The circumstances by which I took down my post on Piero Golia will remain between me and Piero. Some of my closer acquaintances know the story, but I am sure it is not very important. However, it is important that the post go back up in its entirely, which you can find by this link. The post records my honest impressions of Piero's show as I encountered it, and it is my freedom, especially in a free forum like a blog, to write whatever I want, as long as what I want is an honest, earnest inquiry done with an open heart.
I will take more of that freedom now.
I met Piero at Gagosian Gallery last Saturday and spoke with him for just under three hours. Piero had wanted to meet me on the roof, but the gallery was closed so we located our conversation in the shadowed corner of Gagosian's fire escape. I sat on the landing and Piero up on the steps. We were there with a purpose. I wanted to understand Piero's show and Piero wanted me to understand it as well.
We both felt like we were cheating. The critic should understand with the equipment of their mind and details of their experience. The artist's work should have already been done before the critic arrives, the hand of friendship already extended or the line in the sand drawn for all to see. In this case, however, Piero was certain he had done the work, and I was certain that I couldn't understand. Therefore, we were at an impasse.
The meeting, however, was fruitful. Perhaps it did not bring me to the point where I can appreciate Piero's show, actually I still have problems with it, but I was happy to have the conversation nonetheless. The difference between my expectations and initial reading of the show, and how Piero considers the show in the life of his work is definitely worth going into and giving a full critical airing. Piero did not like the terms I used initially, so now I seek to use his terms. The point of this new article is to distinguish Piero's terms from how I usually see art, to go out and meet his show at Gagosian according to those terms, and ultimately since I am a critic after all, to make a judgment on the efficacy of of how those terms were conveyed.
First the terms.
The most important thing that Piero and I discussed was the difference between what Piero calls “mannerism” and what is called “Scale 1.” Mannerism, so we came to agree, is using traditional forms of art, painting, sculpture, photography, film to create objects. One can approach perfection in Mannerism, a perfection that is astonishing. In thinking about this form of perfection, this ability to approach god through the perfection of a form, I admit I was delighted that Piero and I had the same favorites in Los Angeles, agreeing that in this form of approaching the perfection of a god, that Mark Grotjahn and Charles Ray were our best examples. We agreed that the work of both these artists struck us with awe and wonderment that human beings could take form to such a height. Piero did not come across as a death of painting type of person, though he acknowledged that the type of art he was interested in could not be achieved in the traditional forms, that its limitations held him at arms length from what he wanted. “When I see a Grotjahn,” Piero said, “there is just something about it that makes me want it.” In a great, well deserved tribute of Grotjahn's work, Piero said “It would take me 300 years to paint like Mark.”
Piero's idea of Mannerism begs refinement. When Piero says that it would take him 300 years to paint like Grotjahn, that is how long it would take him to get inside of the rich, deep layers of the form of painting, tease out a voice, establish ground in an area that is densely populated, and eventually go on to achieve greatness. Since everyone loves New York, we'll use it as a metaphor. I bet Piero would agree that to make ground in painting, sculpture, and in something like writing would be like starting as a squatter in a condemned building and working your way up to a penthouse in New York. You're still on Manhattan Island, you can't escape, but we can marvel at what you've done and what you've done is impressive.
Dave Hickey has a similar argument about painting, thinking that the form is all refinements and built edifices on top of things that have already been done. Many in arts share his view. I don't share the view, but I hope you see my point in laying it out. According to Piero, my original blog piece argued as if he were trying to make “good paintings” and “good sculptures,” and he is exactly right. I was arguing in just such a manner, my judgments fell accordingly, and you can read it for yourself. In the world of compositional and historical painting, the resin paintings do not work and according to Piero, they are not trying to work. In talking to people about the show, I found it comic that people read the resin paintings as paintings and still liked them. To me, after having a conversation with Piero, the fact that they liked them as paintings is akin to people that love that, from a certain viewpoint, a cloud looks like a Griffin. Piero was not trying to “compose” anything in the traditional manner. The aesthetics of the works, if you want to go there, is a happy accident.
What Piero wants, I came to find out, is instead, Scale 1, something he talks about a great deal with artists that he considers kindred spirits, namely Rirkrit Tiravanija and Pierre Huyghe. Art at Scale 1 exists in reality, at the scale of life itself. Please don't conjure the term “relational aesthetics,” for it simply misleading. Instead, what Piero talks about is a certain gesture inside of life that makes reality itself do something (the something is determined by the artist). The gesture would have a certain snowball effect, reality would contract, expand, be enriched, be any qualifier you would like to imagine. This is the stuff of Piero's art. “I'm not interested anymore if it's art or film or law or whatever,” as Piero related in his Desert Interviews to Pierre Huyghe, “as long as it's astonishing.”
