Obsessed as I am with all things Italian, the thinly disguised text I set out to pen about Paolini at Goodman rapidly digressed into something bigger, and what I can only describe as a vanishing Italianate sensibility. I can even now feel myself sentimentalising a whole raft of artists who have disappeared or who may do so soon, and cannot but wonder what they have shown us and what we might lose in consequence of their sequential departures. After years of searching, seeing and researching, the names Parmiggiani, Fabro, Pistoletto, Paolini and Merz will resonate in my heart and brain for as long as I shall live and breathe.
Many have brilliantly articulated Arte Povera, but there is still something about the magical/material that arrests the senses and pricks the conscience. I would offer that my fascination is really formed of echoes emanating from the aortic rhythms of Italy during and after the Second World War. The near-starvation of the ‘red belt’ partisans, foraging for chestnuts and wild meat, bloody reprisals, wood smoke fires, marble statuary, more blood, flowers, and subsequently, fundamentally unresolved questions around Italy’s national identity poised over the Republic, like Damocles’ sword.
In the early 1980’s I remember being mesmerized on seeing a version of Luciano Fabro’s L’Italia d’oro for the first time, for me as an art student, it was a mind-boggling encounter, I had no idea how to take it. This characterization of Italy, hung inverted like some ironical heretical carcass, gilded and sacrificed, seemed to me at the time to be the epitome of a disrupted nationalism - an indictment of the body geo-politic.
So, does Paolini fit with this? The show at Goodman (15 March - 11 May 2019) is designed as a meticulous mise-en-scène, implicating the viewer as actor on some unimaginable physical plane, as if in some weird Dostoevskyan subterfuge. Paolini’s exhibition synthesises an unlikely combination of set of murals, installations and limited editions expressing the artist’s aesthetic and ideas about art and its representation, the figure of the artist, and the gaze of the beholder. In Cielo (2018) we drown simultaneously in a scene reminiscent of Magritte and La Louvre’s Pyramide, all in the company of a transparent plinth which puts us in an odd physical and intellectual place. In Caduta Libera (Suicida felice) - translates loosely as ‘Freefall (happy suicide)’ is a bizarre spectacle of the artist as magical performer, again displaced from planar reality, performed aerobatics against a wireframe spaceframe that has echoes of Bacon’s grotesque papal portraits. The Birth of Venus (2016) and In Flight, Icarus and Ganymede (2019) are sumptuously mystical, bathing in resplendent purple, velvet and light respectively.
The recurring temptation for experienced spectators is to smartly deploy any accrued historical associations at our disposal as we repeat and re-cite context as a way of momentarily fixing the meanings of art in time, attaching past and present significant events as if they were portals for insight. But these are Sirens we should resist around Paolini as much as anything. By way of reassurance to those who encounter his work, a knowledge of devilish detail is not the key to understanding or enjoyment here, but an open mind and a degree of diligence unhindered by a cell phone probably is.
Should you think I have softened and lapsed into a romantic advocacy of the timelessness of 20th Century Italian art, let me reassure you I have not; what I am proposing is that Paolini’s work has an enduring timeliness. Catch it while you can and whilst the pulse can still race.