New York

Nicolás Guagnini, Mother Maze 3, 2019, mixed media, 43 1⁄2 × 37 3⁄8 × 8".

Nicolás Guagnini, Mother Maze 3, 2019, mixed media, 43 1⁄2 × 37 3⁄8 × 8".

Nicolás Guagnini

If, as Nicolás Guagnini opines in the set of notes that accompanied “Asociación Psicoanalítica Argentina” (Argentine Psychoanalytic Association)—his third solo exhibition at Bortolami—“all paranoia begins in the ear,” then his cast of characters must be a nervy one indeed. In the artist’s glazed ceramic figurines, the organ of hearing is often swollen to cartoonish proportions. Sometimes it’s also repeated over and over again in individual works, echoing itself at the expense of other facial features. But one doesn’t get the sense that auditory sensitivity has been enhanced by this mutation; it’s more that deafness is just a whisper away. Guagnini’s monstrous ears represent the confusion and stasis that come from too much information, from repetition and recording in the service of propaganda. These bloated and multiplied appendages, which might once have suggested all-consuming receivers, have been numbed by noise.

Guagnini associates this racket, this sound and fury, with an authoritarian father figure, our own Trump père. And if the current US president represents the ultimate triumph of distortion over clarity, then the fifteen curious talismans arrayed at the gallery were more than appropriate companion pieces to Trump’s lamentable reign of error. The works contained powerful hints of Rebecca Warren’s sculptural interpretations of Robert Crumb’s drawings, and of the celebrity puppets that British caricaturists Peter Fluck and Roger Law produced for the satirical British television program Spitting Image (1984–96). But while Fluck and Law used latex to give their creations a resilient flexibility (their puppets suffered a good deal of physical abuse in the course of each half-hour episode), Guagnini employs fired and glazed clay, a more fragile medium, to suggest a greater vulnerability (which was underscored by the works’ clear-glass pedestals).

Several of Guagnini’s objects were reinterpretations of the Egyptian Sphinx, in which distended breasts are joined by fluid limbs oddly reminiscent of Barry Flanagan’s iconic bronzes of leaping hares. Stranger still, hands and cuplike forms appear in place of heads, upon which balance large eggs. Is this kitschy Pop surrealism, or the all-too-mischievous detournement of an overfamiliar form via self-conscious incongruity? Guagnini insists on a reading that melds psychoanalysis—hence the show’s title—with an anthropological account of the complex position occupied by the Sphinx in its straddling of monotheism and polytheism.

Such subtleties don’t always survive the art’s knockabout appearance, nor are they necessarily defused by it. Yet the occasional accessory helps temper the wackiness: Four pieces, Mother Maze 1 to 4 (all works 2019) featured labyrinths painted in black-and-white acrylic on raw-linen banners (with satisfying graphic sharpness), each of which is held out by a figure in heraldic style. These works again forge historical links, as their carefully rendered forms hark back not only to ancient Egypt, but also to Greek mythology and the symbolic architecture of medieval Europe. They also made the whole installation feel as though it were a procession, each work a member of a group marching toward some goal still imprecisely defined but urgent nonetheless. In conjunction with the complex, even chaotic, variegation of the ceramics’ glazes, the crispness of the linen flags helped to establish the purposefulness of the project as a whole. Every gesture was intentional, if not strategic.

Another connection, one that should never go unsaid, was also seen here: the familial. “Mom was a psychoanalyst in Buenos Aires,” admits Guagnini. “A psychoanalyst is necessarily sphinxlike. All therapists build shrines. My mother, too.”