When a child empties his pockets and lines up his treasures--a key, a gum ball, a rabbit's foot, a coin, a stamp--there's something magical to the act. He arranges and rearranges them in rows and sequences, relishes the memories that each object embodies, and imbues them in his mind with mysterious powers.
The Italian artist Maurizio Pellegrin, a 33-year-old native of Venice who now lives in Rome, has preserved this same sense of innocence and ingenuousness in his work. He is a collector of incidentals--a rifle bag, a golf ball, a button, a scrap from a broken picture frame, a torn photograph. He is an alchemist who turns these valueless treasures into art simply by spreading them out, arranging them and installing them on gallery walls in patterns that are, in the end, very beautiful.
Pellegrin is well-known in Europe; his work has been exhibited widely there and was included in 1988 Venice Biennale, but a selection of six large installations on view at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla make up his first museum show in the United States. The exhibition (to Feb. 10) was organized by Lynda Forsha, the museum's curator.
It is a memorable and evocative first taste. Pellegrin appears to be one of those artists who have such an intrinsic sense of design and an ingenuous delight in the simple object that his uncluttered arrangements all are hard to resist.
In the works here he includes as few as one or two objects and as many as 189. Each element has a history, although we don't know where they came from or whether the artist has owned them for long. All of the parts look old and somewhat worn. Often Pellegrin alters the objects by painting black bands on their surfaces to add sobriety, like armbands that signify mourning. And he numbers everything with stencilled numerals, in no particular order, adding some spice though the inexplicable magic of numerology.
The result is a very personal mix; each individual element of the installations has a history, collectively they create unusual harmonies.
As you enter the museum, you are confronted first with a wall-sized installation titled "Angolature Selettive (Selective Corners), 1989." This collection of 73 elements line the wall in an arrangement that lacks any obvious order, yet the work has its own sense of balance and interplay, an intrinsic stability that is evident in all of Pellegrin's work.
The components of the piece are commonplace enough: most are pieces from a variety of dressmakers' patterns, blueprints for women's clothing parts. There are also a couple of spools of thread, a long-sleeved green knit dress, several wooden hangers and a fabric-covered oval form that is dotted with black buttons. Amid all this is a framed photograph, its image obscured by a collage that includes a white glove, a button and a scrap of linen fabric.
And always there's the artist's imprint: Every object is stamped with a numeral--again with no order. Sometimes two or even three of numbers decorate a single object.
Much of this stuff looks like what you might find in a junk shop. Or at an estate sale. The materials are attractive in and of themselves--natural materials, good design.
Pellegrin gives no explanations, but none are needed. The objects all are familiar, and yet foreign, the numbers are meaningless, but easy to project meaning into. This looks like an archeologist's find--but it's stuff that has been found before any significant amount of time has lapsed.
A statement by the artist suggests that he assigns meaning to his numbers: "I was born on the 21st day of the month," he once said in an interview, "The number 21 stands for the universe, embodying the karmic reward, the success and elevation which come after a long battle." Perhaps in Pellegrin's mind there is significance to every element, but he tells us nothing. And it doesn't matter. We can take pleasure in how the objects look. And we can add our own interpretations.
Where "Selective Corners" represents a feminine side of the artist's work--women's clothing--"Disideri Lontani Oltre il Giardino (Distant Desire Beyond the Garden)," 1988, is the sporting side, perhaps the masculine side. Among the 35 objects hung artfully for this latter work are three rifle bags, two golf balls, a leather glove and a selection of boards covered with fabric.
Another work includes numerous score-keeping paddles for billiards, and another is made up mostly of broken fragments from 18th- and 19th-Century wooden frames.
Each work contains a photograph, in one case a young girl riding an elephant, in another what looks like a self-portrait of the artist. All of them are altered and aged, too. Some are torn, as if ravaged by time.
There is a seductiveness to this show that is very convincing, and yet, despite the beauty, there is a certain consistency and sameness to all of the works. The six works here are very satisfying, but one has to wonder what it might be like to see more. Would all this mystery degenerate into pretentiousness? Would all this history begin to seem empty? Thankfully, the museum had the good sense to leave us guessing.
In addition to the Pellegrin show, a second far more disappointing one-person show also opened at the La Jolla museum last weekend (also to Feb. 10). The New York-based conceptual artist John Knight (born in 1945) made a mockery of the opportunity to share his work with the public.
Using the museum's windows--with their splendid ocean views--as his ground, he frosted the glass with fragments of the word bienvenido (Spanish for welcome), obscuring the views. Looking out from the museum's Glass Gallery, you see only shapes--frosted window and small areas of translucent glass operate like an Ellsworth Kelly abstract painting.
But the method here is not arbitrary. The message, which is totally illegible, is meant to be three-stories high, and if the frosting were visible from the exterior of the museum--which it is not--then that is the only place where you could see the relationship between the fragments, the only hint of what it is supposed to say. Walls separate windows, and nothing is inscribed on them; all that there is, is fragments.
Much of the work, which since it is unintelligible amounts just to decorative window frosting, takes place in the museum offices, all of which are inaccessible to the public except by appointment, and in the museum's basement, which is also inaccessible to the public.
In essence, there is nothing to see, and little that you could see even if you wanted to.
This show is a violation of the efforts and monies that go into a public museum presentation.
Where is the public left after all of this silliness?
Out of it.