To go back to our New York metaphor, Scale 1 could not be measured inside the systems and conditions that determine success inside the real estate cage match of Manhattan, but would rather be something that changes those games entirely. I thought of immediately of Rem Koolhaus and OMA, architecture that proposes tectonic changes of reality. Don't squat and move up. Instead, turn Manhattan's grid 45 degrees. Don't triumph by achieving your brownstone, instead put a roof over the entire island and heat it and cool it by solar panels. In other words, think big, If you don't have the money to think big, think of the little pressure points that achieve maximum momentum through small applications of force. This, I think, is Piero Golia. These are what I consider to be, in the wake of my conversation with him, his terms. “What I am interested in is the equation that is so exponentially high that a butterfly flapping its wings creates a tornado,” Piero says again in the Desert Interviews, “Just a little change can expand so much. I believe all art is in that gap between the starting point and the end point.”
In other words, Piero is in the business of the gods. Scale 1 is the vantage point of divinity. You don't go by the usual terms because the terms themselves are what is being dictated. There is a reason in the mythological universe that the god Hephaestus has a lame leg. He is the god of craft, of mannerist art, of the tools of man. His works, though godly and amazing, are, in the end, lame in the face of the business of the Olympus, from which he is kicked off. He is strapped to the physical and the physical is only deformity.
I asked Piero whether, in the face of Hephaestus, he was doing the business of Zeus with his show at Gagosian. His answer was no, that he was instead in the business of Mars (I loved that Piero uses the Roman names, though Mars will always be Ares to me).
“The god of war,” I said in reaction.
“Yes,” Piero said, “and the god of cows.”
(Correction: Piero is misquoted here. He actually said "Chaos" instead of cows. Since Mars is the god of agriculture in the Roman canon, I did not catch my mishearing. For this I apologize.)
More importantly, I'd say, the god of strategy. As in war and in farming, Piero's terms are about thinking ahead, moving pieces of reality, to produce something in the present that opens into the future. Even more so, it about something small becoming powerful in its poignancy. I think of the Bible and the incident where Jesus comes upon a boy inhabited by a demon and the disciples wonder why they are not successful in driving out the demons themselves. “Because you have little faith,” Jesus says, “if you have faith the size of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move.'” Piero, to me, seems to say that art needs get back to its mountain moving roots.
Piero believes in the power of the artistic gesture and he sees this power inside of real life as Duchamp's ultimate lesson. It is not a matter of moving the pieces of reality into different configurations that makes art Scale 1, but instead knowing the forces by which the pieces move and get involved with those forces. This is art as its most ambitious and also at its most dangerous. Failure, in the face of attempting godliness, is expected. Success should be treasured.
So what are some of these forces, if I am to believe Piero's terms, in the show at Gagosian? We see the resin paintings, we see the cake molds filling up the center space. You've already read what I thought of these works according to the usual terms, but now let's think about the show according to Piero's terms.
One problem that Piero had with my initial review were the things that it didn't know. For instance, the review did not know that Piero issued an announcement for the show on Facebook before he had a venue, that Piero had set a date for the show, June 23rd, before any gallerist agreed to show the work. Also, the review didn't know that Gagosian did not give Piero the back gallery to relegate him to a small space, but because Piero asked for the space. Piero chose the gallery. To add up another failing, the review did not know that the personal nature of the molds and the pieces of the taxi wreckage inside the resin paintings are less about something personal, in other words not precious as a matter of biography, but instead are simply the stuff of Piero's life, the stuff which art uses to make a gesture. Furthermore, the review did not give an account of the opening, which apparently was a large part of the piece itself.
From Piero's vantage point and the vantage point of Andrew Berardini's review in the L.A. Weekly, which gives a good overview of Piero's career and how this work fits into it, Piero gave us a gesture at Gagosian that needed all of those details. He quite literally filled the “mold” of an “art show.” This is not art show as ready made, but instead Piero inside the forces which control how art is made. A show, for instance, was not “bestowed” by a gallery and then the artist makes the work. Instead, the conditions of the show are set, without any of the gallery's market dictates, and the conditions are then played out in a real setting, set by the artist.
