A red tomato with mismatched eyes and a white Peter Pan collar; a brown coconut with baby teeth; a yellow lemon with a Cheshire Cat smile: welcome to the droll world of Berlin-based Lorenzo Scotto di Luzio. The paintings (all Untitled, 2016) in his exhibition ‘Basteln’ (German for handicrafts) are reproductions, carefully rendered in acrylic, of pages from a ‘funny faces’ sticker book originally assembled by the artist with his daughter for play’s sake. Together, these works, all executed in the same square format and with backgrounds in different bold colours, form a cartoonish picture gallery of rounded shapes and basic expressions. Operating at a kind of degree zero of portraiture, they recall the smileys, winkies and frownies that now form a consistent part of our communication. However, communication is made up not only of what is said, but also what it means or how it is understood – including interpretations that go beyond the literal. In this regard, Scotto di Luzio’s works look more alarming than amusing: there isn’t much to laugh about in the dumbing down of complex human psychology to prefab pictograms and emoji, or our puerile ways of circulating and responding to images, especially when these images are traumatic or call for empathy.
In the centre of T293’s new space in Rome’s Trastevere district, Scotto di Luzio installed the two-part sculpture Stick Man Kills Stick Man: two larger-than-life stick figures – made of the kinds of steel uprights normally used for storage shelves, with basketballs for heads – are representations of an executioner brandishing a sword and his victim, hands up, down on his knees. The artist would seem to be updating the tragic Roman proverb Homo homini lupus – ‘a man is a wolf to another man’, also quoted in Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1929) – into a contemporary version whose protagonists are reminiscent of ‘Be like Bill’, the viral internet meme of a stick figure typically used to call out social media updates that are considered annoying in terms of their narcissism or superfluousness.
Other works in the show tackle the subject of speech and communication: on opposite sides of the gallery, Scotto di Luzio installed two clumsy animatrons in wire and brown packing tape, shaped like human heads (both Untitled, 2016). The larger of these stands vertically like a totem; the smaller one lies on the ground. By pressing a button, the big, tongue-like clubs protruding from each sculpture start pumping and vibrating, performing an aggressively loud, but ultimately useless, act. Halfway between DIY and Grand Guignol, these giants deliver nothing but hot air.
Scotto di Luzio is a committed satirist. In 2002, for one of his first solo shows, he played with the romantic ideal of the young-and-sorrowful artistic genius: he reinterpreted ten hit singles by Luigi Tenco – a cult Italian chansonnier, who killed himself after one of his songs was rejected by the audience in a public singing competition – and recorded them on ten vinyl records, complete with ironic and melancholic versions of the original covers. In ‘Basteln’ he takes a different tact; his deconstruction of codes of expression reminds me of the essay ‘On Humour’ (1908) by dramatist Luigi Pirandello, who wrote: ‘While the epic or dramatic poet takes pains to picture [a character] as coherent in every action, the humourist enjoys representing him in his incongruities.’ At the far end of the gallery, Scotto di Luzio placed a singing sculpture – a cheap, made-in-China dancing flower pot (Untitled, 2016) – onto a small pedestal. In place of flowers is a crumbling tinfoil skull: it emits a merry electronic jingle. ‘Canta che ti passa’: sing and it will pass, as the old saying goes.