In 1989, to coincide with his first exhibition at Massimo de Carlo, Rudolf Stingel published Instructions, a book that functioned as an illustrated guide to his aesthetic theories but which also offered detailed instructions on how to recreate precisely the paintings he was exhibiting. This ‘how-to’ handbook immediately encapsulates the artist’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward his work, dissociating himself from the mythology of the artist–genius and assimilating the viewer into his theoretical and practical approach. While the six paintings on show in his latest exhibition at the Milan gallery – now located in a tremendous space in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city – are created with a similar technique to the one described in the book (using tulle laid on the canvas to create ornamental patterns), the entire installation, with the paintings hung above a mirrored floor, nevertheless revealed that Stingel has continued to develop his humorous and ironic approach.
Indeed, Stingel has been busy redefining the meaning of painting over this 15-year period, constantly playing with the limitations and restrictions of the process. From paintings he went on to create large-scale works from such materials as polystyrene panels, industrial insulation material and mechanically produced or found lengths of carpet with no paint anywhere in sight; and yet he calls them paintings. Like the alien life form in the sci-fi flick The Blob (1958), the work began to grow and grow, consuming everything in its path, completely breaking out of the boundaries of the picture and taking over the whole environment. A recent manifestation of this is Plan B (2004), a two-pronged project in which Stingel used an industrially manufactured carpet with a standard floral design (although the colours – electric blue roses on a hot pink background – were specified by the artist) to cover the 2,500 square-metre Beaux-Arts hall in New York’s Grand Central Station and also the lobby and outdoor plaza of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Simultaneously in Frankfurt am Main, Stingel completely resurfaced one of the rooms of the Museum für Moderne Kunst – walls, columns and floor – with bright red and silver insulation panels printed with a traditional damask wallpaper motif. Entitled Home Depot (2004), this work also suggests DIY and encourages the participation of viewers – they leave their footprints in the yielding material as they walk, or can scratch their names on the wall.
This idea of cheekily converting huge public spaces into cosy Victorian parlours was continued and refined in the more intimate and private space of the Milan gallery. Here the six canvases were painted with the same flock wallpaper pattern seen in Frankfurt and usually associated not with huge museums or the white cube of a gallery but with middle-class drawing rooms. Traditionally muted in tone, the damask decorative motif was reproduced in silver enamel on a golden background, creating a scintillatingly bright surface.
Although Stingel once stated in an interview that ‘artists have always been accused of being decorators, so I just went to the extreme and painted the wallpaper’, there is certainly more at work in the canvases: the recreation of an intimate drawing room environment functions as an appraisal of the gallery, of its role as a middle-class leisure-time venue, of its usual hip minimal décor. The lavishly opulent paintings themselves are totally immersed in the gallery’s pure space through the placement of the mirrored floor, which both expanded and annulled the environment, duplicating the paintings and at the same time leaving them to float in the barren void. Visitors were not encouraged to deface or recreate the work this time, but were incorporated into it through their own physical reflection and invited simply to use the space for passage or to observe, ponder, chat and possibly flirt – pastimes that might take place in any bourgeois sitting room.
Stingel is hard to pigeon-hole: the industrial procedures and mechanically produced materials he uses relate to the Minimalist tradition, while the colour, size and lavishness of his works deny this connection. Indeed in 1993, when he exhibited a huge plush orange carpet glued to the wall at the Venice Biennale, many cited its connections to the Colour Field painting of Mark Rothko; the New York Times recently described him as a ‘Conceptual artist’; while others refer to him as an ‘Italian Postmodernist’. In Milan, as in his work in general, Stingel performed a balancing act between baroque sumptuousness and Zen simplicity, jest and consequence, between making fun of various art movements and playing along.