“I like the name Golden Square,” the Italian artist Massimo Bartolini writes of the Soho, London, square on which Frith Street Gallery’s main venue is located. “It makes me think of an enchanted place as well as of Malevich straying from the black.” His exhibition at the gallery served as a poetic interpretation of Golden Square’s history and its place in the popular imagination.
Certain works brought to life Charles Dickens’s description of the square—in the 1839 novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby—as “the region of song and smoke,” where “sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air.” Toscano (all works 2016)—a small machine that, using a vacuum pump, “smokes” an actual Toscano cigar—filled the gallery with the scent of tobacco. Across the room, a record player placed on a stand played a piece of music that Bartolini commissioned from composer Edoardo Marraffa. The beautiful tune incorporates the sounds that Dickens describes (“flutes, and violins, and violoncellos”; “street bands”; “itinerant gleesingers”). Spinning atop a glass plinth sitting at the center of the record is a small brass cube—a sort of abstracted portrayal of the square, with glinting golden surfaces.
Positioned at the middle of the gallery was Georgius, a massive marble sculpture of a mountain on a plinth. The work alludes to the statue—representing George II as an ancient Roman king—that stands in the middle of Golden Square. Bartolini treated the work as an attempt to “reinsert the statue into the rock”—that is, to turn the sculpture into its original natural element. A return to origins was also apparent in a few works centering on the gloomy beginnings of Golden Square, which was built on a 1665 mass grave for more than four thousand victims of the bubonic plague. In Diagram (graveyard), Bartolini offers a plan for turning the square into a cemetery for those buried in the mass pit—four thousand map pins are assembled into the four-foot-square wall piece, each pin representing a grave. Dust Chaser, a triptych of drawings of specks of dust, meanwhile, conjures processes of physical decomposition that ultimately turn everything to dust.
A supplementary part of the exhibition took place in Frith Street’s second venue, in Soho Square. Bartolini described most of the works displayed in this location as “footnotes”: pieces not fully integrated with the main part of the show yet emanating from his research into its subject matter. In the venue’s basement, for example, was a red neon sign reproducing a seventeenth-century inscription, manca anima (Italian for “lack of soul”), left by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition in a cell at Palermo’s Palazzo Chiaramonte. Conceived by Bartolini while he was researching Golden Square, though not directly related to that site, this work and others at Soho Square provided a window onto the artist’s working process, which relies on intuition, anecdotes, and mental detours.
This show by the 48-year-old Massimo Bartolini featured two sound installations—each containing a movement-sensitive photocell that activated a sound emission—and a series of three paintings. Two musical performances were staged on the opening night, one of which generated a new version of the 2006 installation Ouverture per Pietro. Starting with the explosion of a lightbulb, the experimental musician Pietro Riparbelli improvised for 20 minutes using a sampler, a computer and short-wave radio receivers as the death-metal singer Rosy Ninivaggi read verses from the sacred Hindu Avadhuta Gita. The result sounded like a mix of La Monte Young, Steve Reich and other American minimalist music. Remaining in the gallery afterward were the empty electrical socket in a transparent wall-mounted box littered with fragments of the shattered lightbulb, the closely facing microphone (now unplugged) that had recorded the explosion, and a constantly reiterated soundtrack of the first 2 minutes and 38 seconds of the performance.
The second sound installation, Three Quarter-Tone Pieces (2009), was more complex and accomplished than the first. Its title—also the show’s title—is taken from a work that American composer Charles Ives wrote in 1923-24 for two pianos tuned one quarter tone apart. In Bartolini’s work, three common pieces of furniture (a wall-hung cabinet, a wardrobe and a chest) play a cluster of notes also one quarter tone apart. Hidden in each is a motion-activated device—a ventilator that blows air into wooden organ pipes—which generates the notes. The intense 30-second crescendo typically caught visitors by surprise and left them puzzling about the music’s source.
Also probing the relationship between the visible and the invisible, the painting series “Rugiada” (Dew), 2009, offered a sophisticated game of vedo-non vedo (peek-a-boo). While from a distance the works seem straightforward monochromes in custard yellow, ice white and milk white, upon closer examination they reveal iridescent colors that change according to the incidence of light and the viewer’s position—disclosing, for example, flashes of green and pink. These effects are due to Bartolini’s application of micalized varnish to metal, a technique used by auto-body painters. Even more striking were dense constellations of drops of the fluid used for black-and-white photography development. Dewlike in appearance, the beads disorient viewers by evoking a natural context extraneous to the gallery space. The strongest works in this heterogeneous show, the “Rugiada” paintings combine poetic, almost romantic sensitivity with ironic, car-culture glitz.
Photo: Massimo Bartolini: Three Quarter-tone Pieces, 2009, wood and electric fans; at Magazzino d’Arte Moderna