"Eternal Metaphors: New Art From Italy," the touring exhibition now visiting the Phillips Collection, is an oddly cleaved show. Its spirit is conflicted. The nine artists represented, Janus-faced the lot of them, seem to look two ways at once, backward toward antiquity and sideways toward the chic New Yorky styles of the '80s. Their affections are divided too. They both adore -- and scorn -- the traditions of their land.
They're like angry archaeologists. They hack at what they find. Their works are filled with references -- to obelisks, old altars, Last Suppers, Crucifixions, Roman carvings, prehistoric goddesses -- but their references feel broken. They seem to do their digging with an almost punkish bitterness. Shards of the Italian past are strewed about their show.
The Italy of memory -- the Italy of Raphael and starched white linen napkins, of Gucci and Armani (Gucci, by the way, contributed $10,000 to the Phillips exhibition) -- calls to mind a fineness, a high ambitious elegance, seldom here encountered. These artists seem to be as fond of modern urban trash -- squeezed-out paint tubes, cracking paint -- as they are of antique treasures. A messiness, a junkiness, is sensed throughout their show.
The red earth of southern Italy is the chief material used by Fiorella Rizzo. It coats her awkward sculptures. The piece that she calls "Day of Birth" presents a set of rough, terra-cotta-colored heads -- with hatchets in their skulls. Were they not so ill-made, these sculptures might evoke recently unearthed Roman portrait busts. But what about those axes? They allude, writes Susan Sollins, who organized the show, "to the birth and death of civilization, to knowledge gained and lost, to Zeus from whose split head came Athena, and to martyred Christians, killed by axes." They hint at Freddy Krueger too.
The catalogue is dense with arcane references to time travel and alchemy, Jung, Madame Blavatsky and "neolithic Mediterranean culture." But these works can't bear such weight. Their fabrication is so coarse that delicate allusions to Caravaggio and Ovid are somehow scraped away.
Coarseness is a problem with too many of these objects. Sollins (she's the executive director of Independent Curators Inc.) wants us to accept that the found-object sheets of plywood, some oval, some rectangular, that have been stuck together by Gianni Dessi are formally "reminiscent of Bernini, Borromini, and baroque Rome." Most viewers will, however, trip on that comparison. Gian Lorenzo Bernini made perfect gilded monuments. Gianni Dessi doesn't, not by a long shot. His scavengings and messiness owe much more to Robert Rauschenberg than they do to papal Rome. When Sollins writes that Dessi's white "signifies divine light, holiness, purity, and the light of Christ," the viewer trips again. Dessi's whites are marred by grayish smears and scratches. They are not pure at all.
Remo Salvadori's perspectival hemispheres are similarly impure. The artist calls them cups. He'd like them to suggest celestial orbs and grails and various subtle mysteries. "All is within sight, all is invisible," he writes. "The heroic accosting of the cups." His thoughts may soar, his objects don't. His thick paint cracks, his canvas peels, his handiwork is crummy.
Somewhere at the core of Italy's art tradition is a deep respect for flawless skill. But these contemporary Italians have small interest in old mastery. Sculptor Rizzo, for example, knows nothing of anatomy. Salvadori hasn't cared enough to come up with a glue that sticks. And few painters here have bothered to learn how to draw.
Some vestiges of life drawing, of traditional instruction, linger in the paintings -- that crouching man, that crouching frog -- of Nino Longobardi. But what skill he once acquired has been intentionally discarded. Looking at his pictures, one gets the eerie feeling that he'd rather draw as badly as David Salle than as well as Michelangelo. He's working on it. He drew that frog, quite nicely, in 1983. His "Portrait of a Poet" of 1988 isn't drawn, it's merely scribbled.
The awkward Holy Family of Luigi Ontani suggests a giant note pad doodle, and a sacrilegious one at that. Ontani's rudely gesturing Christ child has a third eye in his forehead and what seems to be a tail. The artist's "Saint Sebastian of the Grain" has both an erect penis and a woman's breast. "These paintings," writes Sollins, "are mythic, religious icons with a contemporary edge -- as they speak strongly of metamorphosis, role-playing, and the homoerotic." The mild abstract works on view -- the modest field paintings of Ettore Spalletti, and Alfredo Pirri's tondos -- aren't particularly distinguished, but they look like Leonardos beside Ontani's useless art.
Two artists here have real force. One is Bruno Ceccobelli, whose silvery, circular altarpiece lingers in the memory. His "The Lady of the Waters" is a prehistoric goddess standing on a crescent fish. She's been painted, with engaging wit, on the bottom of a little fiberglass dinghy.
The other memorable painter is Mimmo Paladino. He, too, tends to sort of scrawl, but his vast Last Supper (that's not what he calls it, but that's what it suggests) is a work of convincing vigor. The Lamb of God, the Cross, the Grail and the Scourge, and scores of other symbols, are strewed on his vast table top. His 13-foot-wide canvas does not mock the past. Nor does it mock his faith. It's the best painting in this show.
Italy for centuries ruled the realm of painting. Those days are long gone. The artists represented use a lot of gold and silver as if evoking treasure, but still their work feels tawdry. They yearn to come to grips with the layered grandeurs of the Italian past, but that great tradition squashes them. There must be better artists working now in Italy. If not, have pity for that land.
"Eternal Metaphors: New Art From Italy" has already visited Calgary, Alberta; Long Beach, Calif.; Miami Beach; and Boise, Idaho. It will travel to Grand Rapids, Mich.; Atlanta; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Halifax, Nova Scotia, after closing at the Phillips -- where nowadays they're asking $5 for admission -- on Jan. 6.