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Nicola Ricciardi

Rudolf Stingel at Massimo De Carlo

Mousse Magazine


In 2004, Rudolf Stingel transformed the floor of Massimo De Carlo’s Milan gallery into a giant mirror, and hung six of his now iconic “gold paintings” on the walls. The painterly surface of the works was embellished with damask patters which brought to mind the tapestries of royal eighteenth-century Rococo palaces. They echoed, in their format and their style, Baroque’s attempt to connect the picture plane with real space: the wallpaper finally conquered the wall, not as a frame-less background image, but as a procession of single canvases with a three-dimensional aspect. The staggering opulence and splendor of the room was contrasted with the simplicity of the paintings’ production (a process that the artist himself famously explained in 1989 in his seminal work, “Instructions”). Today, ten years after that feast for the eyes, Massimo De Carlo presents two new bodies of work by the Italian artist, including—in the first and larger room of the gallery—a series of large pattern paintings made with the same technique and bearing exactly the same damask motive as those exhibited in 2004. Yet this time the gallery floor remains unaltered and instead of gold, the background is magenta. The visual outcome is dramatically different: the vivid backing color is bounded by a dark, greenish gloom that gives the painting a ghostly aura. The gallery space looks much more like an austere, unfurnished church than the Versailles-style salon of ten years ago. Yet it retains its magnetism.

”Impossibly beautiful”, “venerable splendor”, “aesthetic triumph”: over the last twenty years, critics and art writers have often insisted on the fulfilling and gratifying quality of Stingel’s oeuvre. His works are, simply put, beautiful (a word no critic should ever use in a review). Still, it is not plain beautiful: rather “but beautiful,” as in the title of Geoff Dyer’s unmatched book about jazz. In Stingel’s paintings, as in the celebrated and tragic lives of the likes of Chet Baker and Lester Young, beauty is a hiccup: something memorable that happened along the journey towards something much more unpleasant, and inevitable. Death, often. Dyer writes: “Every time Chet played a note, he waved it goodbye. Sometimes he didn’t even wave.” Likewise, Stingel’s works conceal a shadow, occasionally weaving in elements of dark sarcasm, but nonetheless they are dazzling and alluring (a bit like hearing Wallace Hartley playing the violin while the Titanic sinks). Under the radiant surfaces of Stingel’s paintings lurks the same appetite for destruction that haunted many iconic jazz players.

This feeling is even more palpable in the second room of the show, where a single imposing work institutes its own rhythm in the space. It is composed of plates cast from Celotex panels (the kind used for insulation in house-building), very similar to the ones that Stingel has used several times in the past. In those previous works, the public was invited to engage with the panels by leaving traces of their passage in the form of marks and signatures. On other occasions, the panels were placed on the floor and people were encouraged to walk on them. The subsequent casts were therefore turned into a recording device, the act of viewing expanded to include using, scraping and engraving. But in this new work, for the very first time, Stingel creates the cast (made in copper and subsequently chromed in nickel) of a wall which is pristine as it is before the public engages with it. It is akin to a Polaroid image of a splendid building, moments before it is torn down by a wrecking ball. The quasi-mirroring surface of the nickel-chromed cast attracts and enchants the viewer from a distance. However, upon closer inspection, there is a small crack in one of the panels on the right — a tiny hole that exposes the bowels of the painting and reveals the possibility that its own disintegration could happen at any time.

For those not familiar with the Celotex series (and how they usually appear), hanging on the walls on the second floor at Massimo De Carlo are five square silver panels consumed and eroded by the public’s passage. In some, the surface is almost unharmed; in others it is rubbed away, fragmented by the weight of passing bodies. As in “The Revelation of Erasure” by Brian Dillon, here “erasure is never merely a matter of making things disappear: there is always some detritus strewn about in the aftermath, some bruising to the surface from which word or image has been removed, some reminder of the violence done to make the world look new again.” In each mark left on the surface one can feel the presence of man, and his hesitation: the apparently skeptical response to the artist’s invitation to vandalism. Stingel stages a spectacle that brings to mind the distinction made by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel between iconoclasm — “when we know what is happening in the act of breaking” — and iconoclash — “when one does not know, one hesitates, one is troubled,” because it is not certain whether the act is “destructive or constructive”.

Stingel purposely sabotages the pictorial plane and develops sophisticated forms of command and control by encouraging people to immortalize themselves on the painting. He re-orders the spatial boundaries (floors becomes walls) and calls to attention the false neutrality of the gallery space. In doing so, he casts a light on the cracks in the temple; he stages a game of politics that primarily functions via the negative (just like his use of space: large-scale gallery rooms with no physical presence in the middle). But, most importantly, he masterfully plays a symphony of destruction. Just as every note played by the musicians portrayed by Dyer carried the weight of their dissipated life, the formal aesthetic abstraction of Stingel’s work is burdened by the ghostlike presence of a memento mori (that takes form in all the traces left in his constant process of scratching out, both metaphorically  — as in the damask painting — and literally — as in the Celotex casts). Just like jazz, Stingel’s work is rich in meaning: it is bitter, mournful, somber. But beautiful.


From: Mousse Magazine, Issue #45, October 2014