Bernardo da Bicci
extraspazio, Rome, Italy
A DayGlo shrine meets the visitor in the UV-lit space which plays host to Bernardo da Bicci’s first solo show, alongside which stands an almost three metre-high self-portrait of the artist lying six feet under (Bernardo Buried, 2011). The work depicts the artist – his face shrouded by the US flag – outstretched beneath stratified layers of soil, bricks and animal bones, whilst receiving a luminous bolt of energy from the crucifix marking his grave. Plastic flowers and butterflies, together with DIY materials – recurring elements within Da Bicci’s work – bring a banal element to an image which equally incorporates the sacred and the profane.
Little is known about Da Bicci, who is a self-proclaimed art-saint and superhero. An attempt to track him down for interview during the course of this exhibition, which is close to the Vatican in Rome, failed when he returned home two days earlier than had been agreed with his gallerist. One wonders whether he flew Alitalia or was teleported by supernatural forces – holy, or otherwise – such is the mythos that the artist creates around works which challenge both conventional religious iconography and the myth of racial harmony in the US.
Within the show, ‘Let This be a Space of Light, Beauty and Truth’ – a line apparently uttered by a passing Franciscan monk as the show was being installed – a thin line is walked between a confrontation with Catholicism and an assimilation of it within a personal spiritual and political lexicon. Bernardo’s Tomb (2011) – a floor piece covered in plastic flowers – melds kitsch imagery with overtly Christian forms. A toy gun, a luminous plastic rat and a crucifix are incorporated within a mock-up of the 27-year-old artist’s own grave. Of course, the tomb is necessary, as is the suggestion of martyrdom – a column displayed in the gallery bears the signs of Da Bicci’s flagellation daubed in an impossibly luminous blood-red – for death is the first requirement of sainthood. That the show had opened by the time John Paul II was beatified at San Pietro’s Basilica, less than a kilometre from the gallery, is significant. For Saint Bernardo Da Bicci signals, wittingly or not – who knows? – the superfluity of the Church to spiritual experience and ritual, something which has the dual effect of making religion appear as ‘mere’ art, and of giving art a spiritual capacity. In this sense, whilst the Catholic Church clearly mounts some of the best art-performances in the world, it comes out a loser, because this is categorically not their intention. The church requires that people believe in its doctrine as fact, even if science flatly contradicts it. Art, on the other hand, has deception at its core, and is therefore free to declare ‘Saints’ – or, indeed, to declare whatever – as and when it wishes, without compromising its foundation. And it is here that the political references in Da Bicci’s work assume a power that goes beyond mere rhetoric.
Behind Bernardo’s Tomb, a polyptych (R.I.P Bernardo, 2011) comprises five large panels, each depicting an American pop-culture figure – Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and Snow White amongst them – wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. This could come across as a crass generalization, however well-founded the fundamental premise. However, as politicians struggle to maintain any semblance of honesty, and political ideologies (leftist, liberal or otherwise) ring hollow for their demonstrable failure, the ethical mantle is again thrown to art, in its capacity to declare some kind of viable alternative to our failed social system in spite of the difficulty of conjuring one in reality. As disparate as the elements within Da Bicci’s work are, his self-declaration of sainthood, together with his critique of multicultural America, clearly resonates with the need for marginalized individuals to claim an identity for themselves. In this sense, it is via ‘art’ that Saint Da Bicci has found his own persona. Yet to stop at such a pedestrian observation would belittle the further social possibilities that a combined political and spiritual engagement within the arts offers.
Da Bicci presents an interesting constellation between art, politics and mysticism, a feat which can only be all-consuming for the artist himself. Indeed, one cannot be sure quite where the artist – who was born in Chicago to Mexican immigrant parents – is heading, such are the diverse ranges of references within his work and his enigmatic nature. Yet the boldness of the installation at extraspazio heralds the emergence of a talent for whom the resolution of various disparate elements may contribute a social significance which goes far beyond the evident personal psychical development of the artist.
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