"Floating Free:  Peter Halley and Alessandro Mendini's Buoyant Phantasmagoria"
by Richard Speer
© 2013 by Richard Speer, All Rights Reserved
for the catalogue Peter Halley/Alessandro Mendini
Library of Congress Control Number:  2013940996, ISBN:  9780615825892


Catalogue published Summer 2013
by Mary Boone Gallery, 745 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10151
for the exhibition Peter Halley/Alessandro Mendini, May 2-June 29, 2013


"Floating Free:
Peter Halley and Alessandro Mendini's Buoyant Phantasmagoria"

by Richard Speer

            With their hyperkinetic, hyperchromatic installation, Peter Halley and Alessandro Mendini have transformed Mary Boone’s uptown gallery into a phantasmagoria of pastels, primaries, acid greens, and jewel tones that race across the walls in a vaguely sinister orgy of illusionism.  As it dazzles the eye, the exhibition distills, advances, and subverts the oeuvres of both artists.  For Mendini, known for revering the sui generis artistic hand, it is an experiment in modularity; for Halley, it is an outright defiance of gravity as his iconic cells and prisons lift off terra firma to float free, buoyed on the helium of high satire.  This is the men’s third installation together, following an initial project in 2005 at the Art Hotel Byblos (Verona) and a joint exhibition in 2008 at Galleria Massimo Minini (Brescia).  The Italian architect/designer and the American artist are both polymaths who thrive on collaboration and have used the written word to clarify their aesthetics, dually as writers and as editors, Mendini of Casabella, Modo, and Domus; Halley of Index Magazine.  Throughout their careers, both have negotiated the dialectic between minimalism and maximalism, Mendini by uniting simple shapes with opulent materials and complex ideas, as he did in the gleaming, polished-steel Tower of Paradise (1989) in Hiroshima; and Halley through counterbalancing a reductive compositional vocabulary with go-for-broke chromatic surfeit.

            For the current exhibition, Mendini created three unique compositions using hard-edged forms in dynamic interaction, then deployed these compositions as modular strips or patterns to be repeated, rightside-up and upside-down, wrapping around the gallery’s walls and central column.  The modules were digitally printed onto treated sheets of woven cloth, then painstakingly installed.  A side gallery presents this digital mural on its own as a purist experience, enveloping viewers in Mendini’s restless abstract tableau.  In the main exhibition space, nine of Halley’s paintings hang atop the mural in a rapturous visual and art-historical dialogue.  Mendini, who has collaborated with other artists such as Mimmo Paladino, Maurizio Cattelan, and Sol LeWitt, found the challenge of this installation analogous to a duet à quatre mains (for four hands), in which two pianists, seated at the same instrument, intuitively respond to one another’s rhythms and techniques.  “My intention,” he relates, “was to create a full spatial immersion for the spectator in the colors and shapes belonging to Peter and me.”  Inspiration came from the paintings of Kazimir Malevich, the syntax of Cubism, German Expressionist director Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Italian futurism à la Fortunato Depero.  He also saw the project as an inherently theatrical opportunity and was guided by the spirit of mitteleuropäische avant-gardes, in particular the quirkily geometric costumes of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett (1922).  “This,” Mendini says of his mural, “is a theatrical stage on which the characters are Peter’s paintings.”  It is an uncommonly lively setting.  The modules sometimes conjoin in permutations that suggest the illusion of isometric perspective, thereby expanding and transmogrifying the patrician, Richard Gluckman-designed gallery into a jittery, trompe-l’oeil funhouse.

            This off-kilter, destabilized atmosphere continues within Halley’s paintings.  While the works retain the basic Cartesian structure the artist has deployed with monomaniacal invention and endurance since 1980, they also incorporate radical iconographic departures.  First of all, Halley’s conduits, which connect his cell and prison motifs to one another and the outside world, have begun to fulfill a different kind of function:  They are elevating the cells and prisons.  In the painting Twisted, the artist has made a simple but significant change to a composition similar to his 1991 piece, Todd.  Rather than resting on the ground as it does in the earlier painting, the cell is now airborne, two conduits its only connection to the world below.  Are those conduits holding the cell down, as a string holds a balloon, or are they propping the cell up, as stilts anchor cliffside homes into the earth?  The answer is left to the viewer’s perception.  In Rogue and Immortalized, the elevation is even more pronounced, as conduits appear to hoist their prisons aloft like conquering heroes—or like pallbearers shouldering a casket.

