This isn’t going to be a show for everyone. And given the dynamic, colourful exhibitions elsewhere, this review of pieces from Jannis Kounellis will seem austere by comparison. But that’s not surprising given this artist’s association with Arte Povera. Nevertheless, though the pieces may not have the ‘wow’ factor, their monochrome palette works well in the pared back galleries of White Cube.
Kounellis was born in Greece in 1936 but moved to Rome in 1956, where he still lives and works. And the pieces on display here include those from his early years.
In the Lower Ground Floor Gallery is a series of works on paper and canvas, which he began while he was still a student in Rome. Large letters and symbols in simple font are painted in the blackest of black inks onto bare white backgrounds. It’s their irregularity that makes them interesting. They are stark yet sit awkwardly on the paper – not parallel to the paper’s edges, not in line with each other. An interesting blend between the industrial ethic of uniformity without flair, yet also investigating the limits of that regularity – the impact of the individual, perhaps? – in not having these letters and symbols in perfect standardised formation.
The show also includes pieces from later in his career. Occasionally, Kounellis has used live animals in his works. Luckily none of those are included here (I’m not a fan of that trend). Instead what catches the eye are pieces from the 1990s that mix and contrast the fixed and utilitarian – steel plates and iron rods – with the more fleeting and ephemeral – such as wax, flames, and rags. A blend of the human and the machine.
There’s something quite beautiful about Senza Titolo, 1990, where the flames from the petroleum lamps flicker against the grey, steel background. And, similarly, the flash of colour from the rags stuffed into the lead column in Senza Titola, 1996, makes a great contrast both in colour and in texture to the cool greys and cold blacks. This mix of texture and material brings depth, making them more accessible.
I wouldn’t say this is a show to go out of your way to see. But given its location round the corner from the Royal Academy and the many galleries of Mayfair and St. James, it might be worth popping in if you’re in the area. And it would certainly stand in stark contrast to the riot of colour you’d be seeing elsewhere.
White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, to October 29, 2016
Photos by me.