Hunting and Gathering

Plundering the Image Bank With Cattelan and Feldmann

Maurizio Cattelan, the Italian post-conceptualist who divides his time between Milan and New York, is one of that crew of artists whose work seems pitched to the increasingly overloaded circuit of international biennials and survey shows. His most famous piece, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), a spectacularly theatrical installation that features a life-size waxwork model of Pope John Paul II pinned to the floor by a meteorite, debuted to predictable controversy at the Royal Academy's "Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art" in 2000 and went on to the Venice Biennale the following year. For another startling piece, Novocento, Cattelan suspended a taxidermied workhorse with freakishly elongated legs from a sling in the ceiling. But prankish, large-scale installation pieces aren't Cattelan's only contribution to the cultural landscape. Since 1995, he's been collaborating on work that, while every bit as sly, is designed for a rather more intimate venue: the artist's magazine.

Cattelan is the senior editor of a new publication, due early next month in time for a May 19 show in the café at P.S.1. Called, for no particular reason, Charley, it's his oddest and funkiest book project so far: the fat, compact, 400-page paperback that resulted when more than 70 curators, critics, and artists (Vanessa Beecroft, Dan Cameron, Glenn Ligon, Kaspar König, and the Voice's Jerry Saltz among them) were each asked to choose 10 emerging artists to watch. Every artist is represented by a single, already published image—typically, a page torn from a magazine or a catalog—that design director Conny Purtill photographed on what looks like a dirty concrete floor. The finished product is ugly, infuriating, and historic, summing up this very moment in the art world with offhand authority and fuck-it-all cool. Whether this compendium will have any relevance five years from now doesn't really matter. Although I imagine its editors—Flash Art's Massimiliano Gioni, Parkett's Ali Subotnick, Dia's Bettina Funcke, and Cattelan—would be pleased to have come up with a blueprint for the immediate future of contemporary art, Charley was never intended to be definitive, only inclusive.

I wouldn't want to argue that point with the artists who didn't make the cut, but the 400 who did include virtually every young up-and-comer on the scene right now, along with a slew of people I've never seen or heard of. Since many of these people, both known and unknown, appear here in atypical or unfamiliar form, Charley has its limits as a research tool (and Purtill's decision to number only every 20th page and group all the artists' names inside the front cover doesn't help). But Charley is at once so unpretentious and so shrewd that its flaws turn out to be part of its perverse appeal. As if defying anyone to draw conclusions from this mess, the editors present much more than we can easily digest and make no attempt to homogenize their raw material. What's it all about? Ambition, confusion, desperation, drive, craft, detritus, displacement, immateriality, fashion, passion: everything and nothing. Like the art world, Charley is a vessel filled to overflowing. You needn't drown here, but you've got to get wet.

Ugly, infuriating, historic: the cover of Charley, John Bock's photo
photo: D.A.P.
Ugly, infuriating, historic: the cover of Charley, John Bock's photo

Charley is only the latest of Cattelan's publications, the most provocative and regular of which is a Paris Review-sized paperback journal called Permanent Food ($11.50 at St. Mark's Bookshop). Published roughly twice a year since 1995 and now in its ninth issue, Permanent Food is a perfect postmodern product. Every page has been appropriated from another magazine and re-presented here free of its original context. Because the choice of photographs, drawings, art, and graphics—made these days by Cattelan and Paola Manfrin—is so savvy and unexpected, even the most jaded magazine addict (you talkin' to me?) is guaranteed a quick fix of frisky images, recontextualized to the max. Although issue eight includes a note, cleverly inserted into a Numéro contents spread, crediting Cattelan and Manfrin, most issues appear anonymously. According to that same note, "Permanent Food is a non-profit magazine with a selection of pages taken from magazines all over the world. Permanent Food is a second generation magazine with a free copyright."

"We were making a virtue out of necessity," Cattelan explains via e-mail. "Basically, we wanted a magazine. And we wanted it to be as real and as functional as any other magazine." Permanent's first issues were compiled much as Charley was—from pages torn out and sent in by artists and designers. "Permanent was a magazine with no style or personality," Cattelan writes, "simply because any style was available, any personality interchangeable. So it wasn't mine and it wasn't yours." Even if the selection is much more his these days, the magazine still represents a bracingly idiosyncratic, determinedly democratic overview of life on the printed page.

The scrapbook sensibility that informs both Charley and Permanent Food is postmod but has roots in Pop (notably Ruscha and Warhol) and precedents in the tossed-off brilliance of Richard Prince's Adult Comedy Action Drama and Gerhard Richter's commodious Atlas. It can be traced further back to the New Objectivity of Albert Renger-Patszch, whose 1928 book, The World Is Beautiful, set the standard for the deadpan photographic inventory and influenced the influential Bernd and Hilla Becher. The most prolific contemporary practitioner of this sort of visual sampling and image hoarding is Hans-Peter Feldmann, one of the first artists asked to contribute material to Permanent Food, and clearly an inspiration for Cattelan. Asked about Feldmann, Cattelan acknowledges his debt to the German artist's many books, saying, "After all, we are all dwarves on the shoulders of giants." Just how giant Feldmann is may not be immediately apparent to most New York gallerygoers, who have seen only patchy bits of his oeuvre, so his current retrospective at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris (which continues through May 13) is something of a revelation.

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