        Wherefore this newfound altitude?  It depends on whether one views Halley’s compositions architectonically or anthropomorphically.  The artist’s conception of his paintings as diagrams of contemporary life in the vertical metropolis is widely known; in this conception, cells and prisons allude to apartments, with conduits the utility and communication lines flowing in and out.  Less discussed in critical discourse is Halley’s parallel conflation of cells and prisons with the individual self:  the human being possessed of consciousness and a body.  “For the most part,” he told Karlyn De Jongh in 2009, “I try to make paintings in which you can imagine a human being fitting inside the cell or prison.”  In the former conception, (cells/prisons as buildings), the conduits in the new paintings appear to have become anchors or structural supports.  In the latter conception (cells/prisons as bodies), the function of increased elevation is more enigmatic.  Viewers familiar with contemporary dance may recall Donna Uchizono’s 2006 choreography for Mikhail Baryshnikov, Leap to Tall.  In that production, the dancer—then 58 and no longer capable of the gravity-defying leaps that were once his trademark—was assisted by two younger dancers, who lifted him higher, mid-jump, buttressing him to afford a simulation of vanished athleticism.  Perhaps Halley’s conduits, too, are buttressing their prisons in allusive acts of compassion, their once-utilitarian and communicational functions turning existentially vital.  Perhaps with time, these dialogic in/out channels are evolving into defenses against the same gravity that tugs the prison of the human body inexorably toward the grave.

            The artist ups his ante in the painting Touched.  In it, two conduits prop up a blue prison; above that prison, before a blue background, hovers a blue cell.  Unmoored from earthly ties, it floats like a cloud, a mothership, or the Pentagon that Abbie Hoffman vowed to levitate as an act of political theater in October 1967.  This is not the first time Halley has drolly referenced a skyward impulse.  In paintings such as Asynchronous Terminal (1989) and The Secret City (1991), conduits emerged from cells and took 90-degree turns, straight up into the ether.  In works such as Information Act (2005), cells and prisons “floated” in a sense but were always attached to conduits.  Only in the current body of work has Halley cut the cords, freeing his cells and prisons to ascend with the ghost of Walt Whitman “toward the unknown region/where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow...  till, when the ties loosen/we burst forth—we float in time and space!”  Except that for Halley, this new levity is not so much a poetical strategy as a parodic one.

            “In my view,” he notes with an impish smile, “it’s a kind of satirical joke about transcendentalism.”  Pointing out the titles of two other recent works featuring floating prisons—Cult and Supernatural—he alludes to his longstanding dubiousness of the mystical aims of modernist painters such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Gottlieb, Rothko, and Newman.  It was Halley, lest we forget, who, in his influential essays of the 1980s and 90s, famously demoted the modernist square into a prison cell, walled up “the misty space of Rothko” (“Notes on the Paintings,” 1982), and rejected “the phenomenology of art-making as pretentious and mandarin” (“Nature and Culture,” 1983).  However, readers of those essays who simply assumed that Halley the erstwhile Neo-Geo wunderkind was a polemicist bent on dismissing modernist transcendentalism out of hand, have been proven wrong by time.  Far from dismissing the topic, he has continued to engage it as one of a handful of career-long obsessions.  If he is a satirist, it has become clear, he is an earnest and respectful one; if he is an iconoclast, his fuel is wit, not vitriol.

            A final shift in Halley’s iconography is the mutation occurring within his prison motifs.  After more than three decades of painting prisons with three bars within their windows, the artist is tweaking his own rules.  In Rogue, Stranded, Touch, and Out There, prisons contain only one bar; Wild Deep and Immortalized have four; and Go On has a whopping seven.  Only one piece in the exhibition, Body of Proof II, contains the customary three bars.  For many artists, this would seem an unremarkable variation on a syntactical theme, but for an artist as ruthlessly consistent as Halley, it has the feel of a seismic shift—one that has altered the personalities of his once-familiar icons.  There is an uncanniness to the one-barred prisons, a sense of deformation or the unholy, as if two “normal” prisons had mated to disastrous chromosomal effect and a baby cyclops emerged nine months later, loosed upon the unsuspecting world.  The strange, discomfiting semblance and diminutiveness of the one-barred prisons is also evident in Out There, a kind of “Mini-Me” version of a larger composition Halley used in 2012 paintings such as Uprising and Disconnect.  The idea of an explicitly child-identified prison has appeared in his work before, only once, in his seminal Freudian Painting (1981), its “parent prison” enclosing three bars, its symbolic spawn with two.  In the current work, when bars multiply willy-nilly as they have in Go On, they suggest a different, equally foreign set of implications, which Halley characterizes as “a kind of continuous, expanded space.”  It is as if, in a fearsome metastasis, the humble prison has become a penitentiary.

