of distended flesh. To borrow a phrase from J. G. Ballard, the show turned on the logic of the atrocity exhibition: It sublimated horror to the protocols of discourse and display. If the political incorrectness of Guagnini’s work critiques the good manners of much contemporary art, it also somehow inures one to shock. One is dared not to like it, but unfortunately that would make you either a square or a prude (which no one wants to be). Again, I wondered, “Is this the plight of culture today?”

Lest this all seem like mere provocation, one should note that the artist has been thinking about the baseness of the body for some time now. In 2004 he published a small pamphlet, The Seven Reviews of Monkey and Shit, featuring art reviews he wrote for Time Out New York that included mentions of the titular subjects. Later, in 2007, he displayed 77 Testicular Imprints, an archive of documents (a letter from Dan Graham, a picture of Pollock) that the artist had personally stamped with his paint-covered balls—a passive-aggressive seal of approval. The anxiety of influence still remains palpable in Guagnini’s recent work, embodied by the assortment of books marked with surrogate organs. If anxiety can send one into paralysis, it can also drive one to mania, and Guagnini seems hell-bent on covering—even “balling”—all his bases. In so doing, he casts a cold eye on art’s ostensible efficacy—its capacity to speak directly to power or invest itself in worldly effects. Guagnini’s show was both a memento mori and a monument to lowness, perversity, and death. It resisted any humanist pathos, however, by rendering this a cultural condition. To try to extricate oneself from this maw would be a fool’s errand.

Alex Kitnick