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Viewing the exhibition ‘Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style’ at the National Gallery of Victoria (April – September 2013) brought it all home—big hair, druggie chic, power shoulders and appropriation, appropriation, appropriation. But there was more, that sudden realisation that the ’80s was really over. Goodbye to originality and marginality. Let’s worry about globalisation for a change. With this sense of release from caring about the significance of this era came the idea that it was now time to revisit it in the spirit of a fossicker working the tailings. A recent engagement with Aldo Iacobelli’s art, courtesy of his exhibition In the Shadow of Forgetting, provided the compass coordinates.
Iacobelli burst onto the scene in Adelaide in the 1980s with very large drawings which essayed ideas about the blight of industrialised society, patriarchy’s darker side and the corrosive behaviour of unquestioned political and religious systems. The artist inflated emblems of power and religious ritual, such as cannons, classical columns and chalices, to bloated states which stripped them of dignity and mystique. The satirical rhetoric which characterised Iacobelli’s work at this time found echoes in the work of a diverse number of Mix Tape works. This same exhibition revealed another strand, a desire for narrative involving species of creatures which prowled the shadow lands between the human and animal world. Consider in this mix Peter Booth’s neo-expressionist drawings of the mid-1980s, Roar Studio’s menageries of hybrid creatures, Howard Arkley’s Tattooed Head (1988), and edgy portrait drawings by Scott Redford (1982–85). Edginess and Iacobelli’s art are synonymous, as indeed is narrative. This combination is most clearly evident in his Wallpaper series, of around 2000, in which the selvedge carried texts such as ‘Bill is a child molester’ and ‘I’m lucky I’m white’. All that Iacobelli had valued and worked for as an artist was embedded in In the Shadow of Forgetting; the febrile paint handling, a compression and expansion of imagery, and that leading of viewers into a REM zone of half-revealed secrets.
In this exhibition Iacobelli’s long day’s journey into night continued to beat the boundaries of conscious control. The artist was ‘in residence’ for much of the exhibition, drawing in the corner like a bard in the king’s hall, keeping an eye on the fire and talking to anyone who came near. This arrangement evoked aspects of the artist’s origins, growing up on the streets of Naples where tough street kids played in the shadow of basilicas. Art writer and curator Richard Grayson once observed that Iacobelli’s work has been a trajectory of slow collision with the ‘real world’. He was likely thinking about the artist’s capacity to seize on ordinary, everyday things and treat them as if venerable relics. Iacobelli once explained that this might be related to his childhood memories of street shrines and votive figurines. Appropriately, in an exhibition about shadows, figures and objects which populate his memory, made cameo appearances. Almost unnoticed, low and close to a wall was a small group of hunchback figurines. Similar figures also appeared in the multi-unit set of the drawings My Days. Hunchbacks, the artist recalled, were a ‘normal’ part of Neapolitan life, were considered to be lucky, and sometimes were engaged to bless a new home. Rather than regard such figures as misshapen, I believe Iacobelli deliberately embedded such references in the exhibition as a strong personal statement on the reality of life as odd, sometimes dark, but occasionally shot through with rapture or magic.
Iacobelli is familiar with the work of Italian writer, Erri De Luca who was also born in Naples, which has been the setting for some of his novels. One of his stories includes a hunchback cobbler, Rafaniello whose back, he believes, houses wings which will allow him to fly from Naples to Jerusalem. In the Shadow of Forgetting was invested with this sense of magic realism, or rather of the miraculous about to emerge from the grimmest of places. Bertolt Brecht once observed that ‘nothing is more important than learning to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men’. Crudity, misshapen things and objects hacked from the rough or punch-squeezed from dumb clay—Iacobelli knows how to talk bluntly. He took risks in the fine line he trod between creating fragile images that spoke of desperate deeds (as in a series of pine forest drawings based on a story by Linda Marie Walker).
This was a dark show, but a darkness tempered by the curiosity of a traveller in strange place, with night falling and the way ahead uncertain. Here the imagination was fuelled on every side by Grimm Brothers-like nightmares, strange conjunctions of events and disturbing hybridities, like a headless ghost, fingers sprouting trees, a wheel chair falling off a cliff, people dragging rocks on ropes and wind turbines rising like doomsday machines above a forest.
Catalogue essay writer Nikos Papastergiadis noted that this most recent body of work had a ‘grim focus and pensive distillation’. The viewer was offered, if there was a mind to accept, the gift of letting go and surrendering to a kind of art which appealed to a darker turn of mind; of embracing, as Linda Marie Walker has it, a ‘complex dense stillness’ that comes ‘slowly into view’.
Aldo Iacobelli, Shadow, 2012. Wooden table, 23 fired terracotta underglazed potatoes, 65 x 91 x 42cm.