The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibition of paintings by Italian contemporary Carlo Maria Mariani puts one in mind of what used to be said of 19th-Century bourgeois art salons. They were loaded with images of seductive female models scantily identified as goddesses or allegorical figures. Since real knowledge of ancient mythology was on the wane, all the classical bunting was really just a dodge to distract the wives of dirty old men who were having fun looking at their culture's version of Playboy centerfolds.
A similarly cynical eyebrow can be cocked in the direction of Mariani's work. He is a 60-year-old classically trained painter much better known in Europe than on this shore where his work is being seen in depth for the first time in some 50 big paintings and drawings done since 1974. The show--visiting from Darmstadt's Institut Mathildenhohe--comes swathed in enough intellectual gauze to ignite a migraine in a Ph.D. candidate.
Mariani's got one foot firmly mired in the 18th Century. There, in Rome, the German art historian and archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann invented the aesthetic of neoclassicism. It held that humankind's highest ideals were embodied in the art of ancient Greece. He called for a revival of this excellent spirit in a contemporary art noble in intent, grand in conception. His ideas took fire and fueled a revival in Europe and the United States where everybody was in the grip of an exalted, Napoleonic, expansionist notion of culture. It effected artists as ill-favored as Antoine Raphael Mengs, or as gifted as Jacques Louis David and J.A.D. Ingres. Finally it polished itself into the hypocrisies of the salon and was philosophically annihilated by the dark, paradoxical ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche.
Mariani's other foot rests uneasily on this Nietzschean modernism as embodied in the work of Marcel Duchamp, Rene Magritte, Joseph Beuys and others to whom his art makes endless allusion.
Anybody who conscientiously prepares themselves to view this exhibition by reading its catalogue--titled "Utopia Now!"--is liable to arrive in the galleries primed to hate it. Catalogue essays, perhaps crabbed by translation from German or Italian, are in unspeakable artspeak. Two tout Mariani as a genius. None, save that of LACMA curator Howard Fox, begin to throw any light on the art.
Catalogue reproductions suggest that, like the art of the salons, the real content of this show is going to be a lot of nuovo neoclassicized beefcake intended to get even with the past by providing polite titillation for wives too shy to watch male mud wrestlers. One enters, loins girded for a dose of high-style kitsch, pastiche and parody fueled by the unpleasant Mannerist snickers of expansionist Post-Modernism. (Its opulent fatuousness seems to have been slowed by the recession.)
Such anticipation turns out to be a rather chastening reminder that anybody who prejudges art from catalogue matters is a bit of a fool.
Looking at Mariani's oeuvre does not erase reservations. It does markedly reduce them.
The first picture one really sees is the wall-size "Constellation of Leo" (also executed in a drawing). Working purposefully in the tradition of Raphael's "Parnassus," Mariani placed himself as the central actor in a composition involving at least two dozen figures. About half are close to life size and represent living art-world denizens tarted up in togas.
As an art joke it's repellently inbred, political and sentimental. It may be the most egotistical piece of pictorial self-aggrandizement since Courbet's "The Painter's Studio."
But it's neither gag nor camp. It's an extraordinarily complex, beautifully executed attempt to make classical drawing and painting meaningful again. Everything about this show points to Mariani as a sincere idealist trying to find a place for traditional beauty in the guttering light of the century.
He's not alone. There's an impulse out there affecting artists from Martha Mayer Erlebacher to John Nava and David Ligare. Is it Arcadian nostalgia? Longing for standards in an anarchistic art world? Desire to reconnect to the great tradition?
Whatever it is, it's not easy.
The great tradition didn't end with Ingres, it continued to encompass Freud, modernism and the Existential dilemma. Mariani tries to take them into account but sometimes they get in his way. Recent "conceptual" works try to deal with modernist absurdity in such pictures as "This is not a suicide of a young man."
A statuesque Grecian youth holds a Duchampian phallic object and points a pipe at his temple. The pipe is from Magritte's painting, "This is not a pipe." Such allusions feel defensive and trivialize Mariani's very real gifts. He comes across as an accomplished Shakespearean actor who's jealous of Woody Allen. He runs afoul of Freud. His gorgeous male nudes are certain to suggest homoeroticism to some viewers. There's nothing wrong with that, but you get the feeling he's trying to employ figures allegorically to suggest more abstract matters. Unmistakably hermaphroditic images clarify intent. He is talking aboutpure androgynous beauty.
His poetry rings true in a series of giant male heads. The eyes that bracket bridgeless noses have dreamy depths that seem to imply rapturous fulfillment. Their chiseled features use the chill of classicism to betray the look as that of narcissistic self-absorption capable only of self-love. When such a votary of beauty as Mariani tells us he understands its treachery, he's poignantly frank--and modern.
Mariani has an extraordinary degree of empathy with his art heroes. When that locks in, the work outdoes itself. "The Peletier de Saint-Fargeau on his Deathbed" depicts the corpse of a handsome French revolutionary who was martyred for espousing the execution of Louis XVI. David wanted to paint a memorial but was himself sent into exile and never did the piece. Mariani discovered a surviving design and appointed himself stand-in for David. The resulting picture is both an act of time-travel and a haunted work of modern art. The ambiguities of modern Surrealism serve Mariani well, probably because the Surrealists themselves often used classical means to represent the strangeness of the world we all inhabit nightly.
Mariani's "Nymph and Madness" shows a female nude perched uneasily atop the hand of a colossal statue. She grasps the leg of a fleeing cupid. Easy interpretations come to mind, but it's the image that counts.
Mariani's utopia falls apart when he lets its complexities swamp him and grows too literal. When he uses the clear vision of classicism to create the subtly nuanced allusions at which it excelled, his Arcadian past speaks to the troubled present in its own accents.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. to May 17, closed Mondays (213) 857-6000.