Here we are with the third part that tells you about the most ironic contemporary art and artists, the ones who brought us a smile but also brought us to reflect on serious and topical issues.
Let’s see what they are!
As we have seen, over time many artists have reflected on the right to claim the original idea of a work of art and have wondered about the aura surrounding the artist’s myth.
Gavin Turk (England 1967) – exponent of the YBA – also deals with this theme by reflecting on the concept of authenticity and authorship of artistic creation and in many of his works takes up iconic works of great artists of the past by exploring the symbolic power of works of art and the almost sacred aura that surrounds them.
Having obtained fast publicity in 1991 when – on the occasion of the final thesis at the Royal College of Art – he proposes “Cave”, an installation in which in a completely white space a simple blue plate commemorates his presence: “Gavin Turk, Sculptor, worked here, 1989-1991”.
The ironic inspiration comes from the commemorative plaques placed on the walls of the city palaces and it is thanks to this funny idea that Turk is noticed by Charles Saatchi and invited to exhibit with the Young British Artists, thus becoming part of the group of famous British artists emerging in the late 1980s.
Have you ever heard “I could do this too?”, Here: he did it!
His personal research leads him to redo in a playful key such works as – for example – Jackson Pollock’s action painting, Andy Warhol’s serigraphs, Alighiero and Boetti’s embroideries, Piero Manzoni, Salvador Dalì, Enrico Castellani, as well as “La Fine Di Dio” by Lucio Fontana.
Sarcasm is not just conceptual or self-referential, but it also ironizes on the dynamics of the contemporary art market that imposes some “must haves”, names that cannot be renounced in any self-respecting collection.
“Is it the work of art that makes the artist or is it the artist who makes the work of art famous?”
Turk enjoys the concept of the possibility of reproducing by reinterpreting the idea behind artistic creation.
In these reinterpretations the English artist often leaves a sort of personal recognition that can be his name embroidered in the tapestries, he himself as a subject in screen-prints or his initials in spatial concepts.
From the interpretation of these works we can deduce that Gavin Turk not only has the full mastery of the most diverse artistic techniques such as sculpture, painting, and photography, but also how evident is his ability of assimilation and identification with the most different artists.
Gavin Turk, “Land and Sky”, 2012
Embroidery on canvas
Gavin Turk, “Refuse”, 2012
Micheal Elmgreen (Denmark 1961) and Ingar Dragset (Norway 1969), Elmgreen and Dragset – an artistic partnership since 1995, are also involved in ironic installations; their works are somewhere between art and architecture and play on the alienating effect of the re-contextualization of everyday objects, and their reflections that may arise from new and unsettling combinations.
Their “Powerless Structures” are installations that overturn the rules of space and physics with the clear ironic and polemical intent to create paradoxical contexts; often their public sculpture interventions re-contextualize also the place where the work is placed, as in the case of “Short Cut” (2003 – in collaboration with Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and Massimo de Carlo), an installation with a decidedly alienating effect that sees the Fiat Uno with a trailer caravan as the protagonist. Mass tourism and Italian stereotypes are served: the plaque of Naples, the map of Rimini and the subcompact have the flavour of the 80s national-popular holidays.
A scandal? Maybe. But the ladies of the Milan “parlour” will surely have forgiven them since in 2005 they created a Prada boutique complete with accessories – “Prada Marfa” – in the middle of the Chihuahua desert, to quench the thirst for shopping.
The humour of Elmgreen and Dragset has led them to pay homage to the birth anniversary of Vincent Van Gogh (March 30, 1853) with a 4-ton ear-shaped pool, “Van Gogh’s Ear”, installation placed in 2016 in half air at the entrance to the Rockefeller Centre in New York.
Elmgreen and Drugset, “Short Cut”, 2003
Elmgreen and Drugset, “Van Gogh’s Ear”, 2016
Another artistic collaboration that over the last 20 years has developed a corpus of experimental and very varied works is formed by Jennifer Allora (Puerto Rico 1974) and Guillermo Calzadilla (Cuba 1971), Allora & Calzadilla – who in their works range between different media such as sculpture, photography, installation, video and performance.
