Nestled on a cobble-stoned side street between Rome’s Botanical Gardens and the river Tiber, a former glass workshop is home to Fondazione VOLUME!. Since its inception in 1997, the foundation has invited artists including Marina Abramović, Jannis Kounellis and Walid Raad to create site-specific works for its distinctive space. The latest is Paolo Icaro, known for his radical investigations into form, language and meaning; he has hung white polyethylene sheets across the walls, windows and roof beams. Gently rustling in the breeze, the illusion is of a breathing, pulsating space. Apparently, Icaro had more complex plans for the show but, upon seeing the gallery, he decided to simply tease out existing elements, such as a carpenter’s tally marks left on a wall – a reference to the infamous prison Regina Coeli, that borders the foundation.
In a city notorious for its poor state funding of the arts and stifling bureaucracy, non-profit foundations such as VOLUME! play a crucial role in supporting artists to create work free from commercial obligations. Further down the Tiber, under the directorship of Adrienne Drake, Fondazione Giuliani has been running an impressive exhibition programme, introducing artists such as Michael Dean, Benoît Maire and Oscar Tuazon to Rome. Mircea Cantor’s ‘Your Ruins Are My Flag’ is the foundation’s latest solo show of commissioned work. The gallery is filled with the distinctive smell of Aleppo soap, which Cantor used to create a series of playful yet poignant mixed-media works. In Vertical Aleppo (2017), a tall column is intricately sculpted out of the soap to resemble a thick nautical rope, rising uncertainly out of a mound of rubble. Aleppo becomes a wider metaphor for war and the ingrained self-destructiveness of humanity, but the use of this ancient soap can be construed both as symbolizing the washing away of memory and traditions inherent in war, as well as offering hope for a new, creative force to rise from the ruins.
For the past 15 years, Paola Capata has been running an uncompromisingly experimental programme at her gallery Monitor in Rome’s historic centre. Currently on view is British artist Nathaniel Mellors’s show, ‘Escape from the Neolithic’. It includes two hilariously disturbing videos and a selection of sculptures. The Sophisticated Neanderthal Interview (2013) recounts a bizarre encounter between a dim, modern young man and an intellectually superior Neanderthal; it’s one of Mellors’s best works, featuring his signature use of absurdity; language, here, is employed to test our assumed notions of morality and intelligence.
Housed in the former stables of a Renaissance palazzo off Campo de’ Fiori, Galleria Lorcan O’Neill is one of the city’s most established spaces. It has recently hosted a compelling, technically skilled, painting show – portraits, still lifes and landscapes – by Matvey Levenstein. Despite depicting seemingly pastoral scenes – a woman on a beach, the sea at sunset – the soft, glowing paintings reverberate with a quiet, uneasy, intensity. The most intriguing pieces are painted on copper, a little-known 16th century technique which allows Levenstein to further play with effects of light and shadow.
Across the river, Frutta, run by the young Scot James Gardner, continues its witty and conceptually savvy programme with its current group show ‘Ho Ho Ho’. Curated by the artists Alek O., Gabriele De Santis, Santo Tolone and Spring, it includes works by 14 local and international artists. The curators transformed the small gallery space into a lush wood, complete with a variety of trees and shrubs, an uneven dirt floor covered in autumnal leaves and a small pond. The artworks peek out from foliage, between shrubs or glitter in a pond. Of particular note are Bushman Has a New Toy (2013) a black and white poster by Elisabetta Benassi, featuring the legendary 1930s New York gorilla playing with a tire hanging from a chain in his small caged home, while Ryan Gander’s tiny work We Never Had a Lot of € Around here (2010) is an adjusted-for-inflation, €25 coin from the year 2036.
The New York gallery Postmasters opened its inaugural pop-up PostmastersROMA with the work of Australian artist Sally Smart. Hosted by the gallery 1/9unosunove, the show features Smart’s series ‘The Choreography of Cutting’ (2014-ongoing). These large tapestry works were created by digitally cutting up images of the costumes designed for the Ballets Russes by key early modernist artists including Sonia Delaunay, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; the resultant gorgeous, riotously colourful and intricate works were embroidered by Indonesian artisans. It is apt that Picasso, whose modernist horse costumes Smart revisits, created his first theatre set and costumes for the Ballets Russes in Rome in 1917, working alongside Giacomo Balla, Jean Cocteau, and Igor Stravinsky. Despite enduring increasing economic and bureaucratic obstacles, Rome continues to offer fertile ground for artistic experimentation a century later.
Main image: 'Ho Ho Ho', installation view, 2017, Frutta, Rome, Italy. Courtesy: Frutta, Rome; photograph: Roberto Apa