Giuseppe Gabellone’s art is always somewhere else. With a deft sleight of hand, his sculptures leap between dimensions, collapse into photo-graphic images or, like a rabbit from a hat, re-emerge into life. Gabellone’s ontologically uncertain work has a specific heritage traceable back to the Land art of the 1970s, which inadvertently flattened vast clumps of Utah desert by the simple action of depressing a shutter release. Robert Smithson’s massive Spiral Jetty (1970) on Utah’s Great Salt Lake is really a film; Michael Heizer’s spectacular hillocks appear today, squashed like daisies, between the pages of coffee-table books. Sculpture today must contend with photography’s unmatched powers of storytelling; the object’s traditional mnemonic purpose as memorial or epitaph has been usurped.
Sculptural monuments, we might conclude, are doomed to obscurity, to squat and rot in far-flung places. Gabellone acts as a counterforce, siphoning power back into the sculptural carcass. In an untitled work from 1997 the artist encased an entire stretch of street – car, pavement, barrel and nearby wall – in robust steel plating, as if he had followed the logic of car wheel-clamps to its most absurd conclusion. This, not coincidentally, is also the brutish logic behind civic monuments: anything below metric tonnage might just float away down history’s slipstream. As an Italian sculptor, Gabellone contends with an artistic inheritance that is, as Luca Cerizza has pointed out in these pages, ‘more an impediment than an incentive’ for contemporary art. Gabellone’s sculptures speak more to the scars of 1960s industrialization than the marbles of quattrocento Florence. In a startling untitled photograph from 2002, a sculpted electric-blue styrofoam flower stands alone in a dusty yard; it is at once modern, baroque, mildly unhinged and oddly upbeat. Here, what could easily be bathetic in a classically conceived monument (a horseman on a mouldering pedestal, a thinker with knitted brow) is exuberant and surreal.
In Gabellone’s greengrassi exhibition the artist invokes more explicit references to historic figurative practices. Based on the sculpture Thirst (1934) by Arturo Martini, L’Assetato (The Thirsty, 2007) bristles with modernist attitude. Dressed in a monk’s habit and sporting a brick-like Mussolini chin, the figure’s smooth contours seem harassed by time’s tide. Underneath its feet, a modular pedestal of bright, galvanized metal with adjustable legs is a device more suited to trade fairs, rock gigs and commercial events. Indeed, this sense of a nomadic habitation of public space is key to L’Assetato, a fact underscored by a series of photographic images Gabellone has produced depicting similarly tortured-looking steel figurines installed on rooftops around Paris. In these images, each statuette stands on a scrappy base of hastily welded steel, and is left to rust into a deep, streaky, sunset orange. In the background are unremarkable cityscapes of the kind Smithson mythologized – tops of tower blocks, spaghetti loops of piping and railway tracks threading into the distance.
Like his contemporaries – notably Paola Pivi, Diego Perrone and Lara Favaretto – Gabellone’s works depend on a certain inconceivability of means: of hidden labours, carefully constructed events and uncanny realities. In such works, the trick is to turn the viewer into a participant in a beguiling riddle. Unfortunately, because L’Assetato was the sole work in this exhibition – none of the related photographs were displayed – this made the work much harder to read. However, there was one consolation. On the gallery reception desk one could browse the artist’s sumptuously illustrated new catalogue, replete with colour spreads of L’Assetato’s siblings: another victory for photography, no doubt.