Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
January 12 – May 15, 2011
Originally published in ArtUS 31
Roberto Cuoghi’s first solo show at a U.S. museum, in the Hammer’s vault gallery, consists of “Pazuzu,” a black marble sculpture inspired by a demon-god from pre-Christian Assyria, circled on three sides by twenty-odd mixed-media portraits (all untitled, all works 2010) of Cuoghi’s imagined alternative selves. Among others, the cast includes a handful of glaring goateed thugs, various iterations of the portly bearded man featured in the logo for Dannemann brand cigars, a jaded-looking intellectual whose speech bubble floats the title of a Joseph Beuys installation, “Zeige Deine Wunde,” an obese cartoon Hulk, a masterfully drawn chiaroscuro face resembling John the Baptist as envisioned by Caravaggio, and a ghoulish, mouthless visage hovering above sets of teeth painted in lifelike enamel. All share a family resemblance: similar noses, similar foreheads, similar dark eyes and brows. While some are purely drawings—Cuoghi inked one figure on a brown bag and tacked it directly to the wall—the materials list for others reads like a mad scientist’s shopping list: hydrochloric acid, shell dust, compressed air, shellac, sheepskin parchment, Flexoid, soap. Cuoghi’s methods of construction in these layered works are mysterious, and their effects are wonderful. A portrait overlaid with iridescent powder (the shell dust?) reveals a holographic skull when viewed at an oblique angle, while two oval portraits of the Dannemann cigar man are seamlessly inserted into metal surrounds, giving the impression of giant cigar box lids jutting from the wall. Given his interest in the outer bounds of identity, it makes sense that Cuoghi lavishes attention on framing, sinking some portraits into shadowy box frames, surrounding others in silken white hoops reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s beloved self-lubricating plastic, setting others in plain wood, and bestowing antiquey gold frames on still others, such as a small picture of a vulnerable-looking man turning his head, on which Cuoghi has painted each separate hair. The glass protecting the latter is dusted with fine particles, as if the artist discovered the portrait in a forgotten attic.
Distending, or transcending, whatever sphere contains the self, as well as perhaps the larger one that defines mortal humanity, is clearly one of Cuoghi’s obsessions. You can hardly write about him without mentioning his first foray into unorthodox self-portraiture, the project in which, beginning in 1997, in his mid-twenties, he morphed himself into a man resembling his sixty-something father, gaining nearly 100 pounds, dying his beard and hair grey, wearing an older man’s clothes, adopting an older man’s mannerisms, and living as this aged version of himself for seven years, only reclaiming his more natural appearance, with some struggle, in 2005. In a slightly later project, he wore a pair of eyeglasses fitted with prisms, so that his view of the world was flipped upside down; the disorienting and sick-making five-day exercise produced a suite of poems, grotesque self-portraits, and a video (“Il Coccodeista,” 1997). Jumping through time from youth to old age, inhabiting another’s body, inverting reality, knowing the selves you could be in a different life—if Cuoghi’s ambitions felt less grand, one could read his enactments of these god-like feats as parodying the ancient conception of artist as a kind of shaman, one whose gifts inched him closer to another circle of reality. But his work, with its streak of megalomania, seems, if not literally to embrace the idea, at least to fantasize about it. His sculpture of Pazuzu, a demon cobbled from a dog’s torso, scorpion’s tail, snake-like phallus, and double bird’s wings, among other animal odds and ends, not only aligns with his omnivorous approach to materials, but pointedly represents a time when a statue of a demon-god wasn’t just an object, but a dwelling place for the deity, possessed of supernatural power.
Cuoghi has painted himself as uneasy with today’s version of art and artists. “I’ve never been totally involved in contemporary art and I was irritated by the boring habits of young artists,” he told Art in America in an interview published on the eve of the Hammer show. Transforming himself into his father, though he was in art school at the time, was never intended as an artwork, he says, but only as an escape hatch from his all-too-successful line of work as a forger of medical prescriptions. It makes for a stark contrast, then, that the Cuoghi show is installed directly across from the Hammer’s invitational exhibition “All of This and Nothing,” with its ethereal chords of spare beauty, ephemerality, and clean academic thought. Moving from the deep charcoal grey walls and sheer gathered power of his gallery, capped off by an actual demon statue, to the cloud-like floor sculpture of white plaster powder that occupies the large, white, facing room feels a bit like transitioning from Inferno to Purgatory and Paradise, which, while beautiful in their way, can’t help lacking the Inferno’s fiendish intricacy and force.
At half the size of the towering 2008 steel-and-fiberglass statue of Pazuzu that Cuoghi has shown at Turin’s Castello di Rivoli, London’s ICA, and The New Museum, the black Carrera marble version included in the Hammer show is made of Italian material. Where the larger work is a mathematical enlargement of a roughly 3,000-year-old Assyro-Babylonian talisman housed at the Louvre, the form of the smaller has been altered from the original. The new demon is doubled, with twin bodies fused at the spine, forming the shape of an X: an unpredictable being who faces both past and future, life and death, other and self, toward the world and away from it. Though it’s not explicitly claimed as one, we might see this modified Pazuzu as another self-portrait, or at least as a symbol of Cuoghi’s idea of an artist.