Michelangelo Pistoletto is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated Italian artists of a certain age and perhaps the star turn of the Arte Povera generation. Pistoletto is best known for his spectacular mirrored interventions into spaces thus creating startling double-take interactions with viewers. These interactions consistently problematize the nature of the real and the illusory and makes the respective roles of the viewer and the viewed into something of a conundrum. Glimpsed and typically fleeting moments when experiencing Pistoletto’s work dually disquiet the audience through their implied narrative on human transience and the potency of the passing encounter. Much like we avert our gaze from disorienting reflections of ourselves in the revolving doors of swanky hotel lobbies, Pistoletto’s painted mirrors are hard to contain and tough to scrutinise as objects. Pistoletto referred to the origins of this class of objects, including his famous and fugitive mirrored cube, as ‘Minus Objects’ - for fairly self-evident reasons.
We would do well at this point to reflect (no pun intended) on the work of the brilliant Australian artist, Ian Burn, who so memorably quoted (on an altogether different mirrored surface) in 1967, ‘No object implies the existence of any other’ , and this epitomises beautifully the quandary of deciphering our own images through either painterly representation or the looking glass.
Pistoletto’s London show of faux-shelving at Simon Lee offers similarly disturbing illusionistic visions into a world of the typologically obsessive collector (it may be you /me of course!). Much in common here with the works and sense of Hans-Peter Feldmann of course (another Simon Lee artist), but perhaps only momentarily, when one views the long tails of each artist.
I would argue that the intonation of the scaffali, or shelves, is rather different here than in Pistoletto’s previous deployment of mirrors; the collected items/images populating the scaffali - shoes, vases, plastic buckets and storage containers - present themselves as printed obstacles to ‘proper’ viewing. The beautifully silk-screened but mundane artefacts also act as material interruptions to our narcissism, interrupting the mirror-finished stainless steel of our soft focus, would-be selfies. In 1969, Pistoletto wrote of the mirror paintings that, ‘they could not live without an audience. They were created and re-created according to the movement and to the interventions they reproduced’ .
In conclusion, I return full circle to the sensibility at the very heart of the artist’s work: I refer myself back not only to Pistoletto’s pivotal ‘Venere degli stracci’ (‘Venus of the Rags’) of 1967, but also to the wider cultural and contextual influence of the post-WWII Parliamentary Republic that is Italy. Pistoletto’s Venus, half buried in used rags, for me still epitomises the incongruous values and geographic origins of the artist and that country’s unique ability to jar the senses. The grand patronage of Italian art, exemplified by religious sculpture and painting, now more than ever sits uneasily alongside the visible poverty, risky politics and struggles of the State at the core of modern-day Italy. This is, after all, the land that gave us everything from Baroque to Berlusconi, Mussolini to Morandi and Napoleone to the 'Ndràngheta.
Though I hold a view that Pistoletto is quintessentially Italian, thankfully the sentiments in the work are accessible and full of empathy for us as spectators. Refreshingly, as we witness Scaffali, we are not the butt of some curatorial conceit, nor are we the victims of the artist’s smartness, choreographed to perform out some ironic role before the work. I came away from this show thinking that underneath the artist’s accomplishment and consummate professionalism, there is still something mischievous and genuinely funny underwriting the gloss and unlikely collision of cheap storage buckets printed on mirrors in the heart of our own capitalist capital.