That an artist might be most himself when he assumes the voices of his artistic forebears was a touchstone of 20th-century art, from the allusive Modernism of T.S. Eliot to the appropriative Postmodernism of Sherrie Levine. But we are currently in the midst of a period in which art-historical referencing is deployed as a sanction, as though, without it, art would be exposed as foundationless. This insecurity is far from Eliot’s ideal of a magisterial ‘historical sense’. The first work I saw by Alessio delli Castelli was these matters that with myself I too much discuss, too much explain (2011), a reading of a collage of literary criticism, in which the identity of the authors was obscured. One of the passages was by Eliot, a line from whose poetry provided the performance’s title. In the current context, Delli Castelli’s allusions seem remarkable in registering not as a shoring-up of insecurities, but as an exposure of them. He presents history not as a bolster but as a vertiginous abyss over which only the thinnest of identities can be improvised, and even then only under duress.
For the inaugural show at Dan Gunn, Delli Castelli quartered the main space with three steel cables intersecting at the centre of the show’s third room (7:1 If you study the logistics and heuristics of the mystics, you will find that their minds really move in a line, all works 2012). This would have resembled a Minimalist installation were it not for the representational art surrounding it, which revealed a preoccupation with geometry as a language of ideal forms. A sculptural assembly of three baby figures – made of plaster stained to resemble flesh weathered by moss – gambolled with a hoop and ball almost as large as they were (7:7 Avez-vous perdu la mémoire de votre abjection?). These putti were art-historical minions drawn from Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Melancholia (1532). Their eroded forms, alluding to the classical sculptural fragment, obscured the definition of the figures they constituted, signifying the act of referencing as a process of degenerative meaning. Delli Castelli dramatizes the failure of a vocabulary of conflated allusions, converting weakness into strength by rendering it as a defining characteristic of his artistic identity.
The three collages comprising 5:1 Plato by RKO traced a narrative from Plato’s five ideal forms through a sequence of alternative cultural constellations intimating the infinite taxonomical possibilities of the pop-cultural universe: five Schumann songs (notated), five Sudoko puzzles, five Sol LeWitt sculptures, five gay TV presenters, etc. Though the gay allusions recalled Henrik Olesen’s art-historical genealogies, there is a desperation implicit in Olesen’s frivolous historical networking that seems to justify his reconfiguration of inaccessible traditions; 5:1 Plato by RKO, however, shows Delli Castelli a little too glibly mastering the heterogeneous references he indicates from the comfortable remove of his drawing board.
6:1 Images Formed in Times of Peril was a room-encompassing frieze of collaged cuttings from art-history books and glossy magazines. Famous paintings jostled with scraps of showbiz gossip; a local Berlin gay club’s logo was pasted over a reproduction of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863). The juxtapositions, predicated on the sampler’s flair for serendipity and sleight of hand, would have been too facile if a personal, even autobiographical, voice had not emerged. Unframed and roughly scissored, the collages had the self-revealing and self-preening air of a secret scrapbook from a teenager’s bedroom. Delli Castelli’s mischievous subjectivity appeared abetted by the treacherous historical currents he had cast himself into. On one yellowing sheet, a grammar lesson had been transcribed by his mother, over which a reproduced etching of a medieval cabinet spread its wings as though onto the possibility of unassimilated knowledge. The superimposed print universalized the keepsake. As Eliot wrote, art is not the expression of personality but an escape from it: ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’