‘Il Complesso di Vasari’ (The Vasari Complex) – the title of Milan-based artist, art historian and critic Adriano Altamira’s recent exhibition at the Fondazione Marconi – evokes a string of associations including the architectural complex (a composite structure of built spaces) and psychological complexes (the repressed memories behind pathological behaviour). Is the Vasari Complex anything like the Freudian Oedipus complex? Or the military-industrial complex? Perhaps the title is simply a reference to the group of artists mythologized by Renaissance writer-painter Giorgio Vasari, whose book of biographies, familiar to art historians, is usually referred to by the abbreviated title of Vasari’s Lives (1550).
Though the exhibition encouraged these associations, Altamira’s hand-written comments on wall-labels defined neither ‘Vasari’ nor ‘complex’: the show was not a didactic exercise. ‘The Vasari Complex’ followed two percorsi (pathways) through the psychological, technological and material processes that drive an artist to replicate and combine reproductions of artworks.
The series ‘Il Complesso di Vasari’ (1971–2014) and ‘Aree di Coincidenze’ (Areas of Coincidences, 1973–2014) were displayed over two floors and comprised drawings, collage, sculpture, prints and what Altamira calls ‘associations’: configurations of photographed reproductions. Altamira’s comments in corresponding wall texts described aspects of the ‘long meditations’ required for what he terms ‘coincidences’ (recurrences of similar forms across numerous works of art and found imagery) to become ‘complexes’ (the transformation of these coincidences into entire work cycles). For example, the canvas-and-plastic bas-relief Piero della Francesca, Riassunto (Piero della Francesca, Recapitulated, 1971–2014) took 40 years to develop. Altamira subjected a reproduction of Piero’s Brera Madonna (1472–74), a sacra conversazione (sacred conversation), to gradual but radical reconstitution through collage, digital imaging and sculpture. He stripped the scene of everything but two significant details: a dark line of crown moulding that travels across the top of the painting under the arched ceiling of the apse and a small egg that hangs from the shell-shaped semi-dome. In Altamira’s bas-relief, the egg is enlarged and used to create the shape of a frame for a white canvas. The jagged line of moulding is re-created in black plastic to articulate a raised crack over the flat egg-shaped canvas. The result is iconic irony: the negative space of a fracture acquires positive form.
In the series ‘Aree di Coincidenze’, Altamira collected, filed and cautiously combined photographs of reproductions from advertisements, books, magazines and comics for over four decades. This is not about an impulse to archive: the emphasis is on punctilious selection, not accumulation. The ordering principles at work in Altamira’s associations privilege the row, column and right angle. Reproductions all conform to equal heights or widths and appropriated images fit the linear order of a filmstrip, the gridwork of a circuit board or the tabular interface of a Google image search.
Two exceptions to these ordering principles occupied crucial positions on the first floor of the exhibition. For Annunciazione in eptagono (Annunciation in Heptagon, 1979–2013), Altamira arranged seven digital prints in a circle around an empty heptagonal centre, associating a fastener nut with a pink areola, a camera shutter with a gaping mouth. Giudizio sul Giudizio (Judgement on the Judgement, 1997–2012) is a black and white half-tone reproduction of the Ancient Roman marble Augustus of Prima Porta (c. 15), cropped, photocopied and enlarged to monumental dimensions. Altamira excised the complex allegory on the breastplate of Rome’s first emperor and replaced it with a colour reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–12) before its restoration. In the gap left by the removed allegory, the legs of Jonas in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1535–41) now hang from the hips of Caelum, Rome’s personification of the sky. In Altamira’s information-age recombination of art history, a ceiling becomes a torso and an empire’s heavens are guarded by a hybrid creature with the head of an omnipotent god and the legs of an evasive prophet.