The light-hearted and cheerful tone should not deceive, because the duo is strongly committed to the historical and political front, tackling socio-cultural issues that reflect and investigate the fractures within today’s society.
Since 1995, the year in which their association was born, they have concentrated on exploring the social and political aspects of contemporary living. Playing on the contradictions of western society, their sculptures, performances and installations create unsettling, recognizable but at the same time alienating situations and images.
The ironic and polemical intent inherent in their works has led them to create apparently light and amusing sculptures such as “Hope Hippo” (2005), a life-size hippopotamus that wants to be a critical representation and a mockery of military equestrian monuments.
In 2011 they represented America on the occasion of the 54th Venice Biennale, staging a reflection on the obsessions of the world superpower, between contradictions and false myths.
It welcomed the public of the “Track and Field” pavilion, an overturned tank transformed into a treadmill where a real athlete was training at regular intervals, amidst a strident sound of tracks and scrap metal, a disturbing mix of sporting records and wars – not always – won .
The sarcasm of Allora & Calzadilla peeps out not only in large installations but also in smaller works, such as “Bandage” (2011), a faithful reproduction in metal of a banal plaster.
Allora & Calzadilla, “Hope Hippo”, 2005
Allora & Calzadilla, “Track and Field”, 2011
Continuing with the artistic collaborations, in Italy it is Bertozzi and Casoni who bring irony to everyday life by playing with the staging of the – bad – habits of today’s society between consumerism, waste and decadence.
Using only ceramics, working with an exceptional mastery, Giampaolo Bertozzi (Borgo Tossignano 1957) and Stefano Dal Monte Casoni (Lugo 1961) achieve impressive results showing the potential of a medium sometimes considered – wrongly – a second category.
The collaboration started in 1980 becomes more conceptual since the 1990s, and then opens up to technical experiments towards an increasingly objective and realistic rendering of the chosen objects.
In their works the hyper-realism that deceives the sense of sight and the technical-artisan virtuosity of their art take shape in conceptual works and in very colourful, ironic and often unsettling combinations.
In addition to the theme of memento mori and vanitas, Bertozzi and Casoni are also dedicated to the objective representation of the present; everything that is ephemeral and perishable becomes an icon and a work of art, a metaphor for the human condition: packages of detergent and food, and dirty dishes are a criticism of the consumerism of contemporary living while the cabinets for medicines, symbols of help but also of pain and sickness are overflowing with cigarettes, skulls and moldy objects.
The moments of daily life are crystallized forever in an “epic of trash” – as they themselves called it – that immortalises the obsessive accumulation of today’s consumer society towards disposable, futile and superfluous products.
Bertozzi e Casoni, “Avanzi”, 2001
Bertozzi e Casoni, “Brillo Box”, 2008
But one of the greatest representatives of hyperrealism in sculpture was Duane Hanson (USA 1925 – 1996), an artist who most of all knew how to portray all the defects and characteristics – sometimes funny – of American culture down to the smallest detail.
His “realism of anonymity”, as it has been defined, amuses and amazes for the meticulousness and precision of the details that go to create real sculptural illusions.
The American artist made his debut by addressing social issues often overlooked by the art of those years, investigating the conditions of the marginalized, such as the homeless and ethnic minorities, a commitment demonstrated by denunciations such as “Trash” (1967) or “Race Riot” (1968), a sculptural group that describes the brutality and abuses of the police towards the minority of colour.
It was not until the early 1970s that Hanson began to focus on the American middle class, recreating life-size people down to the smallest details that, thanks to their hyper-realistic rendering, aroused surprise and fun.
Painters, tourists, old people, waitresses: the real protagonist of Hanson’s works is crowd, banal but unsettling for the attention to detail – from clothes to moles on the skin – disturbing for the resemblance with real people we might meet on the street as soon as we turn the angle.
Impossible not to smile in front of the middle-aged housewife in a tight-fitting outfit accompanied by the poodle who sleeps at her feet, or in front of the couple of American tourists with sunglasses, slippers, camera and nose in the air.
Just this year his 1989 installation “Lunchbreak” was revived in the Unlimited section at Art Basel, Basel. The construction workers perfectly reflect a real moment and seem to rest after installing some stands at the fair.
