Ugo Rondinone’s latest show at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, ‘walls + windows + doors’, at first seemed almost aggressive, designed to corral the viewer along a set path through a series of large-scale installations. Eight rectangular burlap canvases, each about three metres tall and three to seven metres wide, stood upright in wooden frames propped up by triangular wooden buttresses. Each canvas depicted a different coloured wall, created brick by brick at 1:1 scale in absurdly fat, gooey oil brushstrokes. These sculptural paintings lined up to form brightly coloured barriers facing the viewers, who then had to walk around them in order to progress through the gallery. According to the press release, the artist originally painted white bricks on the canvases to provide the backdrop in his studio but, after moving to a new studio, he reworked them, covering each with colours including tangerine, black and pink. As is customary for Rondinone, he titled these works with dates, such as the violet neunundzwanzigsteraprilzweitausendundfünfzehn (twentyninthapriltwothousandandfifteen, 2015).
Six ‘window’ works lined the gallery walls, each a wooden frame around coloured glass, painted and overworked to the point of appearing plastic. Their titles, in contrast, describe voids, such as the ghost, the abyss and the vacuum (all 2015). Rondinone, in fact, built a wall over the gallery’s actual windows to accommodate them, and their opaque glass further emphasized the hermetic environment. The show was bookended by two older pieces: Big Mind Sky (2007) at the entrance, a keyhole installed in the wall through which a current of air could be felt blowing in; and, at its furthest point, lax low lullaby (2010), a massive, neo-Gothic black double door. The latter could be a prop straight from Disneyland, but the melancholic humour of these older pieces is absent in the newest canvases, as is the pathos with which Rondinone often works.
Upon reaching the implied finale at the closed black doors, the only way to exit was to retrace the same route. Unexpectedly, this was where the experience that targeted viewers’ visceral reactions kicked in, where things were obviously messier and less ‘finished’. As the walls came into view again, this time from the back, I experienced a sense of disappointment at this backstage view, where the details of the works’ construction were laid bare. It was akin to standing in a solar park, where banks of panels are turned away from the Earth, attuned to a different sphere in space. Here, Rondinone revealed the big stitching binding the burlap pieces and a small, black fabric rectangle that completed every work. Each bore a different, line-drawn portrait of a clown devoid of facial features – a version of the downcast or sleeping clown figure that has reappeared throughout the artist’s work as a form of alter ego. Now, it has become a trademark.
Rondinone’s sculptural re-creations tend to place individuals in relation to all manner of systems; these makeshift barricades could be considered in terms of the architecture of control, for example. In contrast, however, this show seemed to focus primarily on objects, and the way that, once the details of an artwork’s production are revealed, we may come to view them as commercial products. What once defined the artist’s creative space became a series of portable facades installed in the airless context of the white cube, an echo chamber too confined for any meaningful resonance. Rondinone’s sculptural walls and sealed windows hinted at his ambivalence toward the circus these clowns inhabit.