"Stealth Sculptor" Maurizio Cattelan runs loose at the Menil
Watch out for dead horses — and the drummer boy on the roof
If you visit the Menil Collection and find a dead horse sprawled in front of three serene landscapes by René Magritte, don’t worry. You may feel you’ve wandered into a surreal world, but you are, in fact, still in Houston.
When the Menil reorganized its 20th century galleries, it let Italian stealth sculptor Maurizio Cattelan run loose in its capacious storerooms to choose works around which to install his own surrealist interventions for his first solo exhibition in the state of Texas. The result is a wonderfully disorienting trip through an iconic collection packed with masterpieces made humorously and disturbingly new.
After bursting onto the international arts scene at the 1997 Venice Biennale, Cattelan has been the brash child of Pop art and the inheritor of Italian arte povera (poor art) movement, which was known for a trademark resistance to institutions of power and the use of unconventionally quotidian materials.
Cattlean exhibits the powers of perception native to both the artist who makes and the curator who juxtaposes. But these works also constantly test our powers of perception as viewers.
Do we notice, for instance, on the way into the Menil, that a small drummer boy is poised precariously on the edge of the roof? Are we patient enough to wait and see if the drummer actually drums?
In fact, Untitled (2003) does drum every so often.
Most of Cattelan’s interventions blend characteristic stealth with shock. We don’t expect the drummer boy, but he’s there all the same and once we notice, we can’t look away. We don’t expect a hand with its middle finger pointing down as it dangles in the middle of a room full of Magritte’s less serene scenes. We might notice that the other fingers seem chewed off, which makes what is at first brashly humorous (is Cattelan giving Magritte the finger?) rather unsettling.
We certainly don’t expect a dead horse, and but there’s no mistaking a piece of taxidermy that large. And yes, I checked the label: “Taxidermied Horse” is part of the recipe.
Untitled (2009) is one of the most disturbing of Cattlean’s works. The eyes glisten, the coat practically gleams, and if it weren’t for the persistent stillness and a sign reading “INRI” driven into its flank like a stake, we might expect the horse to get up and start moving around the gallery.
Since there are few titles and no clues, we dwell on the clues we have, such as INRI, which stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, or Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. How seriously do we take this crucifixion?
Is Christianity now just kicking a dead horse? Ave Maria (2007) juts out of a blank wall in the form of three suited, saluting arms with hairy hands. Is this faith or fascism? In a gallery full of Byzantine art, where Mary ascends, Jesus reigns, and St. George slays a dragon, two taxidermied yellow Labradors and a canary sit together, looking, it seems, at nothing. Are these indifferent parodies or the surreal remnant of religious vision?
What is most wonderful is the way Cattelan creates conversation with the collection. We encounter the dead horse after passing a wonderfully weird rubber head with the shoe of a boot extending from the top of its skull. That work perches next to its inspiration (or partner in crime) Max Ernst’s triangular headed Euclid (1945).
The aforementioned horse is just past Dorothea Tanning’s bizarrely comforting Cousins (1970), a furry sculpture of two hominids, each missing whole portions of the body but nonetheless supporting and caring for one another with what remains. Sweet and strange is the order of the day for Tanning, but Cattelan prefers a brand of estrangement that only increases with time.
One of the final works you’ll see, the haunting All (2007), follows Andy Warhol’s Camouflage Last Supper (1986) and James Lee Byars goldenly simple Halo (1985). Nine bodies under sheets seem to have been tossing and turning in their sleeping or perhaps convulsing before death.
There’s nothing else in the gallery but these figures, all carved from white Carrara marble. What impresses is the juxtaposition of sparseness, in color and surroundings, and lushness in materials and gallery space. Spare and lush: just like the Menil itself.
If I described all Cattelan’s works, I’d ruin the surprise of the show.
So keep your eyes open, and watch out for the dead horses.