TROMPE-L’OEIL

Celaya Brothers Gallery, Mexico City, 2017

 

[…] une abstraction qui n’en retient que l’essence

Yves Bonnefoy

 

In an essay from 1953 named Les tombeaux de Ravenne, the recently departed French poet and essayist uses these words to define what ornament is, and compares this to the concept, as opposed to the object. We may paraphrase Bonnefoy’s words by saying that, like a concept usually does, ornament has the particular power of showing the essence of an object by means of abstraction.

This understanding of ornament seems to perfectly fit what Agostino Iacurci is doing in this unedited corpus of artworks, which for many aspects represents a breaking point in his production so far: an exploration of local ornaments through painting and sculpture. But let us step back a moment to our starting concern: ornament as a sort of abstract, “ontological tool”, a way to reveal the essence of a specific object. Is not this, indeed, the endeavor of art tout-court? The act of reproducing or representing an object – in a generic sense: a physical object, a spiritual one, an idea, a phenomenon, an emotion… – through the artwork has always been an exercise of abstraction. 

Ornaments are, of course, works of art. Yet the Western world has for a long time highlighted a significant distinction between the fine and the decorative – being rather ungenerous with the latter – a distinction that mostly lies in one specific vocation of all ornaments: their adjunctiveness, that is being other thanthe artwork but at the same time bond to it. Being adjunctive also means having some kind of function: unlike an artwork, an ornament is never for its own sake or for a “deep”, “noble” cause, but it is meant to embellish something else (like a capital does to a column), or to add value to it (like a frame does to a painting). 

Jacques Derrida borrows from Immanuel Kant the Greek word parergon as a synonym for ornament, but also and particularly to describe the existing ratio between it and the ergon, namely the artwork. There is something disturbing about the parergon: it is accessory to the ergon, but at the same time we cannot be sure that the parergon is completely external to the ergon; it is part of the ergon while being at the same time marginal to it. In other words, ornaments provide artworks their very own place: as Derrida puts it, “they are inseparable from a lack within the ergon. And this lack makes for the very unity of the ergon” (La vérité en peinture, 1978). 

Thus, it looks like the ornament could only be experienced, or understood, through its relationship to the artwork: then let us imagine a work of art in which this Derridean ratio work-ornament is subverted. I don’t mean an artwork in which an ornament is simply reproduced or integrated, like in the famous gallery paintings by David Teniers the Younger, Fortunato Depero’s tapestries or René Magritte’s Le masque vide, among many other examples. I rather mean an artwork whose very subject is the ornament, like if a frame stepped inside a canvas and pushed away anything else to make room for itself alone: a painting about a frame, an ergon about the parergon

Such a subversion is the object of Agostino Iacurci’s current research. A trompe l’oeil in a figurative sense: not supposed to cheat the eye of the observer – the quasi-abstract appearance of such plain-colored and playful canvases could never succeed in this – but to cheat our understanding of the common boundaries between art and decoration. 

Mexican architectural ornaments and ornamental plants are, for sure, an inspiring subject to dig into, and an original way to produce work during an artistic residency. It is like the artist, during his urban exploration of Mexico City, has focused on what is commonly perceived as marginal, and made artwork out of it. Door and windows frames, friezes and balcony bars have thus become the object of symmetric, colorful paintings, in which the pictorial frames coincide with the edges of the canvas, the central part of which is deprived of any pictorial framed element. On the other hand, agaves, ferns and cacti have become wooden sculptures – in which trunks look very much like elongated and decorated bars that Agostino Iacurci has eye-captured from some balcony – that remind us of some wonderful wooden representations of flowers made by Futurist artist Giacomo Balla between 1918 and 1925.

The architectural ornaments that inspired Agostino Iacurci’s work are very different from those that Yves Bonnefoy bore in his mind while writing the words that have introduced this text, namely the decorations he had seen in Ravenna, inside the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. In that specific case – as Georges Didi-Hubermann points out in his reading of Bonnefoy’s essay – the object conceptualized by those mosaics, marbles, alabaster windows and sarcophagi concerns the transition from life to death, and the possibility of capturing and condensing that very transition in a unique place. An exhibition is not a mausoleum, and an exhibition is never ornamental. Yet as we see here, an exhibition can be about ornaments, which means that it can say something interesting about ornaments and, in agreement with Bonnefoy, their power to unveil the essence of something. That something being, in our case, a sense of the identity of a place, through its architectural or floral shapes and colors. 

Text by Vittorio Parisi