New York

Francesco Vezzoli, TRUE COLORS (A Marble Head of the Resting Satyr, circa Late 1st Century A.D.), 2014, painted marble, 7 × 15 3/4 × 7 3/4".

Francesco Vezzoli, TRUE COLORS (A Marble Head of the Resting Satyr, circa Late 1st Century A.D.), 2014, painted marble, 7 × 15 3/4 × 7 3/4".

Francesco Vezzoli

MoMA PS1

Francesco Vezzoli, TRUE COLORS (A Marble Head of the Resting Satyr, circa Late 1st Century A.D.), 2014, painted marble, 7 × 15 3/4 × 7 3/4".

Francesco Vezzoli is an ambitious artist, to be sure. A case in point is the fraught history of his recent exhibition at MoMA PS1: In 2013, the Milan-based artist sought to purchase the ruins of a nineteenth-century southern Italian church, ship the entire thing to New York City, and rebuild the structure in the museum’s courtyard, where he would exhibit his videos. But the dream was not to be: Italian courts, concerned with cultural preservation, intervened and halted the action. Until then, it seemed Vezzoli was unstoppable in achieving his visions of excess.

Enter “Teatro Romano”: Staged in a large black-walled gallery in MoMA PS1, this significantly scaled-back production spotlighted five Roman marble busts of gods and men, all dating from the first and second centuries AD. Sited on tall plinths spaced generously throughout the room, the sculptures were painted with palettes inspired by the original artifacts’ polychromy; two millennia ago, these busts would have been decorated in garish hues made with pulverized organic pigments such as cinnabar, also known as “dragon’s blood” red. Yet rather than remain perfectly faithful to the past, Vezzoli selected hues that he preferred. (Color has long been an interest for him; in the mid-1990s, Vezzoli remade Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series as a group of small embroideries.) As Clemente Marconi, a professor in the history of Greek art and archaeology at New York University (and one of a group of experts with whom the artist consulted while making this work), explained in a handout, “[f]ar from being a process of reconstructing the original polychromy of these ancient sculptures, this was an act of interpreting their carved forms through paint.”

Given Vezzoli’s well-known films involving our own contemporary deities (A-list Hollywood celebrities) and his decision to employ fleshy colors—as well as bright-pink lips and sparkling blue eyes—we were spurred here to look for resemblances in the ghostly faces of these sculptures. TRUE COLORS (A Marble Head of the Resting Satyr, circa Late 1st Century A.D.), 2014, seems to depart from Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, while TRUE COLORS (A Marble Portrait Head of Man, Roman Imperial, Antonine, circa Mid-2nd Century A.D.), also 2014, mimics a bearded Seth Rogen. It wasn’t all Tinseltown, though: Thankfully, the broken-off noses of a goddess and of Isis were not fixed via rhinoplasty.

“My new obsession is the past,” the artist said in an interview with T Magazine in October. The statement was an odd one, since Vezzoli has always been obsessed with the past, both the relatively recent (Cinecittà divas) and the more distant (imperial Rome). Perhaps what he is newly obsessed with is not the past, exactly, but history—i.e., an instrumentalized understanding of the long gone. His statuary, with its drag-worthy maquillage, suggests that classicism itself was camp to begin with—an interesting intervention in cultural history, and one obviously relevant to the über-campy oeuvre of the interventionist. Certainly, any critical case for Vezzoli’s work has to contend that it is more camp than kitsch, though that argument has been harder to make as his art has gotten bigger and glitzier, and as the blithe yet astringent sensibility of his best work (and the best camp) has increasingly given way to something that feels heavier, more obvious, and more belabored. “I am not respected,” he disarmingly said in T. “He is very respected,” Vezzoli added, referring to Marconi. While in the end it’s hard to know how much of this self-deprecation is false (or how much of it is indeed “true colors”), what should be underscored is that Vezzoli simply doesn’t need to enlist learned classicists to get respect. He just needs to quit tarting things up.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler