Between and Rock and a Hard Place

Giovanni Anselmo at Marian Goodman, London

3 JULY 2017,
Installation view - Il panorama verso oltremare intorno dove le stelle si avvicinano di una spanna in più, 2001, Diorite granite stones, Oltremare paint, 10 x 23 x 31 in. (25.4 x 58.4 x 78.7 cm each)
Installation view - Il panorama verso oltremare intorno dove le stelle si avvicinano di una spanna in più, 2001, Diorite granite stones, Oltremare paint, 10 x 23 x 31 in. (25.4 x 58.4 x 78.7 cm each)

Despite everything I have learnt about Arte Povera, everything I have read and heard, there are moments when none of this seems to matter when faced with the works themselves. The items on show in this exhibition by the under-narrated Anselmo, remind us that everything we can recognize, remember, reference and connect, when presented with the truly existential, are next to useless. I say this given that I am as guilty as the next person of accruing movements, names, histories, dates and ephemera as a way of smoothing the difficulty of cognition with the certainty of recognition and its occasionally lazy locational narratives.

For those of us who remember a time of art before murderous irony, displacement by gentrification, or artists accessorizing themselves with restaurants, perfumes and vineyards, there was a moment in the 1970’s when the scales seemed to fall from the eyes of a generation as they embarked on a series of metaphysical encounters. Like something out of a late 50’s Frankenstein Hammer movie, Anselmo, Boetti, Fabro, Kounellis, Merz’, Paolini, Parmiggiani, Penone, Pistoletto, Zorio and the like all managed to conjure and collide materials and spaces that made them buzz and arc and fizz with auratic meaning. Arte Povera’s moment was an antidote to the idealism of classic conceptual art whilst similarly exposing the posturing carcasses of modernism and abstraction.

Whilst I may have monumentalized or sentimentalized Arte Povera, Anselmo’s works at Marian Goodman until the 21st of July, offered me the same transported feeling I had when I first came across the inexplicable presence of Arte Povera some 4 decades ago. Goodman’s delectable rooms are home to Diorite granite, a magnetic compass and stellar (oceanic?) paint hold forth as if they are extraordinary organs. The non-narrative, fragmented remnants of rock-drilled stone take on a rather chilling presence as we are brought face-to-face with our increasingly distant, disconnected and super-mediated selves. À Rebours [1] if you like, with humanity having created a false sense of its place in the universe.

If you think I am overdramatizing, I would offer one further caution. It is all too easy to consign the last exponents of Arte Povera and their ilk to the rubric of history as another stylistic creative moment/movement to be exhaled in the same passing breath as Concrete Poetry or Pointillism or other -isms. To be clear, artists such as Anselmo were never about style, even if they were about appearance, they were never about spectacle - even if the works were and are occasionally spectacular. With this show, Anselmo takes away our spoken and written language as tools for disposal, and replaces them with lumpen, scarred raw materials that have been quarried from the earth and broken. Anselmo re-presents these fragments back to us as metaphorical mirrors that can be interpreted as an indictment of our current media-driven predilection for privileging spectacle at the expense of substance and image-form at the expense of content.

Anselmo was once described as being the most inscrutable of the Arte Povera group within the context of a major show at P.S.1 MoMA [2] , but for me this implicates a scrutiny inappropriate to the whole raison d’etre of the movement.

If you like time-travel, verbal uncertainty and can live without a GPS, this is a show to catch, or perhaps more accurately, to be caught up in.

[1] Huysmans, J. (1891). À Rebours. [A novel.] Troisième mille Published: 1891, Paris. British Library Shelfmark: 012547.l.26.
[2] Glueck, G. (October 13, 1985). Conceptual Art, Italian Style, Makes a Statement at P.S. 1. The New York Times.