Glistening with a façade of golden opulence, Rudolf Stingel’s monumental Untitled envelopes the viewer in a translucent and transcendent aura. Executed in 2004, the work comes from a celebrated series of gold wallpaper paintings that were collectively exhibited to great critical acclaim at Sadie Coles HQ, London in the year of their creation. For the exhibition, Stingel created six highly decorative gold canvases, three of which replicated the star pattern of a ubiquitous 1950s Italian wallpaper, and the remainder of which, as in the present work, reproduced an ornate floral baroque motif common to traditional Italian homes. Shifting and slipping between object and artwork, illusion and allusion, Stingel playfully and provocatively blurs the line between traditional painting and the readymade. As noted by Chrissie Iles, curator of Stingel’s renowned 2007 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York: “In Rudolf Stingel’s work, the parameters of painting and architecture are turned inside out. The traditional qualities of painting… pictorialism, flatness, illusion, composition, and autonomy… become corrupted by a new symbolic framework in which painting metamorphoses” (Chrissie Iles, ‘Surface Tension’ in: Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Rudolf Stingel, 2007, p. 23). Vastly influential and innovative, Stingel's work has been the subject of a show this year at the prestigious Fondation Beyeler, Basel.
One of the most striking expressions of Stingel’s highly coveted series, the present work contends with some of the major themes addressed throughout the artist’s diverse and interrogative practice of image-making. Oscillating between the faculties of abstraction and figuration, Stingel’s multifarious oeuvre employs a host of processes, textures and materials in order to question the principle issues facing contemporary painting today; amongst them concerns regarding high art versus low, and the contested role of artist as producer. By innovatively engaging with these questions in Untitled, Stingel simultaneously demystifies and intensifies the mystic allure enshrouding his art. Melding ornamentation with a strict sense of geometrically guided repetition, Untitled is an attractive testimony to the artist’s profound expansion of the definition of painting. Upon entering the New York art scene in 1987, Stingel eschewed the dominant reactionary minimalist and neo-expressionist tendencies, pioneering a process-oriented approach to painting through the initiation of his now-iconic silver monochromes. In 1989, the artist released his seminal Instructions: a limited-edition art book that outlined the step-by-step method by which his idiosyncratic enamel works could be replicated. Codifying his technique with a democratic release into the public sphere, Stingel’s critique at once exposed his studio processes and subverted notions of authorial genius in favour of a sense of industrial manufacture and mechanised labour akin to Warhol’s Factory. Created by applying paint through a fine and detailed stencil, Untitled extends Stingel’s pioneering industrialised processes and rigorously critical approach to painting. By outsourcing the authorship of his work, Stingel pertinently emulates some of the homogenised features and processes of the very technology which has been threatening the genre of painting since the mid-twentieth century.
In the year before the present work was produced, Stingel created a silver room for the 50th Venice Biennale. Within the Italian pavilion, curated by Francesco Bonami under the title ‘Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Spectator’, Stingel transformed the space into a realm of suspended reality. Covering the walls in a layer of reflective aluminium-faced Celotex, viewers were invited to interact with their surroundings, writing, etching, scoring and scratching their marks into the pristine surface at their will. As free space ran out, people stuck objects, paper and photographs to the walls, complicating its rich topography in unforeseen ways. Radically challenging the sacrosanct status of the artwork, this installation became the ultimate collaborative project. In the present work, a sense of this rebellion is retained: at once quotidian and distinctly lavish, Untitled potently disrupts the modernist monochrome with its gilded extravagance. As Stingel has quipped, “artists have always been accused of being decorators, so I just went to the extreme and painted the wallpaper” (Rudolf Stingel cited in: Linda Yablonsky, ‘The Carpet That Ate Grand Central’, The New York Times, 27 June 2004, online). Utilising and replicating ordinary materials in his oeuvre, such as wallpaper, Styrofoam and carpet, Stingel simultaneously alludes to the Arte Povera movement, and undercuts its asceticism with the decadence of his iconic silver and gold aesthetic.
With a deadpan insistence on the materiality and abstract presence of surface, the trajectory of Stingel’s painting, from the silver monochromes to the present work, recalls the conceptually-girded instructional paintings of Yoko Ono, or the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt. The formal beauty of Untitled further represents a turning point in the artist’s prolific career, in which Stingel embraced decoration, texture and tactility to create a heightened sensorial environment in the exhibition space, and in so doing destabilised the accepted hierarchy between a work and its context. Engaging with notions of authorship and originality, Untitled encapsulates Stingel’s artistic investigations in a radiantly ornate, meticulously executed, and profoundly mesmeric canvas. In the words of the eminent curator Francesco Bonami: “by disrupting painting’s assumption of material, process, and placement, Stingel not only bursts open the conventions of painting, but creates unique ways of thinking about the medium and its reception” (Francesco Bonami, op. cit., p. 10).
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