Saturday, November 18, 2006

An Open Letter to Claudia Rousseau

I am writing this with the full intent of explaining a question that Claudia Rousseau raised within her review of the current exhibition at Glenview Mansion Art Gallery, which contains an installation of mine. In her article in the Rockville Gazette, she mentioned how surprised she was to see that in neither my artist statement nor my newspaper did I give any mention or credit to Mimmo Rotella. For this there are several good explanations to dissuade such conjecture.

The first is an issue of avoidance. Not so much skirting the work of others for the sake to appear original, but more for the sake of not watching people’s eyes glaze over. The learned artist, critic, gallerist, or historian, interested in contemporary art and with a wide knowledge of Pop-like movements that occurred across the pond, might know the name of Mimmo Rotella. He is/was well-known in Italy since the mid to late 1950s in and outside of the art circles. But, for a pedestrian, American audience that might scarcely know the name of Tom Wesselman or James Rosenquist (and there are many… don’t kid yourselves oh learned minority, because three years ago I was a member of that audience), Mimmo Rotella first requires a double take to first discern the pronunciation and then a definition to follow.

The second issue can be summarized by the early career of Jacques Villegle. To define: Rotella and Villegle both veered into collage and decollage about the same time in the late 1950s. Because Villegle was in Paris and Rotella in Rome, neither knew well of the other’s interest of this method of working at first – which, to be specific and simple, involved ripping down full street posters and gluing them to canvases. Forty plus years later I came to Rome for a second time, knew nothing of the work of either man, and began tearing down whole stinking and bug infested posters only to dissect them like an archaeologist so I could reassemble them through means I thought might be more archival or at least solvent. I was thinking of Schwitters, and the street was my dustbin. Then, these collages became studies for paintings.

Now, I can’t fault my art history teacher, Terry Kirk*, for setting foot in the studios for the first time AT THE END of the semester, AT THE END of my first year of graduate school, to inform me of Mimmo Rotella’s work when I was studying in Rome. Nor can I justify his incredulity toward my ignorance of the man. All I can say is sorry. The state of Iowa kind of stops at Grant Wood in public art school education. Ana Mendieta doesn’t even get a nod (or club OJ candidate Carl Andre, for that matter).

I returned to the States to complete my second year of graduate study, which is an additional hamstring. Finding scholarship on either Rotella or Villegle is difficult, let alone one in a language I can read. And, to be faithful to my initial inclinations of interest in those smelly posters, it was the halftone, color, typography, and play between representational and abstract that were of greater interests. Process became a second, because it played as a rich analogy for the history of Rome and Roman architecture: built up over time, stripped away by vandals, and built up again. Only in the States did I begin thinking about new narratives and the meaning of the words, critique on culture, economy, or politics. And the only reason I can think it took so damn long is because I was forced into an environment with adequate ventilation where I wasn’t huffing turps for a couple months.

In short, Rotella is incidental. So is Villegle. Two guys I’d never heard of before, on a continent that isn’t mine, speaking languages I can scarcely speak, doing work that is a novelty to this Midwesterner. After all, there aren’t a lot of posters plastered in the cornfields (though I am certain Monsanto has thought of it) – just baseball diamonds. Be that as it may, even with my recent scholarship, he still remains incidental. His work, as he has stated, was a rebellion, “…the only way of protesting against a society that has lost the taste for change and fantastic transformations.” (Hentschel; Mimmo Rotella) On the other hand, I don’t have much rebellion in me, just sarcasm.

Rotella’s work now remains as a document, a record, an archive, an objet d’arte, instead of a painting (not painted). I can nod to him as someone who has done similar work. But I hope to take it somewhere different. That stated, I am certain there are tens of people who have done likewise before me. I’ll never know of it – I’ll probably never meet them – and it doesn’t invalidate my work anymore than Caravaggio invalidates de la Tour (despite the difference that what I’ve done is mostly a priori).

So, that’s why I don’t mention Rotella. Because it takes me seven paragraphs (not including this one), and eight hundred words to do so. And that is without going into the sordid history of growing up in a test-market, studying graphic design, mentioning Hannah Hoch, and on, and on, and on. The end.

*note: Terry Kirk is still the best damn and most entertaining art history professor I have had the pleasure to learn from and in his defense he had too much on his plate that semester in Rome. And, no, that link was not a picture of John Waters

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