in Features | 03 JUN 09
Featured in
Issue 124

Giuseppe Gabellone

Enigmas, paradoxes and riddles: photographs of sculptures and sculptures of photographs

in Features | 03 JUN 09

Untitled, 2009, digital print, 52x35 cm. Courtesy: greengrassi, London

Italian artist Giuseppe Gabellone has built an elusive, swiftly evolving body of work that can drive one to distraction with worry over the ongoing viability of sculpture as a medium and its legitimacy as a cultural term. These, one will note, are issues Rosalind Krauss grappled with in her 1979 essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’. Krauss’ concept of the ‘expanded field’ (which she famously charts, but also defines as an ‘historical event with a determinant structure’) exposed and exploded the recognized boundaries of sculptural practice. Three decades later, in an eerily analogous fashion, Gabellone seems to be renegotiating sculpture’s relationship to a set of material and historical referents – monument, site, architecture, landscape – that simultaneously compel retroactive interpretative strategies and question their relevance.

Gabellone effects a crucial displacement in sculpture via photography, which enables him, and us, to view it with a differently focused eye. His 2009 exhibition at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris included actual sculptures – a pair of pewter-toned fugitive human figures on stainless steel open grid pedestals, titled L’Assetato (The Thirsty One, 2008), previously shown at London’s greengrassi – and a related untitled series of colour digital photographs from 2007. L’Assetato refers to a work by the Italian figurative sculptor Arturo Martini, who polemically declared sculpture a dead language in 1945. Gabellone’s figures, their features and contours worn driftwood-smooth, feel cryptically familiar and yet impossible to pinpoint, like statuesque materializations of déjà vu. In a 2008 interview, he explained his interest in allusions to pre-existing images and objects: ‘The possibility of using these references – that are emptied of content per se, without specific historical, ideological or affective ties – just in a formal way, generates an ambiguity that interests me.’1

Untitled, 2007, digital print, 42x28 cm. Courtesy: greengrassi, London

Gabellone pursues this formal ambiguity in a related series of untitled digital prints of rusted abstract human morphologies perched on architectural plinths fastened to horizontal grates, which he laboriously transported and photographed on roofs and in vacant lots of warehouses and railroads on the outskirts of Paris. The resulting small-scale images, which are uniform in composition and similar in tonal range, pose the question of site, monument, architecture and landscape in one fell swoop, while flattening everything out into two dimensions. These a priori site-less sculptures assert their autonomy in the foreground of the picture plane, yet are still firmly anchored in the scene. If the logic of a monument is to mark a site, Gabellone’s photographic perspective in this case reveals sites marking sculptures as much as sculptures marking sites, neither of which are specific to the other.

This is not Gabellone’s first marriage of photography and sculpture. In fact, several early sculptures exist only as photographs. A spiral staircase that leads nowhere (Periodo, (Period, 1997); a sinuous wooden racetrack, like an oversized children’s toy, crammed into a concrete garage-like space (Untitled, 1999); and stalks of baby-blue cast Styrofoam flowers rising from arid, non-descript landscapes in his native Puglia (Untitled, 2002) are amongst those works built only to be photographed and destroyed. Here, however, sculpture and photography are locked in a mutually dependent embrace, with each testifying to the other’s existence.

Untitled, 2006, digital print, metal and L.E.D's, dimensions variable. Courtesy: greengrassi, London

From 2003 to 2005 Gabellone explored the potential of wall sculpture in a number of figurative bas-reliefs based on pre-existing images. A series entitled ‘I Giapponisi’ (The Japanese, 2003) comprises cantilevered slabs made from compressed and moulded yellow squiggles of polyurethane foam, the top portion of which fold over into the viewer’s space like stunted canopies. The mottled green and red polyurethane panels of La giungla (The Jungle, 2004) grip the wall on low horizontal plinths, while the silvery-hued Untitled (2005) series of T-shaped steles of tobacco, aluminium powder and vinyl glue are ceremoniously hung on the wall. Far Eastern domestic scenes, foliage and geometric shapes emerge from the friable ersatz plaques, whose substances situate them in the present, but whose forms hark back to sculpture’s decorative, architectural origins. These are confidently frontal works, and their reliance on mimetic, synthetic reproduction contests our lingering attachment to archaic ‘originals’.

Gabellone works slowly and deliberately through one idea, usually for a minimum of one year, before embarking on the realisation of another, but his is not a linear process. For this year’s ‘Belgian Triennial of Contemporary Art by the Sea’, Gabellone proposed a new series of untitled portrait-format photographs that delineate another shift in his practice: images of cloth tarpaulins mounted on vertical metal grid structures that are weighted down with cement blocks and printed with found photographs. When transported outdoors, the wind and elements distort the fabric and the images warp and buckle. Gabellone stops the motion with a click of the shutter, lending a rudimentary, cinematographic quality to the pictures. At once visibly linked to the preceding works, they seem to have shaken off their literal, historical and sculptural burden. One suspects this is only a temporary liberation.

Giuseppe Gabellone interviewed by Frédéric Paul in Giuseppe Gabellone, Domaine de Kerguéhennec, 2008, p. 7