Giulio Paolini at Whitechapel Gallery

Filed in Reviews by on August 15, 2014

Giulio Paolini

Whitechapel Gallery

Until 14 September 2014

Giulio Paolini ESSERE O NO ESSERE Macro - Roma a cura di Bartolo

On walking through the gallery doors, you are confronted with an enigmatic character on canvas. Sunglasses on and arms folded. The character is partially obscured by the wooden frame that ordinarily sits behind the canvas. He has assumed the position of spectator; it is as though we can see his mind whirring and questioning the artwork he is in, and its purpose. He reflects the role that we are undertaking, almost pointing it out and thrusting it back in our faces. I get the sense this will not be an exhibition of easy viewing. Already, I feel I have been roped into a game that I haven’t given my permission for.

It continues. More photographs. One with two blurred figures of an artist at work, yet again they are obscured with painterly strokes, turquoise brush marks on the top layer of this work, cutting through the faded black and white quality of the photograph. Again, layers are at play, we watch art in the process of being made, but what we are presented with is something finished. Two photographs sit next to each other, a man carrying a blank canvas, and next to it a man carrying an image of the man carrying a blank canvas. Even writing it down sounds laborious. It is the beginning of the cycle that could repeat itself indefinitely, and we are being teased with the opening snippet.

I sit on the bench and take in the scene. There are crude pencil outlines of statues and viewers on the wall, with more pencil lines to assert their respective gazes drawn from the eyes stretching outwards, through canvases, hung correctly and back to front on the wall. Ripped photocopies lie on the floor. Similar work is hung throughout the main gallery space. I feel as though we are presented with a strange crime scene, and we have been tasked with working out the solution. I think what is being asked of us is to look again about what makes an artwork an artwork, about looking at how they come into fruition, and if the process of its becoming is perhaps more important than the notion of a masterpiece, of the finished work. And, in all honesty, I found it a bit frustrating.

Venturing upstairs, the themes continue. A bronze statue bust is facing inwards to the wall atop a blank canvas, the view lines continue. A Perspex box holds a pen aloft, with a piece of paper underneath, on the floor. It holds the moment before the two come together to actually create something and freezes its motion. The work gets grander and grander as you move throughout the exhibition, moving onto Perspex installations with coloured window frames in the panes, simple architectural sketches projected onto a wall filled with blank canvasses and empty frames. Still, I sit on the floor and am unable to find much to enthuse about.

Paolini is evidently preoccupied with the idea of ideas. A seminal conceptual artist, practicing from the 60s to the present day, this exhibition is almost definitely a successful introduction to his work and successful in translating across this field of thought. You are presented with ideas on the threshold. Moments of creativity are pinpointed, yet it is as though the spectator is expected to fill in the gaps. Which, personally, is a game I don’t like to play. My favourite gallery experiences come from being astounded by skills, composition, colours, where I am captivated for a few moments by wondering about how something came into fruition. In this exhibition, the joy of this is taken away from me. And yet, in a strange way, it made me consider how I approach artwork, about what I do and don’t grant importance to. Perhaps worth a visit, even if just to consolidate your own views or to allow them to be questioned. For me, this wasn’t a show that I found particularly inspiring (though I did love the clever use of layering in the photographic imagery) but the work did push me to think about the qualities that I value in viewing artwork. And for that, I am extremely grateful.

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Ann-Marie Rayney

About the Author ()

Ann-Marie Rayney is a printmaker based in London. Recently graduated from Goldsmiths with a Fine Art and Art History degree, she will most likely be found exploring London's cultural offerings or covered in ink at Sonsoles Print Studio in Peckham. To see some of her work, have a sneaky peak at her website here.

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