SEE: When in Rome

The Exhibition When in Rome Brings to Town Some of the Best Artists the Eternal City Has to Offer

Set within a backdrop recalling a decadent 1970s Roman nightclub, replete with mirrored walls and wine-red carpet, the group exhibition When in Rome (April 20-May 21, 2011) made its debut at the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles this Wednesday, April 20. Presented by the DEPART Foundation, an arts organization dedicated to the development and support of innovative contemporary artists, with support from the Provincia di Roma, the exhibition showcased the work of two dozen Italian artists working in and around Rome, ranging not only in medium but in generation as well.

Curator Luca Lo Pinto, who is on the advisory board of DEPART as well as the editor of Nero magazine, didn’t want to create a show that focused exclusively on “young artists.” Instead, Lo Pinto began at square one: “I always want to start from the bottom, with the artworks.” Knowing what kind of work he wanted to include—a cross-section of artists working in Rome today, contextualized by the inclusion of older artists who were very influential on the current crop though not necessarily well known outside of Italy—dictated his selection process. Attempting to move away from the idea of presenting highlights from the current ‘art scene’ in Rome and eschew the limiting moniker of ‘hot young artists,’ When in Rome elicits a contemplative look at the interrelationships of past and present, featuring work by Alighiero Boetti, Emilio Prini, Gino De Dominicus, Caterina Nelli, Corrado Sassi, among others.

As mentioned, the main exhibition area was constructed to resemble (loosely) a 1970s Roman nightclub, a stage through which to present and experience the amalgam of painting, installation, conceptual art, performance, pop culture, cinema and music that currently enlivens the creative spectrum of Rome. Placed alongside work from preceding generations, the cultural frame of reference is expanded and enhanced. But for Lo Pinto, who himself lives and works in Rome, the type of visual stage wasn’t important—there just needed to be a theoretical one, a strategy relating back to L.A.’s Hollywood history. This way, one experiences the environment first, before the art. “The viewer is strongly attacked visually when they walk into the space,” says Lo Pinto. “They’re hit with the overall image then they zoom in to the specific works.”

The juxtaposition of younger artists with artists from preceding generations is intended to create a second layer of interpretative meaning. Some highlights include photographs from the deserts of Morocco and Tunisia taken by Rä di Martino, who shot the remains of movie sets like those from Star Wars that were left like plastic ruins rotting in the sun (the artist will also debut a site-specific billboard in collaboration with LAXART as part of the exhibition); Elisabetta Benassi’s sound sculpture, which features the recording of a bird that mimics the sounds of a nearby mechanic shop; another sound-based work of a man laughing, which, played on repeat, is projected into the IIC’s courtyard, a reflexive gesture that causes the viewer/listener to question what exactly is being laughed at; Luigi Ontani’s Cristoforo Colombo photograph which documents the artist’s reenactment of the explorer’s voyage to America, carrying a published version of Columbus’s diary in his pocket from the door of Columbus’s home in Rome, on the airplane and to the corner of Columbus Circle and Central Park West in New York, all while dressed in 15th-Century garb; and the entryway of the IIC covered in hundreds of artworks available for visitors to remove and take with them, the one stipulation being that they are not valid works of art until they are burned.

Lo Pinto also incorporated several site-specific works ranging from plaster-casts of local Angeleno street corners to Luigi Ontani’s performance, AmenHammerAmeno, at the Hammer Museum at 5pm Wednesday night (April 20). Ontani’s performance, created specifically for this exhibition, begins with the artist leading a procession of thirteen multi-ethnic performers—cast from the student bodies of local universities like UCLA and CalArts, all clad in brightly colored graduation gowns (in response to the Hammer being administered by UCLA) and all hidden behind fantastical Balinese masks designed by Ontani (each takes six months to one year to complete by craftsmen in Bali)—from the Hammer Museum to the Italian Cultural Institute, which is around the corner in Westwood, physically uniting the two spaces for the exhibition. The procession/parade, which will be accompanied by three musicians, will return to the courtyard of the Hammer and end in a tableau vivant of the performers standing on a “stage” made from multi-colored flower petals. The score, inspired by the music of Benjamin Britten, was written by Matteo Nasini, another of the artists in the exhibition.

A film-screening series has also been curated and organized by Lo Pinto to further contextualize the exhibition’s works by presenting films and documentaries “that don’t deal with the imaginary of Rome,” but instead represent a tougher, dirtier side of the Eternal City. Lo Pinto intentionally selected films that shied away from Rome’s stereotypically carefree side in order to elucidate his own, multifaceted idea of the city while also providing a context for the art.

But why L.A.? Lo Pinto cites the idea of extended time as a common thread between the two cities. But what really resonates for Lo Pinto is that “Rome is like L.A. with ruins.”

by Alexis Johnson

Also see Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer on Valentino.