Roberto Cuoghi’s mid-career retrospective ‘Perla Pollina 1996–2016’ is a tour de force in the unconventional processing of media: glass, marble, resin, wood, chewing gum, clay, ashes, foodstuffs, glazed ceramic and bacteria all make an appearance. The title of the exhibition – curated by Andrea Bellini and travelling to MADRE, Naples, and Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne – was supposedly generated by chance ‘due to the erroneous effects of an auto-correct programme’. But the words in the title translate as ‘pearl’ and ‘poultry manure’, evoking tricks of nature and transformation. For the show the Milan-based artist, who has a dark sense of humour and a penchant for the grotesque, retitled all his works. Here, each piece is identified by a sequence of letters and roman numerals (for example, D+P (VIIIAc)mm/a), and the exhibition checklist reads like a lab inventory.
All of Cuoghi’s portrait works are displayed on a single, dimly lit floor: a smart curatorial move that allows characters’ faces to emerge like ghosts from the darkness. The exhibition opens with the series ‘Il Coccodeista’ (1997, an untranslatable wordplay, involving a man’s ability to cackle): in drawings on tracing paper, the artist appears like a cyberpunk cartoon, with bulbous eyes and a kamikaze red-and-white bandana. He made these works while wearing special goggles to reverse orientation, allowing him to flaunt ‘normal’ perspective.
Punk is a key reference for Cuoghi’s DIY aesthetic. In 1998, he severed ties with his ‘young artist’ public persona by radically altering his body: burying his former skinny self under layers of fat, dyeing his hair grey and wearing his father’s clothes for seven years. This was not only a way to resurrect then, later, let go of his father, but also a means of removing himself from the constraints of the present.
The black-and-white series ‘Asincroni’ (Asynchronies, 2003–04), painted in symbolist style on overlaid sheets of transparent triacetate, embody Cuoghi’s out-of-sync state. His multiple self-portraits on paper (2010) accentuate dissonant features, so that the artist never quite looks like himself. A further series from 2012 demystifies and caricatures the ‘Cuoghi legend’: in it, the model for the artist’s physical transformation is the logo of a cigar brand. The second floor is, by contrast, flooded in natural light. A series of sculptural works (2012–15) belong to the cycle of ‘Pazuzu’ – the Assyrian god of winds, but also the demon of the 1973 horror film The Exorcist. The original statue held by the Louvre and only a few centimetres high was appropriated by Cuoghi in 2008, when he produced a giant synthetic replica of it. He then kept morphing and fracturing this work, in different media and scales, so that it gradually lost any resemblance to the original, undermining its own credibility.
Cuoghi often uses 3D scanning and printing techniques in his works, as in the series ‘Putiferio’ (2016), which comprises a group of anthropomorphic kilns – built to make ceramic sculptures of crabs during an eponymous live performance on the island of Hydra – as well as the seductively beautiful, glazed sculptures that resulted. The exhibition’s final floor presents the artist’s powerful sound pieces, such as Šuillakku (2017) and Mei Gui (2017), which have been adapted for headphones; cinema screens loop a dozen documentary videos about ‘Putiferio’. The artist sent the same digital shots of his performance on the island of Hydra to different film editors, so that the action is narrated in a variety of soundtracks and registers – low tech, promotional, cheesy, naive, touristy, epic. Each time, however, we see Cuoghi working in front of the blazing kiln, his face covered in sweat, and embracing the collector Dakis Joannou, who smiles upon him like a benign father: another sabotage, it seems, of the artist’s latest incarnation as homo faber.
Main image: Roberto Cuoghi, Untitled (detail), 2015, 187 x 37 x 37 cm. Courtesy: Centre d’Art Contemporain, Geneva; photograph: Alessandra Sofia