View of “John Armleder,” 2015. Photo: Roberto Marossi.

View of “John Armleder,” 2015. Photo: Roberto Marossi.

John Armleder

View of “John Armleder,” 2015. Photo: Roberto Marossi.

The first of the three rooms in which John Armleder’s motley exhibition unfolded was the most evocative. A series of illuminated road signs composed of LED lights blinked amid a fog that enveloped visitors’ feet, as fog does in B-horror-movie cemeteries, or on certain winter evenings in the lowlands of Europe. The Blue Danube, performed by pianist Josef Lhévinne, played in the background. Nine large black-and-gold abstract paintings from 2015, each featuring a variation of the same geometric shape, hung on the walls in such a way that they constructed a visual horizon that might have reminded viewers that they had wandered into a gallery, not onto a film set. The next two rooms contained works more typical of the artist’s oeuvre. Take, for example, de M & G H, 2015—a pair of tubas (one gold, one silver) installed beside a raw canvas, the left edge of which hosts a slim passage of blue and purple drips. Or ocva! and ocav, both 2015—canvases whose surfaces, marked by poured and glittering paint, accommodate small objects, including toys and plastic animals. It is by no means an accident that the exhibition was titled “Charivari,” which might be translated as “a complete mess”; it was difficult to identify any overarching logic for the organization of these works. One is always tempted to find a common thread in an artist’s oeuvre, but Armleder is particularly reluctant to provide an interpretive key—perhaps a leftover habit from his anarchic youth as a member of Fluxus.

Yet Armleder does offer some clues as to the historical precedents for certain works. His fog installation recalls recent art history, citing James Rosenquist’s Horizon Home Sweet Home, a project the Pop artist mounted at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1970. It’s one of Rosenquist’s most wonderful works, a heavy nod toward 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The title and forms in “Sorry,” the 2015 series of black-and-gold paintings, are drawn from the wrapping paper for a chocolate handed out on trains in Switzerland to ameliorate the inconvenience of a probable delay. The paper’s colors and abstract pattern have here been translated into twelve-foot canvases.

But these references weren’t enough to bring cohesion to the exhibition. The absolute impenetrability of some of the works—I’m thinking specifically of Twelve goblets of wine resting on the ground, one of which is broken, 2015—was not enough to justify their realization. If the ever-cited Duchamp wanted, through his works, to point out that randomness exists and governs many of our actions, why can’t we attribute the same motivation to Armleder? It is perhaps because this Swiss artist does not have the same messianic spirit Duchamp employed to expand the territory of art. At most, Armleder asks us to share and to understand a strongly individual and almost intimate aspect of artistic creation—his artistic creation. What we can do, when faced with his work, is experience a sort of empathy, perhaps in recognizing a situation, a small object, a feeling—the lights in the fog. We might ascribe to the artist a certain courage—as evidenced in the way he reframes a chocolate wrapper to evoke aesthetics, art history, and poetic struggles—that we ourselves do not have. This grandiose staging elevates insignificant acts and mundane images, reminding us that the stuff of everyday life can take on significant meaning.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.