The show has objects, but it is the reality of the artist/gallery relationship, the dynamics of power inside that system, that Piero is re-orienting and challenging. To clarify, Piero said that if he ever made another resin painting in that manner or another cake mold to sell, that I could immediately call him a fraud (I'm watching closely, and you better believe I will). The objects are only part of a larger artwork and they cannot be placed in isolation for the larger artwork. Piero, in the manner of Sol Lewitt, (as Berardini wrote and Piero told me) set conditions as a machine for art, but the machine for art is not about objects but about the entire system by which art is made, displayed, and through which value is conferred.
I pray that I finally have Piero's terms. If I do not, nothing can be done, and I am sorry, I am simply confused then and cannot be helped. Set me out to pasture and let Ares deal with me. I hope that I now know the terms because I mentioned that making art in Scale 1 is dangerous, and it certainly is, and I really want to get to the serious part of the discussion, why such things are dangerous and whether or not Piero's show is satisfying in a Scale 1 manner.
First of all, I do not apologize for missing Piero's terms on my first viewing. The business of gods should make itself known and I did the amount of work I usually do in reviewing a show. For one need not believe in God, know anything about God, to know you are in an earthquake. Furthermore, you need not believe in a creator, or know any back story, to be charmed by a falling leaf. One should not have to be a friend of Piero or in a small facebook community to see the fullness of a gesture. One should simply be astonished, and to be honest, I just wasn't.
I think the reason I was not astonished is I don't find the artist/gallery relationship, the system and terms by which value is conferred and the usual trinity of artist,art,gallery to be interesting at all. If Piero's gesture is aimed at opening an fissure of infinity inside of the infuriating, alienating system of the artworld, then it fails in ambition. It fails in ambition not because of its lack of execution or intelligence or even the efficacy of its abilities, but because the artworld, in and of itself, is a small matter. The whole enterprise reminds me of a conversation I once had with a collector about how much money a Sotheby's auction made. She was impressed, astonished even. I, however, was not astonished. I was instead trapped inside a scale of my own life, having read just that day in Bob Woodward's “Bush at War” that the same amount of money is spent in Afganistan to keep a special ops team, at work, for only six weeks. In the face of real power, the artworld is a self-contained parlor game.
Perhaps the people at the opening would have been astonished by the achievement that Piero realized in the artworld, that he changed the terms of the game, Mars blessing a harvest, leading the cows into a different field, or changing the battleground for artists. Believe me, it is an achievement. If you think it is easy to announce a show on Facebook and then have Gagosian fill it, you are wrong. Piero did do an impressive thing inside of the small system of the artworld.
For a person that is not an artist, however, that cares little for those systems, that has seen Piero using Scale 1 in more global ways, it comes across as a gesture re-orienting a system that is far, far too full of itself and almost paltry in relation to the wider world (to clarify, I mean the artworld is too full of itself and not Piero). It almost seems beneath Piero to mess with the artworld, to have to do an “art show” at all. He's been in bigger territory, planted more expansive gardens. I guess what I am saying is that when you start messing with scale, start making distinctions between mannerism and Scale 1, that to then turn and do a piece inside of system of the artworld is a bit of deflation. The question remains and I've racked my brain about it, simply Why did Piero Golia do an art show? Why attempt Scale 1 inside the gallery system when the gallery system is so small and so disappointing in every way? (if you are reading this and insert a cynical answer here, shame on you).
It could, however, be argued that perhaps this show was his goodbye to such small things, that this show was meant for the insular community of the artworld to show the absurdity of its smallness, that the gesture of posting his invite on Facebook was the punchline to the joke that Facebook is perhaps proper metaphor for how the artworld works, that the artworld is a place arrogant enough to see Jerry Saltz's wall as proper discourse or arrogant enough to think that a gesture on Piero's wall (for his limited number of friends) could have the reach to lead a person in the present or the future to be astonished by the gesture he makes in a gallery. From this angle, I can almost see it. If that was the purpose, well, you've got to do what you've got to do, swat the fly if it is in your face.
I am grateful for my conversation with Piero. I am not a god. I have no place on Olympus. I am not on the list at the magic castle. When Piero says, jokingly, to Pierre Huyghe, “To me, it's like a magician – only another magician knows how good you are at making a ball hover on its own. For the normal public, it's just a ball hovering,” I am glad I had the opportunity to ask the magician a few questions. The only problem with the Gagosian show for me was that for me the ball doesn't hover. Though I may be surrounded by people all saying the ball is hovering (though some, in private, say that they too do not see the ball hovering), I have to square with the fact that the ball is not hovering for me. It is possible that I just don't get it (very possible), but it is also possible that there is something weak going on here, a game of shadows, a shell game that doesn't need me, the viewer, to be played.