        But what a ravishing penitentiary!  And therein lies this artist’s most insidious paradox:  his work’s oxymoronic synthesis of Foucauldian confinement and Baudrillardian seduction.  To read the paintings dually in this fashion—and to love or loathe them as simultaneous parodies of, and homages to, the legacy of transcendentalism—is to view them through the two-way mirror of what architect and theorist Charles Jencks has called “double-coding.”  Jencks used the phrase in The Language of Postmodern Architecture (1977) to describe buildings or, more widely, aesthetic concepts that could appeal equally, but for different reasons, to laypeople and to initiates of specialized knowledge, at once gratifying popular taste and connoisseurs versed in irony.  Halley’s work avails itself to this approach.  It contradicts itself; it is large; it contains multitudes.  At their genesis, these diagrammatic paintings, created in the ferment of 1980s dystopia (inflation, HIV/AIDS, an actor-turned-President, the Strategic Defense Initiative), they nevertheless deployed utopian tactics (gonzo color schemes, sensual textures, impressive scale) to support their theses.  They were a commodity critique sold to well-heeled collectors.  They were conceptually sophisticated but compositionally child-like.  And even as they disparaged spiritualism, they gleamed with gold and silver metallics and resplended with a panoply of pigments so saturated and euphoric, they became every bit as inspiring of veneration as any icon, altar, or golden Buddha inside a church or temple.

        In the current exhibition, Halley’s smiling, Janus-faced drive both away from and into the beating heart of romantic/religious ecstasy is hyperbolized by the plotting of his paintings in the impossibly dense, rich soil of Alessandro Mendini’s digital ecosystem.  Mendini’s aesthetic, for all its historical and conceptual variegation, reaches at its fundament toward the triumphal.  He describes his artistic practice as “a utopian puzzle” in search of “an impossible synthesis”; his monumental spire in Hiroshima sings a hymn to human resilience; and his celebrated Proust Armchair (1978)—in which there is no optical distinction between exuberantly patterned fabric and the identically patterned, hand-painted frame—takes a tack of utopic, 1960s-era boundary dissolution, as does his conviction (articulated in his 1997 book, Designed Painting/Painted Design) that there are no essential metaphysical boundaries between the aesthetic disciplines.  The eye-boggling interplay between his digital mural and Halley’s paintings is a fantasia of unapologetically mixed messages and wry humor, with forked tongue decidedly in cheek.  Perhaps Mendini’s illusionistic façade is a new pleasure-dome built atop the rubble of Xanadu; perhaps Halley’s floating cell is the ghost of hard-edge painting rising above its own tombstone.  Together, the artists subvert their predecessors’ and their own tropes, using the very tools that built them up.  This is the way of our day, after all.  Consider, as Halley suggested during a recent interview, the example of architect Rem Koolhaas, “who was almost vicious in his critique of Le Corbusier, yet time and time again takes things Le Corbusier did and reappropriates them for different purposes.  That’s part of the process of questioning the various goals of modernity.  That’s why we call it postmodernity.”



—Richard Speer is a West Coast-based correspondent for ARTnews, Art, Ltd., and Visual Art Source.  His essays about art, architecture, music, and popular culture have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Salon, Newsweek, and Opera News.  Since 2002 he has been visual-arts critic for Portland, Oregon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative newspaper, Willamette Week.  He is the author of the biography Matt Lamb:  The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons, 2005, revised edition 2013).  The Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists have honored him for his arts reportage and profiles of cultural figures such as Camille Paglia, Luciano Pavarotti, Philip Glass, and architect E. Fay Jones.