Antonio Colombo Gallery exhibition catalogue
by Luca Beatrice, December 2011
If you stick the two words “mondo cane” in search engines you get a wide range of different results. There are products, information and advice about man’s best friend. Then there is the famous “docu-drama” film (a genre that blurs lines between realism and fiction) that was the directing debut, way back in 1962, of the Italian journalist Gualtiero Jacopetti. “Mondo Cane” (which in Italian is also an exclamation of frustration – it’s a “dog’s world”) caused a true scandal (much truer than the terrible sequences in the film), because it showed the cruelest atrocities, many with overtones of S&M sexuality, perpetrated in different regions of the planet. True or false? No one has ever found out for sure. This led to what turned out to be a fleeting vogue, that of the so-called “Mondo Movies”, perhaps the vilest sub-genre ever hatched by pop cinema, and harbinger of another notorious current, that of “Snuff Movies”. For those accustomed to thinking about dogs as meek, loyal creatures, all this was rather traumatic. They were faced by terrifying visions of crazed Rottweilers, Dobermans and St. Bernards, like Stephen King’s Cujo, and other beasts foaming at the mouth. Better steer clear of dogs, and of a dog’s world.
After all, pet lovers have always been engaged in a debate between two radically opposite camps. Dog lovers seldom love cats. Dogs depend on their owners, while cats have no owners. The cliché says that cats tolerate humans only to satisfy a basic need, the need for food. It’s true that cats like warmth, caresses, the lazy atmosphere of a comfortable bourgeois parlor, but deep down they are uncontrollable, unpredictable, prone to betrayal and deceit, hunters that have never quite suppressed their basic “wilderness” instincts. Just consider the difference of treatment of dogs and cats in cartoons. The canine prototypes of Walt Disney are Pluto, the orange hound and companion of Mickey Mouse, a faithful and affectionate troublemaker, and Goofy, another pal of Mickey’s, a dimwit who resembles an adolescent whose body has grown more than his brain. In the world of Disney cats, on the other hand, are relatively rare, with the exception of the great film “The Aristocats”, from that series of feature films in which the animal were complete humanized. But we should also mention the diabolical Lucifer, a fat, sadistic, tireless hunter of mice, henchman of the wicked stepmother and stepsisters of “Cinderella”.
In cartoons, then, cats get the role of the individual plagued by obsessions, like the fantastically neurotic Sylvester J. Pussycat, Sr., drawn by Friz Freleng in 1945, a protagonist in many episodes of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, whose only goal in life is to catch and eat the little bird Tweety or the lightning-fast rodent Speedy Gonzales. His mad pursuit of these eternal rivals, his frustration and failure seem to reflect a psychoanalytical projection of the plight of modern man.
Cartoons have also made a contribution to redeeming black cats from their stigma of superstition, since Felix the Cat became a popular character way back in 1919, well prior to the success of Walt Disney and the advent of films with sound.
Social and cultural revolution has been metaphorically embodied by a cat named Fritz, invented by Robert Crumb and immortalized as a film in 1972, the first cartoon for adults on relatively strong themes like free love, drugs and revolution. A forerunner of the tone of cartoons like the Simpsons, Fritz became an underground hero of the politically incorrect, whose roots can be traced back at least half a century on the American West Coast, in California.
Anthony Ausgang’s “Mondo Gatto” is a world that knows no other characters or counterparts. Everything that happens in his very colorful paintings, his drawings, decorations and customizing of objects, orbits in the feline cosmos. The cat has the same vices and virtues as human beings, and through him the artist interprets every aspect of reality, while demonstrating outstanding ability as a painter and graphic designer.
Ausgang’s roots are known and accepted now in the art world, ever since even the most solemn, demanding critics granted clearance to or at least acknowledged the existence of one of the most active and vital movements on the contemporary painting scene, namely Pop Surrealism or, if you prefer, Lowbrow. In a historical moment in which painting was seeming to succumb by self-suffocation to the white background, outlining minimal minor episodes of no interest at all with hesitant, weak scribbles and lines, somebody finally realized that the revitalization of a dead language can happen only thanks to a wave of energy arriving from capable, nonchalant “artisans”. In our present painting is the equivalent of the contemporary readymade – depending on where you put it, it takes on value independent of the real weight of the work – so it has finally been discovered that neither academicism nor the manner of the upper-class galleries could be the places in which to look for something really new, provocative and vital.
