However critics might seek to define Roberto Cuoghi—from "living sculpture" to anecdotal poet—the Italian mixed media artist's work almost exclusively explores the permeable boundaries of the self. This exploration, according to the Modena-born Cuoghi, started in Milan in the mid-1980s:
I did an internship at a hospital, in the female psychiatric ward. It was so depressing. The doctors were on the ward for twenty minutes. The rest of the day I had to entertain the patients with stupid games or I had to accompany them to church... By accident, one day, following a nun, I entered the painting course of Alberto Garutti. My fingernails were so long I couldn't make a fist. Usually people were horrified. Garutti, instead, looked at me with admiration, and for me that was enough.
Today Cuoghi doesn't classify his open-ended mission as contemporary art, but that meeting has led him on a series of highly idiosyncratic experiments that often manifest as art. Take the series of poems, portraits and videos (during his time at Milan's Brera Art Academy) based on a week of viewing his world through the lens of kaleidoscope glasses. Or his seven-year physical and mental transformation—weight gain (to 308 lbs.), hair and beard dye, adopted mannerisms, frumpy clothes—into the form of his father, documented by a suite of self-portraits.
In each instance, Cuoghi's art has taken him to the limits of human existence, in pursuit of revelation. Equally exhaustive, his exploration of curiosities includes a mushrooming fascination in Assyrian-Babylonian music and deities. He's fabricated ancient instruments (and an imagined 6th Century B.C.E. song cycle to the gods) and a giant sculptural depiction of the king of the demon of the winds, Pazuzu ("Šuillakku")—based on a small bronze Pazuzu totem at the Louvre. A marble version of the latter, half the size of the Castello piece, will appear in Cuoghi's first solo museum show in the U.S., Roberto Cuoghi, opening at Hammer Projects this Wednesday. He'll also show a series of realist and abstract self-portraits that examine his transformations from punk thirty-something to ailing septuagenarian, some of which were based on a photo of a distant cousin from Bologna whom he had never met.
While preparing for the show, Cuoghi offered some insight into his many selves, and says art will ultimately be his saving grace:
MICHAEL SLENSKE: Since the 1990s, it seems that you've been on a journey of self-exploration and alteration. What started it?
ROBERTO CUOGHI: My personal view is different. Periodically I put myself in trouble, so I am forced to find a solution. It's never really the solution, but for a while it's enough.
SLENSKE: What made you want to journey into old age as your father in 1997?
CUOGHI: I've never been totally involved in contemporary art and I was irritated by the boring habits of young artists. I had other habits. I made a rubber stamp with accounting data of a cardiologist, so I could fill prescription orders for everything. Before long I was a sort of go-to guy in town. It was too easy; it was becoming a full-time job. To get away from all that, and to get rid of the pests that came with it, I had to disappear. At the same time I was falling in love, and I decided to move in with [Cuoghi's partner] Alessandra [Sofia]. Stuck here, I thought about my father's clothes and how I'd wear them. I would have to smoke cigars, as he did. Some portraits at the Hammer refer to the founder of a brand of cheap cigars. That's because when I decided to change my appearance, that bearded guy whose picture is printed on the [Dannemann] cigar boxes became my role model. Behind him, as background, you could glimpse a little view of Bahia.
SLENSKE: You've said you felt the health effects of aging yourself. Could you explain those and any other effects in the process?
ROBERTO CUOGHI, UNTITLED, 2010. COURTESY GALLERIA MASSIMO DE CARLO.
CUOGHI: I wrecked my metabolism when I became a fat bearded man. I continue to pay the price of that. I have a thin bone structure, so I'm not made to be XXXL. The first symptoms are a collection of joint problems, cardiovascular disturbances and hypertension. I had to removed the saphenous vein from one leg, and I have had many many operations to contain hernias. The surgeon told me me that next time he'll almost have to split me in two. I've fattened up by 180 pounds, so in a sense, I had to update my prosthesis. The last two came undone, stitch by stitch, without warning, in a hypermarket. I had to lean on a cooler because I couldn't stand up. You feel the heat of the blood that spreads under the intestine.
