The leering white faces watch from the walls. They follow you from room to room, vacant eyes staring out from behind their grotesque masks. Though the lower part of their jaws are missing—unhinged—their slit-like eyes and upturned mouths indicate that the figures are consumed with mirth. We see the same white mask over and over, but from various angles: on its side, in three-quarter profile, straight on. Always, it floats in empty space, highlighted against a field of pure black.
In his third show at the Casey Kaplan gallery in Chelsea, Italian artist Diego Perrone explores the intersection of sculpture, painting, and photography. The nine airbrush paintings featured in the exhibition are fanatically faithful renderings of photographs taken by the artist of the Maschera dell’Idiota (Idiot’s mask), a sculpture by early twentieth century Italian architect Adolfo Wildt. Scultura che non sia conchiglia non canta currently occupies all three rooms of the small, spare gallery.
Perrone’s work meditates on the traditions and myths of provincial Italy—making frequent reference to the brutality of the natural world and the passage of time—and is influenced by avant-garde movements such as Futurism and Arte Povera. Raised in Asti, a small city in the country’s north, Perrone now divides his time among his birthplace, Milan, and Berlin. His palate is muted, his work minimal. As in this exhibition, Perrone frequently experiments with a variety of media including photography, sculpture, painting, video, and drawing, but he always returns to certain core motifs: ears, bells, darkness.
In this show, his focus is the mask. Though at first the figures appear to be digitally rotated replicas of the same image, they are actually airbrush paintings done on long rolls of black PVC, tacked unceremoniously to the bare white walls. Process is pivotal in Perrone’s art, and here each decision, each layer, each lighting choice and imperfection, is laid bare for the viewer’s scrutiny. The faces are lit from different angles and take on distinct shades: one is the color of milk gone bad; one is tinted with royal blue, another with violet.
In one of the most memorable works, two swipes of pink paint are added to either side of the figure’s head, giving the impression of pig ears. The ears and the angle of the shot (from below) highlight the porcine, swollen features of the mask. Each pose plays up a particular aspect of the hideous face—the painfully sharp cheekbones, the gaping mouth, the unseeing, deranged eyes.
The inspiration for the series, Adolfo Wildt’s Maschera dell’Idiota, is a minor work by the sculptor, who is best known for his Gothic influences and his tenuous ties to Fascism (one of his most famous works is a hulking marble bust of Il Duque himself, shirtless and unsmiling). Wildt worked primarily in marble, carving unsettlingly naturalistic statues of proud, cruel men and painfully thin women. While most appear to be modeled on real individuals, Maschera dell’Idiota plays up the mask-like artificiality and inherent drama of his sculptural style.
The sculpture once belonged to World War I-era poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, and it is still kept at D’Annunzio’s former estate, Il Vittoriale, in the town of Gardone Riviera. Perrone visited the site in person, taking a series of photos of the mask in its vitrine from every possible angle. The flash of the camera and the variety of filters are plainly visible in the final paintings, which are directly modeled on his low-resolution photographs. Through painstaking repetition, the three-dimensional, multifaceted quality of sculpture is replicated in photographs, then translated—flaws intact—into the paintings.
The works are presented without wall text, captions, or even titles—indeed, without any context at all—accentuating their inscrutability. The viewer is confronted with the faces and the blackness—nothing more. In interviews, Perrone frequently insists that the viewer should take an active role in determining the meaning of his paintings and photographs. He wants his work to be experienced, not picked apart detail by detail or even understood. Art, according to Perrone, is “an intent that has an effect; the responsibility for it rests with both the players who ‘throw’ it and who ‘receive’ it.”[i]
In perhaps his most enigmatic choice, Perrone includes an unexpected addition in the gallery’s second room: an enormous, pristinely white seashell made of resin. Though it is a thing of great beauty—painstakingly rendered, delicately thin and suspended so that its lower curve barely brushes against the concrete gallery floor—it feels incongruous with the rest of the exhibit and detracts from the haunting repetition of the masks. The exhibition’s title, borrowed from the preeminent Italian architect Gio Ponti’s In Praise of Architecture, roughly translates as “Sculpture that is not a shell does not sing.” Yet despite its evident relationship to this phrase, the shell seems an afterthought, out of place among these cackling descendants of Goya’s Caprichos.
Perrone’s fondness for ambiguity prevents him from making work that is explicitly political, but he has expressed concern about the unwillingness of contemporary Italian artists to engage with current political realities. His ode to Wildt could be a reference to the masquerade of the recent elections, an embrace of the Gothic leanings of this modernist master, or it could be neither. As Perrone has noted, “I really get scared when art is clear and everything is out there. You don’t fall in love with art if everything has already been said.”
[i] Perrone quoted from “Diego Perrone and Simone Berti: Cause-Effect,” interview by Samuele Menin, Flash Art International 43, no. 270 (January-February 2010): 43, 44.