The Weird and Mirthful Subversions of Maurizio Cattelan

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What do you get when you cross an Italian artist with a penchant for subversion and an architectural gem known for it’s hierarchical space? No, wait, I bet you’ve heard this one before. Hmmm… okay, how about this?

What do you get when you cross a shrouded elephant and the pope crushed under a meteorite? Or what about a decisively suicidal squirrel dead at his iddity-bitty kitchen table and a monumental hand with only the middle finger not lobbed off? An excessively long shopping cart and a tiny man escaping from a safe? A dinosaur-sized cat skeleton taking a defensive pose and a themepark style Picasso costume? Or how about a child-sized Hitler in remorseful supplication and two relaxed cops standing on their heads? Sounds like the weirdest drug-induced dream you’ve ever had, right? Fortunately, in these and many, many more instances, you get Maurizio Cattelan’s retrospective (of sorts), “All”, now open at the Guggenheim until January 22, 2012.

Known in the art world as an effective prankster, Cattelan’s works over the last twenty or so years have utilized irony, sarcasm, and just plain silliness to create an array of pieces that deal with issues surrounding power, identity, and death. He frequently uses visual gags to make his point and whether you are tapped into the art world or not, his pieces never feign self-importance. At best, his pieces can make you laugh, and at worst they can urge you to continue onto the next piece without feeling like an idiot for not getting the joke. What is particularly subversive, silly, and impactful in “All” is how the 51 year old Cattelan installed the 120 or so works that make up his mid-career retrospective.

Initially Cattelan resisted this type of show in which curators frequently systematize, contextualize, and mythologize artists. The retrospective is meant to decidedly mark the importance of one artist as his or her work reflects the culture at large. Much narrative is infused into these kinds of shows and dead artists often receive the honor. However, once you have a mid-career retrospective like Cattelan, the bar has been set and the eye of the art world watches in judgment. Will they fail, grow, maintain, or rise above? Such pressure seems ridiculous especially as the barometer for judgment is often the art market (pssst! people with loads of money) that much like our man-made trading system just seems based in reality less and less.

Thus it is no surprise that Cattelan decided to take on the retrospective format at the Guggenheim with his usual wink and smile by forgoing the chronological evolution as one rises from floor to floor. Instead the artist has hung all of his work with rope from the ceiling of the museum, granting zero hierarchy, categorization, or curatorial narrative. Particularly delightful is knowing that the architect of the Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright, was quite the curmudgeon. He never much cared for modern art nor created a space for the ultimate display of this kind of work. Rather, he focused on the building itself, making it the star with most of its space left open for visitors to become enraptured. And it works, but in “All” Cattelan steals the spotlight and re-focuses it back on his work.  Not only does Cattelan create an anti-retrospective retrospective, but he also steals the way in which the building moves viewers through space from Wright in order to fix the audience’s gaze upon the cacophony of his often humorous artwork.

That is not to say that all of Catellan’s work is funny or even meant to be at times. For instance, an untitled installation comprised of realistically cast resin sculptures of boys hung by the neck doesn’t really cause me to twittle (although here I wonder if there is a dead baby joke somewhere). The many taxidermied dogs, cats, donkeys, and horses that pepper the show, while strangely delightful, don’t do much for me either except hit me over the head with the metaphor of death. Nor do I get what is going on with Not Afraid of Love where an elephant wears a sheet with trunk and eye holes cut out to reveal a surprised pachydermy expression. However, the small ant that rests on the elephant’s head placed there for “All” still makes me chuckle. Even Betsy, where an old lady peeks out of the refrigerator hits me in the funny bone — it’s just so unexpected and weird. Having been raised Catholic I can’t help but be drawn to the fallen pope under a meteorite in La Nona Ora. What’s better than seeing the hand of God killing one of the most irrelevant, self-important, and inherently misogynistic institution heads?

Overall, what I find most genuine about “All” is that Catellan isn’t interested in only making fun of the world without those outside of the art world getting the joke, but rather his work speaks to a wider audience through humor and light heartedness as a means to tackle heavy themes that make us human. Banking on spectacle, Cattelan further punctuates the every day treatment of his artwork by placing pigeons along the beams, ropes, pedestals, and sculptures that make up his anti-retrospective, simultaneously showing the work from his last twenty years while also slyly acknowledging the grandiose ridiculousness of this type of exhibition.

Further subverting the system that has financially supported him thus far in his career, Cattelan is rumored to retire after the completion of “All”, denying collectors the “newest Cattelan.” However, he is unlikely to escape the art world completely as he shifts his focus to the visual magazine Toiletpaper, which much like the artist is full of weird, wacky, and surreal visual one-liners.  But for now, check out “All” at the Guggenheim and see if Maurizio Cattelan can make you smirk or maybe even laugh.

Kate Goyette is a Brooklyn-based artist who likes to make, see, ponder over, read about, and write about art.