What does nostalgia mean to us today? Odysseus’ epic homecoming or the quotidian wanderings of Ulysses? or, why not, the stream of consciousness of Mrs Dalloway, the protagonist of Virgina Woolf’s groundbreaking novel from 1925, of fleeting thoughts and images? A hundred years later, we are still in thrall to Modernism, that once revolutionary forward-looking idea, straddling time backwards, facing the past, not quite able to let go of anti-Classicism. But the whole is broken, there are no more neat endings in the fifth act, but a jumbled mass of fragments, snippets not only from our own lives but from the bottomless sea of digital visual culture. Like Proust’s Madeleines, dunked in lime blossom tea and fished from the depth of the tea cup, memories resurface and spawn a world that is both our own and everyone’s.
Any Colour You Like takes place in an opulent setting, the home of Katharine and Carl Kostyál, a uniquely preserved expansive piano nobile apartment in a 19th century palazzo in Milan, re-modelled by Luigi Caccia Dominioni in the early 1960s. The exhibition is an intervention into the architecture of the neo-classical building on via San Damiano in Milan’s Fashion District, and the post-Rationalist aesthetic of Caccia who emphasised craftsmanship and superior materials and softened the impression of the soaring ceilings with handkerchief domes in the main rooms. This is a place to entertain and be entertained, a stage set for memories.
Why are memories anything but epic? They are small, oblique fragments of life, a glimpse of skin, corner-of-the-eye notations from a late party, breakfast on Monday morning, kids playing, clasped hands or handbags clutched. Somewhere in the background, we hear the sound of our world being planned and mass produced. Modernism is also a machine, for living á la Le Corbusier, for yearnings of Duchampian bachelors and Surrealism’s erotic machinations, churning out more sameness for everyone. Somewhere along the line, when we added ‘Post’ perhaps, and the Picture Generation of the the 1980’s upended the notion that an artist actually made images, originals, Richard Prince re-photographed advertisements cut out from magazines, Cindy Sherman’s film stills tapped into our collective memory of visual culture. Having a machine make one’s artworks was already a very old idea. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the four artists in the group exhibition Any Colour You Like, are all born in 1980 or after, as if propagated by the Picture Generation in high gear. 50 years after Pink Floyd’s iconic album The Dark Side of the Moon was released we have reached the 8th track, Any Colour You Like, an instrumental track designed to allow the listener any interpretation they chose, depending on the setting, their mood, their state of mind…a fitting soundtrack for a cocktail party interspersed with digital murmurations and angst.
Anton Alvarez, the sole sculptor, turns to the machine. His giant extractor produces ceramic sculptures, squeezing out cannelured stump-like objects and pillars. But far from the Classical ideals, they buck and bow, in colour hues that range from bright to pastel. He takes away the hand, the obvious craftiness of the material, and instead gives us objects that are hard to pin down, vase-like objects on podiums, an orange or blue pillar bending or rising to the sky, halfway between architecture and decorative objects.
The recent works in Any Colour You Like by Leonard Baby draw from a wide range of sources, from Krysztof Kieślowski’s acclaimed Dekalog to William Klein’s 1982 documentary The French about the French Open. Baby’s paintings zoom in on everyday moments from the films, executed as the American artist Alex Katz might have treated them – part realism, part wall painting, in the pastel hues borrowed from old school cartoons. It’s the props and the sets that remain in Baby’s small sized, intimate paintings, figures are turned away or have their heads cropped out. It is not surprising that when working for a repertory movie theatre he spent his breaks sketching from the wealth of film of art house cinema.
In the work of Hiroya Kurata we get intimate glimpses of the artist’s own everyday life, but filtered through diametrical aesthetics, manga and landscape painting. Kids at play in a backyard, visits to parks, walks in the forest, or toddlers at home with their parents. Dapple sunshine through lush green trees, vivid reflections in the ponds and brooks tell of landscape painting, whereas the figures and faces are given a cartoonish treatment that we recognise from the world of Studio Ghibli. These are images of a Paradise that inevitably will be lost, together with the Monsters, in the cracks of adulthood.
Caroline Zurmely, a self proclaimed obsessive when it comes to nail polish, paints close ups of lipsticked mouths, knees royally pressed together, draped shiny fabric, tiaras, bejewelled manicured hands and Princess Diana’s glamorous outfits – un certain regard found in glamour photography and tabloid press. Painstakingly made with nail polish on small panels, the paintings convey the glossiness of society pages and erase the border between self care and artistic production, and our expectations of individual expression in an art work and self-expression applied to one’s nails.
This is a generation of artists weaned on screens. Turning back home, one’s Ithaka or Dallas, is perhaps not so much about a place as a search for resonance. There are certain kinds of images and objects that give us something more beyond recognition, that answer back with more than an echo. Like wooden instruments strummed, they make deep chords vibrate beyond the intellectual sensation and set the emotional and sensual side of our beings in motion. And these are the moments of being in which we belong.
Sofia Bertilsson, September 2023.