Ever since Robert Williams, the “guru” of this movement of alternative figurative painting, gained the biggest honor for an American artist, namely an invitation to take part in the Whitney Biennial, his disciples and students raised on the pages of “Juxtapoz”, the magazine that more than any other should be given credit for having focused – way back in 1994 – on the alternative scene of streeters, writers, illustrators, photographers, tattoos and hardcore metal, have become the authentic heroes of the new painting, breaking down the fences that kept them stuck with only a niche audience, breaking out of California to invade Europe and, finally, Italy as well. This might explain why most of the protagonists of Lowbrow (or Pop Surrealism) are not youngsters or even people in their thirties, but solid forty-fifty year olds who don’t hesitate to display their passions, like teenagers who never grew up (or grew up twisted).
But let’s get back to Ausgang, whose popularity is presently soaring, also due to his collaboration with the indie rock band from Brooklyn, MGMT, which used one of his paintings to illustrate the cover of the album “Congratulations”. Ausgang’s whole poetics could be summed up in just three words: genre, stereotype and parody. The first term, genre, establishes the range of action. After centuries, painting finally has nothing left to invent, but instead it can turn to the reservoir of a historical legacy, overturning clichés and typologies. From the portrait to the interior scene, the landscape to the holy icon: this is the world from which the artist freely draws his inspiration, and only those with untrained eyes, those with a merely superficial gaze, can claim that Ausgang is just an excellent cartoonist instead of a complex, erudite artist who amuses himself by disrupting the genres of classic painting, starting with Italian Mannerism. The symbol of this love for our late 15th and early 16th century is the stretched, anamorphic, enlarged, suspended and floating figure, caught in unnatural, theatrical poses, cut out just as happened in the pictures of Pontormo, Rosso or Parmigianino. Take the French Rococo of Chardin, the illusionist ceilings of Tiepolo, the Arcadia of Poussin, mix it all up with Disney, acid psychedelia, hotrods, the world of surfing and pinups: the result is an explosive, irresistible blend.
After all, the stereotype has been the basis of the success of classical painting, age upon age. The imagery of saints encodes modes of behavior, physical traits, items of clothing and accoutrements that immediately make each character recognizable and familiar. The great masters of the history of art were expected, first of all, to tell stories, and painting’s abandonment of the narrative is perhaps the most evident reason behind its weakened condition, something that does not happen, in fact, on the Lowbrow (or Pop Surrealist) scene. Ausgang, furthermore, underscores the clear lack of tradition in American art and reminds us that in the past the best students of art academies were sent to make a tour of Europe, to copy antique and modern paintings, which their wealthy countrymen then displayed in their living rooms. Lacking in historical background, the art of the United States based its development on reiteration of stereotypes. This has been true of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimal Art: any style and trend, taken to extremes of repetition, winds up losing the symbolic force of the unique gesture, and is paradoxically reinforced precisely by its reiteration.
Because his world is not populated by men and women, who would require psychological interpretation, but only by cats, Ausgang can afford the luxury of overturning history in terms of parody. Many of his pictures – in details or entire frames – return to key moments of art, slipping from the tragic toward the comic. Some of them are very famous, like the cat descending a staircase after
Duchamp, Futurist dynamism, or a wild Matisse-like dance. Others emerge from the sugary, artificial colors of his brushstrokes.
The parody explodes, in particular, in that cycle of works made on paintings of little value, copies or amateur efforts found at flea markets or small antique stores, similar in method to the “overpainted paintings” of Peter Schuyff. Rooting out the worst output of weekend daubers, Ausgang takes possession of that world where painting, perhaps, is still a passion, not something calculated. Then he inserts his notorious cats, as an element of disturbance and chaos. Thus Pop Surrealism kills the last legacy of tradition, disrupting its balances, throwing in abundant doses of sex, paradox, commodification and stupidity.