‘Oltremare’ (2017) is painted directly on to the gallery wall. Within an otherwise empty white cube, it is a single window looking out into an expanse of vivid ultramarine blue. Colour floods into the space and seemingly back out again, carrying the viewer away with it. Eyes awash, the simple rectangle, painted portrait, throbs and shimmers like a glittering mirage on the horizon so that, from across the room, our vision swims at the quivering edge of what appears to be a luminous gateway. Once we draw near, however, the brush-stroked surface becomes obvious, dappled with darker and lighter hues that lap about tiny islands of white wall.
The visual effectiveness of placing ‘Oltremare’ on its own notwithstanding, the significance of this work’s deceptively simple artistic gesture provides a key to the rest of Giovanni Anselmo’s current exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery: a collection of works drawn into easy relationship with each other and which continue the artist’s career-long project of orienting the viewer within the magnitude of spatial existence and the natural forces that govern it.
The naming of ‘Oltremare’, like many of Anselmo’s pieces, is a poetic gesture towards geographical understanding in and of itself. The Italian ‘oltremare’ translates as ‘across the seas’ and refers to the origins of the precious pigment that was once made from ground down lapis lasuli. Undermining any categorical separation between painting and sculpture, Anselmo emphasises the materiality of his art, situating the viewer within a near, bodily relationship to it in order to explore our ability to mentally project through and beyond our physical experience to conceptualise our location in wider space.
With spectacularly simple material statements, Anselmo maps the awful, vertiginous expanse of space and our relative proportion to it. In the lower main gallery space ‘While the earth orientates itself’ (2010), finds a magnetic compass centred atop a mound of fine purple earth and pointing faithfully due north. Surrounding the earth are cut fragments of diorite granite that make up ‘Il panorama verso oltremare intomo dove le stelle si avvicinano di una spanna in piu’ (2001). Placed according to the choreographic energy of the north magnetic pole, these blocks create a walkable astrological landscape. In this capacity, the density of the granite is striking. Indeed, while Anselmo’s straightforward approach to material places him squarely in the canon of Arte Povera, there is certainly nothing ‘poor’ about his works. The luminous oltremare blue, the rich hue of the piled dirt and the calm, pink gravitas of the granite stones endow the simplicity of his materials with an enigmatic, essential quality that conveys the natural wonder which inspires all of Anselmo’s work. In this way, the emblematic weight of the granite manifests the invisible power of the forces that keep such heavy objects floating in space, a tension dramatically visualised in ‘Mentre Verso Oltremare Il Colore Solleva La Pietra’ (1995). Here, on the far wall, the stones are raised up into a vertical projection, pairs hung by wire cord above a smaller, if no less absorbing, window of oltremare paint. Extending inwards and outwards, combining near and far, the work orients itself and the viewer in multiple dimensions.
In contrast, moving upstairs into Adrián Villar Rojas’ installation ‘Untitled (From the Series ‘The Theater of Disappearance’) (2017) we enter a detached, almost extra-terrestrial overview of human culture. The walls and floor are clad in a shiny black tile, as are the raised slopes of a three-legged pyramid that enthrones the glorified focus of the space: a pair of disembodied legs, brilliantly white and cleanly spliced at the thigh but instantly recognisable as a reproduction of Michaelangelo’s ‘David’. However, between those familiar feet are two cartoonish kittens at play, also perfectly formed in white marble. Additionally, we find that one of David’s legs is conjoined to a ringed tree stump as if hewn from the same trunk. But, of course, there are no actual signs of the human hand at work here. This is a computerised amalgamation of cultural artefacts, sampled using 3D scanners and smoothly combined into a seamless artifice. Any sense of time, history or cultural hierarchy is flattened into an absolutely horizontal perspective of civilisation and nature. Entombed in a space-age reference to ancient architecture – what Rojas calls an “archaeology of the future” – the artwork’s context is completely confused, its cultural cues displaced. In effect, the combined exhibition of these two very different artists’ works creates an exhilarating opposition: while Anselmo locates us amongst the stars, Rojas transports us outside all known points of reference so that we must reorient ourselves with kaleidoscopic, alien eyes.