SLENSKE: What about the portraits at the Hammer, which are quite diverse in style and approach. Is that a direct reference to the type of man who might be painting them at that time or this cousin you lost but never knew? Could you explain the process?
CUOGHI: They are self-portraits, but I had to focus my attention on different targets, not on me. I have always tried to give an appearance to what I had in my mind. As it happened, I found the solution in a cigar box. It may begin one way, but my problem is not style. Looking for personal style seems to have so little to do with the truth.
SLENSKE: What about the portrait with the reference to Joseph Beuys? That seems to play on the notion of revelation in the personal and spiritual sense. Would you say that's the impulse behind most or all of the works in this show?
ROBERTO CUOGHI, UNTITLED, 2010. COURTESY GALLERIA MASSIMO DE CARLO.
CUOGHI: Sure, that might be so, but it's not really a Beuys reference. I'm serious when I say that art is not among my interests. Maybe I wanted to talk about the new millennium's cheap existentialism. I was looking for a sophisticated sentence to put into the mouth of a spoiled young man. There is this Italian intellectual, in vogue and always up-to-date because he works on gossip. He was telling about his new tattoo. The phrase has two meanings, it can be read Zeige Deine Wunde, which means "Show your wounds" but if you look closer there is a R at the end, so it can became a mystical desire: Zeige Deine Wunder!
SLENSKE: How is Roberto Cuoghi different from the artist in 1990, when your career began?
CUOGHI: This question has the same problem that this show has, and my answer may not be so different from anybody else's. This story of transformation creates a lot of meaningless situations. I meet someone and he says, "So, that's how you're dressing now." Well, this is a jacket from five years ago. So what? I think it's better to see these portraits as a parody of the idea that I feel around my work.
SLENSKE: You've said you were reluctant to make another Pazuzu after the Suillakku show. Why revisit it here in black marble?
CUOGHI: Pazuzu is not really a sculpture; it is the arithmetic enlargement of a small artifact, an Assyrian-Babylonian amulet preserved in the Louvre. I never thought of making others like that. Instead, the version at the Hammer is a marble sculpture. It comes from the same model, but multiplied by two, in front of the other and fused with its double. This means that he is any representation of himself, and the great religions are founded against this—first of all, through the commandments, which are prohibitions. But every prohibition, after all, is a recognition of a value to that is prohibited. So this sculpture may be the easiest way to challenge its original meaning. More simply, what happens if an amulet doesn't have one direction, but two? How can the spirit of a demon fix itself, finding himself mixed with himself?
SLENSKE: Is it wise for a museum to exhibit a demon or do you think, as you've said about the first installation at Castello di Rivoli, that he protects the museum while he's there?
CUOGHI: Of course I don't recommend worrying about such things. At the Hammer, I think the worries had more to do with the load-bearing strength of the floor, and problems of transport and installation. Turin has an esoteric tradition, and everyone loves to joke about it. But Pazuzu is a purifying demon. It's ironic that he became the Devil in The Exorcist, because Pazuzu was a tool for the exorcist.
SLENSKE: What prompted your research into Ninevah in the first place?
CUOGHI: I suppose it was the Oracles Against the Nations that made me want to study. The bible always seemed like a sedative, to me, until I realized the vastness and complexity of its interpretations. It's not a book. Only a terrific work can cause so many problems everywhere.
AT TOP-LEFT: ROBERTO CUOGHI, UNTITLED, 2010. COURTESY GALLERIA MASSIMO DE CARLO. BOTTOM RIGHT: PAZUZU, 2008. INSTALLATION VIEW AT CASTELLO DI RIVOLI, TURIN. THE DAKIS JOANNOU COLLECTION. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GALLERIA MASSIMO DE CARLO. PHOTO BY PAOLO PELLION.
ROBERTO CUOGHI OPENS JANUARY 22 AT THE HAMMER IN LOS ANGELES.
2012, aluminum, wood, sublimation print on polyester and concrete, 71 3/4 by 122 1/2 by 135 inches overall. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New Yor