Duane Hanson, “Tourist II”, 1988
Duane Hanson, “Lunchbreak”, 1989
Another master of hyper-realism, Ron Mueck (Melbourne 1958) also creates sculptures with meticulous attention to detail that represent faithfully reproduced human beings with altered dimensions.
Often giants, his characters portray human feelings and fragility, amplified to the point of causing the viewer a sense of anxiety.
Mueck, who previously worked for film and television, made his debut in the art world in 1997 with “Dead Dad”, a work created following the death of his father: impossible to remain indifferent to the faithful reproduction in scale of the little bloodless body.
The definitive consecration took place in 2001 on the occasion of the 49th Venice Biennale, when in the spaces of the Arsenale he exhibited “Boy” (1999), a child 5 meters tall scared and huddled on the floor.
In his works, mystery, fear and wonder are tied together and those who observe them have the feeling of being catapulted into a fairy-tale world among skulls, giant orcs, but with vaguely offended air, and dormant, a bit sullen faces. It almost seems to hear them breathing, as it seems to be able to hear the gossip whispered by the two elderly women in the work “Two Women” 2005, hard in the eye and critical in the attitude.
Ron Mueck, “Boy”, 1999
Ron Mueck, “Untitled (Big Man)”, 2000
Pigmented polyester resin on glass fibre
Continuing on the theme of sculpture, one cannot fail to mention the Italian artist Paola Pivi (Milan 1971), who has always been committed to environmental problems and uses different artistic mediums and techniques ranging from sculpture to installation, from photography to performance and often include live animals.
The latter, out of their natural context, appear as a dreamlike vision, provoking an alienating effect on the observer, disoriented by a real image but imbued with fantastic elements.
Suspended images created by the artist play on nonsense, such as the donkey in a boat in the middle of the sea or the leopard walking among cups of cappuccino.
You certainly know it for its famous bears with coloured feathers, works that have a very pronounced playful component, phosphorescent and playful animals that lightly and playfully remind us of the serious problem of climate change that is forcing many species to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
Ironically, Pivi’s fluorescent bears run for cover, responding to the danger of extinction with a practical change of clothes: they replace the thick fur with a light plumage, much more suited to high temperatures.
The references to soft toys make Paola Pivi’s works ironic and similar to children’s games, leaving only a distant echo of the dramatic dimension of stuffed animals.
Paola Pivi, “Untitled”, 2003
Photographic print on DIBOND sheet
Paola Pivi, “Ma’am”, 2016
The playful dimension is also an integral part of the work of Takashi Murakami (Tokyo 1962), a Japanese artist who outlined and in fact founded the post-modern artistic movement Superflat, characterized by bright colours and figures without perspective derived from graphic art.
Strongly influenced by manga, science fiction, but also by traditional Japanese painting, Murakami creates funny and colourful characters, smiling mushrooms and sharp-toothed monsters that have become icons and symbols of complex and delicate themes, which hide a complaint against the apparent carelessness behind the apparent marginalization of the otaku subculture.
His collaboration with Marc Jacobs for the fashion house Louis Vuitton is famous, for which since 2002 he has reinvented some of the most iconic bags of the French fashion house, bringing a breath of light-heartedness to the world of luxury fashion among cherries, sweet eyes and colourful flowers.
Since 2011, following the terrible Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the artist has also begun to explore the impact that natural disasters have on civilization and culture.
Terror and joy, recurrent aspects in oriental culture, are proposed by Murakami in luminous smiling flowers in contrast to heaps of skulls – vivacity of a precious and fragile life opposed to the cruelty of the passing time.
Takashi Murakami re-reads in pop key the impact of Western culture on Japanese civilization and his approach to art overcomes the boundaries between fantasy, fashion, technology and history, demonstrating that all of them are closely linked.
Takashi Murakami, “Flowers in Heaven”, 2010
Takashi Murakami, “Skulls MCBST”, 2011
In a difficult historical period like the one we are experiencing, taking life – and contemporary art – with a touch of irony helps to play down and give that touch of lightness that never hurts …
P.S. There are still many interesting artists I could talk to you about, if you would like to learn more, do not hesitate to contact me.
“The shades of the art rainbow are endless: choose your favorite!”