The mass-produced paintings that adorn dentists’ waiting rooms and model show homes are inoffensive but, invariably, depressingly dull. The absence of any specific referents in their anodyne landscapes renders obvious their assembly-line fabrication. They call to mind modernist Hermann Broch’s definition of kitsch as the product of ‘an emergent bourgeoisie caught between contradictory values: an asceticism of work on the one hand and an exaltation of feeling on the other’.
In ‘Les Chemins de la Honte – The Path of Shame’ at House of Gaga, Nicolas Ceccaldi presents just such a series of mass-produced works – purchased from the Pier 1 Imports section of a Sears department store in Mexico City – which he has altered with paint-pen markings, paper collages, animal skulls, butterfly wings, fabric flowers and hair clips. A series of wall-mounted animal skulls has also been similarly decorated. Gone are the artist’s dystopian cyborg sculptures and participatory readymades (Wearables, 2015). Here, Ceccaldi’s gaze has shifted to what the exhibition text refers to drily as ‘flora and fauna: the two essential elements of the natural world’. The artist continues: ‘The call of the wild is depicted in this exhibition as a reactionary tendency against the metropolis, a common reaction exemplified by the development of tourism, the spiritual appeal of rural sites, and the regain of consciousness and empathy for animal life.’ The pieces Ceccaldi presents, however, make little reference to nature. Rather, they appropriate paintings of nature produced on an assembly line – likely the one in Dafen, China, which churns out an estimated 60 percent of the world’s oil paintings for display in middle-class homes and offices. Nature, here, is not a subject of representation but another effect of human consumption.
Perhaps Ceccaldi regards the unobtrusive ornamental items sold at home decor shops, like Pier 1, as emblematic of contemporary city-dwellers’ estrangement from nature. The animal skulls and antlers crowned with flowers might be seen to draw parallels between hunting trophies and the status of artworks within an international market that reduces them to emblems of class status. Nevertheless, the work feels more nihilistic than naturalistic, more cynical than critical.
Ceccaldi’s most successful works, such as Join the Black Mamba (2011), are those in which he manipulates his appropriated material to the greatest extent. The pieces in this show, products of a lighter touch, don’t sufficiently reframe their subjects, and therefore fail to produce a nuanced critique. Does the skull of a spider monkey attached to a painting of a forest trail or a floral hair clip set in an equine jawbone suggest anything more than that humanity’s insatiable desire for cheap consumer goods will lead to the destruction of the natural world? What unites the skulls of a beast of burden and an endangered species other than their mutual expiration?
The sardonic juxtapositions in these works – a peaceful pastoral overlaid with a skull, for instance – seem to have emerged from a dumpster dive into what the critic Hal Foster once termed the ‘capitalist garbage bucket’. It’s unclear whether Ceccaldi intends this work as a criticism of middle-brow taste, high-brow art collecting or the gallery’s transformative ability to make the same object appeal to two very different audiences. In any case, ‘Les Chemins de la Honte’ offers us a shallow dive into the consequences of excessive consumption, appearing more focused on the symptoms of capitalism than the