art provocateur Maurizio Cattelan is back

The artist Maurizio Cattelan will be the first to say that he does not specialize in craft. He is not a painter or sculptor per se. His specialty is imaginative provocation, the art of the conceptual joke. A life-size, hyper-realistic sculpture of Pope John Paul II, felled by a meteor in La Nona Ora, for example, his eyes closed in eternal sleep. A child model of Hitler knelt in prayer, called Him, or a privately commissioned sculpture of a woman, Betsy, huddled in a large refrigerator.

Related: Don’t joke about the $120,000 banana, it’s a joke | Jonathan Jones

The 63-year-old Italian has made mainstream headlines in recent years with pieces that are somewhat literal, denouncing wealth, power, cultural humiliation and the hot air of the art world, among other things. In 2016, he installed a functional solid gold toilet at the Guggenheim and called it America. (The work was later stolen from Blenheim Palace and believed to have been melted down.) Even more infamously, he taped a banana to the wall at Art Basel in Miami and called it art. That piece, titled Comedian, sold for $120,000 (and has been gobbled up by viewers and subsequently replaced several times) – an easily mocked symbol of the art market’s nonsense, a work of dubious genius, or a triumphant, Duchampian execution of the art of the modern artist. tragicomic existence, depending on who you ask.

Who’s in for the joke? For years, Cattelan’s status as a semi-retired joker and disdain for the art market, not commercial galleries. But Cattelan, who splits time between New York and Milan, has returned to Chelsea with Sunday, his first solo gallery show in more than two decades and his first with the Gagosian. “I call Gagosian the dark side of the market,” Cattelan said recently, laughing over Zoom, before sticking the landing: “I hesitated for a long, long time, but it was a good partnership.”

The show, which runs until June 15, has a more self-consciously serious slant than the banana bit – more in line with his golden toilet America (2016), a commentary on ‘wealth, nationalism and violence’ that is open to visitors, and that led to experiments with bullet-ridden images of national flags. Sunday (2024), one of the exhibition’s two pieces, adorns a wall of the cavernous gallery with individual 24-carat plated steel panels, pockmarked by gunfire from more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition (and retailing for $375,000 each, according to Artnet). The panels, which evoke both gilded moon craters and war zones, continue the artist’s long-standing fascination with gold. “I call it a fatal attraction, because it’s true,” Cattelan said of the material, which immediately hits home and provides meaning. ‘The gold calls you in, and that’s not possible [to resist] – a reflection of gold is magnetic. Gross, but magnetic.”

And beautifully, at odds with the geography of violence coming from a range of automatic and semi-automatic weapons – dents, craters, marks, tears, clean shots that look like hole punches. “I like doing collisions,” Cattelan said. “It has to be attractive and disturbing at the same time.” He had long dreamed of a performance art piece in which audiences witnessed guns being fired at them through bulletproof glass. Since that’s not really gallery or liability material, the artist decided to split “the experience and the result.” The 64 panels, each just over four feet by four feet and 1/8 inch thick, were shot – decorated, you might say – at a “state of the art” shooting range outside New York by licensed professionals in a handful of shooting sessions , overseen by Gagosian’s senior director and fellow artist, Andy Avini.

“Maurizio knows what he wants. He has a vision and he sticks to it,” said Avini. Once Avini received the concept, he embarked on a months-long journey overcoming logistical and legal hurdles. “Adjustments had to be made, laws had to be obeyed. He gave me the basics, and I had to make a few calls,’ including with Hollywood gun makers. Despite America’s lax gun laws, you can’t just shoot guns at steel panels in New York.

And yet the shots were fired, forging an inherently violent tool of visual art and drawing attention to gun regulation in the US. “The work was produced in the United States,” and not in Europe, “because it’s easy,” Cattelan said, provoking a mix of fear and perverse awe. (And also a legal letter from British artist Anthony James accusing Cattelan of plagiarism for his Bullet Painting; both the artist and Avini reject the accusation as unfounded. “I’m not going to comment on the subject, except to say that this assertion not issue,” Cattelan said.)

Sunday is offset by November (2024), a Carrara marble sculpture of a man, modeled after his late friend and business partner Lucio Zotti, who died last September, lying on a bench, with genitals casually exposed, as he urinated on the floor . Cattelan calls the work a ‘fountain’, invoking the long legacy of classical nude water works in Rome and in particular Mannekan Pis (1619), a sculpture of a young boy urinating. However, the work has no drainage; The November water fountain is currently on the floor.

Cattelan calls the work a “monument of marginality”: the things you do not see or cannot see, made visible and beautiful. The official reading is a little sharper; The press release notes that Sunday “precious metal is used to deconstruct the country’s relationship with gun accessibility (a condition against which privilege provides no defense)” and quotes exhibition curator Francesco Bonami: “If you are free to own an assault rifle to buy in a department store, what’s wrong with pissing in public?”

Cattelan is more cautious in conversations. “In the press release we talk about gun control, but it’s more about violence in general, and violence is something that belongs to everyone,” he said. “It can be violence produced by any means. It could even be psychological.”

“I’m not American, so what can I say about another culture?” he added. “I look and compare… but it belongs to every country. Every culture has creeds, beliefs and beliefs that are different, and these need to be understood and then addressed.”

During a recent visit to the Gagosian, viewers walked along the varnished, scarred wall and quietly observed November; the atmosphere of curiosity seemed to prevail over provocation. But who’s to say which punchline will hit over time? And whether that’s a joke, or a punch, or neither, or both. “I think for [Cattelan]“The work is not necessarily finished once it hangs on the wall,” said Avini. “It always goes on, and it’s people’s reactions that stop it.”

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