Exhibition Catalogue, Houston, The Menil Collection, Maurizio Cattelan: Is There Life Before Death?, 2010, p.11, illustration of another example in colour
Exhibition Catalogue, New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Maurizio Cattelan: All, 2011-12, p. 240, no. 105, illustration of another example in colour
Executed in 2009, Maurizio Cattelan's emblematic Untitled invokes a powerful coalescence of two major tenets from the artist's provocative praxis: at once Cattelan's principle modality of surreal self-portraiture is channelled through an iconographic allusion to institutionally abused hierarchies of power. Concealed within a militaristic boot, the three-dimensional visage of Cattelan's likeness emerges smothered and fetishistically asphyxiated by the hermetic seal of black rubber. Potently evoking Renato Bertelli's famous Profilo Continuo del Duce (Continuous profile of Mussolini) from 1933, Cattelan absurdly transforms Berterlli's ultra-modern reinvention of the classical portrait bust. Gleaming in the black insignia of Fascism, Bertelli's lathed depiction of Mussolini's distinctive profile is manifest from all angles; an omniscient and disconcerting futurist icon tainted by the legacy of authoritarianism. Made ridiculous in the present work via the risibly looming rubber plumage, Cattelan's Untitled directly plays on the iconic boot-like shape of Italy's geographic peninsula to incite a dialogue with his own Italian identity in tandem with the collective national inheritance of Italy's recent Fascist past.
With disturbing veracity and uncanny sculptural figuration, Cattelan has forged a career scrutinising the limits and abuses of power. The pictorial vernacular and semiotic idioms of authority figures and institutional power structures are frequently called upon in rebellion and theatrical mocking. Untitled is related to the incendiary lineage of sculptures including Cattelan's most famous work, the stricken Pope John Paul II of La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), 1999; the diminutive and submissive reimagining of Adolf Hitler, Him, 2001; as well as the notorious address of Cattelan's disembodied Fascist salute, Ave Maria from 2007. Daringly irreverent, politically and religiously inflammatory, Cattelan engenders an iconoclastic challenge to icons of power via a subversion of figurative sculptural tradition. Evidencing the same absurdist sensibility inherent to the sacrilegiously felled pontiff in La Nona Ora, Cattelan's evocation of Mussolini in Untitled, like a slap-stick rubber chicken, thematises the vanquishing and fallibility of extreme power; as explained by the artist himself: "power, whatever power, has an expiration date, just like milk" (the artist in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Maurizio Cattelan: All, 2011-12, p. 95). Surreally entombed within the militaristic livery of Mussolini's infamous paramilitary 'Blackshirts', Cattelan's upended and recapitulated portrait bust destabilises the fraught associations of Bertelli's Futurist icon with characteristic irony and humour.
This is not the first time il Duce has been evoked in Cattelan's work. Sinisterly recalling the infamous documentary photograph of Mussolini's upsidedown body hanging next to other executed fascists at the end of World War II, Cattelan's 2002 sculpture Frank and Jamie, exhibited shortly after the 9/11 attacks, literally turns authority on its head via the upside-down display of two New York City policemen. Politically subversive, Cattelan undermines dominant power structures to engender "a new form of statuary, functioning as modern-day icons that are ultimately iconoclastic, raging against authority and lamenting the lost promises of political idealism" (Ibid., p. 104).
Nonetheless intelligible through the thick rubber boot, this sculpture bears the artist's distinctive physiognomy and thus belongs, as expounded by Cattelan himself, within the canon of self-portraiture that permeates his oeuvre (Ibid., p. 240). The choice of self as subject began in 1997 with Charlie Don't Surf, an important development which bestowed tangible memories and feelings of isolation and anxiety in an uncanny and disquietingly accurate development of the age old tradition of self-portraiture. Cattelan's alter-egos exhibit a tension between self-effacement and self-promotion, and consistently attempt to articulate his guarded relationship with the art world. Famously elusive, Cattelan retains a shy and codified public persona, frequently relinquishing traditional art establishment responsibilities by sending others in his place to social engagements. In the present work, Cattelan literally effaces his own identity. Masked in the politically provocative yet ludicrous disguise of a boot heaved over his head, this work echoes Cattelan's Not Afraid of Love from 2000 in which a baby elephant is disguised beneath Ku Klux Klan robes. Here, Cattelan carefully crafts an image that fulfils his reputation as a provocateur, yet remains essentially unknowable. In a transformation of Van Gogh's self-portrait as his own worn and threadbare boots, Cattelan vicariously and ambivalently posits and veils his own identity in the guise of a ridiculous yet authoritarian emblem. Like a sadomasochistic mask, Untitled wields an allusion to fetishistic black rubber mitigated by the signifiers of political malice, psychological anxiety, and eroticized claustrophobia of an imagined airless entrapment. With the present work Cattelan masterfully summons, destabilises and synthesizies a host of loaded and provocative associations with sardonic disdain and humorous derision.
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