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Issue 236

‘The Chimera Complex’ Unearths the Grotesque

Featuring a quintet of Italian artists, a group show at Mai 36, Zurich, makes the case for more unsettled and uncomfortable aesthetic forms

BY Paolo Baggi in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 10 MAY 23

In the field of visual arts, the Renaissance is often associated with a return to the rational proportions and classical beauty of antiquity. Yet, as Italian curator Antonio Grulli alludes to in his essay for ‘The Chimera Complex’, it was equally a time when eccentric grotesque ornaments – which had resurfaced during excavations of Roman imperial villas – were also gaining in popularity. Structuring itself around the concept of the grotesque – whereby, in Grulli’s words, ‘the bizarre becomes the norm’ – this group exhibition at Mai 36 in Zurich makes the case for less conventional aesthetic forms.

‘The Chimera Complex’, 2023, exhibition view, Mai 36, Zurich. Courtesy: the artists and Mai 36, Basel; photograph: Loana Lenz

All five artists in ‘The Chimera Complex’ are from Italy and the show is grounded in the notion that the peninsula’s successive civilizations share a fascination for the chthonic – something to which, Grulli argues, the countless artistic and literary depictions of Roman and Etruscan mythological underworlds (Hades and Charun, respectively) would seemingly attest. In Jacopo Benassi’s Ercole (Hercules, 2023), this fascination turns into a fetishization. One of five wall-based works that uses tension belts to hold a shrine-like selection of objects and images, it comprises an erotic black and white photograph of bare, upturned feet and a plaster bas-relief of the titular Hercules, whose twelfth and final task, according to Greek legend, was to capture Cerberus, the three-headed hound of Hades.

Benni Bosetto, Quello che resta (What remains), 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Loana Lenz

Other works see the internet as a site of contemporary excavation. Benni Bosetto’s frieze-like series of wall drawings and framed pencil-on-paper works, for instance, plays on the idea of the internet allowing for all kinds of resurfacings through its complex network of interconnected devices. Appena svegli ci si pente (As soon as you wake up, you repent) (2023) shows a room filled with doors, some of which are ajar, allowing the natural world beyond to enter the space through the connecting tubes. In a similar return to nature, Chiara Camoni’s sculpture Sister (degli Scarti) (2023) rises from the floor as an eccentric ballgown comprising a vase-like bodice and a skirt fashioned from a potpourri of discarded objects – terracotta fragments, mussel shells – her hair substituted with dried plants. Here, excavating the recent recent past feels more like an exercise in street cleaning than unearthing valuable artefacts.

‘The Chimera Complex’, 2023, exhibition view, Mai 36, Zurich. Courtesy: the artists and Mai 36, Basel; photograph: Loana Lenz

While these chimerical works stage the grotesque as bizarre creatures that engender multiple readings, others present it in its more usual form as oppositional to beauty. Giulia Cenci’s dry salvages (lady) (2022), for instance, is a spider-like assemblage of body parts held together by metal rods. The work might lend itself to psychoanalytical interpretation à la Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (Mother, 1999) were such sincerity not undermined by the figure’s inelegance: balanced feverishly between vanguard symbolism and cognitive dissonance, this is the grotesque as self-conscious.

Diego Gualandris, Maxxi, oil on canvas, 2 x 1.7. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Loana Lenz

The works in ‘The Chimera Complex’ are pathological entities that exist outside of established, recognizable norms. An example of this is Diego Gualandris’s painting of a chained hydra, Maxixe (2021). Presenting monstrosity hand-in-hand with decorative kitsch, the work reaches for the sublime in the era of Comic-Con. This is the grotesque from an internet forum ripe with fan-fiction imagery, a joyful spiralling out of control.

The Chimera Complex is on view at Mai 36, Zurich, until May 27.

Main image: Giulia Cenci, dry salvages (spider), 2022, metal, mineral, resin, fiber glass, canapa, quarz paint,

1 x 2.1 x 1.9 m. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Loana Lenz

Paolo Baggi is a writer and curator. He is based between Brussels, Belgium, and Fribourg, Switzerland.