On ViewGuttenberg Arts
September 12 – October 4, 2015
New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast once created a cartoon retelling Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain using Bic ballpoint pens as stand-ins for the characters: this, I think, was a comment on the cartoonists’ and writers’ obsession with the banal writing implement. Roberto Visani, in his dramatically staged exhibition In Medias Res has populated a Beckett or Noh drama with the much darker personage of the gun. The exhibition consists of five discrete works, and they synchronize so well that a second narrative arises from their proximity to one another. Guttenberg Arts, a print and ceramics studio and residency program, plays host to the show. It is a slightly more than a one year-old venue situated in West New York, aka northern New Jersey—a neighborhood that has been sorely in need of an art locus. Guttenberg also publishes a quarterly magazine of works on paper entitled Carrier Pigeon.
Within the stage that is the gallery, Visani’s characters in In Medias Res are all devolved from guns. He toys with the recognizeability of this ubiquitous and fearsome object by replacing the material of the firearm with non-mechanical mediums such as laminated Plexiglas in Half the Story has never been told (2015) or cast plaster with wood applique in The Dream and Lie (2015). Alternately, the sculpture Sex Tape (2015) is a gun-shaped assemblage of found objects. The walls of the set are adorned with Visani’s flat works. An iron cast of the negative form of an AK-47, Exo SKS (2012) is reminiscent of Matisse’s “Back” series of bas-reliefs. Their dark aesthetic imbues the gallery with an eerie atmosphere.
If we push the Noh-drama metaphor, there is a ghost, played by the translucent tripod of Plexiglas muskets, Half the Story has never been told, and a girl, or woman, Sex Tape. By way of an enigmatic stage setting is The Dream and Lie, a rusted bed frame with a cast-plaster M16 beneath. A title drawn from Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, The Dream and Lie forms the narrative focus of Visani’s show and is an overtly political statement. It is not directly inspired by the jailbreak of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional facility, but is based instead on the resultant revelation that many local residents were sleeping with guns beneath their beds. In the scenario played out in In Medias Res, the plaster gun itself appears to be cowering beneath the bed, more fearful of its human owners and their violent propensities than of the escaped convicts.
Visani is currently locked into the morphology of the gun as the default setting for generating his sculpture. As a child he learned the ins-and-outs of the mechanism from his father, a gun enthusiast, but rejected the accompanying ideology. The symbolism works up to a point. To our left-leaning art establishment, the gun is the eternal boogeyman, and presenting it in various roles, as Visani does, offers an almost endless variety of political discussions and potential sociological interpretations. Aesthetically though, Visani has begun to transcend his own trope. Half the Story has never been told presents a historical revision in which he wrests authorship of the gun from Europe, pointing out the firearms manufacturing traditions of Turkey and Northern Africa. The shimmering patterns of the sandwiched Plexi and the languorous forms of the foreign weapons are mesmerizing. Meanwhile, Sex Tape pushes Visani’s works beyond their political message: it is a beguiling personification of the sex-crazed “celebutard” culture, in love with its own images as exemplified by the junky VHS recorder standing in for the body of the weapon and giving the sculpture a gaze of its own. A cheeky mannequin’s arm dangles a pair of women’s underwear, as the piece considers the hazy territory between intentional assemblage and found object. The gun vs. the camera is a shaky simile, but the piece works.
In Medias Res is a drama of fear; and the gun symbolizes well most aspects of that. It is a tool that in the collective consciousness is a bulwark against what we are afraid of—the Other, ourselves, the past, and the environment. In the contemporary imagination, the gun is a one-size-fits-all defense against the world, and in Visani’s intimate spectacle at Guttenberg Arts, this easy solution is propped up as a character at odds with us and unable to defend itself.