Nicolás Guagnini is attempting to goad the ghost of Guy Debord. “Seven,” Guagnini’s recent two-gallery solo show, consisted of seven 2012 paintings, each titled Work, depicting a photograph of a wall on the Rue de Seine graffitied with Debord’s famous provocation “ne travaillez jamais,” or “never work.” Each gallery exhibited one painting per week. The seven paintings moved between the two galleries during the six-week run of the show. Rendered in tones ranging from very pale gray to white, the nearly identical pieces appear as spectral reflections of the source photograph.
Debord found the “ne travaillez jamais” photograph on a humorous postcard by one M. Buffier and, in 1963, published it in the Internationale Situationniste journal. When asked by the Cercle de la Librairie to pay indemnity for his unauthorized usage, Debord countered that he was actually the author of the graffito itself, having scrawled it on the wall in 1953, and should be credited as such. This act exemplifies the Situationist method of détournement-redirecting appropriated materials to antagonistic or subversive ends. In Guagnini’s hands, Debord’s phrase, which became a slogan used by students during the May ’68 movement, receives an oil-painted, gallery-exhibited, Eliza Doolittle-esque makeover. Like a contemporary Buffier, Guagnini denudes the image of its original meaning and makes it into a salable commodity: in his case, a painting. Seven of them, in fact.
The Argentine-born, New York-based Guagnini has become increasingly well known for works that use various mediums to explore late capitalism. The new paintings, which sat dead center in the galleries and demanded full attention, comment wryly on the popularity of May ’68 esthetics in today’s culture. Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, for instance, has incorporated “ne travaillez jamais” into several artworks and a T-shirt, while Alexander McQueen’s McQ label employed archival images of the student riots in a 2007 print campaign. As with McQueen’s ads, Guagnini’s paintings superficially celebrate the concerns of May ’68 while at the same time representing pure, cold-eyed capitalism. In fact, these almost indistinguishable, constantly circulating artworks (signifiers of value, both esthetic and monetary) served in the manner of currency itself. Thus, the artist détourned Debord’s work, exploiting it for capitalistic purposes and forcing it to bite the hand of its master.
With more than a hint of irony, Guagnini points to the high premiums often placed on images of “radicality” and, equally, to the fact that painting is sometimes about a bottom line-paintings are a conceptual artist’s cash cow. His message was only substantiated by the exhibition itself. In one of the galleries, a worker mentioned that many of the paintings had already sold.
Photo: View of Nicolás Guagnini’s exhibition “Seven,” 2012; at Miguel Abreu.