BY Elizabeth Janus in Reviews | 09 AUG 95
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Issue 24

Signs and Wonders

BY Elizabeth Janus in Reviews | 09 AUG 95

'Signs and Wonders' is an ambitious, if not quirky, exhibition that presents the paintings of the self-taught, turn-of-the-century rural Georgian artist, Niko Pirosmani (1862­1918), alongside an eclectic array of works by more than twenty American and European contemporary artists. Its premise ­ to bring together the past and the present, East and West, outsider and insider ­ has similarly been the impetus for an increasing number of international group exhibitions that began with 'Magiciens de la Terre' (1989) and includes, among others, the last Venice Biennale (1993), the travelling exhibition 'Parallel Visions: Modern Artists And Outsider Art' (1993) and 'Cocido y Crudo' (1994-95) at the Reina Sofia. While the successes and failures of these exhibitions have been contingent on each one's ambitions, intentions and final presentation, as a trend they are generally a healthy sign of the West's willingness to reassess its conceptions of history, culture and aesthetics as continuous, homogeneous and universal.

There are still, however, many unanswered questions and unresolved problems raised by such endeavours, for example how to present difference effectively without being patronising or universalising; how to mix cultures and artistic intentions without misrepresenting them and, how the continuously evolving role of the curator ­ from guardian of Western values to proponent of a very personal, albeit culturally-conditioned, subjectivity ­ is translated into curatorial practice.

'Signs and Wonders' places itself at the heart of this debate; the criteria of its organisation are based on a wish to confront entrenched practitioners of the so-called avant-garde with the paintings of one on the margins of Europe and the Modern artistic tradition. Pirosmani's pictures consist of animals and scenes of rural life painted in a simple, direct style inspired by Byzantine icons. They are exemplary of an intuitive vision of the world that is guided as much by a wondrous sense of the materiality of rural life, as a will to convey the miraculousness of the ordinary. On the surface, they have little in common with most of the contemporary works included, which range from those by such firmly established artists as Robert Gober, Katherina Fritsch, Damien Hirst, Mike Kelley, Sigmar Polke and Cindy Sherman to the lesser-known Mario Airò, Jean-Luc Mylayne and Paul Ramirez-Jonas.

Pirosmani's presence, then, is intended as a model of innocent curiosity, forcing us to look anew at a contemporary art often seen as mired in weary cynicism. Such a hopeful goal, though not without merit, still poses certain problems, some of which are not completely avoided here. The most obvious of these is that in setting Pirosmani up as such an example, one risks romanticising him as a naive mystic, possessor of a purer image of the world; or, at worst, presenting him as a noble savage untouched by the civilising effects of culture ­ an attitude implied by the accompanying catalogue's reference to his 'primal innocence'.

What saves 'Signs and Wonders' from being another example of cultural colonialism is that Pirosmani is made the centrepiece around which the other artists revolve. His paintings, 30 of which are shown here, are hung in the centre of the main gallery with a care and esteem reserved for old masters. And, while the contemporary artists remain mostly on the peripheries, they are accorded similar respect and given ample space to show one or more individual pieces or a single installation. Two of the strongest examples of the latter are those by Ilya Kabakov ­ the only contemporary east-European artist ­ and Robert Gober. Kabakov's, titled This Will Happen Tomorrow (199?), consists of a specially constructed room that recreates the intimate atmosphere of a small apartment, where he showed a series of drawings dating from 1977 of people flying like angels. Originally bound in albums, the medium of the work, as well as the venue for its exhibition, were determined by the fact that in the former Soviet Union he was restricted from showing his art otherwise. Gober has similarly chosen a separate space, which is darkened and has a quaint fireplace cut into the back wall. On top of a glowing fake fire, a macabre heap of dismembered children's legs made of wax ­ wearing sandals and sports socks ­ gently roasts like some mass-murderer's sickly-sweet fantasy.

On seeing all the artists' contributions, one has the sense that they were given total freedom to make new work, to show a mixture of older and newer pieces, to respond to Pirosmani's presence or to ignore it completely. This freedom, along with the seemingly random selection of artists, gives 'Signs and Wonders' a chaotic energy that is also its greatest strength.