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Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition And Revolution 1968-2008 At MCA

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 20, 2010 4:40PM

2010__01_20_Italics.jpg The MCA, in their current show Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition and Revolution 1968-2008, want to show you something. They want you to talk about—no, see—no, know—no, understand—Italian Art since 1968. Unfortunately, they don’t get too far.

That’s not to say the whole show is disappointing. The fact is, there are a good number of provocative and worthwhile pieces on display. What’s more, many of those pieces probably wouldn’t have made it to Chicago without this exhibition—we especially like “Sisyphus”; by Luciano Fabro (the Greek myth via marble and baking flour, seen above) and “Ambiento bianco” by Lucio Fontana (a boomerang hallway in harsh light with a shoutout to his slash paintings on the inside)—so perhaps we should just be thankful and move on.

Orrrr we could push further. Because while it’s great and all that there are interesting pieces, the problem is that the exhibition doesn’t set out to be a collection of interesting pieces that just so happen to come from Italian artists within the past 40 years. The exhibition says it’s going to show us what Italian art is. And the truth of the matter is that even before going to see the thing you can tell that big time guest curator Francesco Bonami (he of the Venice Biennale and Whitney biennial) was going to come up short. The scope of the exhibition is simply too large for even a curator as established as Bonami pull off.

Chronologically, the exhibition covers 40 years; geographically: an entire country. Regarding subtopics, there are rooms with subjects as broad as “representations of mortality” and “design, architecture, and fashion.” So the organization of the exhibition is poor, especially because it seems to overlap—for example, although there is a room devoted to Arte Povera, Arte Povera pieces are littered all over the exhibition—and because none of the titles are translated into English.

But that’s okay, we could find our way among the chaos—sometimes disorganization is just part of late 20th art.

What is harder to excuse is the logical naivete of the exhibition’s conceptual basis. Bonami says Italian art has been underappreciated since the post-war glory years ended. He says he wants to show us all what we’re missing. In an interview from November, he said he wants this exhibition to

recount the story of Italian art in the last 40 years from an utterly different point of view, escaping the maze of the official critical approach that has crippled a real understanding of its complexities, contractions, and paradoxes.

In giving “an utterly different point of view,” Bonami made some curious inclusions at the expense of some baffling exclusions. Famous Arte Povera contributor Jannis Kounellis’s work was withdrawn after a public bicker, and Fausto Melotti’s estate didn’t give a sculpture, while unknown artists like Alessandra Ariatto were given space.

In other words, in showing us—that is, helping us to understand—Italian art, Bonami decided to define it himself. He says, “In Italy, when you step outside the ‘family,’ when you don’t involve established figures, then you are wrong.” It’s great that Bonami wanted to give us a unique perspective on the narrative of Italian art of the last 40 years, but wouldn’t that narrative be clearer if all sides were represented? In selecting his own narrative of Italian art, Bonami only polarizes the narrative—he does not make it any clearer, or, for that matter, any more interesting.

It is strange, therefore: you walk away feeling this exhibition is both under-curated (regarding organization) and over-curated (regarding selection) at the same time.

Italics: Italian Art between Tradition and Revolution 1968-2008 in on display at the MCA until February 14